Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity

A Critical Examination of John Boswell’s Work

Bibliography of Reviews of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality


The five years that have elapsed since the publication of Boswell’s book would appear to constitute a triumphal progress. A popular as well as scholarly success, John Boswell has been in great demand as a lecturer, commanding four-figure fees, and — largely on the strength of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality — has been promoted to the rank of full professor of history at Yale University. His book has been translated into French (without change), and an Italian version is forthcoming.

Closer inspection of the record of response reveals a more motley picture. The first reviews of the book appeared chiefly in popular periodicals, mainstream magazines such as Newsweek and New Republic, as well as the gay press. These notices were overwhelmingly favorable, many quite uncritically so. As reports began to come in from the academic research journals, however, serious flaws in Boswell’s argumentation emerged — even in reviews which tended to be laudatory. Generally speaking, the later the review, the more likely it was to signal serious defects (see e.g. the references to J. A. Brundage, R. J. Hoffman, D. F. Wright, and R. Wright, below).

Why this delay in reporting information vital to a balanced view of a now celebrated work? First, academia is accustomed to conducting its business on a rather leisurely timetable. It is not unknown for a major review to appear ten years after the monograph it evaluates. Second, many of the concerned academics, even those who are personally oriented towards homosexuality, were unacquainted with the primary documents that Boswell cites in support of his views. Time was needed to digest and evaluate the evidence. Other things being equal, the longer the experts have pondered, the more negative have been their conclusions.

A welcome feature of many of the reviews was the concentration on the later chapters of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which are somewhat scanted in our essays. More remains to be done on these chapters, including a complete roster of the numerous errors in translation.

In the summaries that follow we have not sought to echo the many expressions of praise with which the reviews teem. Such recapitulation would be tedious. What needs explanation is why so many reviewers have been impelled to treat the book with a respect that verges on reverence. The response of gay Christians was predictable: they have hailed Boswell’s work as a charter, in effect, for their activities. But why have secular liberals been so eager to acclaim the book, as they have done in so many leading journals of opinion? For some time, these circles have tended to applaud bulky tomes on homosexuality, some of which have been erected on even shakier scholarly foundations than those provided by Boswell. We may hazard a guess that liberal heterosexuals have accumulated a modest reservoir of guilt for the persecutions their ancestors have inflicted upon us. How welcome then would be a book which argues that the fury of these persecutions has been highly exaggerated.

A word need be said about Boswell’s oral assertions (see Boswell entries below) that we arrived at our negative verdict on his book because we are doctrinaire leftists. In point of fact, the Scholarship Committee of GAU-NY is not committed to any ideology or dogma. Moreover, Boswell’s purported ground for rejecting our critique — that it stems from leftist parti pris — matches the suggestion that Boswell reached his own conclusions solely because of his Roman Catholic faith. If Boswell wishes to have his ideas judged on their merits alone (as we have attempted to judge them), he must assess ours on their merits — and not invoke some mythical “leftist bias”.

The annotated list that follows does not pretend to offer a complete accounting of reviews of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. We have ignored routine notices in newspapers and other popular media that make no independent contribution to the debate. Needless to say, we should be glad to learn of any reviews of substance that we may have inadvertently omitted.

The process of critical examination has brought into focus the following problem areas:

  1. Disregarding the many difficulties inherent in the earlier efforts of Canon D. S. Bailey and Father John McNeill, Boswell has forged ahead on the same path, seeking to minimize the unbroken ascetic and antihomosexual crescendo of the Biblical, patristic, and later Scholastic teaching on homosexuality.

  2. Boswell has neglected antihomosexual trends in antiquity. In this light, attention needs to be paid to Plato, some major Hellenistic and Roman writers, as well as the synthesis of Judaic and Hellenic traditions in Philo of Alexandria. For some disquieting evidence from Rome, see the article by Boswell’s senior colleague at Yale, Ramsay MacMullen, “Roman Attitudes of Greek Love”, Historia, vol. 31 (1982), pp. 482-502.

  3. Boswell has sought to denature the repressive legislation of the fourth century, beginning with Constantine the Great. The very fact that he could make Tertullian live after Constantine suggests some unconscious pattern of inverting the historical record.

  4. The book posits a false antinomy of city vs. country, as if the pagan countryside — left to itself — would have adopted antihomosexual attitudes before the urban centers did, or more strongly. This phantom dichotomy (which we were the first to signal) has frequently been taken up by subsequent reviewers. As Louis Crompton has noted, Boswell’s fabrication is intended to deflect criticism from the Church. Without it, the arrow of blame points back to its proper target: the historical traditions of Christendom. Religious ideology, not demography, is the key factor.

