March 30, 2017

May 16, 2012

Same-Sex Marriage in Medieval Irish Churches? Boswell Sinks to a New Academic Low

Like me you’ve probably seen this sort of thing doing the rounds on teh intarweb recently:

Prof John Boswell, the late chairman of Yale University’s history department, found there were ceremonies called the Office of Same-Sex Union and the Order for Uniting Two Men in the 10th to 12th centuries.

The medievalist published Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century in 1980.

According to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies section of Yale University’s website, the controversial book argued that the modern Catholic Church’s stance on homosexuality ‘departed from the tolerance and even celebration of homosexual love that had characterized the first millennium of the Church’s teachings’.

The research brings into perspective the debate raging in America over same-sex marriage after President Barack Obama announced that he now supports it.

The chronicler Gerald of Wales (‘Geraldus Cambrensis’) recorded same-gender Christian unions taking place in Ireland in the late 12th and early 13th centuries.

And, of course, there are wild cries of delight at this “proof” that Christians in the middle-ages were happily wedding men to each other.

Friends, it’s nothing but plain dishonesty on the part of “academics” like Boswell. Gerald of Wales’ record of Ireland “The Topography of Ireland” is freely available online [pdf] and I’m surprised nobody has yet simply read through it and fisked Boswell’s appalling argument.

Here’s the actual citation Boswell makes to prove his point from a section entitled “the making of leagues” or “the making of brothers:

...then they go in procession around the church, and afterwards entering within its walls, they confederate themselves in an indissoluble alliance before the altar, with oaths prodigally multiplied upon the relics of the saints, and confirmed by the celebration of the mass and prayers of the holy priests

Now, any honest reader would have to admit that it’s certainly not conclusive evidence of a rite of same-sex marriage. But even that’s not the argument. Here’s the argument: the context (p.77, my emphasis):

Chapter XXII: Of a new mode of making a league/brotherhood: a proof of their wickedness

Among many other inventions of their abominable guile, there is one which especially proves it. When they wish to take off any one, they assemble in a company  with him at some holy place, under the guise of religious and peaceful meeting; then they go in procession around the church, and afterwards entering within its walls, they confederate themselves in an indissoluble alliance before the altar, with oaths prodigally multiplied upon the relics of the saints, and confirmed by the celebration of the mass and prayers of the holy priests, as if it were a solemn affiance. At length, as a still stronger ratification of their league, and, as it were, the completion of their affair, they drink each others’ blood, which is shed for the purpose. This custom has been handed down from the rites of the heathens, who were wont to seal their treaties in blood. How often, in the very act of such an alliance being made by bloody and deceitful men, has so much blood been fraudulently and iniquitously spilt, that one or other of them has fainted on the spot! How often has the same hour which witnessed the contract, or that which followed it, seen it broken in an unheard-of manner by a bloody divorce!

So a number of quite obvious things:

  1. There really is very little indication at all that this is a homosexual union; it reads like a social pact between men - an alliance. Perhaps between warlords or elders.
  2. It’s quite obvious that Gerald thinks the whole thing is abominable and pagan. At every point he argues that it’s a corruption of true Christian religion and the worst kind of corruption. In chapter XIX he argues that they are ignorant of the basics of the Christian faith.
  3. The chapter is part of a long section of Gerald providing copious proofs that the Irish are wicked in almost every way.
  4. Thus it follows that even if this was a homosexual union (which is really a massive stretch in itself) it is presented as being utterly contrary to good Christian order. Gerald makes a point of observing that to carry it out in church with the complicity of priests and a mass is only to compound the wickedness.

And yet Boswell is putting this forward as an example of medieval “Christian” same-sex marriage.

Which, friends, betrays an utter lack of intellectual and academic integrity. But then that’s liberal “Christian” hermeneutic for you. Seriously.

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Thanks for pointing this out, David.

Wow—what a liar Boswell appears to be.

On a related note, one other thing that I’ve noticed amongst revisionist gay activists—they equate deep same-sex friendship with gay sex acts.

As nearly as I can tell, reading them and listening to their interpretations of same-sex relationships, they believe that emotionally intimacy between the sexes was also an indication of gay sex acts—anybody who is intimate and loving towards their own sex is really a closeted gay unable to be open about his or her desire to perform gay sex acts to a persecuting and un-accepting society.

It’s through that lens that they interpret pretty much any literature or history—and they seem to have no knowledge at all of really how intimate the sexes could be without any desire to perform sex acts. One thing we’ve lost in today’s society is much of that relational intimacy . . .

[1] Posted by Sarah on 5-16-2012 at 07:18 AM · [top]


1) The LGBT&c have nothing left but quoting dead white men?

2) Will they still do like my seminary mates, putting things like “(Boswell p. 79)” after their points, the way a fundamentalist might throw a Bible citation as a proof text?

