Skip to content

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People In Western Europe From The Beginning Of The Christian Era To The Fourteenth Century: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the 14th Century by J Boswell

August 13, 2015

Boswell 2Although some of the author’s work is speculative and has been rubbished by later historians, the scholarship in this book is very good. He shows how various biblical passages have been interpreted down the centuries and shows that the idea that the Church has consistently condemned homosexuality throughout its tradition is false. His survey of commentators is very good – he was well-placed to do this because he was an expert in several, especially medieval, languages.

Boswell was a Roman Catholic, having converted from the Episcopal Church of his upbringing at age 16. He remained a daily-mass Catholic up until his death, despite his differences with the church over sexual issues. Although he was orthodox in most of his beliefs, he strongly disagreed with his church’s stated opposition to homosexual behaviour and relationships.

Under the Republic and early Empire, Romans paid little attention to the gender of sexual partners. More important were the roles taken, in the context of social status. Poets celebrated equally love of women, or of ‘boys’. There was some disapproval of adult male citizens taking the passive role in intercourse, as this was seen as submissive, and thus only appropriate for those of lower status. Same sex marriage was possible, and well known

“Christianity had a major effect in the shift of social mores, it’s influence on attitudes to homosexuality was certainly more complex and varied and complex than is commonly supposed or has been recognized”.

Boswell looks at the “clobber texts” and proves that they were differently understood in the early church.

“Sodomy” had nothing whatsoever to do with the biblical sin of Sodom.  Genesis 19 is not homosexuality, but about either the failure to provide hospitality to strangers, or about male rape. The wickedness of Sodom is elsewhere described as “pride, fullness of bread, abundance of idleness, neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy”.

In Leviticus, the “abomination” of men lying with men is an offence against Jewish impurity laws (comparable to dietary regulations, and prohibitions against trimming the beard, or wearing clothing of mixed cloth).  They were not seen as morally binding on Gentile Christians.

In the New Testament, the hostile interpretations of 1Cor 6:9 and 1 Tim 1:10 are based on mistranslations of two Greek words.  The first, “malakoi”, refers not to sex between men, but to a more general softness or effeminacy, and was widely understood to refer to masturbation.  The other, “arsenokotoi“, probably refers, like the Hebrew “kadash“,  to temple prostitutes.

Romans 1:26 -27 is talking about apparently heterosexual persons engaging in homosexual acts.  It follows that the unseemliness does not apply to same sex acts between homosexual partners.

Christ himself made no comment at all on homosexual activities, nor pronounced any condemnations of sexuality among the unmarried.  “Sexuality appears to have been a matter of indifference to Jesus”

Although “Christian synods and princes exacted penalties against homosexual practices” (from the 4th century) it wasn’t a major cause of concern for the church as a whole for many centuries, not until the III Lateran Council of 1179!

In the late 11th century Pope Urban II was so little interested in homosexuality that he allowed the election and consecration of an openly gay bishop (John of Orleans), known to be the young lover of another openly gay archbishop (Ralph of Tours), and former lover of another bishop and of the king of France.  This election was strongly opposed by influential factions of the local church: but not on the grounds of sexuality, but of his youth. Pope Urban also had strong personal grounds to oppose the elevation, based on ecclesiastical politics and rivalries, to dislike and oppose the Archbishop Ralph.  Yet in spite of this, the elevation went ahead in 1098.

Those who call this work ‘revisionist’ seem to be suffering from so much cognitive dissonance that they cannot cope with their world view being challenged. That’s their problem but they should not use their entrenched views to justify persecuting LGBTIs.

Some say that you need a degree to understand it. This isn’t so – I know of someone who left school at 1 but who found it so liberating that it enabled her to leave an abusive marriage.

