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.

At this period those who took a more severe attitude received little encouragement from leading churchmen. When St. Peter Damian presented St. Leo IX with his Book of Gomorrah (c. 1051), a lurid attack on unnatural vice, the Pope refused to agree that homosexual clerics should be removed from office, unless they had engaged in such activities “as a long-standing practice or with many men.” When a reformer tried to prevent the installation as bishop of Orléans in 1098 of a well-known homosexual called John (but known locally as Flora), who had been the lover of the previous bishop, of the archbishop of Tours, and of the King of France himself, Pope Urban II declined to interfere. When the Council of London (1102) anathematized all sodomites, Archbishop Anselm (himself the author of strikingly passionate letters to male friends) prohibited the publication of the decree, remarking that “this sin has hitherto been so public that hardly anyone is embarrassed by it.”

Then, suddenly, toward the end of the twelfth century, the tide abruptly turned. The flow of erotic homosexual literature dramatically ceased and homosexuals became subject to a new intolerance, similar to that displayed against Jews, heretics, and usurers. The third Lateran Council of 1179 was the first General Council to consider homosexual acts; it declared them to be sins against nature and prescribed excommunication for all offenders. In the thirteenth century the law codes of most secular states pronounced strongly against homosexual acts. In Castile homosexual monks were to be publicly castrated and executed. In France, Norway, and many Italian cities homosexuality became a capital offense. “Between 1250 and 1300,” writes Mr. Boswell, “homosexual activity passed from being completely legal in most of Europe to incurring the death penalty in all but a few contemporary legal compilations.” This change was more a matter of rhetoric and denunciation than of actual punishment, but its effect was profound. “During the two hundred years from 1150 to 1350, homosexual behavior appears to have changed, in the eyes of the public, from the personal preference of a prosperous minority, satirized and celebrated in popular verse, to a dangerous, anti-social, and severely sinful aberration.” The change was given philosophical justification by Aquinas, to whose attempts to prove homosexuality “unnatural” Mr. Boswell devotes a scathing analysis.

This interpretation is presented with vigor and clarity. Mr. Boswell’s prose is occasionally cumbersome, but each sentence has obviously been carefully pondered and each proposition is supported by a battery of citations in learned languages and long, argumentative footnotes which frequently climb halfway up the page. Of course, much of what he says is not new. Twenty-five years ago Derrick Sherwin Bailey produced a useful survey of Homosexuality and the Western Christian Tradition (1955), which covered much of the same ground and arrived at some of the same conclusions. Bailey too argued that the Bible contained no condemnation of homosexuality as such (though he did think that it condemned homosexual acts); and he also suggested that the Church had been very intermittent in its persecution of homosexuals. Nevertheless, the overall novelty of Mr. Boswell’s thesis is quickly seen if we compare it with a few sentences from Peter Coleman’s Christian Attitudes to Homosexuality, a conscientious compendium of received knowledge which appeared earlier this year.

From the time of St. Paul until the middle of the present century, the Christian attitude to homosexual behavior remained unchanged…it was an unnatural offence, not to be named…. From the middle of the second century to the end of the nineteenth, the records show that homosexual offences were always declared sinful and those who were found guilty of them were rigorously punished.

Thanks to Mr. Boswell no one will be able to put it quite that way again.

Yet though it seems clear that it was only in the thirteenth century that the persecution of homosexuality became effective, it is hard to believe that this represented as much of a departure from the earlier Christian tradition as Mr. Boswell suggests. In a recent, much more superficial, book on the subject, Michael Goodich of Haifa University agrees that it was in the thirteenth century that widespread persecution began. But he suggests, very reasonably, that this was a matter, less of a new moral outlook emerging, than of older attitudes being more vigorously enforced. He traces the campaign against homosexuality back to the reinvigoration of the papacy in the eleventh century, the prohibition of clerical marriage, and the extension of ecclesiastical control over a hitherto recalcitrant population. The centuries following the period of Gregorian Reform saw the development of the penitential system, the appearance of new biblical commentaries, and the codification of both canon and secular law. It is not surprising that new penalties should have been prescribed for old offenses which the Church had hitherto neglected, less through indifference than because of its administrative weakness.

There is indeed an element of special pleading about the way in which Mr. Boswell so relentlessly brushes aside the evidence of Christian hostility to homosexuality in earlier centuries. His argument that St. Paul was concerned not with homosexuals but with perverted heterosexuals is a familiar one, but it does seem faintly unrealistic. Paul may have had no conception of the existence of men who were wholly homosexual by inclination, but it seems hard to believe that he would have viewed them indulgently if he had.

