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August 13, 1995|CHARLES SOLOMON

SAME-SEX UNIONS IN PREMODERN EUROPE by John Boswell (Vintage: $13; 412 pp., illustrated). Drawing on pagan and Christian sources, the late John Boswell demonstrates that the Catholic Church regularly blessed unions between individuals of the same sex in ceremonies that paralleled heterosexual marriages: "According to the modern conception--i.e. a permanent emotional union acknowledged in some way by the community--it was unequivocally a marriage." Boswell builds his case carefully, emphasizing the elements that distinguish these rites from adoptions and celebrations of religious and fraternal unity. Early Christian prelates advocated celibacy and tended to treat marriage as a necessary evil: It was not even declared a sacrament until the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215. (Heterosexual and homosexual ceremonies were based on Roman models.) The anti-homosexual prejudice that swept the West during the 14th Century led to the abandonment of these rituals, although they persisted in Eastern Europe. Boswell's erudition challenges familiar assumptions about morality, history and Christianity, although the evidence he cites in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and other languages is unlikely to move anti-gay fundamentalists who know the Bible only in translation.

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