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Full citation: 

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

Contents summary: 


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.]

Contents summary: 

Chapter 2: Heterosexual Matrimony in the Greco-Roman World

This chapter explains the structures and functions of various male-female relationships, as a prelude to expanding the focus more generally. There were different types of relationships for sexual fulfillment, property contracts, and production of children.

Of these, property arrangements were the most important in upper class marriages. Marriage might also provide sexual fulfillment or companionship, but these were not the focus. Emotional bonds might happen after marriage but weren’t considered a prerequisite. There is no pre-modern heterosexual union that corresponds in attributes and expectations to the 20th century view of marriage.

The attributes and expectations of heterosexual marriage shifted and altered over time, and not unidirectionally. The properties inherited by the Christian marriage tradition were, in many ways, arbitrary rather than relating logically to Christian theology. A new form of Roman marriage was developing in the later empire that emphasized slightly more equality between the partners and the importance of female consent to the union. Some restrictions developed on the power and rights of the male partner.

Though real-life marriage contracts were very business-oriented, literature began to develop the idea that romantic love might be a spur to marriage.

This chapter discusses four basic types of heterosexual union, including marriage, concubinage, and ownership. [Note: despite the reference to “four types” I couldn’t find a clear list of what the four were.]

Chapter 3: Same-Sex Unions in the Greco-Roman World

In the same period covered by the preceding chapter, there were four general types of same-sex relationships roughly parallel to the heterosexual unions. [Note: Of course, what this means is four types of male-male relationships. In this book and this summary, one should always understand “same-sex” as “male-male” unless specifically contradicted.] The same-sex relationships were more flexible and less legalistic. Here we’re talking about “relationships” that include sexual or romantic bonds.

As with heterosexual relationships, one form is ownership, though the sexual nature of such a relationship tends to be mentioned only in casual records. [Note: this is an example of how “same-sex” does not necessarily include female-female, as there were social and legal restrictions on whether a woman owned her slaves directly or whether they technically belonged to some male relative.]

Same-sex concubinage was similar to heterosexual concubinage in being a recognized long-term bond focused on emotional and physical relations where both parties were free. Male-male concubinage was less common than the heterosexual type, but it was not rare. There are references in poetry to how a male concubine was expected to be dismissed at his partner’s (heterosexual) marriage.

When the partners had equal social standing, something best described as “lovers” might be recognized where there was no legal tie but the partners were united by affection and desire. This is well known from Greek contexts. Modern commentary sometimes focuses on the expectation of an age difference in these relationships, but a similar age difference was expected in heterosexual relationships and the expectations for the roles played within the union were similar. But the demographics were more variable than the common stereotype for these unions. The language used for them was similar to that used for heterosexual pairs. Specific examples of male-male lovers contradict the image that the “beloved” was necessarily an adolescent.

Detailed examples are provided showing different types of relationships with examples of the language used for them. All the examples are male couples.

The fourth type is a formal union, recognized publicly and involving a change in status for one or both men. Examples are given of male-male unions in Rome that are discussed in the language of marriage, although the discussion somewhat glosses over the satirical or political context of some of these examples.

Examples of female same-sex unions are given from the Dialogues of the Courtesans [Note: I’ve reproduced a translation of the dialogue in this podcast] and Iamblichos’ story of Berenice and Mesopotamia. [Note: see this LHMP entry for the text.]

Bowell posits that same-sex “marriage” would not have been a concept before the empire with the rise of the concept of “romantic marriage”. Before that, marriage was solely an economic and dynastic arrangement. Using heterosexual models posed some problems for same-sex unions as the former presupposed unequal roles. A 4th century law forbade same-sex marriage if male-female gender roles were involved. But in some historic contexts, similar laws were promulgated against adultery and against certain types of heterosexual marriage with little evidence of enforcement.

[Note: Boswell’s point here, and in other similar passages, is to point out that the simple existence of prohibitions shouldn’t be taken as a special animus against same-sex unions, or for that matter as evidence that such unions were suppressed, when similar prohibitions existed against types of heterosexual activity that clearly continued to flourish.]

Same-sex marriages were less common in the late empire, but other types of same-sex unions became popular and were referenced in literature. These rituals included swearing pledges and ritual “abductions” similar to those used in heterosexual marriage. Examples of these are given, all male-male.

Another type of formal same-sex union was “collateral adoption” using the language of siblings. These adoptions created rights to inheritance without subjugating one party as a “child” of the other. Boswell notes that Roman law sometimes treated heterosexual marriage as a type of collateral adoption, specifically using language of the wife becoming a sister of the groom.

