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Rescuing Homosexual History

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

by John Boswell
The University of Chicago Press, 424 pp., $27.50

It is not uncommon for readers to get angry with a book before they have reached the end of the first chapter. It is less usual for them to become irritated before they have even finished reading the title. John Boswell’s subtitle to his absorbing and scholarly book will certainly annoy those who still feel that the printed use of the slang term “gay” to mean homosexual should be resisted. Mr. Boswell dislikes the word “homosexual.” It is, he points out, a neologism which was coined only in the late nineteenth century and was introduced to England (by J.A. Symonds and Havelock Ellis) in the 1890s. It has, he thinks, four major defects: it has disagreeable pathological overtones; it falsely suggests that homosexuals are more preoccupied with sexuality than are other people; it is seldom applied to women; and it is imprecise (for how many homosexual acts are needed to make a person a “homosexual”?).

As a way of describing “persons who are conscious of erotic inclination toward their own gender,” Mr. Boswell prefers the term “gay.” So, he believes, do most “gay people”; and their preference, he holds, ought to be respected. He also urges that the word “gay” had a homosexual connotation as far back as the twelfth century. But he has no real evidence for this assertion. In early centuries female prostitutes or persons of casual morals were sometimes described pejoratively as “gay,” but the term seems to have had no specifically homosexual overtones.1

History suggests that attempts to resist semantic change are almost invariably unsuccessful. Those who make such attempts usually end up looking absurd. But it seems a pity that the University of Chicago Press should in this case have capitulated so readily. Mr. Boswell declares defensively that the reasons for objecting to “gay” are “not obvious.” But two of them are very obvious, not to say wearily familiar. The first objection is political. A minority is doubtless entitled to rebaptise itself with a term carrying more favorable connotations so as to validate its own behavior and free itself from scandal. But it is scarcely entitled to expect those who do not belong to that minority to observe this new usage, particularly when the chosen label seems bizarrely inappropriate and appears to involve an implicit slur upon everyone else. (“Let’s call heterosexuals sad,” says Vernon Scannell in his devastating little poem on the subject.2 ) For Mr. Boswell, moreover, the opposite of “gay” is not “straight,” but “nongay,” an expression which, like “non-Jewish” or “non-Cornish,” may be useful in some contexts but seems distinctly contentious when used as a general term of historical analysis. As Boswell himself observes in another context, “to non-Christians, the standard division of the world’s religions into Christian and non-Christian must seem pointless and silly.”

The second objection to “gay” is linguistic. For centuries the word has meant (approximately) “blithe,” “lighthearted,” or “exuberantly cheerful.” To endow it with a wholly different meaning is to deprive ourselves of a hitherto indispensable piece of vocabulary and incidentally to make nonsense of much inherited literature. Are we now to think that the child that is born on the Sabbath day is blithe and good, bonny and—endowed with an erotic preference for its own gender?

These objections may seem trivial and even offensive to some readers, 3 but they are inevitably provoked by Mr. Boswell’s powerfully argued and consistently interesting book. For though his approach is scholarly and analytic he makes no secret of his sympathies. Just as E. P. Thompson wrote to rescue the English working class from the “enormous condescension of posterity,” so Mr. Boswell writes to rescue the homosexuals of the past from centuries of loathing and contempt. His is a study of intolerance which is meant to parallel similar studies of the persecution of Jews, blacks, and other minorities. It is frankly intended to help those who wish to reduce the suffering which that intolerance has caused.

The book’s opening chapters, accordingly, both defend the use of a distinctive terminology and expose some widespread fallacies about homosexuality itself. Homosexuals, Mr. Boswell emphasizes, are not, and never have been, a “threat” to society. They are seldom “effeminate”; they do not always pursue those younger than themselves (or no more often than do heterosexuals); and they are not necessarily promiscuous. They do not even threaten the birth rate, for love and reproduction are (or can be) quite different matters; Socrates loved Alcibiades and Edward II loved Piers Gaveston, but each had a wife and children. As for the description of homosexuality as “unnatural,” this is “neither scientifically nor morally cogent and probably represents nothing more than a derogatory epithet of unusual emotional impact due to a confluence of historically sanctioned prejudices and ill-informed ideas about ‘nature.”’ History shows that it is only certain societies which, having classified their members on the basis of the gender to which they are erotically attracted, proceed to treat the category “homosexual” as inferior, shameful, and menacing.

Having thus firmly nailed his colors to the mast, Mr. Boswell, a Yale medievalist, sets out on a voyage of exploration through the first thirteen hundred years of Christian history in an attempt to determine how this kind of classification by sexual preference came about. A work on the history of attitudes to homosexuality will occasion no surprise in a decade which has seen the proliferation of writings on the subject.4 Indeed at least three substantial books on the topic, including Sir Kenneth Dover’s Greek Homosexuality, have been published since Mr. Boswell’s manuscript went to press.5 But Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality is one of the most critical and probing studies yet to appear.

For Mr. Boswell has emerged with an interpretation which looks distinctly new. His argument is that intolerance of homosexuality was not an essential feature of Christianity itself, but only became the dominant attitude after nearly twelve hundred years of Church history. Like a Protestant who dismisses Roman Catholic dogma as an illegitimate accretion upon the primitive Church, Mr. Boswell sees hostility to homosexuality as something which was grafted on to an earlier, more indulgent tradition.

