I have two items for my write-up today on John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.
1. Boswell argues that Roman society and early Christianity did not have much of a problem with homosexuality. When Rome became more authoritarian and the Roman empire became more rural due to the collapse of urban areas, which was a result (at least in part) of barbarian invasions, homosexuality became more stigmatized. (Remember that Boswell sees a connection between intolerance against homosexuality and rural areas, as well as authoritarianism.) Christian asceticism also played a role in generating opposition to homosexuality, for the view that sex was for procreation and that sexual pleasure was bad tended to marginalize homosexual sex, which did not result in procreation. But, according to Boswell, while the early Middle Ages was a time when homosexuality was looked down upon, it was considered to be a mere peccadillo, not a serious sin. People (especially people in elites) had homosexual relationships without suffering at the hands of society. In the eleventh century, Boswell argues, urbanization accompanied increasing openness about homosexuality, as gay literature reappeared and gays attained cultural influence.
The late twelfth century, however, was a time when intolerance against homosexuality proliferated, according to Boswell. This coincided with authoritarianism, as people in charge sought to clamp down on what was considered to be different and unusual. The Inquisition attempted to stamp out heretics, and Christians fought the Crusades against Muslims (and Christians talked about homosexual activity among Muslims to portray the Muslims in a bad light). Ironically, this coincided with increasing urbanization, and so Boswell highlights this development as an exception to the principle that rural areas are more intolerant towards homosexuality than are urban areas. Boswell also talks about Thomas Aquinas, who treats homosexuality as natural (and thus understandable) for certain people, and yet takes a bold stance against homosexuality due to the anti-homosexual sentiment of his time.
This is Boswell’s overall argument. What do I think of it? On a positive note, I think that Boswell does well to highlight the periods of tolerance towards homosexuality, such as the times when there was no law against it. On a negative note, however, there were times when I wondered if things were more complex than Boswell’s narrative suggests. Whereas Boswell argues that early Christianity did not have much of a problem with homosexuality, information that he presents in Appendix 1 appears to suggest the contrary, as Boswell highlights that elements of early Judaism and such Christians as Tatian presented homosexuality in a negative light. Moreover, intolerance against the other was a feature of Christianity long before the twelfth century, for Jews were criticized by Christians since Christianity’s early days, and there were long efforts to clarify orthodoxy and to stamp out heretics. (Boswell does well to state on page 269, though, that the early Middle Ages was a time when Catholics, Donatists, and Manicheans lived together in peace.) Moreover, I wish that Boswell offered more speculation about the reasons that Christianity took an authoritarian turn in the twelfth century.
2. An argument that defenders of homosexuality make today is that homosexuality exists within the animal kingdom, and thus it is natural. Because of the prominence of this argument, I would be remiss not to talk about Boswell’s discussion of the role of the animal kingdom in debates concerning homosexuality.
First, on pages 12-13, Boswell is arguing against the claim that homosexuality is unnatural because it is not in the animal kingdom. Boswell notes that homosexual behavior is present in the animal kingdom, and that this has been noticed since the time of Aristotle. But Boswell does not think that homosexuality occurring only among human beings would make it unnatural. After all, only human beings write, and writing is not stigmatized!
Second, Boswell observes an inconsistency when it comes to Christians looking to the animal kingdom to determine what is natural. For centuries, Christians have appealed to the animal kingdom to stigmatize homosexuality or to promote Christian sexual morality, but they have also noticed that animals engage in behavior of which they disapprove: there is incest and promiscuity within the animal kingdom, for example. (Moreover, within early Christianity, there was one view that the food laws of Leviticus 11 were based in part on what animals were sexually moral and what animals were sexually immoral: the sexually moral animals were permitted for eating, but not the sexually immoral ones.) And so there is tension within Christianity: trends within it have wanted for the animal kingdom to illustrate what is moral and natural, and yet there are animals who do things of which Christians have disapproved.