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May 14, 2012

Medieval Mondays: Gay marriage in Medieval Europe?

Gay marriage is in the news again, this time as a political football for the upcoming U.S. presidential election. It's been a political football for quite some time and in the 1980s the debate even resounded through the hallowed halls of academia.

In the book The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, gay Catholic historian named John Boswell proposed that the Church, far from considering homosexuality a sin, actually allowed same-sex unions. In a ritual called adelphopoiesis, literally "making a brother", two men would be joined in a spiritual bond. There would be a religious ceremony, the trading of gifts, a kiss, and a big feast with their friends. Boswell does not claim this was gay marriage, rather a same-sex union that was probably chaste.

Needless to say, this caused a firestorm of controversy both within academia and in the general population. While many of Boswell's detractors were simply having knee-jerk reactions, several leading historians criticized his methodology and convincingly argued that he stretched his interpretations too far.

Whatever the truth behind Boswell's claims, the fact of the matter was that there were gay people in the Middle Ages, and it would make sense that a lot of them would join the clergy. It was one of the only jobs in a traditional society that kept you from getting married. Everyone else was expected to marry and have children. Imagine a gay man faced with the requirement to perform on his wedding night. If he didn't, he'd be held up to public mockery and suspicion and would have given his wife one of the only grounds for annulment that existed at that time. Far better to take a job that put you in a big building with lots of other men! The Church also offered job security and took care of you when you were old, a better deal than most medieval workers got.

Now before anyone freaks out in the comments section, I'm not saying that all or even most priests and monks are gay. It stands to reason, though, that the Church was ironically one of the only refuges for gay people to avoid sleeping with the opposite sex and living a lie. It may be that the ritual of adelphopoiesis was a way to bond two men in a lifelong relationship that was superficially religious in nature, while everyone in the monastery was giving the pair a sly wink, knowing what was really going on.

Photo of saints Serge and Bacchus, who Boswell claims were a couple, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


  1. This argument was debunked when Boswell first published it in the 90's. Adelphopoiesis was the blessing of an intimate spiritual friendship between two men. To say that it had anything to do with a sexual relationship is to judge another culture by our own standards. In the past, men were allowed to have deep and intimate friendships that even included things like holding hands and giving kisses in greeting, without everyone assuming the relationship was sexual. In our obsession with sex, our culture has robbed men of this gift.

  2. I've researched that a bit, too, and even Jesus performed some gay union rights in his time. But you really gotta dig for that info LOL. I guess Christianity was inevitable, too bad it's so pervasive.

  3. That's completely false, Alley. Jesus was Jewish, and homosexual behavior was not tolerated, much less blessed, in that culture. You have to be really careful about the sources you choose to believe.

  4. Alley: What are your sources for this? I'd like to read more.

    Madame Teel: I agree that Boswell was probably overreaching his thesis. The ritual was overtly a spiritual union. My point is that many closeted priests were using it as a cover. There were many jokes about gay priests in the Middle Ages. Even Chaucer includes some in his Canterbury Tales!

    1. Would you comment on how this union worked in practice? I'm assuming from what you said in your blog that this bonding only took place within their religious order. Is that correct? Once the bonding ceremony was preformed what would their live style be? Working together? Worshiping together? What would happen if one had a change of mind? My guess is that the bonding was permanent and if you found that it was a mistake you just had to live with it. Any chance this sort of relationship was practiced outside of religious orders or was this just for priests and monks and the like?

    2. It appears to have been just for religious orders. The pair would be "brothers in Christ", working and worshiping together.
      I haven't heard of any instances of the bond being severed except in death.

  5. Is the Daily Mail reading my blog?