Belated Vindication for John Boswell
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Published in: May-June 2018 issue.


IN HIS 1995 BOOK The Marriage of Likeness: Same-sex Unions in Pre-modern Europe, John Boswell argued that in medieval Europe unions between same-sex couples were acceptable under certain circumstances and even sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church. He preferred the term “same-sex unions,” because the definition of marriage has changed so drastically throughout history in general and that of the Catholic Church in particular. “The meaning and purpose of marriage,” he wrote, was “profoundly different from its modern counterpart,” citing examples that showed how romantic love, an integral part of modern marriage, was rarely a consideration in the past. Marriage for the most part was about property, power, and children.

            Only months after Boswell’s book was published, it had gone through four printings and sold in excess of 31,000 copies, far more than most books on medieval history. Christian reviewers were on the whole negative, while most others praised Boswell’s thorough research and applauded his opening up this subject for discussion. Among his critics were those who questioned the accuracy of his translations and interpretations of a number of specialized texts. Then there were those who condemned the book even before it was published, suggesting that nothing Boswell did could have won these critics over to his argument.

John Boswell. Robert Giard Foundation.

            In the book, Boswell produced a large assortment of examples from the historical annals around the world to argue that custom and law recognized several different kinds of union that could involve two men. His main focus, of course, was on medieval Europe. Many of the discussions concerned the meaning of the Greek word “Adelphopoiesis,” a category of relationship that was recognized by the Catholic Church.


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Norena Shopland is the author of Forbidden Lives: LGBT Stories from Wales(Seren, 2018).