Boswell 1 Quotations:

Tracing the course of intolerance reveals much about the landscape it traverses, and for this reason alone it deserves to be studied…On the other hand, the social topography of medieval Europe remains so unexplored that studies of any aspect of it are largely pioneering and hence provisional. Later generations will certainly recognize many wrong turns, false leads, and dead ends mistakenly pursued by those who had no trails to follow, whose only landmarks were those they themselves posted…To this ineluctable hazard of early research is added the difficulty in the case at issue that a great many people believe they already know where the trails ought to lead, and they will blame the investigator not only for the inevitable errors of first explorations but also for the extent to which his results, however tentative and well intentioned, do not accord with their preconceptions of the subject.”

“There is no indication that any church official suggested or supported the emperor’s action against gay people. On the contrary, the only persons known by name to have been punished for homosexual acts were prominent bishops.”

Historical ethical systems based on “nature” opposed shaving, growing flowers indoors, dyeing garments, regular bathing, birth control, and scores other activities performed daily by the same people who use the term natural” to justify their antipathy toward gay people.

The extremely ascetic and antisexual Origen, for in­stance, who allegedly castrated himself to avoid sexual temptation, nonethe­less refrained from any comments about homosexuality when analyzing the story, seeing it simply in terms of hospitality: “Hear this, you who close your homes to guests ! Hear this, you who shun the traveler as an enemy ! Lot lived among the Sodomites. We do not read of any other good deeds of his . . . he escaped the flames, escaped the fire, on account of one thing only. He opened his home to guests. The angels entered the hospitable household; the flam entered those homes closed to guests” (Homilia Vin Genesim [PG, 12 : 188-89]). The only sexual matter relating to Lot which the influential theologian chose to comment on was the incestuous behavior of Lot’s daughters, and he wrote at some length on whether or not this could be justified (189ff.). Likewise Saint Ambrose, although he believed there was sexual interest on the part the Sodomites, saw the moral issue as primarily one of hospitality: “placed the hospitality of his house—sacred even among a barbarous people—above the modesty [of his daughters].” 19 John Cassian rejected ignored the supposed homosexual import of Sodom’s fall and claimed that was occasioned by gluttony,2° and many subsequent Christian auth completely ignored any sexual implications of Sodom’s fate (e.g., Sa. Isidore of Seville, in his Sententiae 42.2 [PL, 83:647]). As late as the fourteen century Piers Plowman voiced the opinion that “the awful catastrophe t came on the Sodomites was due to overplenty and to pure sloth.”

The word “sodomite” occurs twice in the King James translation of Old Testament in contexts which imply sexual sins. Even if these w accurate translations, the word would not necessarily imply homosexuality since by the early seventeenth century ” sodomy ” referred to ” unnatural sex acts of any type and included certain relations between heterosexual anal intercourse, for instance.

(Malakos) either “unrestrained” or “wanton,” but to assume that concepts necessarily applies to gay people is wholly gratuitous. ….never used in Greek to designate gay people as a group or reference to homosexual acts generically, and it often occurs in contemporary with the Pauline epistles in reference to heterosexual activity

(arsenokoitai) is quite rare, and its application to homosexuality in particular is more understandable. The best evidence, however, suggests very strongly that it did not connote homosexuality to or his contemporaries but meant “male prostitute” until well into the century, after which it became confused with a variety of words for disapproved sexual activity and was often equated with homosexuality.

there is only one place in the writings which eventually became Bible where homosexual relations per se are clearly pro­s—and the context in which this prohibition occurred inapplicable to the Christian community, at least as moral law.

Although the attitudes of Christian ascetics probably affected only a small on of the early church, they were eventually to provide the official justification for the oppression of gay people in many Christian states, and deserve to be considered here. They can be subsumed under four headings: (1) animal behavior, (2) unsavory associations, (3) concepts of re,” and (4) gender expectations.

Of the the four, only the last was designed to disparage homosexual behavior rticular. The other three were originally condemnations of behavior which involved homosexuality only incidentally—and only to the extent they involved heterosexuality—but came, through misinterpretation and selective inference, to be applied to gay people in particular.

