Wednesday, July 31, 2013

What's This? Church Sanctioned Same-Sex Marriages from 100 AD?

Serge and Bacchus, in a same-sex marriage ceremony
First, a little business: There will be more of ‘This Is A Republican, Part __’ soon because, well, you know Congress is just full of ‘em. But, I needed a good Silkwood Scrubdown™ after all those posts yesterday and then I stumbled across this story; the perfect story to add to one’s arsenal in the discussion of same-sex marriage versus ‘traditional marriage’.

So, let’s go …..

John Boswell, a Catholic scholar at Yale, twenty years ago published a book packed with evidence that same-sex marriages were sanctioned by the early Christian Church during an era commonly called the Dark Ages.

Apparently they weren’t all that dark.

John Boswell
Boswell, a historian and Catholic who studied the late Roman Empire and early Christian Church, was doing research, and reading all sorts of legal and church documents from the Dark Ages, when he found something: dozens of records of legitimate religious church ceremonies where two men were joined in a marital union; he also found that these were the same rituals used in performing marriages between men and women. Boswell says he found almost no records of lesbian unions, but that may have more to do with the fact that society was male dominated and most records, legal and religious, were recorded regarding men.

Boswell, who died from complications of AIDS in 1994, took all his information and published it in a book called Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, which comes out next month, for the first time, in a digital edition. In addition, Boswell had published and earlier work in the 1970s called Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century.

In his book, Boswell shows how the rituals and ceremonies changed and grew, from "merely a set of prayers " in the earlier Middle Ages to its flowering as a "full office" by the twelfth century that involved "the burning of candles, the placing of the two parties' hands on the Gospel, the joining of their right hands, the binding of their hands . . . with the priest's stole, an introductory litany crowning, the Lord's Prayer, Communion, a kiss, and sometimes circling around the altar."

From Boswell’s research:
The burial rite given for Achilles and Patroclus, both men, was the burial rite for a man and his wife. The relationships of Hadrian and Antinous, of Polyeuct and Nearchos, of Perpetua and Felicitas, and of Saints Serge and Bacchus, all bore resemblance to heterosexual marriages of their times. The iconography of Serge and Bacchus was even used in same-sex nuptial ceremonies by the early Christian Church.
So naturally, the Christian Church, the Catholic Church, and many religious scholars criticized both the book and Boswell, but there is no dispute that his information was based on fact and actual records from the time period. But that doesn’t explain how these marriages have been forgotten by history? How do we not know of these stories?

The Church. In the 13th century, the Christian Church decided to reframe the idea of marriage as being a union created for the purposes of procreation, and churches and religious scholars worked hard to suppress the stories of these same-sex unions. Still, that kinda shoots down that whole ‘marriage has always been one man and woman and has never EVER changed’ rant we so often hear, eh? I mean, the Church itself redefined marriage at least once that we know about, so I say let’s redefine it again.

And Boswell claims that since we have redefined and redefined marriage over these last thousand years or so, it makes the issue all the more complicated. It’s become almost impossible for historians to recognize 1800-year-old gay marriage documents when they see them because, oftentimes, these documents refer to uniting "brothers" — which, at the time was a way of describing same-sex partners in Rome. These marriages, before the rewriting by the church of what constitutes marriage, were not based on procreation, but upon wealth-sharing. Marriage often referred to a non-sexual union of two people’s wealth, or of a family’s wealth, and Boswell does concede that some of the documents he found do, in fact, refer to the non-sexual joining of two men's fortunes; but he did believe that some were akin to what we call today same-sex marriage.

Which makes for an interesting argument today; many in the legal field believe Boswell’s books and research form a valid argument for legal same-sex marriages because they clearly show that marriage has changed and evolved over the course of the centuries, and it hasn’t always been a one-man-one-woman arrangement.

So, were these same-sex unions in the middle ages the same thing as today's same-sex marriages?  Who knows; at the time homosexuality wasn’t as taboo as it became in later years, so people at the time may not have viewed two men forming a union as anything out of the ordinary. But it does make an interesting argument, the least of which is the fact that marriage has changed over the years, and that the Christian Church instituted that change around the 13th century redefining marriage for purposes of procreation—which effectively snuffed out the previously accepted unions of two men, or two women, uniting in marriage.

So, we’ve come almost full circle, haven’t we? Same-sex marriages are on the rise, and the idea that marriage is not solely based on procreation may be coming around again; marriage is the union of two people, committing their lives to one another.

Sadly, John Boswell died before same-sex marriages became legal, but I’m guessing he’d be very happy to know that now gay couples are marrying, and that the same-sex couples who legally married throughout history, have their marriages recognized.

4 comments:

the dogs' mother said...

Interesting!

Helen Lashbrook said...

The early church was a lot more relaxed about the role of women in the church and there is some evidence that there were women performing duties in the early church that were later disallowed during the dark ages, when extreme misogyny was introduced along with hair shirts and mortification.

Women were seen as impure as was sexual intercourse. The early priests were allowed to marry. It is highly possible that the antipathy to homosexuality came into being at the same time that women and sex were demonised.

anne marie in philly said...

well well well! eat it, religious homophobes!

Biki Honko said...

Great post! I love how the church claims it's all a big misunderstanding. Lovely, spin some more boys, I love it when your dresses fan out.