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Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

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by John Boswell

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"Truly groundbreaking work. Boswell reveals unexplored phenomena with an unfailing erudition."—Michel Foucault

John Boswell's National Book Award-winning study of the history of attitudes toward homosexuality in the early Christian West was a groundbreaking work that challenged preconceptions about the Church's past relationship to its gay members—


"Truly groundbreaking work. Boswell reveals unexplored phenomena with an unfailing erudition."—Michel Foucault

John Boswell's National Book Award-winning study of the history of attitudes toward homosexuality in the early Christian West was a groundbreaking work that challenged preconceptions about the Church's past relationship to its gay members—among them priests, bishops, and even saints—when it was first published twenty-five years ago. The historical breadth of Boswell's research (from the Greeks to Aquinas) and the variety of sources consulted make this one of the most extensive treatments of any single aspect of Western social history. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, still fiercely relevant today, helped form the disciplines of gay and gender studies, and it continues to illuminate the origins and operations of intolerance as a social force.

Editorial Reviews

Gay & Lesbian Review

“One day, when all churches accept the presence and achievements of gay people with approbation instead of denial or disapproval, Boswell will in no small way be responsible.”
Michel Foucault

 “Truly groundbreaking work. Boswell reveals unexplored phenomena with an unfailing erudition.”
New York Times Book Review

“I would not hesitate to call his book revolutionary for it tells of things heretofore unimagined and sets a standard of excellence that one would have thought impossible in the treatment of an issue so large, uncharted and vexed. . . . Boswell has mastered one of the rarest skills: the ability to write about sex with genuine wit. Improbably as it might seem, this work of unrelenting scholarship and high intellectual drama is also thoroughly entertaining.”

"What makes this work so exciting is not simply its content—fascinating though that is—but its revolutionary challenge to some of Western culture's most familiar moral assumptions."

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Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

By John Boswell

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-34536-9



"All those whose lives are spent searching for truth are well aware that the glimpses they catch of it are necessarily fleeting, glittering for an instant only to make way for new and still more dazzling insights. The scholar's work, in marked contrast to that of the artist, is inevitably provisional. He knows this and rejoices in it, for the rapid obsolescence of his books is the very proof of the progress of scholarship."

Between the beginning of the Christian Era and the end of the Middle Ages, European attitudes toward a number of minorities underwent profound transformations. Many groups of people passed from constituting undistinguished parts of the mainstream of society to comprising segregated, despised, and sometimes severely oppressed fringe groups. Indeed the Middle Ages are often imagined to have been a time of almost universal intolerance of nonconformity, and the adjective "medieval" is not infrequently used as a synonym for "narrow-minded," "oppressive," or "intolerant" in the context of behavior or attitudes. It is not, however, accurate or useful to picture medieval Europe and its institutions as singularly and characteristically intolerant. Many other periods have been equally if not more prone to social intolerance: most European minorities fared worse during the "Renaissance" than during the "Dark Ages," and no other century has witnessed anti-Semitism of such destructive virulence as that of the twentieth. Moreover, treating these two subjects — intolerance and medieval Europe — as if each were in some sense a historical explanation of the other almost wholly precludes understanding of either one. The social history of medieval Europe and, perhaps even more, the historical origins and operations of intolerance as a social phenomenon require far subtler analysis.

This study is offered as a contribution to better understanding of both the social history of Europe in the Middle Ages and intolerance as a historical force, in the form of an investigation of their interaction in a single case. It would obviously be foolhardy to attempt any broader approach to the first; it may be slightly less obvious why there is no general treatment of the second in the study which follows.

In the first place, it would be extremely difficult to define the boundaries of such a general study. Although intolerance has weighed heavily on the conscience of the twentieth century, so little is known about its nature, extent, origins, and effects in a historical context that merely delineating the outlines and proportions of the problem would require a study of considerably greater length than the present one. The writer would need not only to be familiar with the techniques and findings of a host of specialized fields — anthropology, psychology, sociology, etc. — but also to have some means of adjudicating the validity of their competing claims and assessing their relative importance. Arbitrarily pursuing some and excluding others would be perilous in so understudied a field.

Moreover, even if the problem could be defined, it would not be possible to write about a subject as comprehensive and far-reaching as intolerance with the degree of historical detail provided in this study except in a work of encyclopedic proportions. From the historian's point of view, however, general theories are of little value unless rooted in and supported by specific studies of particular cases, and since there are so few of these at present to substantiate ideas regarding intolerance, it has seemed more useful to provide data for eventual synthetic analysis by others than to embark prematurely on the analysis itself. This appoach has the egregious disadvantage of producing, in effect, an elaborate description of a single piece of an unassembled puzzle, but given the extreme difficulty of even identifying, much less assembling, all the other pieces, it appears to be the most constructive effort possible at present. It has, moreover, the compensating advantage of allowing the data assembled to be employed within any larger theoretical framework, historical or scientific, current or subsequent, since there is little built-in theoretical bias.