There is a discussion of the social understandings of “fraternal adoption” and multiple contexts in which it was used. One window on understanding its relation to marriage comes from the concept of “conubium”, that is, the right to marry a Roman citizen. In one law case involving a fraternal adoption, a concept similar to conubium was invoked to assert that a Roman citizen had no ability to enter a fraternal adoption with a non-Roman man.

Contents summary: 

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.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 5: The Development of Nuptial Offices

Before 1000, priestly blessing of a marriage was an optional favor. Its absence (or refusal) didn’t make the marriage invalid. There was no standard form for this blessing. It was only considered an expected part of the ceremony for the clergy (priests could marry until the 11th century). Often the blessing was only for the bride, not for the couple as a unit.

Though various themes developed earlier, not until the 12th century did a systematic canon law of marriage develop. One feature (not always previously present) was the expressed consent of both parties. The Eastern church had been more active in oversight of marriage at an earlier date, as part of a greater overall involvement of the church in state affairs. But church involvement was still not required for a valid marriage if mutual consent were exchanged.

In local practice, other symbols besides the statement of consent might be used in the marriage contract, such as the transfer of a dowry and ritual abduction. Concubinage was still a recognized arrangement. But by the 12th century, the concept was developing that marriage should arise out of love, rather than love being a later consequence. The hypothetical Christian prohibition on divorce did not prevent it from being accepted up through the early medieval period.

Specific religious ceremonies for unions arose first in the East. An 8th century set of religious offices (i.e., rituals) includes one for male-female betrothal, two for male-female marriage, and one for “uniting” a male-male pair. The offices include similar structures and wording. (There is a detailed discussion of this comparison.)

The male-male ceremony invoked archetypal male pairs such as saints Serge and Bacchus and uses the language of “brothers.” Boswell reminds us of the examples of fraternal language being used for male-female married pairs.

There are seven other known pre-12th century examples of same-sex union ceremonies, mostly from Eastern sources. Many more are known beginning in the 12th century and tapering off slightly in the 13-14th century, with a resurgence in the 15-16th centuries. [Note: I didn’t notice any discussion of overall statistics for manuscript production across this period, so it’s hard to know whether these fluctuations are driven by the specific content or by overall patterns in manuscript culture.]

Most of these texts are in Greek, a few in Slavic liturgical languages, and none in Latin even though there is some evidence that similar ceremonies were performed in the West. [Note: Boswell specifically adduces an Irish example as support for “performed in the West” but I have questions about whether that example--discussed below--is clearly part of the same liturgical tradition as opposed to a similar but distinct local tradition.]

With the shift to printing in the 17th century, these same-sex rituals were rarely included in new versions of existing liturgical collections. In some cases, when included, it was noted that their use was forbidden.

Over the course of the textual tradition, the ceremony evolved from a simple set of prayers to an elaborate ceremony that could include candles, the joining and binding of hands, covering the heads with a stole, prayer, communion, a kiss, and circling the altar together.

There is a discussion of the manuscript contexts and philosophical questions about the nature and purpose of the ceremony. There is a consideration of theories and arguments about what these ceremonies don’t represent.

Chapter 6: Comparison of Same-Sex and Heterosexual Ceremonies of Union

This chapter does a detailed “compare and contrast” of the structure and features of Christian male-female marriage ceremonies and the same-sex union ceremonies in these liturgical collections. Both include an appeal to “peace and love (agape)” that is taken from the language of “Apostolic peace.” Both can include the symbolism of crowning. This is a common marriage symbol in Eastern ceremonies for male-female couples and is also seen for pairs of saints and martyrs. Both sets of rituals can include a prayer over a common cup that the couple drink from. This was not originally related to the taking of communion.

The same-sex union litany can include:

  • An opening invocation similar to that for male-female marriage.
  • The two stand hand in hand at the altar (similar to m/f)
  • They are bound together using a stole or veil similar to m/f)
  • They are crowned (similar to m/f)
  • There is a feast after the ritual (similar to m/f)
  • They circle the altar together (similar to m/f)
  • They join right hands (similar to m/f)

Crowning was  originally part of the betrothal ceremony and was only shifted to the marriage ceremony later. It was less common in same-sex rites while the taking of communion together was less common in male-female rites.

A banquet was a common follower for all manner of formal ceremonies, though it was rarely mentioned specifically in the ritual for either type. (More often it is mentioned in descriptions of specific union ceremonies.)

After sharing the common cup, the priest leads the couple around the altar three times. This does not appear in the earliest rites but was common both types by the end of the Middle Ages.