  5. Boswell conveniently overlooks earlier studies of the church’s attitude toward this fact of sexual morality, such as Hans Herter’s beautifully documented article “Effeminatus” in the Reallexikon für Antike und Christentum, which take the uncompromising condemnation of homosexual activity as inherent in Christian tradition.

  6. Boswell obscures the evidence from the early medieval penitentials, which Bailey had canvassed in 1955, and which has now been thoroughly examined in the monograph by Payer, cited below.

  7. Boswell tends to misrender medieval texts to accentuate the homoerotic content (or conversely to lessen it when the text is Christian-homophobic). Readers will find it instructive to compare Boswell’s renderings of poems with the more accurate ones found in Thomas Stehling, Medieval Latin Poems of Male Love and Friendship (New York: Garland Publishing, 1984).

  8. Throughout, Boswell offers a confused and anachronistic presentation of the natural/unnatural contrast, ending in his “debate” with Thomas Aquinas. Moreover, he shows an inability to grasp the point that while ancient and medieval writers lack the notion of “homosexuality”, they do command both narrower terms (pederasty, effeminacy, prostitution) and broader ones (uncleanliness, fornication, lust). If a given author excoriated pederasty, he could not have been more positive towards passive effeminate homosexuality. If he condemned fornication, it does not mean that he prohibited only heterosexual activity outside of Christian marriage — he was implicitly forbidding all homosexual acts.

  9. In his discussion of the surviving correspondence of ecclesiastical figures, Boswell shows a willful misunderstanding of literary conventions and terms of endearment. Replication of banal formulae is taken for a fresh and personal outpouring of sentiment. (On this point see Giles Constable, Letters and Letter-Collections, Turnhout: Brepols, 1976.)

  10. Boswell seems almost to revel in anachronistic flaunting of the word “gay” (and the hyperneologism “non-gay”), in utter ignorance of the early homosexual rights movement and of the arduous process of coining terms to denote same-sex behavior. (For the creation of terms, see Wayne Dynes, Homolexis: A Historical and Cultural Lexicon of Homosexuality, New York: GAU-NY, 1985 [Gai Saber Monograph No. 4].) Boswell’s insistence on using “gay” anywhere and everywhere reveals a cardinal fault in the historian: the projection of modern attitudes and sensibilities onto ancient and medieval minds.

Adams, Jeremy. Speculum, vol. 56 (April 1981), pp. 350-55.

Despite “high commendation”, Adams detects a number of problems:

Arrowsmith, Keith (pseud. Walter Kendrick). “Toujours gai? Pas du tout!The Village Voice (11 March 1981), pp. 44-45.

The first three paragraphs of this review make extravagant claims for Boswell’s book:

“Now gay people have a history that stretches back to Socrates; now they have heroes like Harmodius and Aristogiton, Hadrian and Antinous ...”

Actually, Boswell barely touches upon ancient Greece and Rome, and presents little if any new information. If “gay people” have a history which includes figures from classical antiquity, it is through many earlier efforts by such writers as von Ramdohr (1798), Hoessli (1836-38), Meier (1837), Symonds (1883, 1891), Burton (1885), Carpenter (1895-1902), von Kupffer (1900), Licht (1932), Eglinton (1964), Dover (1978) — to mention only some of the most important.

Arrowsmith devotes two paragraphs to attacking, as “cavillers”, the authors of the present monograph. The review ends with apologies for additional “quibbles” and an excursion into trendy Foucaultian relativism.

Bonds, William N. Journal of Homosexuality, vol. 7, no. 1 (Fall 1981), pp. 94-102.

After summarizing the book’s main theses, Bonds dissents from the urban vs. rural dichotomy and finds anachronism in Boswell’s interpretation of medieval correspondence of friendship.

Boswell, John (interviewed by Richard Hall). “Historian John Boswell on Gay, Tolerance and the Christian Tradition”. The Advocate (28 May 1981), pp. 20-23, 26-27.

In this long interview, Boswell fails to address himself to any of the specific criticisms made of his book. In general terms he protests “vitriolic criticism” from the “gay press”, and imputes ignoble motives to his critics:

“I regard any ad hominem arguments about pro-Church bias in my writings as undesirable politically and indefensible in terms of scholarly method.”