It is true that most early Christian moralists condemned the homosexual pursuit of young boys and said little about homosexuality between adult males. But that was surely because in the late Roman world, as among the Greeks, it was between boys and older men that most homosexual relationships occurred. Mr. Boswell denies this well-known fact, asserting that the disparity of ages existed only in literary convention. Perhaps he has been misled by a desire to establish a long lineage for modern “gay culture.” If he had had the chance to read Dover’s Greek Homosexuality (where the evidence is overwhelming) he might have changed his mind.

In general, Mr. Boswell seems to underrate the cumulative impact of the patristic tradition. The Fathers of the Church did not discuss homosexuality as such because they probably did not know of its existence. But many of them vigorously condemned homosexual acts as unnatural abominations; it seems misleading to treat their words as representative only of a narrowly based ascetic movement.

There may also have been rather more hostility displayed toward homosexuals in the intervening centuries than the unwary reader of Mr. Boswell’s book might suppose. He underplays the significance of the many monastic rules designed to avoid erotic contact between the inmates. He also attaches little importance to the English, Irish, and Frankish penitentials of the seventh to ninth centuries, suggesting that they often treated homosexuality as a rather trivial matter. In fact, many of them penalized homosexual acts more severely than adultery. The penitentials of Columban (c. 600) inflicted the same penalty on monks for sodomy as for homicide, while the Burgundian penitentials (c. 700-25) regarded it as worse than homicide. Similarly, the Visigothic rulers of the sixth and seventh centuries prescribed castration for sodomites, while the Frankish Church urged that the “evil” of sodomy be eradicated. Of course, such measures were ineffective in practice, but the same can be said about most of the Church’s attempts to control personal morality during these years of weak ecclesiastical organization.

Yet even if the persecution of the thirteenth century onward was a less abrupt departure from the moral attitudes of the past than Mr. Boswell sometimes implies, it was nevertheless a striking development which deserves some investigation. Mr. Boswell suggests that it may have had something to do with new fears of heresy (with which sodomy was frequently associated) and of Islam (where homosexuality was notoriously rampant). But he rightly regards the matter as obscure.

A convincing sociological explanation of why some societies tolerate homosexuals and others do not has yet to be devised. Sir Kenneth Dover failed to provide a very convincing answer in the case of ancient Greece and Mr. Boswell can do little better for the Middle Ages. He makes an ingenious distinction between “urban” societies, which are tolerant of sexual deviancy because they transcend kinship ties, and “rural” ones, which are intolerant, because their organization depends on the family, which is a sexually created relationship. But he does little to bring this distinction to life and there would be many obstacles in the way of doing so. What does some clear is that there has until modern times been no Western society (not even ancient Greece) which has taken a very tolerant view of passive homosexuality by adult males. Active homosexuality may have been acceptable, even among warriors. But to attribute to a man the passive role has always been an insult.

Mr. Boswell does not claim to have solved all the problems which his difficult subject presents. Neither has he entirely managed to avoid giving the impression of being eager to construct a genealogy which will legitimate modern “gay” attitudes. He rightly castigates those earlier scholars who shamefacedly concealed the evidence of past homosexuality when they met it. But he occasionally succumbs to the opposite tendency, which is to find it everywhere. It will be interesting, for example, to see whether many medievalists will accept his theory that both Alcuin and Anselm discouraged severe legislation against homosexuals because they had “gay” proclivities themselves. Anselm’s passionate letters to his male friends are indeed remarkable. But, as his most distinguished modern biographer remarks, “Anselm’s response was excited by their monastic vocation and not by their personalities, of which he knew nothing.” His letters were “a product of philosophy rather than feeling”; and their force is much dimmed when we realize that some of them were written to people on whom he had never set eyes.6

Mr. Boswell thinks that Anselm’s suppression (on technical grounds) of the Council of London’s decree against homosexuals may have been disingenuous. But he omits to tell us that it was Anselm himself who had pressed for the meeting of the Council and had put the suppression of sodomy as the first item on its agenda; and he does not add that, when Anselm subsequently went into exile, it was to him that a correspondent looked as the only man who could by his return suppress widespread sodomy in England.

Yet although Mr. Boswell occasionally seems over-eager in his quest for homosexuals of the past, his is a wholly understandable quest. A similar search for roots has animated many of those who have pioneered modern historical writing about radicals, blacks, women, and other once-neglected groups. Mr. Boswell’s scholarly and painstaking analysis will bring academic respectability to what has hitherto been regarded as a faintly murky subject. It may even do something to foster more tolerant attitudes. For, as Thomas Hobbes remarked long ago, “of our conceptions of the past, we make a future.”

This Issue

December 4, 1980