Use of a symbolic cross and ring are common in male-female ceremonies but not for same-sex ones. More rare in both (and with uncertain purpose) was the presence of an unsheathed sword.

A key element in both types of ceremony was the joining of right hands, which derives from pre-Christian Roman practice. By the Middle Ages, the joining of right hands has become the primary iconic symbol of the act of marriage and appears frequently in both sacred and secular art.

Same-sex rituals do not mention rings and do not include a ritual expression of consent, but this is not common in male-female rituals either until the 12th century.

The Biblical passages specified to be read during the ceremony are different for the two types of rituals, although there is some overlap.

Systematic studies of medieval heterosexual marriage ceremonies have identified two recurring symbols, not all of which are necessarily present. Some relate specifically to dowry/bride-price and thus would not be expected to be included in a same-sex ceremony. Those elements that are regularly present in both are: joining hands, joining with the veil/stole, a kiss, a feast.

Contents summary: 

Chapter 7: The History of Same-Sex Unions in Medieval Europe

The history of actual performance of same-sex unions is harder to trace than the textual history of the liturgies and the visual history of depictions of same-sex couples. Question: to what extent are same-sex union ceremonies a carryover of pagan unions (e.g., Roman fraternal adoption) versus a new (and perhaps specifically Christian?) concept?

There are legal discussion of restraint on adoptive brotherhood that assigned mutual property rights when there was a wife and/or child involved (who would otherwise be the primary heir). References to adoptive brotherhood imply that it was created by a written contract.There are regular Byzantine references to same-sex partners (adelphopoietos) of prominent men. (Detailed discussion of examples of known same-sex pairs.)

When there are prohibitions on specific types of same-sex pairs or for particular types of men to engage in same-sex bonds, these are similar to the context in which male-female bonds are forbidden, e.g., for monks or unions between clergy and lay people. Same-sex unions might also be prohibited between persons within the same degree of relationship that would bar male-female marriage.

There is a discussion of penances for specific types of sexual behavior, including same-sex practices (finally including some more female examples). The context is that same-sex acts are not specially singled out for prohibition.

Various Slavic historical accounts mention male-male unions (sometimes in contexts where the participants were also in male-female marriages), treating them as ordinary practice. These unions regularly assume emotional closeness as a motivating factor.

Examples are presented of some surviving contracts of brotherhood from Western Europe dating to the 8-12th centuries. There is also a description of an Irish ritual (mentioned previously) recorded by Gerald of Wales that he specifically compares to marriage, though in a derogatory fashion. It involves some features similar to the Eastern ceremonies but also includes blood-sharing which isn’t a feature of the liturgical unions. [Note: This is the case I mentioned above where I feel there is insufficient evidence to conclude a continuous unified tradition, as opposed to an independent and specifically Irish tradition that possibly borrowed some elements from marriage ceremonies.]

Chapter 8: Subsequent Developments

From the 14th century on, Europe was preoccupied with a negative view of homosexuality as the worst imaginable sin. Same-sex union rites disappeared during this period where this feeling predominated. In some cases, there is evidence that the texts for same-sex rites were physically removed form existing codexes. There continue to be references to same-sex union rites in the 16-17th century that include an expectation that they were sexual in nature.

But beside this, there are also examples where same-sex union ceremonies were viewed (at least by the local culture) as positive. Examples are given from Dalmatia of a living tradition of “sworn brotherhood or sisterhood”, including a specific eyewitness account of two young women celebrating their union in church in the early 17th century. In Eastern liturgical collections, there continue to be references to same-sex unions being compared to marriage. And in Ottoman-dominated areas in the 16-17th century, there are references to the complications of same-sex unions across religious lines, similar to concerns over marriages across religious lines.

Boswell provides a number of more modern and/or anthropological examples of same-sex unions, all male-male. In general these unions are not viewed as primarily erotic, but are recognized as having erotic potential. He asserts that “artificial sibling relationships occur less commonly between females” without questioning whether this is an accurate demographic observation or simply an imbalance in the documentary evidence. There is a discussion of popular/folk understandings of “blood brothers” and how both the reality and the mythology differ from formal same-sex unions. He speculates on the possibility that the Albanian tradition of cross-gender “sworn virgins” might be relatable to same-sex unions, but provides no evidence.


The epilogue lays out the basic facts of the same-sex union ceremonies.


The appendices provide translations and in some cases the original texts of same-sex union ceremonies, alongside some of the male-female ceremonies from the same documents for comparison. Several other topics are present in appendices: Jewish perspectives, a list of relevant manuscripts, the Life of Saints Serge and Bacchus.