Boswell claims not to have found evidence that “the Church was the cause of hostility to gay people”. Rather, he insists, “As it happens, it isn’t what I found in the documents in this case.”

He describes himself as:

“a person who believes in the value of truth on two fronts. First, I believe in it just in and of itself. It is a thing of beauty and I’d rather have truth than untruth ...”

Boswell, John. Rediscovering Gay History: Archetypes of Gay Love in Christian History (pamphlet). London: Gay Christian Movement, 1982.

In this speech, Boswell responds to criticism without naming a single critic or mentioning a single specific criticism, no mean feat.

“This thesis of mine has met with ferocious hostility in the U.S. Not among the general populace, and not among Christians, but among gay people: specifically, some vociferous members of the left-leaning faction of the very large and organised gay movement in the United States have vehemently attacked this thesis and issued a 30-page pamphlet about it, castigating both it and its author in most colorful terms.”

Boswell blithely restates his main thesis:

“I hope that I’ve shown in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality that the inherent opposition people assume exists between homosexuality and Christian ethics is simply nonexistent. I might point out none of my critics, not even the harshest on the left, has argued that I’m wrong on this basic issue. [emphasis added]

Actually, the last statement is not true for any of the three contributions in this monograph, nor for the reviews by Bronski, Bullough, Crompton, Hoffman, Olsen, Thomson, and Wright — all of whom dispute Boswell’s claim that Christianity is not inherently hostile to homosexuality.

Bronski, Michael. “Gay History: Setting the Record Straight”. Gay Community News (Book Review), vol. 8, no. 17 (November 1980).

Bronski takes sharp issue with Boswell’s attempts to downplay the historical intolerance of the Christian Church; specifically, Boswell’s abusive exegeses of scripture; his glossing over the Church’s murderous campaigns against the Albigensians, Templars, and other heretics; and his devious mitigation of the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas and hence Roman Catholic theology.

Bronski pinpoints one egregious untruth, Boswell’s statement: “[Leviticus] is almost never cited [by the early Christians] as grounds for objection to homosexual acts.” (Boswell, p. 113)

In fact, the introduction to the Theodosian statute of 390 quotes Leviticus verbatim (see John Lauritsen’s essay, Culpa Ecclesiae: Boswell’s Dilemma in the present monograph). Perhaps this is still another reason why Boswell “neglected” to give the text of this particular statute. (Also see entry below under D. F. Wright.)

Bronski poses the question of who benefits from Boswell’s book, and concludes:

“not gay people, the common reader, or even scholarship, but rather it is the institution of the church and religion in general. In a recent Boston speech Boswell called for a theology that is based upon ‘fidelity to Christ’: a parochial view to say the least.”

Brundage, James A. Catholic Historical Review, vol. 68 (January 1982), pp. 62-64.

Brundage points out some major scholarly lapses:

“Novel and refreshing as Boswell’s book is, his work suffers from some major faults. First, although Boswell has equipped his book with an impressive scholarly apparatus, his citations are not always to the point, he occasionally refers to sources without indicating where the evidence can be found, and he sometimes ignores significant studies that bear upon his theme. Further, some of Boswell’s statements are demonstrably untrue. He says, for example, that the First Lateran Council declared all clerical marriages invalid (p. 216); this is not borne out by the text (which he does not cite) [emphasis added] of the relevant canon. Again, he asserts that the opinions of the Roman jurist, Paulus, enjoyed no official sanction, ignoring the fact that Paulus’ interpretations were in fact officially recognized as binding upon magistrates in some circumstances, according to the Law of Citations (A.D. 426). Examples could be multiplied.”

“In short, this important book presents a fresh appraisal of a significant topic, but it is flawed by serious shortcomings in the presentation of evidence and by special pleading in its arguments.”

Bullough, Vern. “Gods, Gays, and Scholars”. Inquiry, vol. 3, no. 18 (27 October 1980), pp. 28-29.

Bullough, Dean at SUNY Buffalo, disagrees with Boswell’s thesis that the basic hostility to gay people did not emerge until the High Middle Ages. On the contrary, states Bullough, “an antagonism to homosexuality ... is endemic to traditional Christian thinking”.

Christiansen, E. English Historical Review, vol. 96 (October 1981), pp. 852-54.

Christiansen is not convinced by Boswell’s extrapolation of “gayness” from the passionate friendships of Ailred of Rievaux et al. Likewise, he is skeptical of the urban/rural schema.

