I finished John Boswell’s Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, and I also read critiques of the book (see here). If you want to study the issue further, I recommend Boswell’s book and also the critiques, which are quite scholarly. In this post, I’ll talk about some of what I learned in reading the critiques, and, when appropriate, I will comment on what Boswell says in his book.
The ceremony that Boswell considers to be a same-sex union ceremony is called adelphopoiesis, which means “brother-making”. Essentially, Boswell’s critics argue that the ceremony was making two people into brothers. This sort of ceremony existed in the ancient world, and, while one of Boswell’s critics acknowledges that some participants may have used this sort of brotherly union as an opportunity for homosexual sex, he does not believe that the union itself had anything to do with that. Boswell argues that sibling language was used in the ancient world to describe sexual unions, and one of Boswell’s critics agrees that “brother” in certain ancient literature appears in the context of homosexual eroticism. But this critic does not think that means that “brother” always has that connotation.
Why would people form such unions in the ancient world? One critic said that it was to reconcile enemies or to form alliances, and this critic appeals to language in the ceremonies about loyalty to support this point. Some of it may have been to acknowledge or solidify a friendship, for critic Robin Darling Brown said that she and a female friend went to a Syrian Christian community in Turkey, and it offered to unite them in a ceremony in light of all they had been through together on their journeys. According to Brown, this was the sort of ceremony that Boswell discusses in his book, and it had nothing to do with homosexuality.
Brother-making ceremonies have occurred more in the East than in the West, and even some of Boswell’s critics say that Boswell did well to expose to Westerners this little known (to Westerners) element of Eastern Christianity. One critic says that the West suppressed the practice as it became more authoritarian and did not care for the existence of alternative sources of obligation. I wonder if this addresses (on some level) a point that Boswell makes on page 197 of his book, in arguing that the ceremony concerned same-sex union rather than adoption: “The second technical problem is that adoption was never prohibited under Byzantine law, whereas the ceremony for same-sex union was ultimately prescribed, for reasons that remain unclear but probably had to do with the rise of hostility to everything homosexual”. Could the Byzantines have prohibited the practice for the same reason that the one critic says that the West suppressed it: to eliminate competing authorities?
One critic distinguished between the brother-making ceremonies and marriage ceremonies, noting that the brother-making ceremonies mention neither marriage nor things connected with marriage, such as cohabitation, the raising of children, property, etc. The wikipedia article on adelphopoiesis (to which the site linking to articles critical of Boswell links), however, says the following: “Also see Allan Tulchin, ‘Same-Sex Couples Creating Households in Old Regime France: The Uses of the Affrèrement.’ in the Journal of Modern History: September 2007, which article demonstrates the ceremony of affrèrement in France joined unrelated same-gender couples in life long unions which raised family, held property jointly, and were in all respects the same as or equivalent to marriages in terms of law and social custom, as shown by parish records.”
An argument that critic after critic made was that there would not have been same-sex union ceremonies conducted by the church in medieval Europe, for medieval Europe had rules against homosexual activity. My impression of Boswell’s belief on this is that he thinks that such laws were not enforced that much, indicating that they were not taken seriously. One of the critics, Richard John Neuhaus of First Things, acknowledges that there were times in Christian Europe when homosexuality may have been tolerated.
Boswell’s use of primary sources got heavily criticized by Boswell’s critics, as they accused him of mistranslation and taking passages out of context. Many of their arguments are probably right. One critic, however, said that Boswell translated a passage about Serge and Bacchus (two Christians) to mean that Serge and Bacchus were attached to one another, when the passage actually means that they would both receive a crown of glory in the afterlife. The critic may be correct on this, but, as I read “The Passion of SS Serge and Bacchus” in Boswell’s book (in English), I saw a huge chunk of text in which Serge misses Bacchus, and so the slain Bacchus appears to Serge to comfort him. I do not think that all of that can be a mistranslation, for there is a reference to Psalm 132’s passage about brother’s dwelling in unity. I would not say that means that Serge and Bacchus were a homosexual couple, but there did appear to be some attachment between them.