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Boswell's Theory of When it Changed

Thursday, December 26, 2019 - 09:00

There are two basic parts to Boswell's book on homosexuality and tolerance: 1) that Christian society was not always and inevitable intolerant of homosexuality; and 2) that the shift to intolerance can be localized to a particular historic period and related to other significant cultural and political shifts during that period. Perhaps the present day is an opportunity for understanding just how a conjunction of unrelated forces can combine to create apparently illogical shifts in popular thinking. Or at least apparent shifts in popular thinking. How, in the space of only a few decades, could a culture shift from an apparent trend towards embracing diversity, plurality, and not just tolerance but understanding and acceptance, to an apparent reversal of all those things? And not just in terms of sexuality and gender, but with respect to ethnicity, religion, immigration status, and so on?

Two factors come to my mind (and this is not a product of deep long-term thought, but just passing thoughts as I write up this introduction on the spur of the moment). The first is that the superficial trends that we identify as "popular culture" as often a matter of whose voices are being heard and promoted. Who feels comfortable talking about their attitudes and acting on them? It doesn't necessarily take any significant shift in the opinions of individual people for the public performance of those opinions to change drastically. If, in the 13th century, there were changes in who felt authorized to have opinions on homosexuality, and whose opinions were promulgated and elevated by the church and state authorities, then the long-term effects needn't require a sea change on an individual level, only a passive assumption that those "thought leaders" must be valid because they were the ones whose opinions you were now encountering everywhere.

The second factor that comes to my mind is the age-old question of cui bono? Who benefits from such a shift from tolerance to intolerance? In the contemporary political climate, the answer to that is far from obvious. And those who are truly benefitting are deeply invested in making sure their interests are kept hidden. Under Boswell's theory of a critical shift in tolerance, not only regarding sexuality, but regarding religious plurality and other social diversities, it seems like a key to understanding the when and why would be to examine those questions of who benefitted from the rise of more narrow and rigid controls on individual behavior. But as in the current day, such questions are complicated and the indviduals whose actions created the shift may themselves not have been consciously aware of the forces at work.

Touching back to the always-present question of how such things relate to the writing of queer historical fiction, we can ask how shifts in tolerance would have been experienced and understood by the queer people living through them. Would the change have been gradual enough to be imperceptible during an individual life? Some of Boswell's biographic examples are of men who appear to have enjoyed intense intimate same-sex relationships freely during their own lifetimes, but whose lives were later revised to be held up for condemnation. Or might someone spend part of their life considering a same-sex relationship to be a joyous and positive force, only to see the world shift around them and feel that joy slip away? What might be the experience of a man in the church hierarchy who was part of that earlier world of homosocial and homoerotic bonds who finds himself pressured to support philosophical changes that condemn what he felt in his heart to be pure and good? Does he resist? Does he fall to self-doubt? Does he turn to a type of closeting? (I'm using male pronouns here despite my blog's focus on women because the experiences and lives that Boswell explores are male and women would experience the before and after in entirely different ways.)

While I grumble about Boswell's blythe indifference to how his study really speaks only to male lives, the underlying philosophical questions can be generalized, even if the specifics of experience may not. How does the public performance of tolerance or intolerance toward women's same-sex relationships relate to individual experience? Can we untangle the difference between whose voices are heard in the public (and historic) record, as opposed to what the everyday experiences of individual people were? When we see shifts in that public record, do they reflect actual changes in popular (and individual) opinion or do they reflect the strategic needs and goals of the Powers That Be (which aren't always the nominal civic and religious powers)?

If Boswell's work sometimes feels flawed due to his emotional goals (i.e., "proving" that Christianity need not be hostile to homosexuality), we should acknowledge that we, as writers of historical fiction, have similarly skewed emotional goals. We similarly want to take the basic observable facts and documents of the past and understand them in a way that allows us to create an emotional truth that we can feel at home in. This is, perhaps, more forgivable in a novelist than a historian, but it has been historians who were driven by the emotional goal of a "usable history" that have brought many of htose observable facts and documents to light in a way that give us the necessary understanding and access for making our own histories.

