Sunday, November 02, 2008
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
Our book today is Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, John Boswell's immensely researched and groundbreaking 1980 study of, as his subtitle says, "Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century." Boswell gained his greatest amount of fame (he died on Christmas Eve, 1994, from AIDS) for his 1994 book The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe, in which he indulges in some dodgy textual analysis to suggest that the Catholic Church not only tolerated homosexuality but even in some cases officially recognized it. The book was born of deep-seated anger and frustration, and it duly caused those same emotions in Boswell's many friends, colleagues, and readers - mainly because it was overreaching in exactly the way our book today is not.
Instead, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is a hugely authoritative, widely read, and persuasively argued bombshell, a loud and unswerving assertion that for most of its history, the Christian church simply didn't consider homosexuality that big a deal. Threading its way through Boswell's book (which is lucidly written but not exactly easy going for the layman, since much of its original sourcework is untranslated - Boswell was a whiz with languages - and footnotes positively abound) is the implicit assumption that one of the many classical legacies the Christian era absorbed was the comparatively laid back attitude the classical world took toward most aspects of homosexuality. In most classical societies, no furor was raised over men paying romantic and erotic attention to teenage boys - it was seen as a natural part of the socialization of those boys, since it was usually assumed that the men would be teaching the boys things while they were together (oh calm down Beepy - I mean social, cultural, and literary things) (and there was, traditionally, something emasculating seen in a man romantically besotted with a woman), provided it didn't get taken too far - the men were still expected to marry women and produce male heirs, and it was seen as a weird and dangerous subversion of the norm for the man to be the submissive member of the pair (taking it up the ass, once you're a full-grown tax-paying adult, in other words, was seen as weird).
Boswell is on largely comfortable ground while he's dealing with classical and even late classical antiquity. It's only when he gets to the Middle Ages that he starts to encounter more formalized language in his sources, and it's here he starts needing to organize himself for the massive, systemic persecutions he knows are coming:
It can hardly be maintained that the relatively indulgent attitude adopted by prominent churchmen of the early Middle Ages toward homosexual behavior was due to ignorance of it. It is in the first place not ignored but treated lightly. In the second place, there is evidence of gay sexuality throughout the period, despite the disappearance of a subculture. The barbarians themselves were not necessarily strangers to gay sexuality. Aristotle observed that the Celts publicly honored homosexual relations, Strabo that they considered it a dishonor to decline a homosexual liaison, and Diodorus Siculus that they were "absolutely addicted to homosexual intercourse." Similar observations were made about other groups.
And something of the scope of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality can be seen in the broad extent of the sources Boswell cites. All throughout his book, he deals not only with Christian attitudes toward homosexuality but Islamic ones as well:
Homosexual love imagery was a standard currency of Islamic mystical writings both in and out of Spain. Many of the authors of gay erotic poetry on the Iberian peninsula were teachers of the Qur'an, religious leaders, or judges; almost all wrote conventional religious verse as well as love poetry.
And of course Amis and Amiloun gets a workout - Boswell accurately reports that the abiding love of its title characters was celebrated, not condemned, throughout the Christian world. Boswell's biggest weakness, unfortunately, was an ongoing almost willful misunderstanding of what allegory is and is not, how people indulge in it and how they don't (his was the least allegorical mind imaginable), and as he himself elsewhere was fond of pointing out, there are none so blind as them that will not see ... but then, readers of this book (and despite its formidable textual apparatus, you are all urged to read it) shouldn't be coming to it for sensitive aesthetic interpretations of the works it considers, but rather the sociological stunners Boswell derives from them:
As if from nowhere, love in a thousand guises invaded the landscapes, townships, and monasteries of in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, and its warmth revived from long hibernation the fiery passions of ancient Europe. It transformed the ascetic spirituality of the desert fathers into the passionate mysticism of Saint Bernard, breached the barriers of Basil's isolated monastic cells with the tender friendships of Saint Anselm and Aelred, dissolved patristic theology of purely functional sexual relations into the Christian romance that seemed to sweep all before it in the High Middle Ages.
It's a slightly idealized painting of what was going on during the so-called "renaissance of the twelfth century," but by the time readers get that far, they'll be very nearly convinced. The only point where Boswell falters, the only place where he shows the germ of the overreaching that will get him into so much trouble in his more famous book, comes when he attempts to dice logic with none other than Saint Thomas Aquinas. As some of you may know - and as generations of students have learned to their dismay - this simply can't be done (or at least the logician who can do it hasn't been born yet - maybe when we make first contact with the Vulcans ...). When Boswell tries it, he's reduced to intentionally misconstruing context and very nearly misreading the Latin:
In the end, Aquinas admits more or less frankly that his characterization of homosexual acts as "unnatural" is a concession to popular sentiment and parlance. Since theologically sins are necessarily "unnatural," it is simply redundant to argue that homosexuality is sinful because it is "unnatural"; homosexual acts would have to be shown to be sinful apart from their "unnaturalness" to be immoral from a theological point of view; but Aquinas could bring to bear no argument against homosexual behavior which would make it more serious than overeating an admitted, moreover, that homosexual desire was the result of a "natural" condition, which would logically have made behavior resulting from it not only inculpable but "good."
A disquisition on Aquinas and the "natural" would consume the resources of the entire Internet, but suffice it to say, Boswell is in this passage on very weak ground. Aquinas condemns homosexuality not because it's what the gals on The View are doing but because as far as his education was concerned, the Bible condemns homosexuality. Fortunately, Boswell regains his lost ground almost immediately, with a spirited discussion of the history of mis-translation of key Biblical and classical terms relating to homosexuality ... a discussion that'll leave you wondering just how much the late Medieval church understood about what it was increasingly condemning.
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality is an important little revolution of a book, one man's passionate attempt to shake some sense into the religion he himself professed (Boswell was, despite many and lengthy attempts by friends of his during his days as a used bookstore-trolling Harvard student to talk him out of it, a convert to Catholicism), to say to that church and the big intolerant world of which it was a microcosm, "I myself am homosexual, and I will use the brain God gave me - and the texts on which your beliefs are based - to prove categorically that this is no evil thing."
Boswell's later work evoked a great deal of pointed textual criticism of the type he would have loved, which only adds to the sadness of his death. But if any part of his subject interests you, do what he would have done: find your nearest gay and lesbian bookstore and search its shelves for treasures. This book is one of them.