Thanks for outing this appeal to ignorance and dishonesty.

[2] Posted by Timothy Fountain on 5-16-2012 at 07:20 AM · [top]

In studying ancient manuscripts, I’ve discovered that at least one local Christian community practiced corporate inebriation as part of the weekly eucharistic love feast. Take note of this enlightening excerpt:

“But in the following instructions I…commend you, because when you come together it is…for the better…For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that…it is…the Lord’s supper that you eat. For in eating, each one goes ahead with his own meal. One…gets drunk. What shall I say to you? I commend you in this…I will…”

So, here we have first hand 1st century manuscript evidence of ritual inebriation as part of the Eucharist. In fact this ancient writer commends it as part and parcel of orthopraxis.

What then…should we not also open up spigot and let the spirits flow?

[3] Posted by Matt Kennedy on 5-16-2012 at 07:28 AM · [top]

Matt, your scholarship is extraordinary!  How could this commendation of heavy drinking at the Eucharist possibly have been missed all these centuries!

I can only believe that it is because of patriarchal, oppressive, rigid, hide-bound control freaks that have prevented us from Truly Celebrating a Real Festive Eucharist.

[4] Posted by Sarah on 5-16-2012 at 07:33 AM · [top]

So, I’ve been going around on this subject for the last few days in the wake of the Obama SSM fallout, because Boswell’s discredited scholarship has been regurgitated by all the usual suspects. A PhD-holding medievalist of my acquaintance saw this, and wrote to me out of the blue with some cogent remarks:

“Boswell was either dismissed by the medievalists, scorned, or crucified. The reviews were uniformly brutal, and Traditio gave three long articles dissecting “Same Sex Unions.” It’s not the medievalists, but the Studies Studies and other pseudo-disciplines/grievance mongers that have commandeered him who are now pushing him. He didn’t know Church Slavonic and had to depend on grad students to do his translating (!). The only MS he had which links marriage and adelphopoesis, which is in Harvard library, clearly delineates the marriage rite from the rite of adelphopoesis. Further, adelphopoesis is never labeled a sacrament in any of the MSS it is found in. What the rite was (if memory serves, it has been years since I looked at this), was the making of someone a brother in the sense of a legal guardian of another man’s family were the one to be going to war or traveling for an extended period.”

[5] Posted by wyclif on 5-16-2012 at 08:33 AM · [top]

I know that Wikipedia’s is not the most reliable source, but the page on adelphopoiesis contains verifiable critiques from reviews of Boswell’s book that are worth reading. 

You can find the page at:

[6] Posted by m+ on 5-16-2012 at 10:53 AM · [top]

Here we go again: someone who is neither Irish, Roman Catholic, nor Irish Roman Catholic using the mediaevel ‘Celtic’ Church to prove whatever vagary he wants to prove.

You don’t even need the full text of Gerald of Wales’ apologia for the Norman Invasion to refute this kind of nonsense; a look at what mediaeval Irish law actually was will do that for you.

From “The Law of the Couple (Cáin Lánamna)” in the version translated by Donnchadh Ó Corráin in his “Early Mediaeval Law, c. 700-1200” here is the quote:

“Question. How many pairings are there in Irish law? Answer. Eight: a lord and his base clients, a church and its tenantry, a father and his daughter, a girl and her brother, a son and his mother, a foster-son and his foster-mother, a teacher and his pupil, a man and his wife.”

Nothing about same-sex couples or unions there.  Okay, maybe it didn’t exist formally in Irish law, maybe it was a private religious ceremony to set up a family.  But when you consider that the range of marriages recognised in Irish law included:

“Question: how many couples of cohabitation and procreation are there in Irish law? Answer: ten-(1) union of common contribution; (2) union of a woman on a man’s contribution; (3) union of a man on a woman’s contribution with service; (4) union of a woman who accepts a man’s solicitation; (5) union of a man who visits the woman, without work, without solicitation, without provision, without material contribution; (6) union by abduction; (7) union of wandering mercenaries; (8) union by criminal seduction; (9) union by rape; (10) union of mockery.”

Nothing about a couple setting up house together and what rights and responsibilities each might have in the case of same-sex unions, even though if you have provision for what happens when a man takes a secondary wife or concubine as well as his first wife, who gets what in the property division after divorce, or placing children to be fostered out in accordance to custom whereby families were bound together by agreements to take and raise a child in another household (“Putting children in a well-befriended and good fosterage is a contract in accord with all propriety that brings well-being into the community of their common household”), you certainly can’t say that this was just influenced by church customs and laws - so where are all these missing men getting married?

Unless our Yale professor is talking through his hat, and this wasn’t a marriage ceremony or same-sex union or anything like it, but instead a pledge akin to ‘blood-brotherhood’ or foster-family relations.

