Boswell, John 1947–1994

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Boswell, John

John Boswell was perhaps one of the most controversial and influential figures in the fields of the history of sexuality, religious studies, and medieval history in the late twentieth century. Born in 1947 in Boston, he attended the College of William and Mary, and after earning his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1975, he joined the Yale history department as an assistant professor. He became full professor in 1982 and was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History in 1990. A popular teacher and lecturer, Boswell frequently spoke on issues concerning gay rights. In 1987 he was instrumental in creating the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale. He died of an AIDS-related illness in 1994.

His groundbreaking work Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (1980) won the National Book Award for History in 1981. In it Boswell challenges an idea that had become a commonplace: that Christianity had always considered homosexual acts morally wrong and that it had a longstanding tradition of homophobic practices. He stresses that there had been tolerance for homosexual acts in Greek, Roman, Hebrew, and early Christian societies. He further maintains that neither scripture nor early Christian society demanded a negative response to same-sex relations. He posits that "gay subcultures" existed in both ancient and medieval times, and explores the twelfth century as a period when homoerotic relationships flourished, even among members of the clergy. He positions the rise of homophobia in the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when Christian writers read their attitudes back into earlier texts. By applying the term gay to the past, Boswell suggested a transhistorical identity.

Boswell's research, critical perspective, and conclusions sparked a variety of responses—not all positive. Boswell, himself a converted Catholic, was criticized for advocacy scholarship. He was labeled an apologist for Christianity, attempting to read homophobia out of Christianity. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Catholic and conservative Christian readers attacked his work as a distortion of fundamental Christian principles. His study heightened the essentialist-social constructionist debate over the understanding of same-sex relationships in the past. Boswell stressed that his use of gay was not anachronistic; rather he selected the term to indicate individuals who chose same-sex relations. Scholars who disputed this usage advocated the Foucauldian notion that the concept of sexual identity did not become a functional category until the nineteenth century. Criticism also came from feminist scholars, who noted the absence of a serious discussion of women in his study, and viewed it as rein-scribing the marginality of lesbian experience and confirming the medieval misogynistic viewpoint.

In his later work, Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994), Boswell contends that the Christian Church had sanctioned same-sex unions and had complex rituals for these unions, thus offering an historical precedent for same-sex marriage. Basing his analysis on a wide range of manuscripts reflecting practices in the Mediterranean, Boswell draws a parallel between heterosexual marriage and voluntary same-sex unions between males. What remains unclear in these couples is whether their bond was only emotional, not physical. Although none of the evidence that Boswell uncovered in the manuscripts ever indicated an erotic relationship, one may have existed. Some critics maintain that the adelphopoiesis (brother-making) rituals were ceremonies pledging loyalty and brotherhood between men.

The controversy that Boswell's studies elicited raises the issue of how we interpret medieval responses to same-sex relationships. Whether one rejects or supports his conclusions, Boswell's work reopens the debate of understanding medieval sexuality.

see also Gay; Homosexuality, Male, History of.


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

Boswell, John. 1982–1983. "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories." Salmagundi 58: 89-113.

Boswell, John. 1994. Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. New York: Villard.

Johansson, Warren; Wayne R. Dynes; and John Lauritsen. 2003. Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity: A Critical Examination of John Boswell's Work. Pink Triangle Trust Library. Available from

Kuefler, Mathew, ed. 2006. The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

                                      Edith Joyce Benkov