The Content of Historic Same-Sex Unions

A seventh century icon of Sergius and Bacchus and
dust jacket for: Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.

Who wrote the book: Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe?

John Boswell

Who was he?

He was a Professor at Yale University and Chairman of Yale’s largest department. He was an award winning scholar, author and historian. He was a Roman Catholic and had quite the gift for language. His friends said that for a Lenten exercise he read the New Testament in a new language each year. He has been a Woodrow Wilson Fellow and a Fulbright scholar.

Did he not mention you in his book?

I was most pleased to find out that Professor Boswell mentioned me in the preface of his book saying "...and John S. Morgan has faithfully contributed for years to the research expenses for the project."

Did he write any other books?

He wrote Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality which was one of the New York Times ten best books of 1980 and won the 1981 American Book award for History. Published in 1988 was The Kindness of Strangers The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance.

What actually did Boswell discover about gay marriage?

Actually he preferred the label ‘Same-sex Union’ instead of marriage. It is more neutral. There is no ‘proof’ that they were marriages. Brother is a common euphemism. And often the ceremony title could be translated ‘brother making’. The word brother is often used euphemistically in the Old Testament and other ancient writings. The idea of a homosexual marriage is not something new proposed in the 20th century. It was not rare in ancient times; a couple of the Roman Emperors were married to men.

Where and when were these ceremonies performed?

In Boswell’s book, Same Sex-Unions in Premodern Europe, he lists Liturgies of Same Sex Unions which he had discovered in all of the centuries from the eighth through the seventeenth and he provided English translations of many. They were performed everywhere Greek was used as a Liturgical language which was at one time most of the world.

He states: "From the fourteenth century on, Western Europe was gripped by a rabid and obsessive negative preoccupation with homosexuality as the most horrible of sins." ... "The ceremony remained licit from the thirteenth century on, even in the eyes of the Roman Catholic Church, which probably failed to recognize its actual significance, although Montaigne seems to having seen it in Rome itself in 1578, and suggested that Roman ecclesiastics realized perfectly well what it entailed, even to the point of legimitizing homosexual activity."

Why does he think these were marriage ceremonies?

Partly because of the context in which they were found. In the ceremonies he has discovered, he indicates that the most common context is marriage, with the ceremonies listed in the following order:

These ceremonies share some of the characteristics found in heterosexual marriage. For example, they are likely to include some of the following:

One has to ask ones self, "What are two men in a Roman Catholic Church (or Greek Orthodox) with their hands joined, or holding crowns over each other’s head, at a communion service, asking for unashamed fidelity and sincere love or that they be united in perfect love and inseparable life or to be granted the grace to love each other in joy without injury or hatred all the days of their life. The ceremonies themselves are not controversial, after all they exist. What they might mean is what the controversy is about.

One thread of continuity in the vast majority of these unions appears to be the use of Serge and Bacchus as an archetype. These two Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church saints and martyrs (patrons of the Byzantine army according to Encyclopedia Britannica) were portrayed as lovers in the earliest available story of their lives.

Are not these findings startling?

Yes, Even Boswell found the very existence of these ceremonies in official liturgical manuals counter intuitive in a church whose magisterium classically has seemed to indicate otherwise.

What are these liturgies like?

I will quote one for you, in abbreviated form, so as not to violate copyright:

15. BELGRADE [date uncertain; before the 18t century] [Serbian Slavonic]

The Order of Celebrating the Union of Two Men

The priest shall place the right hand of the elder upon the holy Gospel and upon that of the younger. Then: Blessed be God, now and forever and ever. Amen……

Our father who art in heaven …..

Hymn of he church …

Then shall the priest take the holy belt and tie it around them. And they that are about to be joined shall hold the holy belt in their left hands.

O lord, Our God, who hast vouchased unto us the promise of salvation …accept Thou these thy two servants, N. and N. who love each other with a love of the spirit, and have desired to come into thy holy church, and grant unto them hope, unashamed faithfulness and true love….

..Thou also didst deem it proper for the holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus to be united….Bless Thou these thy servants. Grant unto them grace and prosperity, and faith and love; let them love each other without envy and without temptation all the days of their life….

…For these thy servants [and] for their being joined unto each other, we beseech Thee, O Lord. That the Lord our God unite them in perfect love and inseparable life, we bessech Thee, O Lord. For the presanctified gift of the precious Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, that they receive it without sin and that it preserve their union without envy, we beseech Thee, O Lord.

[The First Epistle of] the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians….. Though I speak with the tongues of men and angels, and have not love, I am as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

Then: Peace be with you. Then shall the priest kiss them. And the two that are to be joined shall kiss each other.

And he shall dismiss them.

Here is another example:

10. SIANI 966 [thirteenth century] [Greek]

Order for Solemnization of Same-Sex Union

Those intending to be united shall come before the priest….shall place his hand on the Gospel, and the second on the hand of the first…

Lord our God and ruler….who didst commend the union of thy holy martyrs Serge and Bacchus…do Thou vouchsafe unto these thy servants grace to love one another and abide unhated and not a cause of scandal all the days of their lives…

…Grant them unashamed faithfulness, true love….

…accept now these Thy servants N. and N to be united in spirit and faith…to prosper in virtue and justice and in sincere love…

…that they be joined together more in spirit than in flesh

And they shall kiss the holy Gospel and each other, and it shall be concluded.

Why have I not heard more about these ceremonies?

The book did make quite a splash when published; but John Boswell died that year from a prolonged illness; the book is intended for scholars and as such is a difficult read. That area of expertise is a narrow one with few medieval-historical-linguists familiar enough with the subject at that time.

Can you refer me to additional information?

Well - I would begin with Boswell’s book. Then too, there is a web site that contains an exhaustive list of Boswell related material, evenly divided between the supportive and the critical at: People with a History: John Boswell Page

From the point of view of church history I would recommend an article by Ted Mollegen concerning notes on a talk given by Dr. Boswell at a luncheon during General Convention July, 1988 Detroit, Michigan

What is your reaction to this article?
I had not known how extensive Christian same-sex unions were in antiquity.
I had already known about ancient rituals of same-sex unions.
I think these ancient rites were not about gay unions.
Your anonymous response will reach me.