Crompton, Louis. “The Roots of Condemnation”. Commonweal (5 June 1981), pp. 338-40.

Crompton, a leading gay scholar, maintains that “John Boswell’s ambitious and scholarly new study tries to establish two main theses”:

  1. “that the Bible does not take so negative a stand on homosexuality as is popularly supposed.”

  2. “that Christian society, taken as a whole, was not strongly condemnatory of homosexuality until the age of Aquinas ...”

Crompton examines both of these contentions, and finds them unconvincing.

Boswell’s rural/urban dichotomy is an attempt “to get Christianity off the hook” as the locus of condemnation for homosexuality. To Crompton, “Boswell’s arguments look too much like special pleading”.

While finding merit in Boswell’s book, Crompton concludes that it is “vitiated by a determination to construe all its voluminous evidence in the light of an untenable leading idea.”

Cunningham, Lawrence S. New Catholic World, vol. 225 (January 1982) pp. 44-45.

Cunningham finds the book unconvincing:

“I see problems with his reading of some hagiographical material (e.g., his contention that the Passion of Perpetua and Felicity reflects a gay sensibility strikes me as tendentious) as well as his interpretation of some of the material dealing with monastic friendship in the twelfth century.”

“My suspicion is that this fine piece of historical and philological research, whatever its particular flaws may be, will do for the homosexuality question what John Noonan’s estimable study Contraception (1965) did to the birth control debate, viz. revolutionize it.”

Duberman, Martin Bauml. New Republic. (18 October 1980), pp. 32-35.

A generally favorable review, with a few doubts:

“[Boswell] may harbor a rather conservative set of biases ... I now and then got the unnerving feeling that at the top of his own set of priorities is the wish to hold gay Christians to their religious allegiance — that he is more eager to defend the viability of church affiliation for gays than to bolster an emerging gay subculture whose left wing is decidedly — in my view, rightly — anticlerical.”

Dynes, Wayne. Gay Books Bulletin, no. 4 (Fall 1980), pp. 2-4.

The reviewer finds much of merit in the book, while regretting “the bias that vitiates the book’s overall purpose.”

Dynes criticizes Boswell’s “amateurish and tendentious” attempts at scriptural exegesis, his “insouciantly benign attitude to Biblical texts that have caused much suffering”, his taking over of “McNeill’s anachronistic distinction between homosexual behavior and homosexual condition”, his urban (tolerant) vs. rural (intolerant) dichotomy.

Dynes finds that:

“The problems are not local and episodic, but central to the book’s very design, for distortions due to Christian apologetic pervade the marshalling of evidence throughout the book.”

Dynes concludes:

“The book may be used for the references in its notes and, for the many translations that it contains, as an anthology, but at this point one must regrettably conclude that its chances of assuming the place its creator clearly intends, as a cornerstone of our history, are slight indeed.”

Grant, Robert M. The Christian Century, vol. 98 (21 January 1981), p. 60.

This generally favorable review takes exception to Boswell’s urban vs. rural dichotomy, his “special pleading about the presence or absence of ideas on laws of nature”, and a few stylistic points.

“Sentences like this, ‘Even Chrysostom had to admit that gay sexuality was absolutely rampant,’ do not do justice to sermon style.”

Greenberg, David F. and Bystryn, Marcia H. “Christian Intolerance of Homosexuality”. American Journal of Sociology, vol. 88 no. 3 (1982), pp. 515-47.

In this far-ranging essay, Greenberg and Bystryn call into question a number of Boswell’s contentions, such as the urban vs. rural dichotomy. For Boswell’s notion that Christianity is not inherently hostile to homosexual expression, the authors prefer to substitute the idea of historical variability.

Haeberle, Erwin J. Journal of Sex Research, vol. 17 (1981), pp. 184-87.

Haeberle identifies a few minor errors related to the “origin and development of the modern concept of homosexuality”.

Hamilton, Wallace. “A Different Mirror”. Christopher Street (September 1980), pp. 50-55.

Hamilton intersperses his enthusiastically favorable impressions of the Boswell book with personal experiences (young friend in court, picked up for hustling) and reviews of two other books.

Henry, Patrick. Church History, vol. 51 (December 1982) pp. 448-49.

Uncritically favorable (“delight to read”).

Hill, Bennett D. Library Journal, vol. 105 (1 June 1980), p. 1304.

Favorable review which uncritically repeats Boswell’s theses on reinterpretation of biblical passages, etc.

