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Book Reviewed:

John Boswell, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Vintage Books, New York, 1995.

This book can be ordered at Amazon.com. Canadian readers can purchase the book through Amazon.ca.

Review by John Patrick Day. All copyrights are held by the author.

This is a difficult book to review. There seems to be sacrcely anything I could say about it which does not require a lot of qualification. People who have been around universities tend to like qualifications anyway, but the need is unusually great here.

In part, this arises from my own limitations. While, like Dr. Boswell, I'm a historian, I have little or no professional expertise in the many and avried specializations needed for this study. There is a possible point of exception, which I'll discuss later. In general, though, my own lack of expertise should be remembered.

Dr. Boswell's central thesis is that there were formal church blessings of same-sex unions in the Europe of Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, which compared closely to heterosexual marriage ceremonies The book presents documents recording thes rituals, translations thereof, and an argument supporting his interpretation of them.

For the most part, the book stands or falls on what one makes of a wide range of Greek documents, and how one translates them. The core question is not easy to grasp from the book without some hard work, and I'll try to illustrate it first.

The case is best illustrated by a manuscript from the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, transcribed on page 348, which is compared with three different translations by Dr. Boswell, found on pages 298-300. These translations, I'll call A, B and C. A is the the translation he chooses as the text, B is what he calls "Anachronistically Literal" and C he calls "Tendentiously Slanted". The differences arise in the title and in one key phrase.

My inexpert transliteration of the title is "euche eis adelphopoeisin". Translation A gives "A Prayer for same-Sex Union", B has "A Prayer for Making Brothers", and C has "A Prayer for Homosexual Marriage". The one particular phrase on which I wish to focus is transliterated (I think) as "chai adelphous genesthai pneumatichous". Translations A and B have "and to be united in spirit", while C has "and to be united in marriage".

The other Greek manuscripts are variants of this one, and the key term is the same. There are no direct Latin documents, but Dr. Boswell finds heterosexual rites which he finds analogous, and descriptions of events which seem to correspond to whatever is happening in Greek. I will be spending a lot of time with one of these later. There are two translations of Serbian Slavonic texts which appear to be a great deal less ambivalent, but without a knowledge of Church Slavonic, or an original text, there's no easy way to agree or disagree on the translating. So the Greek documents are the central issue.

I have to start from this point, because it is not easy to grasp from the text. If the question is understood to be what "adelphia" means, and what connotations went with whatever it does mean, then the book makes sense. If you don't, it can seem disjointed and confusing.

The book has some real and formidable strengths. Dr. Boswell was a careful scholar, and was very scrupulous in laying out his evidence and reasons for his arguments. He recognizes and faces other interpretations honestly and fairly, and takes care to note the many and varied ambiguities in translation. The footnotes are an education in themselves (and hard going, too, but they're very necessary). I was frankly in awe at Boswell's mastery of the range of specialized study required to complete a study of this kind. To call it "utterly erudite" almost seems to damn it with faint praise. The book is also quite well and clearly written. I found it had many wise things to say about modern-day preoccupations and blind spots.

It also has some real problems. The most serious is that the central argument is not clearly stated, and with the best will in the world, one gets lost. There are several chapters which lay out introductory material and background, and then one goes to chapters where the history of same-sex unions is propounded as a given, without any clear idea how one went from the one to the other. In more minor ways, the book incorprates sudden excursions which Boswell felt had to be included (I think rightly), but they appear to be memoranda which he meant for further expansion or explanation. In comparison with the others of his books I've read, it seems to be a not-quite-final draft. A bibliography is missing, which makes it hard to follow him when he begins, for example, to begin denouncing the scholarly iniquities of one "Goar". Have faith, I'll explain who that sinner is later on. It took me some time to catch on, though.

"Ad hominem" arguments and explanations are often unsound ones, but I think they apply here. At the time the book took its present form, Dr. Boswell was very seriously ill, and he died very shortly after he saw it through the press. I have the impression that he was anxious to get something out, even if quite imperfect, rather than that it should die along with him.

Still, once one understands the central question, a lot of the book begins to make sense. He begins by exploring the difficulties of vocabulary in all the langauges involved (English certainly included), and the great difficulties that can arise in translation. As far as I can follow this discussion, I will say that Boswell is careful and conservative in his readings. The issues here ae familair to Biblical scholars, but for those of us who aren't, his comments on that topic are a revelation. I, for one,came away with a new-found respect for the integrity and scholarship of the translators of both the King James and Douay-Rheims Versions.