Major category: 
Full citation: 

Boswell, John. 1980. 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, Chicago. ISBN 0-226-06711-4

Part IV: The Rise of Intolerance

Part IV: The Rise of Intolerance

Chapter 10: Social Change

The fanaticism and intolerance popularly associated with the “medieval” period date primarily to the later middle ages. Prior to the 13th century, social and religious tolerance were more typical. In the 13-14th century this changed, though historians are unclear on the exact reasons. Among the forces that are considered relevant: the rise in absolute government, both secular and clerical, and movements to reform, regularize and enforce power systems.

Laws sought to enforce conformity and consolidation, which inherently marginalized minorities of all types. The Crusades both reflect and intensified these trends. Anti-Jewish and anti-Muslim activity was prominent as well as persecution of non-conforming Christian religious movements under the label of heresy.

Increasing intolerance of sodomy accompanied the narrowing of what that term covered, from all non-procreative sex to specifically implying anal sex between men. And sodomy became associated in the popular mind with “infidels” and heretics. Law codes increasingly included severe and violent penalties for sodomy (castration, death) though it’s unclear how consistently they were enforced.

In the wake of this, sodomy became a useful charge against political opponents, whether individuals (e.g., King Edward II) or groups (e.g., the Templars).

Chapter 11: Intellectual Change

This chapter looks at the evolution of various theological arguments against homosexuality. Arguments from myths (or in rare cases, reality) about animal behavior spread with the popularity of bestiaries (picture books about animals). This was part of the general flowering of learning, especially from Arabic sources, in the 12-13th centuries. There were inherent contradictions between these texts that identified certain animals as “naturally” engaging in homosexual behavior, and texts that claimed that homosexuality was unnatural specifically because animals never engaged in it.

Arguments about “nature” and “natural” appeared in many philosophical works, but the image of Nature (personified) was bent to the author’s preconceived goals and rarely formed a coherent concept. In the realm of gender and sexuality, Nature was always used to support heteroseuxality and traditional binary gender roles. These texts glossed over the implication that arguing morality from Nature suggested that morality arose from the majority opinion (e.g., most animals do X, therefore X is moral). Philosophical/theological texts alternated between condemning homosexuality because it was an unnatural sin, because it was a contagious disease, because it was natural only to (by definition) unclean beasts, or that it was natural but undesirable because it hindered procreation.

All these arguments can be seen at work in the Summa Theologia of Thomas Aquinas, which stood as a foundation of Christian theology thereafter. Boswell attributes much of the shift to anti-gay attitudes in ecclesiastical literature to the prominence of Aquinas just at the time when the church was moving to enforce orthodoxy. He makes comparisons to other practices where are even more strongly condemned in early church literature (such as usury) that did not attract the same lasting animosity in the later middle ages.

This chronology should not be interpreted as learned theology causing anti-gay prejudice, rather that it reflected and then enshrined existing prejudice into established tradition with legal and moral force.

Chapter 12: Conclusions

The final chapter provides a summary of the evolution of thought and the data that supports it. Early Christian literature was fairly silent on homosexuality, and anti-gay sentiments at that time were typically unrelated to religion. Hostility to homosexuality became noticeable with the shift in power from urban to rural elites. This hostility was later incorporated into Christian thought which in turn was used to justify prejudice and persecution of gay people. Gay people (at least, the male ones) were prominent and influential in medieval society, but the lack of a stable cultural transmission for pro-gay attitudes left them at the mercy of popular opinion when that opinion turned as part of a general increase in intolerance in the 12-13th century.


Appendix 1 is a deep dive into the texts of Saint Paul and their interpretation.

Appendix 2 provides translations (and sometimes the original language) for a variety of the texts used as examples in the book, with copious notes on meaning and context.