Hoffman, Richard J. “Vices, Gods, and Virtues: Cosmology as a Mediating Factor in Attitudes toward Male Homosexuality”. Journal of Homosexuality, 9 (2/3) (Winter 1983/Spring 1984), pp. 27-44.

Hoffman rejects Boswell’s leading thesis:

“Boswell ignores the possibility that differences in belief systems might be relevant factors in the study of changing attitudes towards homosexuality in Europe. Indeed, consciously or unconsciously, the author, qua church apologist, rejects at the very beginning the idea that the source of intolerance may well lie within the very nature of Christianity itself.”

“Some scholars, like Boswell (1980, p. 102), attempt to minimize the significance of the Leviticus prohibitions on homosexuality by reducing them to mere ceremonial uncleanliness ... Morality and taboo are intimately linked, and one cannot reduce the moral significance of Leviticus 18 with modern scholasticism.”

Kennedy, Hubert. The Advocate. (20 October 1980).

Kennedy credits Boswell with having “posted landmarks” on “gay people” in the context of the “social topography of medieval Europe.” He uncritically accepts Boswell’s reinterpretations of scripture.

Lemay, Helen R. “Homosexuality in the Middle Ages”. Cross Currents, vol. 30 (Fall 1980), pp. 352-60.

The reviewer summarizes Boswell’s book sympathetically, then faults it for its “limited choice of source materials”, for having relied overly on literature, and not enough on the penitentials, laws, and the scientific tradition.

Lemay considers the “major shortcoming of Boswell’s fine book” to be his intrusive “attempts at justifying homosexual behavior.” She also finds that the author is “occasionally mysterious about his source”, e.g., the basis for some of his Latin translations, which appear to have esoteric sexual meanings not contained in the standard Latin dictionaries.

Leroi, Alain. “La chambre des hommes: le second âge d’or de l’homosexualité au moyen âge.” Gai Pied Hebdo, no. 166 (26 April 1985), pp. 22- 24, 66.

Laudatory summary of the contents of the French edition: Christianisme, tolérance sociale et homosexualité. Translated by Alain Tachet. Paris: Gallimard, 1985. 524 pp.

Lineham, Peter. Times Literary Supplement (London). (23 January 1981), p. 73.

Lineham is sharply critical of Boswell’s attempts to read “homosexual attachments” into medieval friendships. In particular: “Boswell’s account of St. Anselm is as much tendentious as misinformed.”

Martinelli, Elio. “Cristianesimo e Omosessualità”. Paideia, vol. 37 (1982), pp. 31-40.

Martinelli summarizes Boswell’s leading theses, together with the leading objections of his critics — notably the “gay people” and “gay subculture” concepts.

He finds a number of errors — of translation, of interpretation, and of omission. Most seriously, he accuses Boswell of acting as an apologist for Roman Catholicism, as a “moral theologian” — in making his case by arguing ex silentio and by omitting essential texts.

Martinelli concludes that “a work of historical research based on this ‘methodology’ is a bit ‘hard to believe’ ”.

Monteagudo, Jesse. “New Book Clarifies Homosexuality in the Bible”. The Weekly News (Miami) (1 October 1980) p. 3.

The reviewer accepts Boswell’s thesis that “Christian dogma did not cause intolerance of homosexuality but was used to justify oppression that had nonreligious motivations.”

Moore, John C. American Historical Review, vol. 86 (April 1981), pp. 381- 82.

Moore recommends the book despite various reservations, notably Boswell’s “arguments that most earlier Jews and Christians had no real objection to homosexuality” and Boswell’s reinterpretations of scripture.

Moore, R.I. History (London), vol. 66, no. 217 (June 1981), p. 281.

Moore raises two major questions:

Olsen, Glenn W. “The Gay Middle Ages: A Response to Professor Boswell”. Communio: International Catholic Review (Summer 1981), pp. 119-38.

Writing from a hostile, Roman Catholic viewpoint, Olsen has a field day exposing Boswell’s contradictions in the areas of scriptural interpretation, philosophy, and elementary logic.

Olsen sides with Aquinas, insinuating that opposition to homosexuality may be based on a “reasoned philosophical or natural law opposition.” He implies that homosexual acts do not represent a “harmless nonconformity” and that one ought to “take seriously medieval societies’ perceptions of threats to themselves of intolerable deviations”. [Presumably then, we ought not criticise the medieval Church for having persecuted men who committed the “unnatural sin”.]

