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The Conflict Between the Historian and the Believer

Wednesday, January 1, 2020 - 07:00

In chapter 4, the polemical nature of this book becomes most evident. In tracing the development of Christian attitudes toward--and forms of--marriage, Boswell’s through-line is that there is no logical way to integrate Christian approaches to heterosexual marriage with a blanket prohibition on same-sex marriage. Some of the criticism of both this book and CST&H are that both books feel too much like a supplicant begging for acceptance, thinking that if only the right logical argument were offered, Christianity would suddenly realize, “OMG, we’ve been wrong all along! We’re so sorry! We’ll stop persecuting gays now!” But religious doctrine has never been logically consistent, even when it uses the trappings of logic and philosophy. Similar criticisms were made of Bernadette Brooten’s work on female same-sex love in the early Christian era, with the additional critique that Brooten sometimes seems to throw gay men under the bus in arguing that scripture-based arguments really only applied to exploitive age-differentiated male-male relations and not to cozy, love-based female-female ones. I exaggerate, of course. But both authors were working from a place of desiring acceptance within a religious context that they were deeply emotionally invested in. And that colored how they presented their arguments.

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Full citation: 

Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. Villard Books, New York. ISBN 0-679-43228-0

Chapter 4

Chapter 4: Views of the New Religion

The rise of Christianity in Europe was not the driver of changes in sexual and romantic relations that we often imagine it was. The most significant changes--such as the predominance of monogamy and the expectation of sexual fidelity between married partners--either were already i process or were not closely tied to core Christian teachings.

Christian ascetic ideals got a lot of attention, but were not embraced by the majority. The ascetic ideals, however, meant the church took a long time to focus on marriage as being within the scope of clerical interest. Marriage wasn’t proclaimed a sacrament and therefore an act that required church involvement until 1215. The official position was that the best excuse for marriage was to avoid fornication, and the only acceptable purpose for sex was procreation. These grudging allowances colored Christian attitudes to other types of unions and erotic activities.

At the same time, the language and symbolism of marriage were transferred to other institutions and relationships, such as the Christ-church relationship and the image of dedicated virgins as “brides of Christ.” Another transfer of relational terminology and concepts was fraternal imagery for relations based on affection or common purpose. Thus all Christians were “brothers and sisters” in a sense. This produced conflicts of imagery with respect to marriage (contradicting anti-incest concepts) though in another sense it followed some older traditions that had treated marriage as a type of “collateral adoption”, turning a wife into a sister.

The chapter explores other examples of both marital and fraternal imagery in the Old and New Testaments. Examples of same-sex bonds in that imagery include David & Jonathan, Ruth & Naomi, Jesus & John.

Post-Biblical same-sex pairs featured in Christian iconography include the martyr saints Perpetua and Felicitas (who were in an owner-slave relation). Their story places an emphasis on their status as mothers, each having an infant at the time of their martyrdom, but there is no mention in the legend of a husband for Perpetua. (As a slave, Felicitas would not necessarily be expected to have a spouse.)

Male pairs described in the language of brotherly/fraternal bonds incude the saints Serge and Bacchus who were martyred as a bonded pair. The chapter includes a discussion of the language and symbolism used in depicting these paired martyrs.