May 14, 2012
Medieval Mondays: Gay marriage in Medieval Europe?
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.