Animal behavior. The earliest and most influential of all arguments used Christian theologians opposed to homosexual behavior were those red from animal behavior. The Epistle of Barnabas, probably composed g the first century A.D., is now considered apocryphal but was accepted Scripture by most early Christians familiar with it. It forms part of the text of the most famous surviving manuscript of the Bible, the Codex ticus, and its influence can be traced for centuries in the writings of y prominent fathers of the church (Clement, Origen, Eusebius, et al.). author of the work equated Mosaic prohibitions of eating certain als with various sexual sins:

[Moses said,] You shall not eat the hare [cf. Lev. 11 :5]. Why? So at, he said, you may not become a boy-molester’ or be made like these. For the hare grows a new anal opening each year, so that however many years he has lived, he has that many anuses.

Nor should you eat the hyena, he said, so that you may not become an adulterer or a seducer, or like them. Why? Because this animal changes its gender annually and is one year a male and the next a female.

And he also rightly despised the weasel [cf. Lev. i 1 :29]. You shall not, he said, become as these, who we hear commit uncleanness with their mouths, nor shall you be joined to those women who have committed illicit acts orally with the unclean. For this animal conceives through its mouth.

The opinions of this text and the errors involved in applying them homosexuality involve so many and such complex misunderstandings th only the barest summary can be provided here. Moses did not, of course attribute these bizarre characteristics to the animals in question, nor did he in fact even prohibit the eating of the hyena, but few early Christians knew Constitutions of that century, his comments were already being applied to sexual activity between persons of the same gender (or to all nonprocreative sexuality between any persons). This was doubtless due in large measure to its adoption by Clement of Alexandria as the backbone of his argument against homosexuality in the Paedagogus, an extremely popular manual instruction for Christian parents. Although Clement was one of the earliest Christian theologians to invoke the “Alexandrian rule” (that sexual intercourse must be directed toward procreation in order to be moral) in cussing homosexuality, his deprecation of homosexual relations was bas primarily on the animal arguments of Barnabas. Moses, he observed, he rejected “fruitless sowings” by forbidding eating hyena and hare, sin “these animals are quite obsessed with sexual intercourse.” Clement h obviously read Aristotle (or an epitome) and was aware that naturalists his day were wrong in attributing to the hyena the ability to change gender but he believed that male hyenas regularly mounted each other rather t the female and inferred that Moses’ supposed prohibition against eat them must be a specific condemnation of homosexual relations. He b tressed his arguments with the comments of Paul in Romans and quotati from Plato taken out of context, and he maintained that Plato had objected to homosexual behavior on the basis of his reading of the Bible.

Boswell 3It is easy to deride Clement’s ignorance, but his attitudes on this point were influential. In an age when his argument that the only lawful end sexual pleasure was procreation had not yet won universal acceptance, other objections were ultimately persuasive, especially since they folio the Epistle of Barnabas, which both Clement and his readers considered apostolic, and since they were addressed to the sensitive issue of the pro rearing of children.

In the West, where fanciful zoology was equally popular and where particular foibles of the hare, hyena, and weasel had been introduced literature of all types, a Latin translation of Barnabas acquainted Christians moral implications of such behavior. Novatian, obviously by this idea, wrote that “in animals the law has established a sort of human life. . . . For what does the law intend when it says, not eat. . . the hare’ ? It condemns those men who have made women.)

persistence and ubiquity of this tradition were assured by the incorpo­of the sexual inferences about the animals in question into the single popular work of natural science of the Middle Ages, one of the most read treatises of any sort prior to the seventeenth century. The Physiologus was a collection of anecdotes about animals—some more or less te, some wildly fanciful—in which a Christian moral was extracted various aspects of animal behavior. It first appeared in Greek a little the Epistle of Barnabas and quickly made its way into Latin, where its popularity gave rise to dozens of different versions. During the Middle it was translated into almost every medieval vernacular from Icelandic Arabic. Its influence was incalculable, particularly during the High Middle Ages. Available in every Romance language as “the bestiary,” served as a manual of piety, a primer of zoology, and a form of entertainment. Even many modern bits of animal lore owe their popularity to the influence of the Physiologus and bestiaries derived from it.

