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Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe [Hardcover]

John Boswell
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

1994
Both highly praised and intensely controversial, this brilliant book produces dramatic evidence that at one time the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches not only sanctioned unions between partners of the same sex, but sanctified them--in ceremonies strikingly similar to heterosexual marriage ceremonies.


From the Trade Paperback edition.


Product details

  • Hardcover: 412 pages
  • Publisher: Villard Books; 1 edition (1994)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679432280
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679432289
  • Product Dimensions: 23.4 x 15.5 x 3.8 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 496,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
By Vince
Format:Paperback
Boswell's 'Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe' is a fastidiously researched and thoroughly persuasive book highlighting the existence of homosexual unions (aka marriages) in medieval times, whilst remaining highly readable and accessible to those who can't be bothered wading through pages and pages of unintelligible dry text. He unearths some interesting facts during the course of the book - for instance the Roman Catholic church happily 'married' gay men before the thirteenth century - somewhat at odds with their take on such matters today! It does ignore lesbian relationships but not out of choice - there is simply next to nothing written on women in general around medieval times, such was their place in society! It really is an interesting book, and I found it to be invaluable whilst writing my dissertation on the debate on gay marriage. Highly recommended not just for research purposes, but also for general non-fiction reading.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great work! 9 Jan 2010
Format:Paperback
I'm really interested in History, although I have to admit that it's just a hobby. I'm not a professional in that matter. But medieval ages always have been the most interesting part of the History in my case, being the most important the relationship between Church and regular people. That was a very difficult period for people whose lifestyles were different from those expected by Christian laws. Of course, there where what modern writers call gay people, people who had to life sometimes hidden and some places killed, not as different as nowadays. This book, as well as former book of late John Boswell "Christianity, social tolerance, and Homosexuality", had give to me other vision of this matter, presenting a full information of same-sex marriages, documented and well tolerated, even in those Dark Ages. I highly recommend this book for those who want to know more about human relationship, no matter what.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not always opposites attract 29 Dec 2005
By Kurt Messick HALL OF FAME
Format:Paperback
Friends of mine who had been familiar with Boswell's first book, 'Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality', from its initial publication in 1980 waited impatiently for the follow-up volume. In the end, it took fourteen years to produce, and sadly, did not live up the expectations that had been given it.
Firstly, it did not in fact reveal (if such places exist, the not-always-so-hidden charge behind the disappointment) communities that had continued the practice of tolerance to same-sex couples through the last millenium within the structures of Christendom.
For part of the book he covers old ground, talking about the milieu of the Greco-Roman world, and talks about the development of the idea of marriage and liturgical practices for that. He then proceeds to give examples of liturgies which, Boswell claims, are proof that the church did recognise and bless same-sex unions. This claim is still debated, as there is no blantant 'I now pronounce you husband and husband (or wife and wife)' kinds of statements or liturgies here, but rather testimony to friendship, companionship, communal support, of a sort that is ambiguous.
While this book is important for liturgical forms and narrative discussion (although the narratives can be reinterpreted as something different from Boswell's), it failed to deliver the knock-out punch readers of the first book had been waiting for, i.e., conclusive proof the church was up to no good.
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2 of 4 people found the following review helpful
By Vince
Format:Hardcover
Boswell's 'Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe' is a fastidiously researched and thoroughly persuasive book highlighting the existence of homosexual unions (aka marriages) in medieval times, whilst remaining highly readable and accessible to those who can't be bothered wading through pages and pages of unintelligible dry text. He unearths some interesting facts during the course of the book - for instance the Roman Catholic church happily 'married' gay men before the thirteenth century - somewhat at odds with their take on such matters today! It does ignore lesbian relationships but not out of choice - there is simply next to nothing written on women in general around medieval times, such was their place in society! It really is an interesting book, and I found it to be invaluable whilst writing my dissertation on the debate on gay marriage. Highly recommended not just for research purposes, but also for general non-fiction reading.
Comment | 
Was this review helpful to you?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
Amazon.com: 4.1 out of 5 stars  35 reviews
86 of 96 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars People just don't want to consider that what they believe to be true might not be. 24 Aug 2008
By William Sommerwerck - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
In reviewing other reviews of this book, it's apparent that those approving of it / objecting to it are mostly people who approve of / object to same-sex marriage. Which tells us little about the book's veracity or validity.

