Boswell, John: 'Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality'
"Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality:
Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century"
University Of Chicago Press (reprint, first edition: 1980)
This will likely be the most important book on homosexuality published this year. John Boswell’s long-awaited survey of attitudes toward homosexuality during the first thirteen centuries of Christianity furnishes the evidence to support his claim, made to gay groups across the country for several years, that the severe moral condemnation we experience today dates only from about the 13th century. But Boswell does more than merely point out that attitudes have changed; he convincingly demonstrates that many arguments Christians have used to support their homophobic views are based on mistranslations and misinterpretations of their own Scriptures. All future writers on the subject must take into consideration this pioneering historical work on social attitudes toward gay sexuality.
The book is in four sections. The first, “Points of Departure,” not only sets the stage historically, with a discussion of the widespread acceptance of gay sexuality in Greece and Rome, but also sets out the problems of studying social history. In particular, Boswell’s decision to use the modern term “gay” in a discussion of an earlier period will probably set the pattern for future writers; but his rejection of “homophobia,” on semantic grounds, will probably have no more effect than similar arguments have had against the use of “homosexual.” (His statement that the now-nearly forgotten term “Urning” was “popular among gay male writers” in the early 19th century is a rare slip; it was coined by Karl Heinrich Ulrichs in the 1860s.)
“The Christian Tradition” discusses scriptural passages dealing with homosexuality and the role of Christians in the Roman Empire. Boswell concludes: “Not only does there appear to have been no general prejudice against gay people among early Christians; there does not seem to have been any reason for Christianity to adopt a hostile attitude toward homosexual behavior.” But if prejudice was not general, there were individual Church Fathers who severely condemned homosexuality, and it was their opinion that eventually became the official justification for the oppression of gay people.
“Shifting Fortunes” includes the early Middle Ages and the urban revival, which led to a flowering of gay literature in the period 1050–1150, a century that saw tolerance of gay people in the highest places of Church and State. Here, and in an appendix, Boswell gives charming excerpts from the poetry of the period (some of it published for the first time).
The following two centuries, discussed in “The Rise of Intolerance,” saw a continual increase of hostility toward homosexuality, culminating in the argument against its “naturalness” by the philosopher-theologian Thomas Aquinas, whose writings became the touchstone of orthodoxy for the centuries to follow.
Throughout the book Boswell is careful to point out that the reasons people gave to justify their hostility to gay people were usually not its cause. He is particularly effective in the case of the usually logical Aquinas: “It is difficult to see how Aquinas’s attitudes toward homosexual behavior could even be made consonant with his general moral principles, much less understood as the outgrowth of them.” Just what the reasons were for the rise in hostility to gay people is not clear. Only in the case of Aquinas docs Boswell mention the possibility of a dialectic in which the justification becomes, in turn, a cause: “The positions of Aquinas and other high medieval theologians regarding homosexuality appear to have been a response more to the pressures of popular antipathy than to the weight of the Christian tradition; but this is not to suggest that the Summa itself did not affect subsequent attitudes.”
In exploring the “social topography of medieval Europe” Boswell modestly contents himself with “the belief that he has at least posted landmarks where there were none before and opened trails on which others will reach destinations far beyond his own furthest advance.” He has surely done both of these; seldom has previously unexplored territory been so thoroughly posted all at once, and Boswell demonstrates that he has the historical skill and, above all, the linguistic ability to do it. He displays a mastery of Arabic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin never before seen in a study of homosexuality, and he proves how necessary this is. For example, in an appendix treating “Lexicography and Saint Paul” he leaves no doubt that the ambiguous term “arsenokoitai” cannot have referred to gay people, although all English versions of the Bible (the word occurs in I Cor. 6:9 and I Tim. 1:10) cite homosexual behavior.
Linguistic considerations have, for the most part, been kept in footnotes and appendices. The general reader will appreciate the book without them. The scholarly apparatus is there, however, and forms an invaluable part of the book. Future scholars will, no doubt, reach “destinations beyond his furthest advance,” and they will as surely have to thank Boswell for “posting the landmarks.” Such a rational discussion can only lead to a greater understanding and therefore acceptance of gay people, and for that reason the book is doubly welcome.