Whether or not they were partly derived from Barnabas or Clement, early Greek and Latin versions of the Physiologus made exactly the same fanciful connection between the colorful legends about animal sexuality anc. Mosaic law.

The law says, “You shall not eat the weasel or anything like it.” The Physiologus has written of it that it has this trait: the female receives from the male in her mouth, becomes pregnant, and gives birth through her ears. . . . The law says, “You shall not eat the hyena or anything like it.” The Physiologus has written of it that it is male-female that is, at one time male and at another female. It is therefore an unclean animal, because of this sex change. This is why Jeremiah said “Never will the den of the hyena be my inheritance.”

You must not, therefore, become like the hyena, taking first the male and then the female nature; these, he says, the holy Apostle reproached when he spoke of “men with men doing that which is unseemly.”

These associations profoundly affected subsequent attitudes towards homosexual behavior. Half a millennium after Barnabas, the bishop Pavia could make fun of a gay male by comparing him to a hare, and a later Bernard of Cluny could assail homosexual relations e observation that a man who thus “dishonors his maleness” a hyena.” There was no need to explain such references; ers could be sure that their audiences were familiar with one or dozens of bestiaries available in nearly every European language which explained the offensive practices of the hare, hyena, and wease1. Greek East the legends about these animals not only persisted but

In the sixth-century version of Timothy of Gaza not only the also the hare changed gender annually, and the weasel could drop through the ear or the mouth in the Greek version of the Hieroglyphics of Horapollo, hyenas had magical properties as well as sex and the female weasel had the male organ of her species. These legends passed into Arabic lore as well, whence they were eventually the Western tradition in altered form.

Lending at interest, sexual intercourse during the menstrual period, jewelry or dyed fabrics, shaving, regular bathing, wearing wigs, serving in the civil government or army, performing manual labor on feast days, eating kosher food, practicing circumcision were condemned absolutely by various fathers of the church, the same condemned homosexual behavior and many other activities, due to personal prejudice, misinformation, or an extremely literal interpretation of the Bible.

Some authors have inferred from the elaborate prescriptions regarding homosexual relations in the “penitentials” that the early medieval church was obsessed with punishing homosexual behavior. This conclusion unwarranted. The penitentials were collections of penances to be assigned for sins by confessors; they were designed both as guides for priests uncertain about appropriate penances and as efforts at standardization of the severity of such penalties. As such they were necessarily detailed: their aim specify a penance for every sin a priest might hear mentioned in the confessional. Homosexuality is given no greater attention than other sins viewed comparatively, appears to have been thought less grave than common activities as hunting. The eighth-century penitential of Pope Saint Gregory III, for example, specified penances of 160 days for lesbian activities and as little as one for homosexual acts between males.” In comparison, the penance priest’s going hunting was three years.”

On balance, the most reasonable inference would seem to be that, while heretical movements might attract nonconformists of all sorts and might have some reason to deal with homosexuality more flexibly than the Catholic church, most of the charges of sexual deviation leveled against heretics were formulaic, either the consequence of fear and prejudice or conscious fabrica­tions for propaganda purposes. Many heretical movements of the time were noted for extreme asceticism, even among their critics, and the indulgent and moral looseness of the Catholic clergy was one of the major complaints of those abandoning the organized church. It does not seem likely persons willing to suffer gruesome deaths for the sake of restoring Christianity to its early purity would have preached sexual license of any sort, h sexual or heterosexual, and there is no reliable evidence that most her sexual mores differed from those of their Catholic contemporaries in the direction of greater restraint. There is, on the other hand, considerable reason to suspect ecclesiastical officials of wishing to portray heretics most damaging light possible, and sexual peculiarities were singularly used for this purpose in the changing climate of opinion of the thirteenth century.

To return to the home page, click on the header at the top of this page.


From → Biblical, Sexuality

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: