Boswell, John (Eastburn) 1947-1994

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BOSWELL, John (Eastburn) 1947-1994

PERSONAL: Born March 20, 1947, in Boston, MA; died of AIDS, December 23, 1994, in New Haven, CT; son of Henry (a U.S. Army officer) and Catherine (Eastburn) Boswell. Education: College of William and Mary, A.B., 1969; Harvard University, M.A., 1971, Ph.D., 1975. Religion: Roman Catholic.

CAREER: Yale University, New Haven, CT, assistant professor, 1975-81, associate professor, 1981-82, professor of history, 1982-94, director of graduate studies in history, 1984-86, chairman of history department, 1990-92.

MEMBER: Phi Eta Sigma, Pi Delta Epsilon, Eta Sigma Phi, Phi Beta Kappa.

AWARDS, HONORS: Woodrow Wilson fellowship; Morse fellowship; Frederic G. Melcher Award from the Unitarian Universalist Association, in recognition of an outstanding literary work contributing to religious liberalism, and National Book Award for history, both 1981, for Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality; honorary master of arts degree from Yale University, 1982; William Clyde deVane Medal from Yale University for teaching and scholarship, 1982; first place in the One Hundred Best Lesbian and Gay Nonfiction Books, Publishing Triangle, 2004, for Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.


The Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century, Yale University Press (New Haven, CT), 1977.

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1980.

The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1988.

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Villard (New York, NY), 1994.

Contributor of articles to scholarly journals.

SIDELIGHTS: John Boswell stirred controversy in the 1980s and 1990s with two major histories dealing with homosexuality and its place in the Christian West. A professor of history at Yale University, Boswell was best known for his study Christianity, Social Tolerance,and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, for which he won the National Book Award in 1981. Educated at the College of William and Mary and at Harvard University, Boswell joined the faculty of Yale University in 1975. At Yale he helped establish the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies and served as chairperson of the history department from 1990 to 1992. His last work, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, published in 1994—the same year Boswell died of AIDS—proposes that homosexual unions were publicly and liturgically sanctioned during the Middle Ages.

Reviewer Martin Bauml Duberman, writing in New Republic, called Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality "one of the most profound, explosive works of scholarship to appear within recent memory." Offering what critics termed a revolutionary new interpretation of the origins of Christian intolerance of homosexuality, Boswell drew on his knowledge of more than a dozen languages and his broad familiarity with biblical, classical, early Christian, and medieval sources to construct a work that spans fifteen hundred years of European history.

In a Newsweek interview, Boswell once described his original motivation to write the book. He recalled that he was still in graduate school when a divinity student friend asked him about the meaning of certain Greek terms in the New Testament that had been translated as references to homosexuals. Consulting texts in the original Greek, Boswell came to his first discovery that the word "homosexual" does not in fact appear in the biblical scriptures. This interpretation aroused skepticism in his friend's seminary class, and it stimulated Boswell's curiosity to the extent that he mounted a full scholarly investigation of Christian attitudes toward homosexuality. Ten years later Boswell's studies culminated in the publication of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

The author-historian contravenes accepted opinion by asserting that neither Christian doctrine nor religious practice was explicitly anti-homosexual until the late Middle Ages, at which time various secular pressures prompted St. Thomas Aquinas to lead a new evaluation of Church teachings. Boswell buttresses his argument with a detailed etymological analysis of biblical passages commonly interpreted as condemning homosexuality, and he provides a historical survey of the actual treatment of homosexuals by the Church, civil authority, and general public in Europe from Roman times to the fourteenth century. Boswell's findings are "completely at odds with all our preconceptions about Western civilization," noted New York Times Book Review critic Paul Robinson. "But the book's argument is of such richness—its empirical base so broad, its reasoning so fierce—that it succeeds in making one think the unthinkable. It forces us to re-examine even the most fixed notions about our moral and cultural heritage."

