Gay marriages `centuries old'

Homosexual wedding ceremonies have a very long history, says a new book . Andrew Brown reports
Click to follow
Services of blessing for gay couples seem a controversial modern development. But a Yale historian claims in a book to be published next month that they may be as old as Christian marriage ceremonies, and were widespread throughout the early Chri stian world.

Professor John Boswell, a former chairman of the history department at Yale, claimed in The Marriage of Likeness: Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe to have discovered more than 60 different liturgies for the blessing of homosexual unions, many of which he reprints. The manuscripts date from the 8th century to the 18th century.

These ceremonies, he argued, "fulfilled what most people today regard as the essence of marriage: a permanent romantic commitment between two people, witnessed and recognised by the community.

"It is clear that ... the Christian ceremony of same-sex union functioned as a `gay marriage ceremony'," Professor Boswell concluded, though he moderates this assertion by pointing out that "the nature and purposes of almost every sort of marriage have varied widely over time".

His book was published in the United States last summer, and met with a respectful reception. Professor Boswell died of Aids two days before Christmas. British scholars, too, have generally welcomed his book. There is no doubt over the authenticity of the liturgies, some of which had been known since the mid-eighteenth century. What is at issue is their interpretation.

Almost all the terms involved in the argument have meanings that are shifting and imprecise. His book points out the difficulties a historian of the future might have with the British working-class term "mate", which sounds as if it connotes a homo-erotic relationship, but very seldom does.

On the other hand, he claims, some terms which now sound sexless did have a sexual under-meaning in the ancient world, chief among them "brother".

Professor Boswell points out that the earliest known Greek liturgical manuscript "contains four ceremonies for sacramental union: one for heterosexual betrothal, two separate ceremonies (called simply `prayers') for heterosexual marriage, and a comparable `prayer' for uniting two men".

"All three forms of union persisted among Greek-speaking and other Christians," Professor Boswell said. He cites examples from Albania as recently as the 19th century, though in the main, he believed, the open sanctification of homosexual affection was stamped out by the mediaeval papacy from about 1200 onwards as part of a general drive against dissidence and heresy.

The Greek manuscript, known as Barberini 366, currently in the Vatican Library, dates from the eighth century, but the liturgies it contains are much older, and may go back to the second or third centuries. Professor Boswell points out that many modern prejudices were reversed in the early Mediterranean world. Same-sex friendships were regarded as purer and more likely to last than heterosexual ones, even when there was a sexual component involved.

Professor Boswell traced the roots of a Christian pattern of homosexual love right back to Jesus: "Certainly the most controversial same-sex couple in the Christian tradition comprised Jesus and John, `the beloved disciple'... John refers to himself six times as `the disciple whom Christ loved'... at the very least he must have meant that Jesus had a special affection for him, which is corroborated by the fact that, while dying on the cross, Jesus made John the guardian of his mother, reminiscent of what would happen if one half of a married couple died before the other." But he draws back from making any plain assertions, saying that "the New Testament is far too reticent about all personal feelings to resolve this highly charged controversy fully".

Dr Miri Rubin, an early medieval historian at Pembroke College, Cambridge, is sympathetic to Professor Boswell's enterprise. "It is extremely difficult to work from the text of a liturgy to what meanings it had for people." She points out that liturgies are often creatively adapted to new purposes, so that the Eucharist is used to seal political alliances, or to mark the culmination of a coronation ceremony.

"Even today when people construct gay marriages, they use traditional liturgies and adapt them," Dr Rubin said.

Modern mainstream Christian churches make a sharp distinction between a homosexual inclination or condition, which they regard as blameless and homosexual acts, which are condemned, with varying degrees of enthusiasm and consistency by all the mainstreamchurches.

Professor Boswell, who was himself a devout Christian, rejected the distinction, and argued that it would have been meaningless in the ancient world. "The apparently urgent, morally paramount distinction between all heterosexual acts and relationships, and all homosexual acts and relationships, was largely unknown to the societies in which the unions first took place," he said.