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NOTES ON THE FINDINGS OF PROF. JOHN BOSWELL

CONCERNING THE PERFORMANCE OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGES

BY THE CHURCH FROM THE 4th CENTURY TO THE PRESENT


about the researcher

John Boswell received his Ph. D. in history from Harvard University in 1975. He then began teaching in the History Department at Yale, becoming a full professor in 1982. His books include:

The lecture on which these notes are based was given at a luncheon at the Episcopal Church's General Convention in Detroit, July 1988.
Since that time, Professor Boswell has become Chairman of the History Department at Yale. (This is Yale's largest academic department.)
He subsequently published a book, The Marriage of Likeness which describes the topics covered in these notes. Sadly, he is now dead.


The subject of these notes is a Christian same-sex marriage service.

It was apparently performed as early as the 5th century.

Legal references to marriages of two males occur in the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries. There are no liturgical manuscripts of any sort older than the 8th century. This service is found in 8th century manuscripts.

In certain remote areas, the service is still performed by Catholic priests today. The practice was widely attested to by European anthropologists in the 1940s and 1950s.

The service has been mostly performed in Greek or Slavic, and Prof. Boswell doubts that in recent history it has been performed in areas without a Greek or Slavic heritage.

Montaigne saw it performed in Rome in his lifetime. Venetian ambassadors to Rome in the 17th and 18th centuries wrote of the practice, which was a surprise to them.

Boswell has researched libraries in Munich, Paris, Rome, and other locations, turning up about 100 versions of the service.

Evidence that the service is a marriage is of various sorts. Sometimes this is directly stated in the rubrics. Sometimes it is in the description of the services in the manuscript's index. Sometimes it may only be inferred by its placement in the manuscript, which is regularly just before or just after the heterosexual marriage service.

You may be asking how there could be such a service in the same Europe where "sodomites" were burned at the stake?

The subject of marriage is a complicated one, and many ideas can be involved.

Over the time span being considered, many different kinds of things have been considered marriage, some of which we would not necessarily consider marriage today. Examples include:

In ancient times, sometimes the idea was that the marriage came first, and then the two people might fall in love. In other instances, people married because they were already in love. Both possibilities were recognized. In many European cultures, most people, e.g. slaves, couldn't marry at all, and while such people could have considered themselves married, nobody would have honored their union.

Hetero-gender marriage derives principally from Roman secular customs. It originally consisted of the promising ceremony and then later the nuptials, at which the husband took possession of the wife from her father.

Until the 12th century, the service was performed in a public or secular site, such as a town square or a home, not in a church.

In the 11th century, the typical venue for hetero-gender marriage moved to the front (i.e. the outside) of the church. In the 12th century hetero-gender marriage became explicitly thought of as sacramental.  It was often performed in the context of the Eucharist.

The legal and the religious traditions began to merge in about 1200.

In 1215, hetero-gender marriage was officially declared a sacrament by the Western Catholic Church, and consent was recognized as a necessary component of the union. The Eastern Church independently came to an essentially identical view of marriage; even those parts out of communion with Constantinople (eg the Copts).

In contrast, the homo-gender marriage service was from the beginning performed in a church, and was always thought of as sacramental. There is no evidence that there was ever a public form of the service. It always involved consent. The homo-gender service almost certainly pre-dates as a religious service any hetero-gender one.

In areas of the Russian Empire, the homo-gender liturgy was still celebrated in the 19th and 20th centuries, when it was secularized.

Hetero-gender "pagan" liturgies were devised in the 6th century. Christians were married in services that they thought of as Christian, but they weren't originally written for Christians.

In the homo-gender liturgy, there was no distinction between promising and marriage. Also, families didn't seem to be involved in the marriage.

The two forms had different scriptural bases. The hetero-gender liturgies use passages such as "Be fruitful and multiply." The homo-gender liurgies use passages such as I Corinthians 13: "... but the greatest of these is love," and Psalm 133, which speaks of the love between two brothers.

The theological archetype for the homo-gender union is the story of Saints Serge and Bacchus, two canonized saints of the Catholic Church. Serge and Bacchus were soldiers in the Roman army, and were a couple. Theirs is a standard martyrdom story in which they were asked by the emperor to demonstrate allegiance to Roman gods above all others. They proclaimed their allegiance to him as emperor, but would not deny Christ. There is no indication that the emperor was concerned with their homosexuality; a number of Roman emperors were married to men. Serge and Bacchus refuse to obey, and the emperor had them publicly disgraced (by dessing them up as women) and then tortured to death. Bacchus dies first, and then Serge's resolution starts to slip. However, Bacchus appears to him and says to be faithful and your reward in heaven will be to be with me.

This story is the archetype for the homo-gender union. The prayers use phrases such as "united like Serge and Bacchus."

There are some similarities between the homo- and the hetero-gender liturgies. In neither does the cleric create the marriage.  The cleric mearly witnesses and blesses it. The hetero-gender  liturgy is based on the archetype of Roman civil marriage. The homo-gender liturgy is probably also based on a secular archetype but was made religious earlier.

Both ceremonies appear in standard liturgical texts from the 8th century on, one right after the other. The rubrics depict the participants to stand with their hands bound together on the gospel, or holding crowns over each other's heads.

In some manuscripts, there is also a ceremony for a heterosexual second marriage (where the first spouse has died.) These services are similar to the same-sex services, in that they emphasize love and companionship, rather than procreation, and use many of the same prayers as the same-sex service!

The Catholic Church recognizes the lex orandi, the idea that the prayers of the liturgy are a good witness to the Apostolic Tradition.

In Christian society, wide-spread hostility to homosexuals began to appear around 1200. Over subsequent centuries, the use of the homo-gender rtual became limited to smaller and smaller communities. It was performed in the Italian peninsula and to the east up through the 18th or early 19th centuries. It was not used in great cities like Paris after about the 12th or 13th century. In Rome it was probably used up to the first half of the 18th century, when it was observed by the Venetian ambassadors to Rome!

Suddenly in the mid-18th century a vast wave of intolerance crashed down. The 18th century was the last time it was performed outside of a few small areas where it survives to this day.

The service appears in Greek liturgical manuals of the 17th and 18th century which currently are officially approved by the Catholic Church; although this is certain to be changed when contemporary authorities become aware of the contents!

The ritual was never officially rejected. It simply fell out of use due to secular social pressures.

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