There are no truly neutral observers, simply variations in the degree to which one is prejudiced toward or against a particular position. This book is so heavily footnoted and appendixed, and Boswell seems to be at such pains to clarify exactly what he is and is not claiming, and why, that it is hard to believe he is not being intellectually honest, despite the fact he had a vested interest in promoting same-sex marriage. In short, Boswell gives at least the illusion of objectivity. This is enhanced by the fact that he builds his argument over many chapters, showing the social context into which church-authorized same-sex unions fit, rather than presenting documentation on just the unions -- a point which most of his detractors conveniently overlook.

The bias -- and carelessness -- of some reviewers is blatant. Kevin Davis states "...Boswell argues that rituals for the binding of two males (in Eastern Christendom) between the 12th and 16th centuries is evidence of the support for same-sex marriages in earlier Christianity. This is yet another example of a scholar misinterpreting historical facts in order to serve an agenda."

Anyone who paid attention while reading this book knows that the preceding statement is mostly untrue. (For example, the rituals existed for over 1000 years, and were in use in other parts of Cristendom.) Boswell explicitly states, repeatedly, that these same-sex unions were not, as far as the ceremony itself went, marriage ceremonies (which is why the book has the title it does), and he repeatedly shows how they differ (though the difference is not huge). He does, however, draw a distinction between what is written in a ceremony, and how people perceive the ceremony, suggesting that "the populace" might have viewed the union as a marriage (though not necessarily with a sexual element).

"matt" states "I would suggest that we all need to be careful in reading into texts and history what would make us feel better about ourselves." Agreed. But what about reading text and history based on what we currently perceive as true or false, right or wrong? matt conveniently forgets that "the church" systematically persecuted homosexual men and women for a thousand years -- and he's surprised when some of them are happy to find a bit of history that indicates the church at one time supported (if probably only unintentionally) their affectional preferences?

Which brings us to the issue of the essentialist / constructivist argument. Throughout the book, Boswell (it seems to me) leans in the constructivist direction, by attempting to interpret everything in the context of how the people of the time would have seen or valued it. This is far from trying to force a "modern" homo / hetero perspective on the analysis, which many critics seem to accuse Boswell of doing. (They, of course, do the same thing, but from "the other side".)

Those disagreeing with Boswell do so primarily by grossly misreading him, by taking his arguments out of context, or out of simple prejudice. They don't want to believe his interpretation might be correct.

There is another set of "facts" not discussed (or even mentioned) in this book. One is that homosexual practice between consenting adult males (I'm deliberately omitting paederasty, the love of young men, violation of slaves & prisoners, etc) is not unheard-of historically (qv, the pagan Celts). A berdache was often married to a man of the tribe (see Ruth Benedict), who presumably enjoyed sodomizing another male.

I don't believe Boswell is guilty of stirring up a hornet's next by means of bad scholarship or specious reasoning. He doesn't seem to be indulging in either.

As (the non-gay) friendly Professor Peter Schickele likes to say... "Truth is truth. You can't have opinions about truth." Boswell's interpretation of the historical evidence is almost certainly correct.
43 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Read this NOW!! 30 Mar 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
After reading this fine book, I wished that there was some way I could thank Boswell for such a revelation. Knowing that this would be impossible since he passed away, there is no way to thank him, but simply to praise his work, and tell other people about it. This study in same-sex unions performed throughout premodern European history debunks the notiont that marriage was only performed between a male and a female. The book presents astounding facts and information that has been suppressed, or misinterpreted by homophobe bias. In the appendices of the book, there are actual transcriptions of the same-sex marriage ceremonies used, in the vernacular, and translated by Boswell into English. This study was made all the more fascinating by the wealth of footnotes. When Boswell came across an ambiguous word that could mean many things in different languages, he includes that specific word written in its own language in the text. The appearance of these arcane languages in the text were beautiful, and one could call them "eye candy." There was writing from ancient Greece, some Slavic languages, and Hebrew. This novel is a major contribution to European history, and history in general, and being a college student and a future professional historian myself, I am glad to know that Boswell's presence graced the field of history, and has brought the craft of history to new heights.
28 of 37 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Worthy of consideration, but... 21 Nov 2005
By John P. Day - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The "but" is well expressed in the last two reviews here. The issue revolves around a specific translation question, and it's a debatable one.

