Tuesday, March 21st, 2023

Social History and Christian (In)tolerance of sexual diversity

BoswellChristianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

by John Boswell

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published July 1980
History (religion)
442 pgs. • Find on Amazon.com

Reviewed by Stephen O. Murray


Very few books dealing with the history of religion excite the mass media attention that Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality by John Boswell (1947–94) received upon its publication in 1980. 1

Trappings of scholarship such as footnotes outweighing the text and substantial quotations in half a dozen languages usually discourage enthusiastic response — indeed, any response — from weekly newsmagazines. Scholarly response takes longer to appear, since critical thought and checking sources typically requires more time than exclaiming at revelations. Rather than add to the growing body of criticism of Boswell’s torturous reinterpretations, anachronisms, and special pleading (see Adam 1981, Bronski 1980, Bullough 1981, Dynes 1981, Greenberg 1981, Johansson 1981, Lauritsen 1980), here I want to consider first the methods that “modern social history” would use to try to understand the problematics Boswell chose (viz., changes in the visibility of diverse sexualities and changes in theocratic Christian states’ sanctions against the same), and, second, a more plausible sociological theory than Boswell’s urbanization “explanation.”

The Materials of Modern Social History

Boswell (1980:5) was certainly right that what he did was not “social history in its modern sense.” Old-fashioned history described the exploits and thoughts of elites, relying on (mostly official) chronicles of wars and palace intrigues for the former and the writings of theologians and philosophers for the latter. “Modern social history,” on the other hand, attempts to reconstruct what the fabric of social life was like for the masses, using administrative and judicial records, letters, diaries, and other fugitive records. Brilliant exemplars of the recovery of religious beliefs and commoner’s behavior during the late middle ages by “modern social history” contemporaneous with Boswell’s book include Ladurie (1979), Ginzburg (1980), and Schmitt (1980). 2

Boswell (1980:6) castigated everyone else who has ever considered the relationship between the Holy Mother Church and attempts to extirpate homosexuality 3 for “confusing religious beliefs with popular prejudices,” and had the temerity to claim that other social historians (presumably those of the unpleasant “modern” persuasion) examined penitentials (and changes in them) “not so much from their importance as from their accessibility” (p. 182). The reason other scholars (e.g., Tentler 1977; Payer 1984) examined penitentials was because these offered clues about the tools and standardized instructions parish priests (in contrast to theologians, whose writings Boswell considers to constitute “Christianity”) were likely to have possessed. Boswell, with his disingenuous notion that (carefully selected) theological texts reveal “religious beliefs” salient enough to explain behavior across Christendom, did everything he could to avoid consideration of religious practices of Christian church officials, Christian princes, and Christian institutions, clutching instead for the sturdy clouds of theological discourse. Up there, he can claim there is nothing inherently anti-gay in the “true faith” (which if he did not entirely invent, involved considerable retrojecting of his ideas into medieval minds). While Boswell noted that it would “be a mistake to draw conclusions about the position of gay people in most American cities from the legal structures theoretically affecting them” (p. 22; for him this is an excuse to ignore legal codes), he had no compunction about drawing conclusions about “religious beliefs” from his interpretations of the Pauline epistles or his critique of the Summa Theologica as if medieval churchmen automatically interpreted the Christian tradition and these text in the light of 20th-century scholarship and conceptions of homosexuality.

To argue as Boswell did that the Levitical Code and the Church Fathers condemned A (say usury) and B (“lying with a man as with a woman”) so that if an attempt is made to implement punishments for B without trying to do anything about A, then there can be no relation between those condemning and those executing the condemnations, so that the latter must have received their ideas of what to condemn from somewhere else is not good logic, good psychology, or good history.

An unduly charitable interpretation might be that this evidences Boswell’s will to believe in the rational consistency of human beings and the importance of texts as guides to life (rather than the bad faith Bronski, Dynes, Lauritsen and others charge him with), but it betrays no sense of the ease with which human beings can live with selective perception and inconsistency. In chapter 11 of his 1980 book, Boswell argues that the conclusions of that most formidable of synthesizers, St. Thomas Aquinas, are inconsistent with his basic moral premises. How much less do the writings of various authors over the course of many centuries collating the Bible form a single, coherent, logical structure? How much less can the everyday practices of parish priests—even those schooled in Aquinas—be expected to add up to the kind of ethical system Boswell envisioned, and to which he wishes to limit what is labeled “Christianity”?