Olsen refers to Boswell’s arguments as “weird” and “foolish”. He maintains that “the major conclusions of the book are unproved.”

Padgug, Robert. Body Politic, no. 70 (February 1981), p. 29.

The writer, a historian of classical antiquity, regards the book as an important publication, in large measure for its recognition that the attitudes of the Christian Church exhibit historical variation. Boswell is criticized for his ahistorical use of the gay concept; moreover, explanatory and causal weaknesses are noted.

Payer, Pierre J. Sex and the Penitentials: The Development of a Sexual Code 550-1150. University of Toronto Press, 1984. Appendix D, “Homosexuality and the Penitentials”, pp. 135-139.

Payer’s Appendix disputes Boswell’s theses that “the penitentials are not ‘an index of medieval morality’ (p. 182) and that their treatment of homosexuality suggests ‘a relatively indulgent attitude adopted by prominent churchmen of the early Middle Ages toward homosexual behavior’ (page 183)”.

To the contrary, Payer demonstrates that the penitentials were indeed “an index of medieval morality”, and all of the penitentials have at least one canon censuring homosexuality and many have a relatively extensive treatment of the subject.” [emphasis added]

Payer concludes:

“This is not the place to engage Boswell in his thesis about the tolerant attitude towards homosexuality which he claims to have found in the early Middle Ages. However, it would seem that the penitentials, which gained wide geographical circulation for four hundred years or more, do not support this conclusion. And when it is recalled that these documents enjoyed even wider circulation through the canonical collections into which they were incorporated, it becomes difficult to maintain such a conclusion against the evidence of the penitential practice of the early Middle Ages.”

Patricca, Nicholas. American Journal of Sociology, vol. 88 (1983) pp. 1333-36.

A generally favorable review which takes exception to “the sometimes convoluted character of Boswell’s arguments designed to show that Christianity is not intolerant by its nature or in its essence”, and to Boswell’s rural/urban dichotomy.

Robinson, Paul. The New York Times Book Review (10 August 1980), p. 12.

An uncritically enthusiastic review.

Russell, Kenneth C. “Aelred, the gay abbot of Rievaulx”. Studia Mystica, vol. 5, no. 4 (Winter 1982), pp. 51-64.

Russell is willing to accept Boswell’s conclusion, “There can be little question that Aelred was gay and that his erotic attraction to men was a dominant force in his life.”

Beyond merely establishing that Aelrod was gay, Russell wishes to examine “how this factor influenced his life”, his “understanding of the value of human love and the laws by which it must be governed ...”

Saylor, Steven W. “What Boswell Uncovered — Digging for Roots in Frozen Ground”. Alternate (November 1980), p. 61.

A long, enthusiastic summary for the gay reader.

Sheehan, Michael M. “Christianity and Homosexuality”. Journal of Ecclesiastical History, vol. 33, no. 3 (July 1982), pp. 438-46.

The reviewer notes a “tendency to overstate” and a “tendency to make a text ... say more than it will bear”. He finds occasional, tendentious mistranslations of Latin:

“In several cases, failure to give the context of a phrase leads to its presentation in a way that supports the author’s thesis more than the text allows.”

Boswell is considered to have given inadequate attention to the penitentials, which “by and large ... reveal a consistent condemnation of homosexual activity ...”

Shelp, Earl E. Theology Today, vol. 38 (1981), pp. 256-58.

“This volume deserves a broad scholarly review. Its impact will be greatest on those who are open to serious inquiry into one of the church’s most complex and important moral issues.”

Smith, Tom L. “Medieval Limits to Social Tolerance”. Bloomsbury Review (January-February 1981), p. 5+.

A favorable review of Boswell’s book is coupled with an unfavorable notice of Michael Goodich’s The Unmentionable Vice: Homosexuality in the Later Medieval Period.

Although the animus towards Goodich’s book is vehemently expressed, the motivation is unclear: e.g., Smith writes a long diatribe over Goodich’s having included — in the Appendix — a 30-page verbatim transcript of a medieval sodomy trial. But why not? This is what appendices are for. Goodich should be commended for having made available to us a useful primary document.

The reviewer makes extravagant claims for Boswell’s work (“He gives us back our history ...”).

Stone, Charles (letter). The Advocate, (9 July 1981), p. 7.

In commenting on Boswell’s interview in the Advocate, Stone makes the point that “the birth of gay liberation has taken place in the wake of the decline of the christian religion.”

