Boswell on Homosexuality in the Middle Ages

I’m still reading John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

Boswell’s book is about the transition within Christianity from tolerance to intolerance towards homosexuality.  Around the fifth century, a more negative attitude towards homosexuality developed.  And yet, according to Boswell, we have not yet arrived at full-fledged intolerance, for, during the early Middle Ages, homosexuality was treated more as a peccadillo than a serious sin.  When the church did choose to stigmatize it, the required penance was less than that mandated for other sins.  Boswell states on page 180: “The eighth-century penitential of Pope Saint Gregory III…specified penances of 160 days for lesbian activities and as little as one year for homosexual acts between males.  In comparison, the penance for a priest’s going hunting was three years.”

Boswell also talks about homosexuality within medieval Islam.  He states on page 197: “Spanish Islam was noted for its rigidity in legalistic and moral matters, produced outstanding jurists and theologians, and was generally ruled by Muslims considered fanatics in the rest of the Islamic world.  Homosexual love imagery was a standard currency of Islamic mystical writings both in and out of Spain.  Many of the authors of gay erotic poetry on the Iberian peninsula were teachers of the Qur’an, religious leaders, or judges; almost all wrote conventional religious verse as well as love poetry.”

Remember Richard the Lion Heart, the king of England in Robin Hood who left for a while so he could fight battles?  Boswell refers to a chronicle in which Richard is said to have fallen in love with the king of France.  They ate together, slept in the same bed, and had passionate love towards each other.  I don’t see an explicit reference to sex in the chronicle, however.  (It depends on what passionate love entails.)  One thing I wonder as I read Boswell’s book is if some of the relationships that Boswell considers to be homosexual were merely close friendships.  It’s like the relationship between David and Jonathan in I-II Samuel: some believe it was homosexual, but others maintain that it was a close friendship, without a sexual component.

As I read Boswell yesterday, I recalled a conversation that I had with a conservative Christian.  I forget what precisely he and I were debating, but much of our discussion centered around whether or not a belief in the Bible was essential for morality.  He was saying that gay marriage should not be recognized by society because it goes against the Bible, and, when I questioned his notion that the Bible should influence public policy, he replied that my position would allow theft and murder.  I then said that theft and murder are also banned in societies that are not based on the Bible, and that the stigmatization of those things flow from universal moral principles.  He then said that, until recently, most societies in the world stigmatized homosexuality.

What Boswell is arguing is that this has not always been the case, that there were times when many societies—-even Christian societies—-accepted or tolerated homosexuality.  Boswell is seeking to answer the question of when and why homosexuality became stigmatized.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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