12-24-1994

John Boswell

JOHN BOSWELL, A groundbreaking American historian died on this date (b. 1947); A prominent historian and a professor at Yale University, many of Boswell’s studies focused on the issue of homosexuality and religion, specifically homosexuality and Christianity.

A gifted medieval philologist who spoke (inter alia) fluent Catalan, he received his doctorate from Harvard in 1975, whereupon he joined the Yale history faculty as its rising star; he was made full professor in 1982. In 1987, Boswell helped organize and found the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale, which is now the Research Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies. He was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History in 1990, when he was also appointed to a two-year term as chair of the Yale history department.

Boswell was a gifted and devoted teacher. His undergraduate lectures in medieval history were renowned for their organization, erudition, and wit, with the course often making the “top 10” for highest enrollment. The multi-talented Boswell would pen his comments on student papers in perfectly executed medieval calligraphy.

Boswell was the author of the ground-breaking (one might say ground-moving) and, to some, controversial book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980), which, according to Chauncey et al (1989), “offered a revolutionary interpretation of the Western tradition, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church had not condemned gay people throughout its history, but rather, at least until the twelfth century, had alternately evinced no special concern about homosexuality or actually celebrated love between men.” The book was crowned with the American Book Award for History and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981.

He is known primarily, however, as author of The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York: Villard, 1994), in which he argues that the adelphopoiia liturgy was evidence that attitude of the Christian church towards homosexuality has changed over time, and that early Christians did, on occasion, accept same-sex relationships.

Rites of so-called “same-sex union” (Boswell’s proposed translation) occur in ancient prayer-books of both the western and eastern churches. They are rites of adelphopoiesis, literally Greek for “the making of brothers.” Boswell, despite the fact that the rites explicitly state that the union involved in adelphopoiesis is a “spiritual” and not a “carnal” one, argued that these should be regarded as sexual unions similar to marriage.

This is a highly controversial point of Boswell’s text, as other scholars have dissenting views of this interpretation, and believe that they were instead rites of becoming adopted brothers, or “blood brothers.” Boswell pointed out such evidence as an icon of two saints, Saints Sergius and Bacchus (at St. Catherine’s on Mount Sinai), and drawings, such as one he interprets as depicting the wedding feast of Emperor Basil to his “partner”, John. Boswell sees Jesus as fulfilling the role of the “pronubus” or in modern parallel, best man.

Boswell made many detailed translations of these rites in Same-Sex Unions, and claimed that one mass Gay wedding occurred only a couple of centuries ago in the Basilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome. Boswell’s writings touched off detailed debate in The Irish Times, and the article that triggered off the debate, a major feature in the “Rite and Reason” religion column in the paper by a respected Irish historian and religious commentator, has been reproduced on many websites.

Boswell himself was throughout his life a devout Roman Catholic. Although he was orthodox in most of his beliefs, he strongly disagreed with his church’s stated opposition to homosexual behavior and relationships. To a certain degree much of the work and research Boswell did regarding the Christian church’s historical relationship with homosexuality can be seen as an attempt (which some regard as successful) to rationalize his own sexual orientation (as opposed to the “church fathers’” opposition being a way to rationalize theirs).

In Revolutions, Universals and Sexual Categories (1982, revised), Boswell compares the constructionist-essentialist positions to the realist-nominalist dichotomy. He also lists three types of sexual taxonomies:

  • All or most humans are polymorphously sexual … external accidents, such as socio-cultural pressure, legal sanctions, religious beliefs, historical or personal circumstances determine the actual expression of each person’s sexual feelings.
  • Two or more sexual categories, usually, but not always based on sexual object choice.
  • One type of sexual response [is] normal … all other variants abnormal.

Boswell died of complications from AIDS on December 24, 1994, age 47.