“If it is true to say that a causal relation exists between the decline of christianity and the emergence of gay liberation, then there are substantial grounds for doubting Boswell’s claim that the church was not the original source of hostility toward gay people in the West.”

“Finally, let me note that I detected a certain smugness in Professor Boswell’s cavalier suggestion that his critics have not read his book as carefully as they might. This scarcely does justice, say, to the lengthy objections that appear in the recent publication of the Gay Academic Union of New York. I also find that his apparent belief in the unassailability of his position contrasts strangely with the commitment to truth of which he also spoke.”

Stone, Lawrence. “Sex in the West”. New Republic (8 July 1985), pp. 25- 37.

This article is a thoughtful assessment of more than a score of publications on the history of sexuality that have appeared over the past decade.

Although Boswell is treated with respect, Stone points out that he does not offer any convincing reasons for the two great shifts toward asceticism — in the later Roman Empire and in the fourteenth century.

Strouse, Jean. “Homosexuality Since Rome”. Newsweek (29 September 1980), pp. 79-82.

More an appreciation of Boswell’s person (complete with photograph) than a review of his book — both favorable.

Thomas, Keith. “Rescuing Homosexual History”. New York Review of Books, vol. 27 (4 December 1980), pp. 26-29.

Thomas, a major British social historian, charges Boswell with having neglected “the English, Irish, and Frankish penitentials of the seventh to ninth centuries, suggesting that they often treated homosexuality as a rather trivial matter.”

Thomas cites penitentials of this period which penalized homosexual acts more severely than adultery, regarded sodomy as worse than homicide, and prescribed castration for sodomites — hardly the “trivial matter” suggested by Boswell.

“There is indeed an element of special pleading about the way in which Mr. Boswell so relentlessly brushes aside the evidence of Christian hostility to homosexuality in earlier centuries.” [That is, prior to the 13th century.]

Towler, Robert. Sociological Analysis, vol. 42 (1981), pp. 187-88.

A brief, favorable review.

Vanderbosch, Jane. “Comment on John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality”. Signs, vol. 7 (Spring 1982), pp. 722-24.

The reviewer decries “Boswell’s brevity on the subject of women ...” She is offended by his “apologia” for the “relative absence of materials relating to women” and asserts that the subtitle of his book ought to have begun, “Gay Men” rather than “Gay People in Western Europe”, a fair point perhaps. Further, Vanderbosch criticizes Boswell for his rejection of the feminist analysis that homophobia is a byproduct of misogyny.

In Boswell’s defence one must say that his decision to focus upon relations between males was entirely proper; that indeed he had no other choice without falsifying the historical record. The notion that gay men (men who love men) and lesbians (women who reject men) are counterparts, have common goals or interests, or should be linked under a common rubric (“gay people”, “homosexuals”, “inverts”, etc.) is a relatively modern phenomenon, a pseudomedical construction of the late nineteenth century.

Since women can and abundantly do write books for and about women, it would seem fair to allow men to write books for and about men. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Vanderbosch, however, has adopted a new feminist standard for evaluating all books:

“In the end, Boswell’s otherwise admirable study is at fault for failing to answer the question that must now be asked of every text: ‘But what does it mean for women?’ ”

Weeks, Jeffrey. “In Days of Yore when Knights were Gay?” History Today (July 1980), p. 41+.

The reviewer finds Boswell’s book is “far from being the definitive work it promises to be, and suffers from a number of important weaknesses.” Weeks takes sharp issue with Boswell’s anachronistic terminology:

“But unfortunately it is argued in terms, using analytical categories, with which I do not agree, and these in the end vitiate the book’s achievement.”

In particular, Weeks objects to Boswell’s frequent misuse of the word, “gay”, with the presumption of something akin to the modern choice of a particular sexual identity:

“When Boswell translates a word in a Greek text as ‘gay’ (p. 130) he is actually subtly but fundamentally distorting the meaning, imputing modern meanings to a quite different social situation.

“Because he assumes that a gay identity similar to our own has some sort of transhistorical existence, Boswell is able to argue backwards ... And doubts are compounded by Boswell’s recourse to the word ‘may’ whenever the evidence is more than usually opaque.

“... Only by understanding sexuality and sexual meanings within their own cultural context can we actually grasp the ways in which moral norms are historically constructed.”

Wilamowitz-Steindorff, Karl von. “Only on American Soil” (letter). Village Voice (25-31 March 1981). p. 3.

