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LHMP #279d 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 5 & 6

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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.


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