[7] Posted by Martha on 5-16-2012 at 11:27 AM · [top]

#3, I recall serving as a Eucharistic Minister one AM, and having to polish off the remaining communion wine, because Father didn’t want it to go down the piscina. I was so blitzed I couldn’t sing in the choir at the next service. I haven’t done that again, but wonder if this could be used as precedent if I were pulled over for DUI after church.

The Boswell thingy has been around for a while, and as noted by #5, it has been ridiculed by the serious academic community. I think that it got discussed here a while back. Amazing how lies get repeated.

[8] Posted by Ralph on 5-16-2012 at 11:49 AM · [top]

Boswell has been deadfor eighteen years, so he hasn’t been sinking to any “academic lows” lately, especially “new” ones.  However, his thesis was soundly refuted shortly after his book came out, and it died a merciful death.  Robin Darling Young wrote the definitive and scathing refutation way back in 1994:

I’m baffled as to why this is reappearing at this late date. Don’t you youngsters remember these things?

[9] Posted by William Witt on 5-16-2012 at 01:04 PM · [top]

The ancient ritual sounds more like the old “blood brother” or “blood oath” ritual taken to the extreme than a gay marriage. Bos must have really wanted it to be the latter to interpret it that way. So must those who choose to use it to support ssm.

[10] Posted by Undergroundpewster on 5-16-2012 at 01:40 PM · [top]

I’m baffled as to why this is reappearing at this late date. Don’t you youngsters remember these things?

Some things just won’t stay dead, it seems.

P.S.  Please tell me where to send the check for the “you youngsters” comment.

[11] Posted by Jackie on 5-16-2012 at 02:53 PM · [top]

William Witt: in addition to R.D. Young’s dispatching of Boswell, I also appreciate the critique of Richard John Neuhaus (bless him):

“The revisionists of the Boswell school make several interesting moves. They suggest, among other things, that the homosexual practices condemned by Paul were condemned because they were associated with idolatrous cults and temple prostitution. And it is true that Romans 1 is concerned with idolatry, but the plain meaning of the text is that homosexual acts are themselves an evidence of turning away from God and the natural order that he has ordained. Put differently, the point is not that some homosexual acts are wrong because they are associated with idolatrous cults; rather, homosexual acts are wrong because they are themselves a form of idolatry. New Testament scholar Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School is among those who are sharply critical of Boswell’s mishandling of the New Testament material. Boswell’s interpretation, says Hays, “has no support in the text and is a textbook case of reading into the text what one wants to find there.” (The Journal of Religious Ethics [No. 14, 1986])

“Boswell’s reading of early Christian and medieval history also turns up what he wants to find. Christian history is a multifarious affair, and it does not take much sniffing around to discover frequent instances of what is best described as hanky-panky. The discovery process is facilitated if one goes through history with what is aptly described as narrow-eyed prurience, interpreting every expression of intense affection between men as proof that they were “gay.” A favored slogan of the contemporary gay movement is “We Are Everywhere!” Boswell rummages through Christian history and triumphantly comes up with the conclusion, “They were everywhere.” Probably at all times in Christian history one can find instances of homosexual behavior. And it is probably true that at some times more than others such behavior was viewed with “tolerance,” in that it was treated with a wink and a nudge. Certainly that has been true of at least some Christian communities in the last forty years or so. The Church has always been composed of sinners, and some periods are more morally lax than others.

“The revisionism being advanced today is influential, misleading, and deeply confused. Robert L. Wilken, the distinguished scholar of early Christianity at the University of Virginia, describes Boswell’s book as “advocacy scholarship.” By that he means “historical learning yoked to a cause, scholarship in the service of a social and political agenda.” Wilken notes that Boswell’s subtitle is Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. If, as Boswell insists, there were not “gay people” (in the contemporary meaning of the term) in the ancient world, and therefore Paul and other Christian authorities were only criticizing heterosexuals who engaged in homosexual acts, how can one write a history of gay people in that period of history? Wilken puts it gently: “Boswell creates historical realities that are self-contradictory, and hence unhistorical.” Boswell writes that in antiquity there were no prejudices directed “to homosexual relations as a class.” The reason is obvious, observes Wilken: as Boswell himself elsewhere recognizes, “the ancients did not think there was a class of people with sexual ‘preferences’ for the same sex.”

“Wilken writes, “The notion that there is a ‘class’ of people defined by sexual preference is a very recent idea that has no basis in western tradition. To use it as an interpretive category is confusing and promotes misunderstanding. Where there were laws or social attitudes against homosexuals, they had to do not with homosexuals as a class but with homosexual acts. Even where certain homosexual acts were tolerated by society (as in ancient Greece), there was no suggestion that sexual preference determined behavior or that certain people were thought to belong to a distinct group within society. Even when tolerated (for example, between an adult male and a youth), there was no social approval given an adult male who played the ‘passive’ role (the role of the boy).” And, as we have seen, Paul and the early Christians departed from the Greeks in judging homosexual acts per se to be unnatural and morally disordered.

