Skip to content Skip to navigation

John Boswell and the History of Intolerance

Monday, December 23, 2019 - 07:00

My discussion and criticism is mostly dispersed throughout the summaries for this work. Posting in haste because I have a podcast to record.

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 I Points of Departure

Part I Points of Departure

This summary will not be extremely detailed, and it will be highly subjective. I devoured this book completely back when it first came out...uh...nearly 40 years ago. I’ll cover the high points of Boswell’s overall thesis, plus anything specifically relevant to women (which isn’t all that much, one of the general beefs with his work as a general history of homosexuality). I also won’t try to segregate my summary from my commentary. If you want to understand the details of his evidence and arguments, there’s no substitute for simply reading the book for yourself.

Regarding the scantiness of the female-related material, he notes that his sources were primarily written by men about men. He has made an effort to correlate the findings of his male data to women’s experience, but asserts that he couldn’t offset the disproportion “without deliberate distortion.” The idea that it is “distortion” to try to adjust for the historic erasure of women from the documentary record is one of the reasons why I tend to find general works on sexuality written by men to be relatively useless. The blythe assumption that one can extrapolate from male experiences to female ones is another pitfall of this type of work.

Note: Boswell regularly uses “gay” to discuss same-sex erotic concepts and people in the past very deliberately and with awareness of it anachronistic nature. I’ve retained this in my notes, but it’s one of the points that critics have challenged.

Chapter 1 Introduction

Between the beginning of the Christian era and the end of the Middle Ages, European attitudes toward many minorities changed profoundly. The term “medieval” is considered equivalent to “intolerant” in the popular imagination, but that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. This study intends to provide a better understanding of the social history of (in)tolerance in the European middle ages, specifically relating to homosexuality. (And, de facto, specifically focused on male homosexuality.)

The roots of hostility to homosexuality in Christian scripture are obvious, but Christian hostility to other behaviors (e.g., hypocrisy) have not been similarly enshrined in tradition. Claims for an objective “logic” behind prejudice are inadequate as an explanation. And the claim that anti-gay prejudice relates to “unnaturalness” only raises more questions about the concept of “natural” than it answers.

Boswell compares the experience of ethnic and religious minorities. In contrast, sexual minorities are dispersed throughout the population. This dispersement and lack of a “lineage” for gay people leaves them dependent on popular attitudes for acceptance, such as the power of hostile societies to translate or edit the more tolerant attitudes of earlier eras.

Studying sexual and emotional matters in the past is difficult due to the focus on official documents on “public” matters. Public documents will focus only on certain aspects of complex lives. Also, pop culture references to out-groups will focus on stereotypes and not on typical cases, e.g., focusing on masculine or feminine presentation in the context of sexuality. One should avoid assuming that all cultures assigned binary gender roles to same-sex pairs. One shouldn’t require evidence for gay lives in the past to resemble modern gay lives any more than straight ones do.

The roots of “moral” codes for sexuality are in the dynamics of kinship systems and the needs of economies, especially a focus on loyalty to kin groups and family relationships, which are seen to be undermined by non-procreative relationships. In general there was greater sexual freedom in more urban law-based societies. But there are historic contradictions to all of these generalizations.

Chapter 2: Definitions

Boswell discusses the background of sexuality terms and how he uses them in this work, including attitudes towards love of various types and related characteristics, and types of data regarding the demographics of homosexuality.

Chapter 3: Rome: The Foundation

This is a dense overview of Roman legal and cultural references to same-sex acts. The data is used to support a claim that male homoerotic relationships were not considered problematic in themselves, though specific cases might involve other factors that cause concern.

Boswell notes prejudice against male effeminacy or the acceptance of passive sexual roles. Gender reversal was mocked, as with Lucian’s Megilla/us (though Boswell doesn’t note the intersection of misogyny in that case.) He suggests that age-related terminology (e.g., identifying a beloved as a “boy”) shouldn’t necessarily be taken literally. It might refer to youth as an esthetic ideal of beauty, or indicate generational differences without literally meaning “a child.” [Note: here I feel that Boswell is being defensive about the historic association of male homosexuality with pederasty. It’s undeniable that Roman sexual hierarchies identified certain categories of persons as not having rights over their own bodies. There’s no reason to believe that youth was not involved in those dynamics.]

There is an extremely brief tour of the Roman references to female same-sex relations. (The content of this tour can be examine in more detail in the sources I've covered that specifically focus on Roman sexuality. See the tag link for "Classical era" for titles.)

Place: 
historical