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LHMP #279c Boswell 1994 Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Full citation: 

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

Chapter 4

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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.


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