“Ultimately, then ... one’s evaluation of Professor Boswell’s book will depend on one’s attitude toward the Christian religion itself. And if, as in the case of the scholars from the Gay Academic Union, that attitude is one of loathing and horror in the face of the genocide committed by the historical Church in reaction to the Paganism of the ancient world, then it is only natural to regard the book as a surreptitious (and, by extension, sophistical) effort to whitewash those atrocities.”

Wright, David F. “Homosexuals or Prostitutes: The Meaning of Arsenokoites (I Cor. 6:9, I Tim. 1:10)”. Vigiliae Christianae, vol. 38 (1984), pp. 125-53.

This nearly 30-page article by Professor Wright of Edinburgh University is a conclusive refutation of Boswell’s contention that I Cor. 6:9 did not condemn homosexual activity per se, but only male prostitution.

Though Wright is unflaggingly courteous, his analyses and copious references demonstrate that Boswell’s arguments are utterly without merit, either in whole or in part. Boswell is shown to have gone to extraordinary lengths to avoid evidence he found uncongenial to his case. (In some cases Boswell argued ex silentio when in fact the “silence” consisted of evidence hostile to his argument.)

Wright concludes that “arsenokoites” in I Cor. is a coinage of Hellenistic Judaism, and that the passage follows Leviticus 20:13 in unambiguously condemning any and all sexual activity between males:

Arsenokoites came into use, under the influence of the LXX [Septuagint] of Leviticus, to denote that homoerotic vice which Jewish writers like Philo, Josephus, Paul and Ps-Phocylides regarded as a signal token of pagan Greek depravity.”

In an unpublished lecture, Wright examines four areas of weakness in Boswell’s treatment of patristic Christianity:

  1. “Untenable Interpretation of Biblical Texts”
    (Wright sharply disputes Boswell’s interpretation of the Sodom and Gibeah incidents and his tendentious exegeses of 1 Cor. 6:9 and 1 Tim. 1:10.)

  2. “Misleading Minimizing of the Influence of the Biblical Texts on Patristic Opinion”
    (Boswell’s contentions that 1) the early Church fathers interpreted the “sin of the Sodomites” in non-sexual terms and that 2) “the Levitical prohibition lapsed with the whole Holiness Code in apostolic Christianity and thereafter” are shown to be false.)

  3. “Exaggerated Significance Attached to the Attitudes of Christian Ascetics”
    (In the areas of Animal Behavior, Unsavory Associations, Concepts of Nature, and Gender Expectations.)

  4. “Exaggeration of Prevalence of Homosexual Relationships among Christians”

Wright concludes:

“Boswell’s book provides ... not one firm piece of evidence that the teaching mind of the early Church countenanced homosexual activity ... Homosexual behavior was contrary to the will of God as expressed in Scripture and nature.”

Wright, J. Robert. “Boswell on Homosexuality: A Case Undemonstrated”. Anglican Theological Review, vol. 66 (1984), pp. 79-94.

The reviewer takes issue with Boswell’s central contention that “religious belief, Christian or other”, is not the “cause of intolerance in regard to gay people.”

Wright concentrates mainly on Boswell’s reinterpretations of scripture, demonstrating that Boswell built his case by intransigently ignoring many dozens of relevant critical commentaries, as well as such computer-format reference works as the Biblia Patristica: Index des citations et allusions bibliques dans la littérature patristique.

“It would seem, therefore, that in his enthusiasm to develop his central contention Boswell has allowed himself to neglect a large body of critical writing that would not lend support to his cause. Beyond this, in spite of a number of interesting references to the early church fathers, he seems not to have consulted the major patristic indexes that were available at the time of his writing, which would have lent some sense of completeness or thoroughness to his work.”

The reviewer further takes Boswell to task for focussing upon prejudice/hostility/intolerance/etc. towards “gay people” as a way of deflecting attention from the central issue: “the traditional Christian teaching, which is that homosexual acts are morally wrong.” He concludes:

“Neither the scholarly community, nor the church in any of its decision-making bodies (such as the General Conventions), can regard this book as having demonstrated its case.”

For assisting with references, we are indebted to Stephen Wayne Foster, George Greenia, and Michael Patrick O’Connor. Responsibility for the unquoted views expressed above remains our own.

URI of this page : http://www.pinktriangle.org.uk/lib/hic/bibliography.html
Created : Sunday, 2003-09-21 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
Brett Humphreys : webster@pinktriangle.org.uk