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LHMP #278d Boswell 1980 Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Full citation: 

Boswell, John. 1980. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. University of Chicago Press, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4

Part IV: The Rise of Intolerance

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Part IV: The Rise of Intolerance

Chapter 10: Social Change

The fanaticism and intolerance popularly associated with the “medieval” period date primarily to the later middle ages. Prior to the 13th century, social and religious tolerance were more typical. In the 13-14th century this changed, though historians are unclear on the exact reasons. Among the forces that are considered relevant: the rise in absolute government, both secular and clerical, and movements to reform, regularize and enforce power systems.

Laws sought to enforce conformity and consolidation, which inherently marginalized minorities of all types. The Crusades both reflect and intensified these trends. Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim activity was prominent as well as persecution of non-conforming Christian religious movements under the label of heresy.

Increasing intolerance of sodomy accompanied the narrowing of what that term covered, from all non-procreative sex to specifically implying anal sex between men. And sodomy became associated in the popular mind with “infidels” and heretics. Law codes increasingly included severe and violent penalties for sodomy (castration, death) though it’s unclear how consistently they were enforced.

In the wake of this, sodomy became a useful charge against political opponents, whether individuals (e.g., King Edward II) or groups (e.g., the Templars).

Chapter 11: Intellectual Change

This chapter looks at the evolution of various theological arguments against homosexuality. Arguments from myths (or in rare cases, reality) about animal behavior spread with the popularity of bestiaries (picture books about animals). This was part of the general flowering of learning, especially from Arabic sources, in the 12-13th centuries. There were inherent contradictions between these texts that identified certain animals as “naturally” engaging in homosexual behavior, and texts that claimed that homosexuality was unnatural specifically because animals never engaged in it.

Arguments about “nature” and “natural” appeared in many philosophical works, but the image of Nature (personified) was bent to the author’s preconceived goals and rarely formed a coherent concept. In the realm of gender and sexuality, Nature was always used to support heteroseuxality and traditional binary gender roles. These texts glossed over the implication that arguing morality from Nature suggested that morality arose from the majority opinion (e.g., most animals do X, therefore X is moral). Philosophical/theological texts alternated between condemning homosexuality because it was an unnatural sin, because it was a contagious disease, because it was natural only to (by definition) unclean beasts, or that it was natural but undesirable because it hindered procreation.

All these arguments can be seen at work in the Summa Theologia of Thomas Aquinas, which stood as a foundation of Christian theology thereafter. Boswell attributes much of the shift to anti-gay attitudes in ecclesiastical literature to the prominence of Aquinas just at the time when the church was moving to enforce orthodoxy. He makes comparisons to other practices where are even more strongly condemned in early church literature (such as usury) that did not attract the same lasting animosity in the later middle ages.

This chronology should not be interpreted as learned theology causing anti-gay prejudice, rather that it reflected and then enshrined existing prejudice into established tradition with legal and moral force.

Chapter 12: Conclusions

The final chapter provides a summary of the evolution of thought and the data that supports it. Early Christian literature was fairly silent on homosexuality, and anti-gay sentiments at that time were typically unrelated to religion. Hostility to homosexuality became noticeable with the shift in power from urban to rural elites. This hostility was later incorporated into Christian thought which in turn was used to justify prejudice and persecution of gay people. Gay people (at least, the male ones) were prominent and influential in medieval society, but the lack of a stable cultural transmission for pro-gay attitudes left them at the mercy of popular opinion when that opinion turned as part of a general increase in intolerance in the 12-13th century.


Appendix 1 is a deep dive into the texts of Saint Paul and their interpretation.

Appendix 2 provides translations (and sometimes the original language) for a variety of the texts used as examples in the book, with copious notes on meaning and context.



Interesting. I knew that tolerance toward Jews had shifted in this time, but had not thought to look at *all* tolerances had shifted. Thank you for breaking me out of my bubble and giving me something to mentally chew on.

I'm thinking a lot of about parallels with the current day where much of the intolerance is "insincere" (which doesn't mean non-dangerous) but is a tool to manipulate people.

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