Although selectivity in enforcing statutes is the rule rather than being exceptional, Boswell has no interest in how texts were actually interpreted during the times he purported to chronicle and wishes altogether to disregard what those acting in the name of Christ and of His Church did. The accretion of theological texts to which a contemporary member of Dignity would grant an imprimatur is not the same thing as “Christianity,” particularly what must be considered “Christianity” if one is investigating something like historical fluctuations in “social tolerance.” Even were one to accept all Boswell’s torturous reinterpretations of what theological and legal texts “may” mean, it is the institution of the Church in the world that must be considered to assay the relationships between “social tolerance” and “Christianity.

It is difficult to understand how a historian can consider “Christianity” something other than what Christians, and especially “the Christian Church” did. The historian’s first task is to ascertain what people (in this case, notably church officials) did in the past. The next task—a hermeneutical one—is to try to grasp the self-understanding of those past persons, i.e., why they thought they were doing what they did. Their self-understanding need not be taken as definitive: other explanations that include factors not consciously considered by the actors themselves may be offered. What is never legitimate history is to substitute what someone in the past should have thought. Special pleading (which characterizes Boswell’s project at myriad junctures) is the antithesis of hermeneutic attempts (whether by “modern” or by “old- fashioned” historians) to understand past thinking. To argue that it is not rational to reach a conclusion, and therefore people in the past did not reach them, is not history (see Kuhn 1977). Boswell (1980) repeatedly confused religious beliefs with theological doctrine. In particular, by arguing that in their condemnation of homosexual behavior, the Church Fathers and Scholastics were not condemning persons whose essence is homosexual, Boswell imposes a category (distinction) unknown to medieval Christians in order to obscure that the homosexuality that was conceived was condemned.

When Is a Theocracy “Civil”?

Besides confusing medieval religious beliefs with late 20th-century theology and positing an unchanging entity “gay people,” Boswell draws a dangerous (to those who would understand rather than alter the past) distinction between church and state, as if he were writing about the contemporary religiously pluralistic United States rather than about states with established churches.

The “Holy Inquisition” was a Church institution. It may seem unchristian to someone with Boswell’s sense of what the essence of the Christian tradition should be, but it was “Christian” in the historian’s sense—what Christian institutions did under the cover of explicitly Christian legitimations. While it is true that the Inquisition turned over persons it found heretical, or guilty of related “abominations” to civil authorities to burn—thus avoiding having the blood of those executed on its hands 4—this hardly means that “Christianity” was uninvolved in their fate!

Similarly, to say that the Visgothic Code of 650 “is phrased in terms of Christian morality, but it is a purely civil law” (Boswell 1980: 174) is to draw an anachronistic distinction. Visgothic lawmakers may not have anticipated the fine theological points Boswell would recognize nearly thirteen centuries later, but they surely thought they were encoding Christian principles, and even Boswell admits their rhetoric was one of Christian morality. Or take the Christian emperor Justinian, who in the sixth century sponsored the codification of Roman law into the Corpus juris civilis, not only adding new penalties for homosexual acts but also providing a specifically Christian rationale (viz., placating Jehovah’s wrath). Boswell admits that Justinian and his “pious” wife Theodora used charges of homosexuality against personal and factional enemies (p. 173), which to Boswell, is, of course, “unchristian.” But whether the emperor and empress qualify as “good Christians” in Boswell’s estimation has no effect whatsoever on the historical reality of Justinian’s synthesis of Roman civil law, draconian punishments, and Christian legitimation into an engine of destruction.


Having dismissed everyone else’s (and, notably, those officially charged with the responsibility for supervising doctrine, Christ’s vicars on earth) readings of Christian theology from the time of St. Paul to that of St. Louis, claiming that no one in the Christian tradition really meant to consider homosexuality a grave sin (so that anyone who did is defined as not part of the Christian tradition), having drawn an anachronistic and rigid distinction between medieval Christian states and the medieval Christian church, and confusing the Church’s interest in regulating sexual life with its ability to do so (see Bullough 1981, Dynes 1981), Boswell (1980) had very little in the way of an explanation for changes in “social tolerance.”

Boswell (1980:43–6) proposed a direct relation between the size of urban centers and tolerance for diversity (of all sorts, not merely sexual permissiveness) and explains the “re-emergence” of a subculture he terms “gay” (see note 3) as a function of “a dramatic acceleration in the rate of urban growth” (p. 208) beginning in 1100. However, this univariate explanatory model does not work very well. 5

In non-urban cultures in which individual military prowess (as opposed to the disciplined subordination of mass armies—cf. Grant 1968) is valued, masculinity tends to be eroticized for men, e.g. the Theban Band (Crompton 1994), Mamluke Egypt (Murray 1981), Tokugawa Japan (Childs 1977), and various contemporary Melanesian warrior cultures (Herdt 1984) in each of which homosexual contact enhanced the masculinity of at least one partner and frequently the masculine development of the other.