Altogether by the way, he mentions two words which have been the source of much recent controversy regarding St. Paul's views on homosexuality. The literal meanings are too earthy for reproduction on many public fora, but it would appear that St. Paul took a poor view of anal intercourse. Boswell does play fairly with difficult issues!

This chapter leads to others regarding same-sex and herosexual relationships in pre-Christian Antiquity, and, despite some reviews to the contrary, also to the point. The concept of "marriage" was in many ways quite foreign to modern tastes and thinking, and it did have a social and legal meaning before Christianity became a factor. Early Christian views on marriage are then described, and are open to some debate. Boswell takes the view that Christianity tended to adjust to and adapt the existing social and legal views rtaher than the other way around. He necessarily has to explore the connotations of "brotherhood", and does so at length. One is allowed to disagree with his consclusions, but he does a good through job in laying out the possibilities.

At this point, the book seems to miss its crucial hinge. The existence of Chrsitian same-sex unions is described, and thenm their history is presented as if Boswell's interpretation of them can be assumed. Apart from the personal considerations I've mentioned, he may have thought the documents, the translations and his notes on them would be sufficient to carry the day.

At the end of the book, there is little doubt that some sort of blessing of two males (and, on occasion, even of two females) desiring some sort of union was in widespread use, at least in the Greek church. The ceremonies of the late medieval Serbian Church certainly do seem to be something close to "gay marriage", although even there, that's a term Boswell deliberately discourages us from using. Boswell thought he saw indications of similar rites in the Latin Church, although he is largely arguing from secondary description and analogies from heterosexual union rites.

Neverheless, I found two great unanswered questions remain, and once I got into the documents themselves, I was less persuaded that Boswell had demonstrated his case. The first, obviously, is that these rites were blessing some sort of union, but what was the nature of that union?

Boswell began this line of investigation when he was referred to one of the Greek documents which Jacob Goar, a 17th Century Jesuit published. Goar read them to mean a "spiritual union', expressing some surprise that they would stand muster in either civic or canon law. Boswell at first examined the manuscripts he found with Goar's interpretation as a given, but considered that they had to refer to more than just that. That possibility can not be discounted, and the Serbian Slavonic documents seem to lead to a much more radical conclusion. I found, however, in trying to follow the supposed analogies with heterosexual union ceremonies, that I was being driven in the oppositie direction. The Latin documents, in particular, had such radically different imageries, including fairly physical ones, that I was more likely to conclude the meanings of the types of union were very different. I largely accept Boswell's finding that these same-sex ceremonies are described and both in legal commentaries and histories of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire also was the source of a supposed universal law code which influenced nearly every known local legal code from Greenland to Mecca. However, while it was certainly possible to construe some of the commentary to suppose that these rites were blessing a form of homosexual marriage, others spoke more of some sort of spiritual kinship. Some of the legal evidence presents a problem in that the two males so united were also currently married to women and had children. Or that it would be expected to be a fact of life of males so united. One relationship which was unquestionably a homosexual union involved the emperors Michael III and Basil I. Still, it should be observed that nobody, either at the time or most contemporaries would have regarded neither man as a model to be emulated (although there were lots of other good reasons for taking that view).

Boswell's look at the iconography of Saints Serge and Bacchus is noteworthy, since they turn up being invoked in most of these ceremonies. From the official account of their martyrdom, it is certainly possible that they were homosexual lovers, although there's some ambiguity of translation there too. Iconography should never, never, never be understimated in importance among Eastern Christians of any allegiance or obedience, to be sure. But Sts. Serge and Bacchus wree not the only icons of "adelphia": the pairings of St. Philip and Bartholomew and Sts. peter and Paul invariably accompany them. So, in some manuscripts, do Sts. Cosmas and Damien (like Serge and Bacchus, joint martyrs who were intensely close to each other, but both married to women). If we accept Boswell's reading of the meaning of Sts. Serge and Bacchus (and other meanings are not far- fetched), we have to accept that it is not the only model of love between males being presented.

