Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

John Boswell on Same-Sex Unions

The other day I was engaged in a triangular discussion with two friends online which started when one forwarded me this article about the late Professor John Boswell of Yale's The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe published in 1994, the year in which he died.

I have a copy of the Boswell book somewhere, though I have never got around to reading it fully. I recall that when it came out critics said it was very interesting - but, and it is a very important "but" - that their main point seemed to be that the unions he describes were matters of "friendship" or "brotherhood", and not "marriage" - i.e. non-sexual compacts.

Other examples of such pacts are recorded - Maurice Keen has a fascinating article on two early fifteenth century English knights agreeing a business partnership (shares in ransoms and prizes etc) as brothers-in arms rather on those lines. We may well not make sufficient allowance for the existence and forms of friendship and its impacty on medieval and early modern people simply because today we have only partial evidence.

Equally historians with a contemporary agenda may find themselves writing about what are in essence present issues in their work on the past, or indeed go looking for evidence of what they want to believe happened, not what did happen.

In particular in Boswell's book there does also appear to have been a misunderstanding of what are mainly Eastern Orthodox liturgies - a point made by modern Orthodox commentators.

There is a good demolition job of the Boswell thesis which can be read here.

What is perhaps surprising is that eighteen years after its publication the Boswell book, despite very serious criticism of its argument and use of evidence, is still being cited by advocates of same-sex marriage as though its conclusions were unchallenged and incontrovertible.


Marc said...

Yes, Prof Boswell rip began the current fashion of reading all male friendships in history as at least potentially homosexual-- St Aelred, pray for us!-- and the sad fact is that a great number of academics don't really care about the truth of their hypotheses, just their susceptibility to publication.

trevor-roper's pterodactyl said...

Astonishing that one of Oxford's own - recently ennobled - saw fit to promote this guff on one of his social network profiles. So much for the rigours of academe.

Robin Darling Young (who is mentioned in the piece linked) did an excellent job of debunking Boswell in First Things some years back - see HERE.

Tito Edwards said...

Here is another solid repudiation (in charity) of John Boswell by a fine Catholic apologist, Jimmy Akin.

Click on his link.