Was John Boswell’s book on Christianity and homosexuality over-criticized?

Historians in the News
tags: religion, LGBT, homosexuality, John Boswell Christianity



David Clark is Associate Professor in Medieval Literatures at the University of Leicester, UK. He has published on gender and sexuality in Old English, Old Norse, Middle English, and Early Modern literature. He is currently working on medievalism in contemporary literature and film.

Since its publication in 1980, John Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality has dominated conversations about the history of sexuality. Within academic circles, it provoked considerable debate, being subjected to fierce criticism even as it was adopted as one of the foundation texts of a new discipline. Its impact was also felt outside the academy: a New York Times Book of the Year (1980) and winner of a National Book Award (1981), it attracted (and continues to attract) a wide non-specialist readership. This week on NOTCHES, we examine the Boswell legacy, asking three leading medievalists to evaluate the book’s significance today, more than three decades after its publication. We’d love to hear what Boswell’s book means to our readers so please continue the conversation in our comments section.

I began my undergraduate studies in the year after John Boswell’s untimely death, and came across his work towards the end of my doctoral research. I was stunned by this scholar who could command so many languages (17 by all accounts); who had, it seemed, read everything and had something stimulating to say about it; who managed to combine brilliant scholarship with humanity and a sense of the relevance of medieval culture to the contemporary world.

Revisiting Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality over a decade after I first read it, and three and a half decades after its publication, is both an inspiring and a depressing experience. Inspiring because of the book’s scope and ambition and the depth of Boswell’s erudition and insight. Depressing because parts of the world and of academia have focussed on the book’s flaws and remain deaf to its implicit message of tolerance; of the importance of engaging seriously with one’s opponents; of becoming aware of one’s own unexamined assumptions.

Boswell has been criticized by both religious conservatives and traditionalist scholars as well as liberals and queer theorists. Their principal objections (which vary in articulacy and logic) are:

● that it is anachronistic and misleading to speak of ‘gay’ people in the premodern period

● that Boswell’s interpretations often exceed what the evidence warrants

● that Boswell misrepresents the medieval Church’s stance on same-sex relations (conservative Catholic scholars tend to quarrel with his argument that the early Church was largely unconcerned about them, whereas queer theorists sometimes deplore his ‘whitewashing’ of the Church’s persecution of sexual minorities).

Boswell’s use of the term ‘gay’ to designate those ‘conscious of erotic preference for their own gender’ in any era seems disingenuous and overly limiting, particularly when it functions to erase bisexuality or sexual fluidity. However, what many anti-essentialist critics miss is that no terminological choice is unproblematic. Moreover, the still widespread treatment of male-female relations in medieval literature as straightforwardly heterosexual is no less anachronistic. ...





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