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
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.)
Part II The Christian Tradition
Chapter 4: The Scriptures
There were massive changes to attitudes to same-sex relations that can be attributed to Christian influence on Eureopean culture, but that influence was complex and derived from several separate factors including scripture, social dynamics, and theology.
There is an extensive discussion of the background of the Biblical story of Sodom and how it was developed and elaborated in Christian interpretation. There is also an extended discussion of the original context of references to same-sex relations in Leviticus. Boswell argues that neither of these texts were in a position to shape early Christian thought, whatever influence they may have had later.
He picks apart the several texts associated with St. Paul that are considered to be anti-gay. There is a long discussion of the concept of “against nature.”
Chapter 5: Christians and Social Change
The Roman Empire underwent a crisis of change involving cultural shifts with demographic changes, including a shift from urban to rural background of the political elite. Personal behavior came to be seen as a matter of state interest and same-sex relations came in increasingly for control and prohibition.
Another thread of change was the rise of ascetic philosophy which focused on acts done for pleasure rather than productive purpose.
During this era, “acceptable” same-sex love tended to be expressed in terms of religious bonding rather than eros.
Chapter 6: Theological Traditions
Though early Christian ascetics were a minority, their philosophy provided justification for anti-homosexual attitudes based on four principles: animal behavior (associating specific animals with anal/oral sex and thus concluding that this behavior is “bestial”); unsavory associations (e.g., with child molestation and paganism); being “against nature” (derived from Platonic and Aristotelian concepts of “essential natures”); and gender expectations (which appears to apply specifically to male pairings, as it is concerned with the receptive partner being feminized). But the ascetics also had a general hostility to eroticism in general and only considered it justified by procreation.
Boswell asserts that the falsity of many of these theological grounds (e.g., that the animal behavior models were based on myth rather than biology) make the anti-gay conclusions theologically invalid.
Part III: Shifting Fortunes
Chapter 7: The Early Middle Ages
The loss of classical traditions and records with positive expressions of gay sexuality (including due to deliberate filtering) meant these were not available to later ages. But the breakdown of government structures with the decline of the Empire meant that oppressive laws were hard to enforce. Gay people were not commonly the subject of repressive legislation in an earlier era, but this was changing. Justinian (6th century) placed same-sex relations under the category of adultery (which had a death penalty, in theory) but it’s unclear that this was enforced except in politically-motivated cases.
This pattern held through the middle ages: the few laws against homosexual behavior were under civil law, while church law had either mild or no penalty for such behavior. [Note: Boswell glosses over the ways in which secular and clerical law were intertwined and influenced each other.] Laws tended to reflect the culture of the ruling elite, which--in this age of migrations and conquest--might have an entirely different culture than the people they ruled.
In most law codes of the early middle ages, homosexuality was absent from the lists of sexual crimes. Specific edicts might disparage homosexuality but rarely punished it. The penitential manuals included extensive details of penance for specific homosexual acts, but they had a similar level of detail for a vast number of ordinary activities that had little public stigma.
Monastic institutions--necessarily same-sex--took pains to discourage “special friendships” and sexual activity, but this cannot necessarily be seen as hostility to homosexuality specifically as the single-sex environment precluded a similar concern for heterosexuality. But these monastic contexts also produced erotic poetry inspired by the close emotional bonds in the institutions (which, again, are necessarily same-sex) between colleagues and teacher-student pairs. Such bonds might be discouraged if they led to public ridiule, but there is no through-line of condemnation for emotional same-sex bonds in general.
Islamic Spain openly celebrated (male) same-sex love in both emotional and sexual terms. This reflected Islamic openness to male same-sex relations in general. Negative Christian reactions to the Muslum presence in that era do not invoke sodomy as a specific charge even though it was recorded as a regular practice.
As the medieval period progressed, framings of same-sex acts as “against nature” fell out of use and the term “sodomy” was used generally for non-procreative activity. [Note: Boswell appears to be suggesting that “sodomy” changed from originally denoting same-sex activity and then was generalized to non-procreative sex, but either I’m misreading his argument or he’s simply wrong here.] Homosexuality came to be treated as simply another type of fornication, possibly even less serious than heterosexual fornication. [Note: “fornication” basically meant any sex outside of authorized heterosexual marriage.]
This section concludes with evidence suggesting that attitudes toward homosexuality grew steadily more tolerant from the late Empire to the early middle ages.
Chapter 8: The Urban Revival
In the 10th-14th century, Europe once again acquired an urban culture due to a variety of social and economic shifts. Cities have an association with democracy, self-government, and personal freedom. Boswell identifies the re-emergence of a “distinct gay subculture” with this re-urbanization in southern Europe. [Note: and, of course, he’s only talking about a “distinct gay male subculture.”]
Also during this era, erotic passion returned as a topic and preoccupation of literature and society, from religious ecstasy to courtly love to chivalric romances. Another feature of the era was the reform and revitalization of the church. Learning flourished such that the “12th century renaissance” is a accepted concept.
With all this came a re-connection with homoerotic themes of the past. Two movements emerged in the church: an anti-gay sentiment that elevated homosexuality as an important sin, and a movement that used homoerotic themes and imagery as a positive force to frame relations between churchmen. Initially, the first movement gained little ground.
Peter Damian (11th c) represents the anti-gay position, but his call to sweep men with same-sex relations out of the clergy was rebuffed initially by Rome. There is a detailed discussion of charges of homosexual relations among prominent churchmen and nobility (which Boswell appears to take at face value even when there were clear political motivations for slander).
By the 12th century, various regions were implementing warnings and prohibitions against same-sex relations which had little apparent effect. In parallel, there was increased concern about enforcing clerical celibacy in general. (Married or partnered clergy were commonplace in this era.) The popular association of clergy with sodomy is supported by an outpouring of homoerotic literature (of varying tones) from churchmen.
We are offered a very brief glimpse of a female equivalent to this literature in two 12th century erotic letter-poems between nuns. Aelred of Rievaulx is presented as the archetype for the homoerotic side (with many textual examples).
Several significant 12th century works on Christian morals took a lenient or even an indifferent approach to same-sex relations. We see how various prominent secular figures who were criticized for shameful, immoral, or luxurious lives only later had those descriptions re-interpreted as indicating homosexuality, suggesting that those associations were not made at the time.
Scandinavian examples are brought in to suggest that the commonness of insults involving effeminacy and passive homosexuality indicate that homosexuality was a familiar practice in those cultures. [Note: Once again, I feell that Boswell is taking things too much at face value. A culture that considers "passive homosexuality" to be the worst thing you can accuse a man of does not automatically indicate a culture in which homosexuality was a common practice. Consider all the schoolyards in which homosexual slurs have been tossed around by people who had no conscious familiarity with gay people or any realistic understanding of what being gay meant. As with the politically-charged accusations of sodomy, I think a more complex and nuanced analysis is required. Consider as a comparison if we substitute into the preceding statement, "the commonness of insults involving [popular slur against Jews] indicate that [slur] was a familliar practice." It simply doesn't track directly like that.]
There is an extended discussion of the use of the term and image of Ganymede for the younger/passive partner in a male-male relationship, in both positive and negative contexts, which leads in to the next chapter.
Chapter 9: The Triumph of Ganymede
In the period from 1050 to 1150 Boswell sees the first evidence for a “gay subculture” since the fall of Rome. Many examples are given, plus discussion of coded terminology used for sex and desire.
Women do not figure at all in this chapter.
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.