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Same-Sex Unions and Source Materials

Friday, January 3, 2020 - 08:00

Given that I'm posting this last installment on Boswell's Same-Sex Unions at the same time as I'm reading and writing up Foucault's History of Sexuality, I can't help but make some comparisons between the two presentations. In both cases, the authors are presenting a specific take on a field of historic study that is susceptible of widely varied interpretations. Boswell is a historian while Foucault is a philosopher, but both purport to be dealing with historic observations and practices in their analysis. Whatever one may think of Boswell's suggested conclusions, he backs them up with a vast array of primary documentation, often in the original languages as well as in translation. If you want to challenge his ideas, he provides you with the materials to start on your own analysis. Foucault barely cites his sources, rarely in a way that makes it easy to follow up on where his ideas are coming from. Both men (and I emphasize men) purport to be addressing general human experiences, but in fact are narrowly concerned with the experiences of men, and typically of men's experiences in contexts where women are irrelevant or are mere props to the male experience. Boswell acknowledges this and offers apologies. Foucault doesn't quite seem to realize that this might be a problem. On (re)reading these texts, it's easy to see why Boswell's work stirred up energetic discussion and strong reactions. It is less easy for me to see why people treat Foucault's work as ground-breaking and of vast importance to the field. Maybe this is because I'm solidly entrenched in a historian's view of the pursuit of "truth". Maybe isn't an irritated reaction to feeling that Foucault doesn't really seem to consider women to be a relevant part of the pursuit of "truth", either as active agents or as topics. That a masculine truth can be considered universal. Maybe I feel let down by the contrast in the shadow Foucault has cast across the history of sexualtiy and the apparent thinness of the substance. (Who knows, maybe volume 3 will be bursting with brilliant insights that will change my mind.)

Major category: 
Full citation: 

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

Chapter 7 & 8, Epilogue & Appendices

These next two chapters feel like a bit of a random grab-bag, where Boswell included any sort of formal same-sex bond that he could include evidence for. As evidence for the general cultural acceptance of formal same-sex bonds, it’s a useful resource. But there seems to be an implication of cultural continuity between all of the examples, and I’m less convinced of that based on the evidence presented.

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.