Of the various groups which became the objects of intolerance in Europe during the Middle Ages, gay people are the most useful for this study for a number of reasons. Some of these are relatively obvious. Unlike Jews and Muslims, they were dispersed throughout the general population everywhere in Europe; they constituted a substantial minority in every age — rather than in a few periods, like heretics or witches — but they were never (unlike the poor, for instance) more than a minority of the population. Intolerance of gay people cannot for the most part be confused with medical treatment, as in the case of lepers or the insane, or with protective surveillance, as in the case of the deaf or, in some societies, women. Moreover, hostility to gay people provides singularly revealing examples of the confusion of religious beliefs with popular prejudice. Apprehension of this confusion is fundamental to understanding many kinds of intolerance, but it is not usually possible until either the prejudice or the religious beliefs have become so attenuated that it is difficult to imagine there was ever any integral connection between them. As long as the religious beliefs which support a particular prejudice are generally held by a population, it is virtually impossible to separate the two; once the beliefs are abandoned, the separation may be so complete that the original connection becomes all but incomprehensible. For example, it is now as much an article of faith in most European countries that Jews should not be oppressed because of their religious beliefs as it was in the fourteenth century that they should be; what seemed to many Christians of premodern Europe a cardinal religious duty — the conversion of Jews — would seem to most adherents of the same religious tradition today an unconscionable invasion of the privacy of their countrymen. The intermingling of religious principles and prejudice against the Jews in the fourteenth century was so thorough that very few Christians could distinguish them at all; in the twentieth century the separation effected on the issue has become so pronounced that most modern Christians question the sincerity of medieval oppression based on religious conviction. Only during a period in which the confusion of religion and bigotry persisted but was not ubiquitous or unchallenged would it be easy to analyze the organic relation of the two in a convincing and accessible way.

The modern West appears to be injust such a period of transition regarding various groups distinguished sexually, and gay people provide a particularly useful focus for the study of the history of such attitudes. Since they are still the objects of severe proscriptive legislation, widespread public hostility, and various civil restraints, all with ostensibly religious justification, it is far easier to elucidate the confusion of religion and intolerance in their case than in that of blacks, moneylenders, Jews, divorced persons, or others whose status in society has so completely ceased to be associated with religious conviction that the correlation — even if demonstrated at length — now seems limited, tenuous, or accidental.

Much of the present volume, on the other hand, is specifically intended to rebut the common idea that religious belief — Christian or other — has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people. Religious beliefs may cloak or incorporate intolerance, especially among adherents of revealed religions which specifically reject rationality as an ultimate criterion of judgment or tolerance as a major goal in human relations. But careful analysis can almost always differentiate between conscientious application of religious ethics and the use of religious precepts as justification for personal animosity or prejudice. If religious strictures are used to justify oppression by people who regularly disregard precepts of equal gravity from the same moral code, or if prohibitions which restrain a disliked minority are upheld in their most literal sense as absolutely inviolable while comparable precepts affecting the majority are relaxed or reinterpreted, one must suspect something other than religious belief as the motivating cause of the oppression.

In the particular case at issue, the belief that the hostility of the Christian Scriptures to homosexuality caused Western society to turn against it should not require any elaborate refutation. The very same books which are thought to condemn homosexual acts condemn hypocrisy in the most strident terms, and on greater authority: and yet Western society did not create any social taboos against hypocrisy, did not claim that hypocrites were "unnatural," did not segregate them into an oppressed minority, did not enact laws punishing their sin with castration or death. No Christian state, in fact, has passed laws against hypocrisy per se, despite its continual and explicit condemnation by Jesus and the church. In the very same list which has been claimed to exclude from the kingdom of heaven those guilty of homosexual practices, the greedy are also excluded. And yet no medieval states burned the greedy at the stake. Obviously some factors beyond biblical precedent were at work in late medieval states which licensed prostitutes but burned gay people: by any objective standard, there is far more objurgation of prostitution in the New Testament than of homosexuality. Biblical strictures have been employed with great selectivity by all Christian states, and in a historical context what determines the selection is clearly the crucial issue.