He begins by showing that the Roman world into which Christianity was born was very tolerant of homosexuals. True, there was legislation to protect children from sexual abuse, but the Roman law was slow to condemn homosexual relations as such. The first two centuries of the Christian era saw a large output of homosexual literature and a great deal of conspicuous homosexual activity. As Gibbon remarked, “Of the first fifteen emperors Claudius was the only one whose taste in love was entirely correct.” Moreover, the Bible, on Mr. Boswell’s interpretation, offered no text which categorically ruled out homosexuality for the early Christians. The sin of Sodom (Genesis 19) was not sodomy, but lack of hospitality to strangers; and it was only in later tradition that the city of the plain achieved its homosexual reputation. The explicit prohibitions in Leviticus, declaring homosexual acts an abomination (18:22) and making them a capital offense (20:13), were essentially declarations of their ritual impurity rather than an assertion that homosexual relations were inherently evil. In any case, this part of Leviticus had no influence in the Christian world, where the Jewish ceremonial law was rejected.

As for the New Testament passages which are normally taken to mean that homosexuals will be excluded from the Kingdom of Heaven, Boswell argues that they are either not about homosexuality at all (1 Timothy, 1:10) or relate only to male prostitution (1 Corinthians, 6:9-10). St. Paul’s denunciation in Romans, 1:26-7 (“the men, leaving the natural use of the woman, burned in their last one toward another”), is to be read as a condemnation, not of homosexuals, but of homosexual acts committed by normally heterosexual persons; and the suggestion that Paul thought such acts to be “against nature” attributes to him a concept of natural law which was not fully developed for another millennium. There was, concludes Mr. Boswell, only one place in the Bible where homosexual relations per se were clearly prohibited and that was in Leviticus, whose holiness code was wholly inapplicable to a Christian community. For Jesus sexuality was “largely a matter of indifference.”

According to Boswell, therefore, the emergence of a hostile attitude to homosexuals was not the result of Christianity as such, but proceeded from subsequent social changes in the later Roman period. Growing absolutism involved an attempt to achieve greater control of individual lives. Homosexual “marriages” were outlawed in 342, male prostitution was banned, and in 533 homosexual activities were prohibited altogether. Meanwhile, the decline of the urban centers reduced the old homosexual subculture and encouraged the emergence of what Boswell calls a more “rural” attitude, which saw homosexuality as bizarre and unnatural. For ascetics like Clement of Alexandria (d. c. 215) or St. John Chrysostom (d. 407), procreation was the only “natural” purpose of sexual intercourse; homosexuality was therefore disgusting and so were any forms of heterosexuality unintended to produce offspring. These patristic arguments did not develop from the teaching of Christ and the Apostles, but rested on an amalgam of misunderstood Biblical texts—Sodom having now gained its sodomitical reputation—and fanciful natural history—much being made of the Mosaic rule that the hare and the weasel were unclean, since the former animal was thought to grow an additional anus each year and the latter was believed to conceive through the mouth.

Yet this ascetic view of sexuality, argues Boswell, was not characteristic of Christianity as a whole. Most early Christians, he says, regarded homosexual attraction as perfectly normal and revered saints who, like the two women SS Perpetua and Felicitas (martyred 203), had been involved in relationships which would today be considered homosexual. The prominent fourth-century Christian Ausonius collected homosexual literature and was passionately loved by St. Paulinus, bishop of Nola. “Gay sexuality was absolutely rampant in the Christian society of fourth-century Antioch.”

Anti-erotic pressure from government and more ascetic schools of sexual ethics,” writes Boswell, “was in time to achieve the suppression of most public aspects of gay sexuality and ultimately to induce a violently hostile reaction from Christianity itself.” But he is emphatic that this process was a very slow one. Until the thirteenth century there were few laws against homosexuality and nearly all of them were enacted by civil authorities without advice from the Church. “At the practical level the early medieval Church was largely unconcerned about exclusively homosexual behavior.” In their approach to sexual sins most churchmen were “largely gender blind,” homosexual acts being regarded as on a par with adultery or fornication. At the court of Charlemagne, Alcuin and his pupils revived the classical tradition of passionate male friendship, while in the ninth century Walafrid Strabo, abbot of Reichenau, wrote love poems to his male friend Liutger.

The urban revival of the eleventh and twelfth centuries marked a resurgence of the homosexual subculture. Courtly love was not necessarily heterosexual; and the period saw “an outburst of Christian gay literature still without parallel in the Western world.” Mr. Boswell recalls St. Aelred of Rievaulx’s idealization of passionate male friendship, commenting that “there can be little question that Aelred was gay and that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life.” He also devotes an interesting chapter to the erotic homosexual poetry of the period and to such works as The Debate Between Ganymede and Helen, which he regards as “the product of a society in which gay people were an important segment of the population” and where “defenses of gay love were sufficiently common to have taken on a defiant rather than apologetic tone.” Even the valorous Richard the Lionheart was a self-confessed homosexual who slept with the King of France and was married to his own wife in name only.

  1. 1

    See the Oxford English Dictionary and Supplement; and the correspondence in the Times Literary Supplement in April and May of this year.

  2. 2

    Reprinted in The State of the Language, edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks (University of California Press, 1980), p. 264.

  3. 3

    Another contributor to The State of the Language, Edmund White, declares that “it seems frivolous to discuss this semantic loss beside the political gain the word represents for American homosexuals” (p. 238).

  4. 4

    Ulrich’s International Periodical Directory, 18th edition: 1979-1980 (R. R. Bowker, 1979), lists nearly sixty current journals concerned with homosexuality. They range from the relatively sober Journal of Homosexuality to The Leaping Lesbian and The Female Impersonator (circulation, 8000).

  5. 5

    (Harvard University Press, 1978). The others are Michael Goodich, The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period (American Bibliographical Center—Clio Press, Santa Barbara, California, 1979), and Peter Coleman, Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality (SPCK, London, 1980).

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