There is no passage in the Bible, Boswell declares in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, which "would have categorically precluded homosexual relations among early Christians....At the very most, the effect of Christian Scripture on attitudes toward homosexuality could be described as moot." The author reports that he could discover no extant text or manuscript in either Hebrew, Greek, Syriac, or Aramaic that even contained a word referring specifically to homosexuals, and he argues that the biblical passages traditionally thought to proscribe homosexuality were mistranslated and actually have different meanings. Boswell interprets the sin of the city of Sodom described in the book of Genesis, for example, as inhospitality to strangers, not sodomy. Similarly, the prohibitions in Leviticus, referring to homosexual acts as an abomination and making them a capital offense, reflect Jewish ritual cleanliness concerns, in Boswell's view, rather than a condemnation of homosexuality itself. Even St. Paul's stern censure in Romans, the author asserted, condemns not homosexuals but homosexual acts committed by normally heterosexual persons.

Proceeding from scriptural interpretation to social history, Boswell found a general public tolerance of homosexuality in the Roman world at the beginning of the Christian era in the first two centuries A.D. He argues that while certain early Christian ascetics condemned homosexuality from a general conviction that sexuality should be purely procreative, the broader Christian population did not share this view and tended to regard homosexual attraction as normal. Boswell asserts that certain prominent Church leaders, like St. Paulinus, bishop of Nola, appear to have been openly homosexual yet were revered by the faithful.

Having dismissed early Christian attitudes as a factor, the author suggests that the civil legislation curbing homosexual rights that was adopted in Europe during the fourth through sixth centuries may have an explanation in the increasing ruralization of society as the Roman empire declined. Rural societies, he notes, are structured on family lines and accordingly emphasize procreative sexuality, tending to regard homosexuality as an unwelcome aberration. Homosexual "marriages" were outlawed in 342 A.D. and homosexual activity banned altogether in the remnants of the empire in the sixth century. Little is known of European social life over the next four or five hundred years, but Boswell discovered a new flowering of homosexual culture accompanying renewed urbanization and a revival of classical learning and taste in the early medieval period. "Despite considerable local variation, attitudes toward homosexuality grew steadily more tolerant throughout the early Middle Ages," he writes, as same-sex prostitution and brothels flourished in the urban centers. The years 1050 to 1150 witnessed what the author interprets as an outpouring of popular poetry on homoerotic love themes, much of it written by clerics. Boswell regards the writings and friendships of a number of well-known clerics in the period as clearly homoerotic, and even suggests that St. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, may himself have had homosexual proclivities. Periodic denunciations of homosexual practices, with demands that clerical offenders be punished, were effectively ignored by popes and bishops, reports Boswell.

Toward the end of the twelfth century, Boswell continues, both civil and ecclesiastical authority turned against homosexuality. The Church's Third Lateran Council of 1179 declared homoerotic acts to be sins against nature and punishable by excommunication. "During the two hundred years from 1150 to 1350, homosexual behavior appears to have changed, in the eyes of the public, from the personal preference of a prosperous minority, satirized and celebrated in popular verse, to a dangerous, antisocial, and severely sinful aberration," he writes. "Between 1250 and 1300, homosexual activity passed from being completely legal in most of Europe to incurring the death penalty in all but a few contemporary legal compilations." Boswell points to several historical developments as possible reasons for the sudden shift in attitude against homosexuality, while noting that contemporary knowledge of the medieval period is still too sketchy "to analyze the causes of this change satisfactorily." In the author's interpretation, an important clue may be found in the general surge of intolerance towards minorities in the thirteenth century, including heretics, Muslims, and Jews, as well as homosexuals. Boswell suggests that the breakdown of the traditional social order, with attendant political instability, and the rise of the secular state in the High Middle Ages generated new pressures for social conformity and created the repressive apparatus for controlling individual lives. The period witnessed a general systematization of culture and politics that rendered all forms of distinctiveness less acceptable. In addition, the author notes a relationship between the declining fortunes of the Christian crusaders in the Holy Land and the rise in hostility toward infidels and other minorities at home. "This interpretation is presented with vigor and clarity," noted Keith Thomas in the New York Review of Books.