There is a second great unanswered question which not only remains unanswered, but practically unasked. Did these ceremonies have any official sanction among the churches at large? Boswell thought so, or believed they were tolerated until things took a definitely hostile turn in the 14th Century. Jacob Goar, the good 17th Century catholic priest that he was, thought it amazing that civil and canon law, east or west would allow such things. Most of the manuscripts being Greek (although some were used in Greek communities which were always in Rome's obedience), the issue of church approval is very much sketchier for the Roman Catholic Church than it is for the Greek Orthodox Church. The Roman Church has been absorbing this study with considerable equanimity: the reactions among the Eaatern Orthodox have been extremely vivid (and unfriendly). For Rome's point of view, the issue of general approval by the Church is an unknown. It is of great importance to the Orthodox: since the issue has not emerged at the sevne general councils recognized by Orthodoxy, it is not, strictly speaking, a matter of belief, but the force of tradition and practice is even greater in Constantinople than it is in Rome.

There is some indirect knowledge about the possibility of the practice being used in the western church, however, and it involves a topic on which I do know a little. When one is assessing abook which deals with subjects well outside of one's own expertise, one clings to an exception with great joy. It can be an unfair way of evaluating a book, but it can also be an indication that there may be larger things wrong (or right). So, if I may be a little self-indulgent, and because it also represents the problem in resolving the debate, I will go into it in some length.

John Boswell is leaning heavily on a passage of Giraldus Cambriensis' "Topograhica Hibernica", written about 1188. Giraldus Cambriensis (or Gerald the Welshman) does describe something which follows the rubrics of the Greek ceremonies pretty closely. As we will see, he took a poor view of the Irish.

The Latin text is as follows. I'm putting the disputed terms in square brackets:

De argumentio nequitiae, et novo [desponsationis] genere. Inter alia multa artis iniquae figmenta, hoc unum habent tanquam praecipuum argumentum. Sub religionis et pacis obtenu ad sacrum aliquem conveniunt, cum eo quem [oppetere] cupiunt. Primo compaternitas [foedera jungunt]: deinde ter circa ecclesiam se invicem portant: potmodum ecclesiam intrantes, coram altari reliquiis sanctorum appositis, sacramentis multifarae praestetis, demum nissae celebrattione, et orantibus sacerdotum, tanquam [desponsationae quadam indissolubiter foederantur].


After which, murder and mayhem ensues.

Boswell translates it in this way:


A proof of iniquity, and a novel form [of marriage].

Among many other examples of their wicked ways, this one is is particularly instructive; under the pretext of piety and peace they come together in some holy place with the man they want [to join]. First they are [united in pacts] of kinship, then they carry each other three times around the church. Then, entering the church, before the altar, in the presence of relics of saints and said with many oaths, and finally with a celebration of the Mass and the prayers of priests, they [are permanently united as in some form of marriage].

Boswell was unaware that there was another contemporary translation by John O'Meara, first published in 1969. It reads:


A proof of wickedness and a new way of [making a treaty] Among many other tricks devised in their guile, there is this one which serves as a particularly good proof of their treachery. Under the guise of religion and peace they assemble with him whom they wish [to kill]. First they [make a treaty] on the basis of their common fathers. Then in turn they go around the church three times. They enter the church and, swearing a great variety of oaths before relics of saints placed on the altar, at last with the celebration of Mass and the prayers of the priests, they [make an indissoluble treaty as if it were a kind of betrothal].


The dictionary allows either interpretation of "desponsum": it can be an espousal, a marriage even (St. Augustine did), but it equally can mean "a pledge, a promise" as in a treaty. The second word is debated: it may be "appetere", which means "to seek for, to grasp, to seek". "Oppetere" means to meet, to encounter, although it often has the conotation "to meet death, to encounter death". Obviously, one fits better with Boswell's reading than doeas the other. Put together, the phrase can meen "as if they were in indissoluble alliance", although no translator has liked that one as yet. Well, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

Given the kinship structure of Gaelic Ireland, and the wide variety of kinship alliance institutions, this would seem more likely to me to be the formation of a clan alliance than a marriage or espousal. At any rate, that's how an Irish historian would read it. And if it were me, it's how I read it. The rest of the passage goes on to describe murder and mayhem (as noted), and the term "divorce" appears by all readings before too long. Sounds like many a modern heterosexually married couple, mind you.

A difficult book, as I was saying. In many ways, it raises questions, rather than answering them, and it isn't a "magic bullet" for anyone in particular. However, it raises some interesting and important issues, and it is much to be regretted that Dr. Boswell died so soon (and young, at 47). It repays the effort it demands.