- The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality
The publication in 1980 of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (hereafter CSTH) by John Boswell marked the beginning of radical changes that persist to the present in the ways that historians, especially medievalists, deal with same-sex relationships. The sixteen chapters that make up The Boswell Thesis seek to assess some of the ways that Boswell's work has continued to roil historical scholarship during the past quarter of a century.
The opening essay by the editor, Matthew Kuefler, outlines the central tenets of Boswell's argument. In brief, Christianity, according to Boswell, emerged in a Mediterranean world where intimate relations between persons of the same sex were widely tolerated, if not invariably condoned. Neither the Christian Scriptures nor the early church Fathers, Boswell maintained, expressed blanket disapproval of homosexual practices. Those who now believe that they did so, he asserts, misunderstand the sources. The moral neutrality toward homosexual relations that characterized the Early Church, Boswell continues, persisted throughout the early Middle Ages. Hostility toward same-sex relationships began to surface in Christian Europe only during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As condemnation of same-sex relationships and those who engaged in them grew more severe, Boswell concluded, mainstream scholars and church authorities began to read their own attitudes back into the documents of the Early Church in order to justify their position.
Boswell, to say the least, set the cat among the pigeons, and feathers continue to flutter furiously, both among those who accept his views and those who find them unpersuasive or even abhorrent. Both groups, it must be said, include people of all sexual orientations. Indeed some of the earliest and most vociferous critics of Boswell's views were members of the gay community, many of whom considered his judgments of the Church far too benign, as Kuefler points out in his extended account of the reviews that CSTH received upon publication. The present book, however, presents overwhelmingly the views of accepters, although the individual authors do so with varying degrees of enthusiasm. [End Page 281]
The chapter by Ralph Hexter that follows Kuefler's introduction is a particularly informative, indeed moving, personal account of the making of CSTH and subsequent reactions to it. Hexter, to whom Boswell dedicated CSTH and whom he designated as his literary executor, was close to Boswell throughout the period when he was working on CSTH. On Boswell's own published testimony, Hexter contributed enormously to the book's development. He is accordingly able to draw not only upon personal recollections of the book's creation, but also to document his statements in detail from the correspondence that remains in his keeping, pending its deposit in a public archive.
Among the more notable of the fourteen remaining chapters in The Boswell Thesis are Mark D. Jordan's reading of Boswell's conception of his scholarship as a Christian ministry, Amy Richlin's analysis of the love letters exchanged between Marcus Cornelius Fronto and the emperor Marcus Aurelius, E. Ann Matter's investigation of the traces of lesbian relationships in medieval religious houses for women, Jacqueline Murray's reflections on male expressions of fear of castration and their implications for medieval notions of masculinity, Ruth Mazo Karras' study of "compulsory heterosexuality" among medieval knights, and Penelope D. Johnson's examination of the visions of Gerardesca of Pisa and her apparent obsession with her clothing.
Anyone concerned with the study of medieval sexual attitudes and behavior will find this attractive and well-chosen collection of essays intellectually provocative and stimulating, whether they agree with the authors' views or not.