Another advantage in employing gay people as the focus of this study is the continued vitality of ideas about the "danger" they pose to society. Almost all prejudice purports to be a rational response to some threat or danger: every despised group is claimed to threaten those who despise it; but it is usually easy to show that even if some danger exists, it is not the origin of the prejudice. The "threat" posed by most groups previously oppressed by Christian society (e.g., "witches," moneylenders), however, now seems so illusory that it is difficult for modern readers to imagine that intelligent people of the past could actually have been troubled by such anxieties. In fact one is apt to dismiss such imagined dangers out of hand as willful misrepresentations flagrantly employed to justify oppression. Not only is this untrue; it obscures the more important realities of the relationship between intolerance and fear.

No such skepticism obscures this relationship in the case of gay people. The belief that they constitute some sort of threat is still so widespread that an assumption to the contrary may appear partisan in some circles, and those who subscribe to the notion that gay people are in some way dangerous may argue that for this very reason they are not typical victims of intolerance.

It should be noted that whether a group actually threatens society or not is not directly relevant to the issue of intolerance unless the hostility the group experiences can be shown to stem from a rational apprehension of that threat. Traveling gypsies may actually have been at some point a hazard to isolated communities if they carried infections and diseases to which local residents had no immunity, but it would be injudicious to assume that it was this threat which resulted in antipathy toward them, particularly when it can be shown that such hostility antedates by centuries any realization of the communicability of most infections and when the content of antigypsy rhetoric bears no relation to disease at all.

The claims about the precise nature of the threat posed by gay people have varied extravagantly over time, sometimes contradicting each other directly and almost invariably entailing striking internal inconsistencies. Many of these are considered in detail below, but it may be worth alluding here to two of the most persistent.

The first is the ancient claim that societies tolerating or approving homosexual behavior do so to their own manifest detriment, since if all their members engaged in such behavior, these societies would die out. This argument assumes — curiously — that all humans would become exclusively homosexual if given the chance. There seems to be no reason to make such an assumption: a great deal of evidence contradicts it. It is possible that the abandonment of social sanctions against homosexuality occasions some increase in overt homosexual behavior, even among persons who would not otherwise try it; it is even conceivable (though not at all certain) that more people will adopt exclusively homosexual life-styles in societies with tolerant attitudes. But the fact that a characteristic increases does not demonstrate its danger to the society; many characteristics which, if adopted universally, would presumably redound to the disadvantage of society (e.g., voluntary celibacy, self-sacrifice) may nonetheless increase over periods of time without causing harm and are often highly valued by a culture precisely because of their statistical rarity. To assume that any characteristic which increases under favorable conditions will in the course of time eliminate all competing characteristics is bad biology and bad history. No current scientific theories regarding the etiology of homosexuality suggest that social tolerance determines its incidence. Even purely biological theories uniformly assume that it would be a minority preference under any conditions, no matter how favorable.

Moreover, there is no compelling reason to assume that homosexual desire induces nonreproductivity in individuals or population groups. No evidence supports the common idea that homosexual and heterosexual behavior are incompatible; much data suggests the contrary. The fact that gay people (definitionally) prefer erotic contact with their own gender would imply a lower overall rate of reproductive success for them only if it could be shown that in human populations sexual desire is a major factor in such success. Intuition notwithstanding, this does not appear to be the case.

Only in societies like modern industrial nations which insist that erotic energy be focused exclusively on one's permanent legal spouse would most gay people be expected to marry and produce offspring less often than their nongay counterparts, and it appears that even in these cultures a significant proportion of gay people — possibly a majority — do marry and have children. In other societies (probably most literate premodern cultures), where procreation is separable from erotic commitment and rewarded by enhanced status or economic advantages (or is simply a common personal ambition), there would be no reason for gay people not to reproduce. With the exception of the clergy, most of the gay people discussed in the present study were married and had children. The persistence of the belief in the nonreproductivity of gay people must be ascribed to a tendency to notice and remember what is unusual about individuals rather than what is expected. Far fewer people are aware that Oscar Wilde was a husband and father than that he was gay and had a male lover. Socrates' relationship with Alcibiades attracts more attention than his relationship with his wife and children. The love of Edward II of England for his four children is scarcely mentioned in texts which dwell at length on his passion for Piers Gaveston. To a certain extent such emphasis is accurate: the persons in question obviously devoted the bulk (if not the entirety) of their erotic interest to persons of their own gender. But the fact remains that they married and had children, and fascination with their statistically less common characteristics should not give rise to fanciful explanations of these traits — or of popular hostility to them — which overlook or contradict the more ordinary aspects of their lives.


Excerpted from Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality by John Boswell. Copyright © 2015 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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Meet the Author

John Boswell (1947-94) was the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History at Yale University and the author of The Royal Treasure, The Kindness of Strangers, and Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.

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