In Boswell's view, "The positions of Aquinas and other high medieval theologians regarding homosexuality appear to have been a response more to the pressures of popular antipathy than to the weight of Christian tradition." Aquinas's thirteenth-century argument against homosexuality, which remains one of the Catholic Church's principal teachings on the subject, relied in part on patterns of animal behavior to distinguish what the theologian termed "natural" from "unnatural" pleasures. "Boswell subjects Aquinas's argument de animalibus to a merciless, though well deserved, thrashing for its intellectual clumsiness and partiality," remarked Robinson. Boswell concludes that "Aquinas could bring to bear no argument against homosexual behavior which would make it more serious than overeating." The judgment of both ecclesiastical and civil authority, nevertheless, was that sex must be either procreative or immoral, and this also became the dominant popular view well into the modern period.

While commending Boswell for the depth of his scholarship and the originality of his thesis, several critics disagreed with some key interpretations in Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Commonweal's Louis Crompton was unconvinced "that the Bible does not take so negative a stand on homosexuality as is popularly supposed" and judged St. Paul's condemnation in Romans "unambiguous." Peter Linehan of the Times Literary Supplement found insufficient evidence for Boswell's suggestion that certain clerical friendships in the twelfth century were homosexual in nature.

Other reviewers were more laudatory in their judgment of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Critic reviewer Richard Woods, for example, predicted that Boswell's book "will certainly become the standard reference work in the historical study of homosexuality in the Christian era." And Robinson wrote that "Boswell restores one's faith in scholarship as the union of erudition, analysis, and moral vision," adding that the book "sets a standard of excellence that one would have thought impossible in the treatment of an issue so large, uncharted, and vexed."

Boswell dealt with a less-volatile issue in The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. This book was inspired by the discovery of an admonition by the early Christian Church for men not to consort with prostitutes. Such a ban was in place not because the deed was considered sinful, but because such customers might risk incest. In other words, child abandonment was common enough that even selling such children directly into prostitution was widespread. For Lawrence Stone, reviewing the book in the New Republic, "Boswell's appalling story reminds us that public attitudes toward the treatment of children have changed so dramatically that child abuse by parents today is a major source of public and private concern." Speaking with Alvin P. Sanoff in U.S. News and World Report, Boswell once noted that he thought he could "write a little article based on a small amount of anecdotal evidence." He went on to explain, "But as I worked on it, I realized that abandonment of children was a very important demographic phenomenon. In European cities in the eighteenth century, about one out of every three children was abandoned. In southern Italy, the number ran almost as high as fifty percent."

With his final book, the 1994 Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Boswell once again struck on a controversial issue, expanding on his contention in his earlier Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, that for over a thousand years the early Catholic Church of Europe actually had rituals for joining same-sex couples, rites suppressed only in later, more homophobic times. In this work Boswell produces such rituals in translation and goes into the history of both heterosexual marriage and same-sex unions from Classical times to the Middle Ages in Europe. Boswell demonstrates that the number of men who actually went through such rituals and set up domestic relationships together was "in significant numbers," according to a reviewer for Publishers Weekly. Boswell, further relates that these rituals "were equivalent in meaning and in form to heterosexual marriages," as Peter Stanford observed in a New Statesman and Society review. Stanford also pointed out that Boswell "pithily" demonstrates how marriage has been turned upside down for everyone in the modern world, changing from a matter of property to a matter of love. The same reviewer concluded that Boswell's book was "closely argued, moderately phrased in deference to the prejudices that it may excite, and a model of accessible scholarship."

