Early Christianity in the West harbored a strong suspicion of human sexuality. It did not single out homosexual acts for special condemnation. All sexual acts were judged, more or less, by the same criteria.
People were not classified as homosexual or heterosexual; acts were. The condemnation of homosexual acts, as such, took place in a context in which these acts were understood as being performed by heterosexual males. There was no concept of constitutive homosexuality, that is, of persons who are defined as 'gay.'
As Gibbon noted in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the emperor Claudius was the first Roman emperor in 200 years NOT to have sex with men. To show how commonplace and comparatively unimportant the issue of homosexual activity was at this time, historians cite the fact that the troops of Julius Caesar were wont to refer to their leader as the 'Queen of Bithynia' and to chant in their marches the ditty: 'Caesar conquered Gaul; Nicomedes conquered Caesar.'
In his groundbreaking work Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980), John Boswell (19471994) documents a period of time when Western Christendom embraced openly gay bishops and abbots, accepted homosexual activity among the clergy, and even canonized more than a few gay saints, most notably, Anselm of Canterbury. When homosexual activity was condemned among the clergy, the condemnation was part of the general condemnation of all sexual activity as a violation of vows. In point of fact, heterosexual activity was often more severely punished because it involved the prospect of children and knotty legal entanglements, like inheritance rights. For many reasons, ecclesiastical authorities preferred a gay clergy to a married one.
Boswell's contribution to the study of homosexuality is his focus on the historical record. No one, before or since, has so exhaustively investigated and documented the facts of homosexual history in Western thinking and culture. From the middle of the 19th century, scripture scholars had definitively discredited the biblical texts condemning homosexual behavior. The sin of Onan (Genesis) is not masturbation, but Onan's refusal to accept the obligations he inherits under Jewish Law to care for his dead brother's family. And the sin of Sodom (also Genesis) is not anal intercourse, but rape and the refusal of hospitality. Boswell's great achievement was to complement biblical and textual critical analysis with an astonishingly comprehensive and profound critical analysis of the historical record.
In his address to the Dignity International Convention in 1979, Boswell made this appeal: "It is possible to change ecclesiastical attitudes toward gay people and their sexuality because the objections to homosexuality are not biblical, they are not consistent, they are not part of Jesus' teaching; and they are not even fundamentally Christian."
The 'barbarians,' who repopulated and reinvigorated Roman civilization in the West, were not immersed in the sex-negative, world-weary thinking that dominated the decline of the old Roman empire. These barbarians received the Christian tradition with new eyes, open hearts, and quick minds, producing almost 500 years of astonishing art and thought focused on the idea of friendship in Christian community. Centuries in advance of the troubadour poets they reclaimed eros as a positive energy in the advancement of friendship. The famous friendship or 'love affair' of Abelard and Heloise (11th century) is a 'heterosexual' example of this tradition as is the 'homosexual' friendship of the monk Alcuin (founder of the first school system, 8th century) with Arno, a bishop, as is the legendary friendship of Henry II with his chancellor Thomas Becket (12th century).
This positive valuation of eros, this proclamation through art and philosophy of a kinship based on shared values in which physical attraction plays a proper role, this spiritual kinship as opposed to blood kinship and feudal fealty, this idea that community is built through the free acts of free persons, this idea of friendship derived from Christian sources and celebrated as a Christian ideal, gravely threatened the medieval establishment because it broke the ties that bind serf to lord and wife to husband and child to parents.
This positive valuation of eros persisted until around 1150 C.E. when, for the first time in Western Civilization, the idea of the homosexual as a 'separate class of person' started to take shape in both civil and ecclesiastical law, and not to the advantage of gay people. A late example of this profound shift can be found in the Napoleonic code, which proclaimed all men equal and to be judged solely on their merit, while at the same time it punished homosexual persons as well as conduct, sanctioned slavery in Haiti, and rescinded much of the pro-woman legislation of the medieval period.
Why is Boswell's work so important? Through his comprehensive and definitive research, Boswell demonstrates this fact: WE ARE A PEOPLE WITH A HISTORY. It is time now to claim that history.
Nick Patricca is professor emeritus at Loyola University Chicago, president of Chicago Network and playwright emeritus at Victory Gardens Theater.