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Reading "Same-Sex Unions" in a Post-Obergefell Age

Monday, December 30, 2019 - 07:00

Like Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, I read this book back when it first came out and had not yet generated the intense discussion that marked its reception. (In fact, on checking the publication information, I appear to have picked up a first edition of the original hardcover.) Looking back in the context of this re-read, two things come back to me that still hold.

Firstly, although Boswell’s clear intent was to provide data for, and stimulate discussion of, the topic of same-sex marriage in modern American society, he really did frame his material very carefully and precisely. He doesn’t claim that the “same-sex union” ceremonies and customs in his research were considered marriage, or were a type of marriage. He does provide evidence that people at the time regularly compared them to marriage, as well as pointing out in great detail that many types of formal heterosexual unions, and many details of heterosexual marriage at that time, bear no relationship to our modern concept. And yet, when it first came out, so much of the negative reception of this book (not only from homophobes, but from critical historians) appeared to reacting as if it had claimed "adelphopoiesis is medieval gay marriage." Which, in fact, was what many enthusiastic non-historians took away from the book. Whether that mistaken reaction was within Boswell's intent or not is open to question and I suspect he may have provided the answer at some point.

The second thing that comes back to me--and which still holds--is the depth of my anger over Boswell’s blythe assertion that his overwhelmingly male-focused data can--of course!--be extrapolated to women’s lives. The wrong-headedness of this position should be blindingly obvious, and yet time and again we find male scholars of the history of homosexuality taking the position that male experiences are universal and that women’s experiences are, at most, a minor variant thereof. If they address the topic at all.

There is even less woman-focused material in this book than in CST&H. And, as noted by several authors in the collection The Lesbian Pre-Modern, there has been an unfortunate tendency in the rise of Queer Studies for this centering of male narratives to continue, even as the use of the term “queer” stakes a moral claim to universal coverage. Marginalized groups are never de-marginalized by dominant groups deigning to include them. Indeed, works like this that focus on the male experience with the excuse that “the data is overwhelmingly male” will never be capable of redressing that imbalance because they have no incentive to dig beyond a few familiar examples, but then turn around and imply that those examples are all that exist.

Just as a random example, becasue Boswell is focusing on "sworn partner" relationships that follow the adelphopoiesis model, it's outside the scope of his study to consider historic traditions like "female husbands" or Boston marriages--phenomena that did not have a corresponding male version, and that therefore are invisible under his search for “female correlates of male-recorded and male-centered phenomena.”

Anyway. This is a useful and valuable book, but it can make no genuine claim to being about “same-sex unions”. It is about male-male unions, focusing on the types of social arrangements made between people with social, political, and economic power, who have the ability (and sometimes the inclination) to exclude the concerns of women from the central focus of their lives. Take it for that and look elsewhere for historic data about the arrangements that women made among themselves.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

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

Introduction and Chapter 1


The modern West has a peculiar fascination with the topic of romantic love as it existed in older cultures, projecting the 19-20th century cultural obsession with romance onto the past. Other cultures and societies have had entirely different cultural preoccupations to a similar degree, such as personal fame, family lineage, etc. Romantic love does appear as a similar preoccupation in certain other eras, though not always with the odd expectation that love and marriage are tied together. Projecting this concept onto older eras and cultures creates deep misunderstandings of those cultures.

Even within Christian culture, views on marriage have varied widely. There is no single set of necessary and sufficient conditions to explain attitudes toward love and marriage in Western history.

When Western prejudice against same-sex relations collides with this chaotic definition of marriage, the structural issues are even clearer. [Note: To tie this point to more recent politics, a certain amount of the argumentation that led to the legalization of same-sex marriage in the USA involved pointed out these structural issues: that there are no logical arguments that support excluding all same-sex marriages that would not also invalidate large numbers of heterosexual marriages.]

This preoccupation + prejudice means that the question modern Western society asks about the same-sex unions discussed in this work is “were they homosexual?” But this question makes little sense in the historic context. Formalized same-sex unions have existed in many cultures in many eras. But the anti-gay attitude in Western culture demands that we make a clear distinction between erotic and non-erotic relations within them.

Boswell makes the usual apology for the predominance of male data over female. He says he made a special effort to examine “female correlates of male-recorded and male-centered phenomena.” [Note: but this assumes that they correlate, as opposed to involving qualitatively different phenomena.]

Chapter 1: The Vocabulary of Love and Marriage

This chapter provides a detailed discussion of various words used for the love/passion range of meanings and their nuances of meaning and use. A similar analysis of vocabulary is provided for marriage-like concepts. The focus is on Greek and Latin and how Greek and Latin vocabulary were translated into English (especially in Biblical contexts) Boswell discusses the problems of translating contextual of “slang” meanings of words. The purpose of this chapter is to shake up the reader’s premise that words must be read and understood in their “literal” meanings. [Note: This is not material that can be summarized in brief. If this summary intrigues you, I highly recommend just going out and reading the whole book.]