But Boswell's book did, in fact, excite prejudices and criticism. Philip Lyndon Reynolds, writing in the Christian Century, found it a "muddled book" with "very little bearing on the issue of gay union and gay marriage in churches today." Gerald Bray, writing in Christianity Today, contended that the liturgies and rituals Boswell alludes to and quotes were in fact intended for ritual brotherhood rather than same-sex unions. In Bray's view, "Boswell quotes what suits his case and does not give an overall picture of human relationships in premodern times." Bray went on to note that "What Boswell has done, though, is remind us of the extent to which the art of friendship, especially male friendship, has been lost." Commonweal's Robert L. Wilken also was of the opinion that such rituals were not a type of gay marriage, but rather "a form of ritualized friendship between males that had been practicing in the Eastern Mediterranean since the time of Homer." Wilken accused Boswell of writing propaganda rather than history. For him Boswell's book "creates a world that never existed, misrepresents Christian practice, and distorts the past. This is a book on a mission, scholarship at the service of social reform, historical learning yoked to a cause, a tract in the cultural wars, and this is in that spirit that it should be read." Similarly, Brent D. Shaw, reviewing the book in the New Republic, thought that "a more civil and humane modernity will not be achieved by tendentious misreadings of antiquity."

Other critics were more positive in their judgments of the work. Timothy Perper, for example, writing in Journal of Sex Research, called Same-Sex Unions "a major work of historiography." Perper further commented, "It is not final nor persuasive in all its details. Those are trivial issues. The crucial point is that texts long hidden in the archives have come to light once more. For that, Boswell's twelve-year odyssey deserves great praise." Nation's Bruce Halsinger observed that "Boswell's careful methodology is obvious in the very structure of the book," and that his findings would "unquestionably challenge a number of cherished assumptions about the nature and history of Christianity." A critic for Publishers Weekly had further praise for Same-Sex Unions, calling it a "stunning, complex book that is demanding in the brilliance of its scholarship but written with sterling clarity." Ray Olson, writing in Booklist, also commended Boswell's "lucidity in writing" and "scrupulous scholarly documentation." Most prophetic of all, in light of the flourishing cultural argument over same-sex unions that was ongoing during the 2000s, was commentary by an Economist contributor who noted, "There has been much scholarly fuss over Boswell's work, which will provide fodder for many seminars to come. Even if scholars eventually plump emphatically for Boswell's view—and at present medievalists are testy about it—the large question of whether homosexual marriage is appropriate in modern societies will remain contentious."



Boswell, John, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century, University of Chicago Press (Chicago, IL), 1980.

Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity: A Critical Examination of John Boswell's Work, Scholarship Committee, Gay Academic Union (New York, NY), 1981.


Advocate, June 22, 2004, "Simply the Best," p. 172.

Booklist, June 1, 1994, Ray Olson, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 1735.

Christian Century, January 21, 1981; January 18, 1995, Philip Lyndon Reynolds, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 49.

Christianity Today, December 12, 1994, Gerald Bray, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 46.

Commonweal, February 27, 1981, Louis Crompton, review of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century; September 9, 1994, Robert L. Wilken, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 24.

Critic, November, 1980, Richard Woods, review of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

Economist, February 11, 1995, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 77.

English Historical Review, October, 1981.

Journal of Sex Research, November, 1994, Timothy Perper, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 315.

Lambda Book Report, September-October, 1994, John D'Emilio, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 14.

Nation, September 5, 1994, Bruce Halsinger, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 241.

New Republic, October 18, 1980, Martin Bauml Duberman, review of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality; February 27, 1989, Lawrence Stone, review of The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe, p. 31; July 18, 1994, Brent D. Shaw, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 33.

New Statesman and Society, February 24, 1995, Peter Stanford, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 53.

Newsweek, September 29, 1980.

New York Review of Books, December 4, 1980, Keith Thomas, review of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

New York Times Book Review, August 10, 1980, Paul Robinson, review of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

People, June 27, 1994, Bill Hewitt, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 57.

Publishers Weekly, June 6, 1994, review of Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, p. 52.

Times Literary Supplement, January 23, 1981, Peter Linehan, review of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality.

U.S. News and World Report, March 11, 1981; May 1, 1998, Alvin P. Sanoff, "The Unwanted Children of Times Past."



Washington Post, December 27, 1994.*