““In some cases,” Wilken notes, “Boswell simply inverts the evidence to suit his argument.” For instance, Boswell writes that in antiquity some Roman citizens “objected to Christianity precisely because of what they claimed was sexual looseness on the part of its adherents.” They charged, among other things, that Christians engaged in “homosexual acts,” and Boswell says that “this belief seems to have been at least partly rooted in fact.” As evidence Boswell cites Minucius Felix, a third-century writer who was answering charges brought against Christians by their Roman critics. Among the items mentioned by Minucius Felix, Boswell says, is the charge that Christians engage in “ceremonial fellatio” (the text actually says “worshiping the genitals of their pontiff and priest”). What Boswell fails to say is that this charge—along with others, such as the claim that Christians sacrificed children in the Eucharist—was manufactured out of whole cloth and historians have long dismissed such claims as having nothing to do with Christian behavior.”

So, there we have it. Boswell’s utter mishandling of the New Testament, according to Dr. Richard Hays of Duke Divinity School, “has no support in the text and is a textbook case of reading into the text what one wants to find there.” Boswell’s work has been blown to pieces by all manner of academic historians, and is considered a joke to those in the know. There is no amount of hand-waving that will turn adelphopoesis into same-sex marriage.

Perhaps the “journalists” at The Guardian, The Times, or The Daily Mail will will get back to us after they read the books, but since that’s not something they’re accustomed to doing I won’t hold my breath.

[12] Posted by wyclif on 5-16-2012 at 03:20 PM · [top]

I’ve been thinking how to comment on this all day…

At first, I thought this was the book that even Camille Paglia panned back in 1994, but that was actually a completely different “work” (Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe), written by Boswell just before he succumbed to AIDS.  Touchstone has an informative review of that book here.

The 1981 book seems to have been covered very well in SF and comments.  The only real difference I see on the surface was in 1981 Boswell was interested in Ireland and in 1994 it was the Balkans.

I remembered Boswell’s later work when it was published.  Back in 1994, I was working at a very liberal East Coast university and in the midst of my own questioning and struggles with sexuality.  This was one of the books published about that time that made an impression on me, but probably not the one Boswell intended.  It struck me how much some people (even many people) would work so hard to contort the world to support his own way, even in the face of being killed by AIDS because he insisted upon going down that said way.  Rather sad, actually.

[13] Posted by Reformed Wanderer on 5-16-2012 at 06:22 PM · [top]

David and Jonathon were gay.  Jesus and John were gay.  Ruth and Naomi were gay.  The projecting never ends with these folks.  So much for “objectivity” and the “scientific method.”

Besides projection the latest academic fad is to assert something that can’t be dis proven.  “There’s no evidence that…” then fill in the blank.  There’s no evidence that Jesus wasn’t a space alien, therefore I can assert he was a space alien.

There’s no evidence St. Peter didn’t have lobster claws on his feet, therefore he very well could have had them.

It’s a close cousin to “Jesus never said that… therefore it’s ok.”  Jesus never said anything about sex with animals, so it’s ok.

I’m not sure if it’s a new academic low, but it’s in the basement.

[14] Posted by Bill2 on 5-16-2012 at 11:03 PM · [top]

Thanks, David, for this helpful article whose link I have forwarded to a number of people.  Boswell’s article was getting passed around here as evidence that the old church approved therefore we’re wicked for disapproving of SS marriages.  These comments from the same people who pointed out that the old church approved of slavery and thus the old church was wicked.

[15] Posted by Michael D on 5-17-2012 at 11:28 AM · [top]

Sad, cliched arguments, and a sad cliched life:

“Boswell died of complications from AIDS in the Yale infirmary[8] in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 24, 1994, at age 47.”

I will never understand how people like this can turn a perverse urge into something so all encompassing, that they are willing to grasp at anything, or lie in order to promote it as “legitimate”. Especially when it ultimately kills them like this. A kind of insanity, or Stockholm syndrome? What a wage he’s earned for his work.

[16] Posted by SpongJohn SquarePantheist on 5-17-2012 at 12:27 PM · [top]

Wikipedia: “Scholarly reactions varied.” Yes, someone actually edited the entry to say that. There’s no bias here. None whatsoever!

[17] Posted by wyclif on 5-17-2012 at 02:30 PM · [top]

thanks for all the comments. Yes, Boswell’s arguments keep getting spooned up and it’s important we know how to respond to them.

Case in point, the Michael Vine video - he says he’s spent 2 years studying but really he’s spent 24 months reading Boswell. Many times, it would seem.

[18] Posted by David Ould on 5-18-2012 at 08:39 PM · [top]

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