Father Kurt's review comes closest to mine. It takes careful reading,and it has some significant problems, but it does present the issues fairly, and many of the objections made in recent reviews are addressed in the book's text. It may well be arguing a debatable proposition, but it is not "intellectual claptrap". Dr. Boswell makes a game effort to argue that his documents are speaking of something more significant than proerty transfers or normal "friendships". It's quite another thing as to whether he succeeds.

Evaluating this book as a historian, I fond myself at a loss for the lingustic skills to make much of a judgement on most of his texts. His argument, if he could maintsin the linguistic argument in the context in which the documents were produced, otherwise is well put. To repeat, it is not "claptrap".

However, there was one exception where I do have some ability to assess one of his documents: an excerpt in Latin from Giraldus Cambriensis' "History and Topography of Ireland".

Dr. Boswell lays out the Latin text, then gives his translation, and then explains his justification for translating it in the way it does. All of which is quite proper. I had a run at the Latin myself, and while, yes, using some standard definitons, you CAN translate it the way he does, it works equally well as a rite for the formal allaince of families or kinship groups. Since the social structure of Ireland at the time was based almost entirely on kinship groups, that's the way scholars of Irish history would translate it, rather than as a form of personal union between two people. Charitably, one might suppose that 12th century Ireland was not familiar ground for him judging from his other work, it wasn't), so while he seems to have misunderstood the context here, I wouldn't say that he got it wrong elsewhere. I did find a factual error in one of his footnotes (there is another modern translation of which he was apparently unaware), although it was the type of slip which happens fairly easily.

Simply for that reason I've given, I would not take this book as more than advancing an ingenious hypothesis, which remains at best unproven. Still, it is worthy of consideration...and as far as scholarly works go, it's pretty readable. That in itself is a virtue!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Same Sex Unions In Premodern Europe 2 Oct 2010
By RHH - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Solid historic research that is as fresh today as it was 16 years ago when it was published. Any one who wants to speak about Gay marriage either for or against should have to read this. Boswell was one of the premier historians of his generation before his untimely death. That there has been no one who has shown any realistic opposing view show how well his research was, though there has been additional research on newly found early Christian Gay marriage since then. Must read.
18 of 25 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Not always opposites attract 22 July 2003
By FrKurt Messick - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Friends of mine who had been familiar with Boswell's first book, 'Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality', from its initial publication in 1980 waited impatiently for the follow-up volume. In the end, it took fourteen years to produce, and sadly, did not live up the expectations that had been given it.
Firstly, it did not in fact reveal (if such places exist, the not-always-so-hidden charge behind the disappointment) communities that had continued the practice of tolerance to same-sex couples through the last millenium within the structures of Christendom.
For part of the book he covers old ground, talking about the milieu of the Greco-Roman world, and talks about the development of the idea of marriage and liturgical practices for that. He then proceeds to give examples of liturgies which, Boswell claims, are proof that the church did recognise and bless same-sex unions. This claim is still debated, as there is no blantant 'I now pronounce you husband and husband (or wife and wife)' kinds of statements or liturgies here, but rather testimony to friendship, companionship, communal support, of a sort that is ambiguous.
While this book is important for liturgical forms and narrative discussion (although the narratives can be reinterpreted as something different from Boswell's), it failed to deliver the knock-out punch readers of the first book had been waiting for, i.e., conclusive proof the church was up to no good. Boswell does make some points worthy of attention in the debate, such as, 'The extent of early Christian hostility to same-sex eroticism has been exaggerated by modern Christians, who tend to overlook comparable Christian strictures against divorce or other common aspects of modern life also condemned by the early church, while focusing their energy and moral outrage on this particular issue.'
Boswell is interesting but far from satisfying on either side of the debate. So, after providing us with some historical framework, we must move on to more explicitly theological discussions. Boswell's contribution is an important one, in that it shows that this has been an issue with varying degrees of acceptance and controversy throughout the life of the church, and the history of society in general. It does not, however, settle anything, or satisfy either side -- it is rather more grist for the mill for both sides. An important book, but not definitive by any means.
Unfortunately, Boswell died not long after the publication of this volume, and so further clarifications, or any unpublished research of sensitive nature, will not be forthcoming.
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