For my write-up today on John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, I’ll highlight something that Boswell says on page 243:
“The Eclogues, a legal handbook issued in 741 by Leo III and Constantine V and constituting the major code of secular law in the East for several centuries, substituted mutilation for the death penalty of late imperial Roman law as a punishment for homosexual behavior.”
How does this square with Boswell’s arguments in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality? Boswell argues there that Imperial Rome was more anti-homosexual that the Roman Republic, for Imperial Rome was more authoritarian. That would fit what Boswell says about the death penalty being the punishment for homosexual activity in late imperial Roman law. At the same time, Boswell’s larger argument in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is that homosexuality was not considered to be that big of a sin prior to the late twelfth century, but that it was considered to be more of a pecadillo. But information that Boswell mentions in the passage I quoted above appears to indicate a contrary trend, since a serious punishment is prescribed for homosexual activity. Boswell says earlier in Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe that certain laws against homosexuality were not enforced. Still, it’s important to note that a statement was being made against homosexuality in Christian Europe.
I wouldn’t say that Boswell’s argument in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is utterly false, however, for Boswell does discuss data. But reality is complex. Perhaps there were anti-homosexual trends even before the late twelfth century, but there was also a tendency to treat homosexuality as not that significant of a sin.
I’ll close this post by quoting what Carson T. Clark says in his post, Homosexuality, Society & the Church: A Moderate Perspective (Part II of II):
“[Question:] Don’t you know that the story of homosexuality in church history is quite unlike conservatives would suggest?
“[Answer:] Yes. I realize the story is a lot more complicated than commonly thought. That’s especially the case when one deals with the acceptance of homosexuality in the Roman Empire and then its Christianization under Constantine. Homosexuality didn’t disappear overnight. Yes, I realize that there was always an undercurrent of homosexual lifestyles in Christianized Europe. Same sex attraction is nothing new, so of course that always existed! Yes, I realize that there have been a fair number of great saints who quite likely were gay. The trouble is that social-historical treatments of homosexuality in church history are usually agenda driven, so they rarely make fine distinctions such as those between ‘openly gay’ and ‘practicing gay.’ By the way, the existence of gay saints not only squares with but actually seems to reinforce my unpopular exhortation toward celibacy. In sum, homosexuality in church history is another fine example of the annoying ideological agendas from the left and right distorting the facts.”
Carson does not mention Boswell, but he’s probably responding to Boswell’s arguments.