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Making Brothers : The early Christian ceremony of "making brothers" joined people of the same sex. But what exactly did the ceremony mean then . . . and what does it mean for us now? : SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE, By John Boswell (Villard Books: $25; 412 pp.)

July 31, 1994|Wendy Doniger | Wendy Doniger is the Mircea Eliade professor of the history of religions at the University of Chicago and the author of "Women, Androgynes, and Other Mythical Beasts" (University of Chicago Press)

John Boswell's "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe" broaches two crucial issues: the subjectivity of translation--in this case, what do other people mean when they speak of love or marriage? And the relevance of history--of what use is the past to us?

Boswell approaches these questions in a particularly striking and controversial form--more vividly than a historian investigating, say, slavery or usury in the ancient world--because he is speaking of sex. Sexuality in general, and sexuality between people of the same sex in particular, has always been characterized by tremendous privacy, subjectivity, circumlocution and, often, concealment. After all, people's sex lives are always a mystery. (Boswell remarks that the Marquess of Queensberry--who denounced Oscar Wilde as a "Somdomite" ( sic )--"doubtless . . . had no idea what Wilde actually did in bed.") Our own partners often surprise us by turning out to have sexual tastes very different from what we thought they had, sometimes after many years of seeming intimacy. This being so, the task of understanding the sexual habits of people of other cultures and other times is well-nigh impossible.

John Boswell, the A. Whitney Griswold Professor at Yale and author of several widely praised books, "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality" and "The Kindness of Strangers," has attempted to demonstrate not only that same-sex unions occurred widely in pre-modern Europe, which few people would be shocked to discover, but also that the church approved of such unions, which has shocked many people to the point of blatant disbelief. More particularly, he presents a corpus of Greek documents that he regards as definitive evidence that a ceremony celebrating same-sex marriage (generally between men, occasionally between women), was performed within the early Greek Church.

The existence and genuineness of these documents are not in question; indeed, some of those who would belittle Boswell's achievement have pointed out that historians have known about documents of this nature for years. What is in question is what they mean, and, more particularly, what they mean for us. And Boswell's approach to these questions is profound and exciting.

Boswell asks and answers the main questions that are likely to arise in the reader's mind, and his catechism about the ceremony of same-sex union raises problems about context, translation, and subjectivity:

1--Does the ceremony solemnize a personal commitment, as opposed to a religious, political or family union? Boswell thinks it does; but he admits that this is a matter open to debate, and he himself presents a great deal of evidence for religious, political or family concerns underlying same-sex relationships.

The historical context that Boswell establishes is a world in which heterosexual marriage was largely ignored by pagans and discouraged by the church (a notion that will no doubt strike some readers as more shocking than the book's main premise), in which asceticism and chastity were encouraged both outside and within Christian marriage, and men paired off to accomplish most of the acts regarded as central to society (such as war, commerce, education, friendship and, within the church, martyrdom). Boswell therefore finds it "hardly surprising that there should have been a Christian ceremony solemnizing same-sex unions."

Were the men who participated in this ceremony just "good friends"? Boswell thinks not: Since all Christians were expected to love one another (and all humans) anyway, why would they have a special ceremony to establish that sort of love? But then he notes, contradictorily: "It would indeed be curious if the religion of a preacher who so privileged friendship turned out not to have a ceremony solemnizing it." He also admits the wide range of non-romantic, non-erotic reasons for such union, including business contracts (not unlike contemporary prenuptial contracts among the wealthy). So, in answer to the problem of context, we have a resounding "maybe."

2--Is the ceremony homosexual? This question involves two sub-questions: (a) "Was the ceremony 'homosexual' in an erotic sense?" Here he equivocates: "This is hard to answer for societies without a comparable nomenclature or taxonomy. Most pre-modern societies drew less rigid distinctions among 'romance,' 'eroticism,' 'friendship' and 'sexuality' than do modern cultures."

Boswell is enormously sensitive to the difficulties inherent in translating texts of this nature. He has taken great care to assemble, transcribe, translate and interpret his texts, and he warns the reader about the wide range of meanings of the various Greek, Latin and English terms for the central concepts of love and marriage, as well as for the intersecting terms for brother/sister and friend. The terms simply do not translate from one language to another. Furthermore, sensitive issues produce euphemisms.

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