In the ancient world the growth of large cities brought about contact between adherents of different religions, thus increasing skepticism about traditional rites, notably agrarian fertility cults. Urban growth fostered urban natives, i.e., persons with no direct interest in agricultural deities, and the centralization of religious and administrative authority necessarily challenged local fertility cults (Greenberg and Bystryn 1982; Pagels’ [1979] analysis of the struggle of the early Christian Church with centralized authority against the gnostics provides an earlier parallel with the same conjunctions of institutional needs and secular allies). Thus, urbanization and the routinization of military charisma can be correlated to a reduction in the acceptance of homosexuality, particularly its religious and military significances.

Moreover, while urbanization accompanied the efflorescence of a medieval “gay culture,” the subsequent waves of persecution were not correlated to deurbanization — nor, for that matter, were Constantinople or other cities of the Eastern Roman Empire dwindling in population at the time of Justinian (Kaegi 1968). Perry (1980) documented an increase in capital conviction for sexual offenses (87 percent of which were for sodomy exclusive of bestiality) in Seville, the Hapsburg center for trade with the New World, and the fourth largest city in Europe in the mid-16th century. Gerard (1981) similarly found no decrease in urbanism to correlate with the first pogrom focused specifically on sodomy (distinct from heresy) in the Netherlands. (I do not aim to establish a negative correlation to replace Boswell’s positive one, for I do not think there is a causal connection between urban size and “tolerance” of homosexuality, even if there is a correlation — which would require a measure that has not been forthcoming).

Diabolical Models?

Having argued that Christianity had nothing causal to do with the more efficient persecution of homosexual behavior that was a part of the consolidation of quotidian life, provided, and then (both in the course of his book and in subsequent publications) dropped the non-explanation of de-urbanization, Boswell had nothing with which to explain the rise of “intolerance” (at the sight of which he discreetly ended his 1980 book). In similar straits with inadequate and unsociological explanations of the Nazi holocaust, philosopher Emil Fackenheim fell back on the Devil acting in history as an explanation. In a similar tack, Boswell diabolicizes the masses and leaves inexplicable spontaneous pressure of the benighted masses on their purported moral leaders as his final “explanation.”

Sociological Explanation

In a less grandiose, less readable, and far less publicized discussion of the changes in enforcement of Christian strictures against homosexual behavior in 11th and 12th century Christendom, Michael Goodich (1979) provided reasons to believe that explanatory recourse to the devil acting in history need not be made and advanced (albeit less than explicitly) something resembling answers to the questions who and why.

Goodich (1979) related the fundamental increase in sexual repression to the consolidation of Western Christendom once the limits of its expansion had been reached by unsuccessful crusades and to the rise of the merchant class in alliance with increasingly centralized crowns against the previously dominant feudal nobility. He argues that Roman Catholic Europe freed itself from previous cultural subordination to the East and defined itself as a unique civilization for the first time by its systematic attack on sex, particularly the supposedly “Eastern vice” of pederasty, in a way similar to Jews earlier distinguishing themselves from neighboring tribes by repression of temple prostitution and local fertility cults (see Devereux and Loeb 1943). The Gregorian reforms of the 11th century began with the centralization of control over the church by Rome and with concerted combat against the sexual conduct of priests, monks, and nuns. Mandatory celibacy was necessary to maintain central control and ownership of church property and positions, which were being passed on to heirs as if they were feudal benefices.

Guided by reason (i.e., the works of Aristotle) and precedents from Roman law, scholastic philosophers at the new urban universities of the 12th century (Paris, Bolgna) codified immoral behavior in painstaking detail and prescribed punishments in pain-giving detail (in the penitentials Boswell chose to ignore). To extirpate heresy and “aberrant” sexuality—which were inextricably connected in medieval views—the Roman pontiffs allied their office with those eager to impose the rigid scholastic code of behavior on the world. New mendicant orders composed of the sons of newly powerful merchant families (notably the Dominicans) staffed the Holy Inquisition, supplanting earlier contemplative orders, which had been comprised of sons of noble families. The new orders carried monastic moral codes from the increasingly abandoned cloisters into everyday lay life. The attempt to impose restrictive, legalistic morality on everyone (not just Church personnel) long predated the Reformation of Calvin and Luther. Simultaneously, Rome sought the aid of emerging kings against episcopates opposing papal dominance, and hence vulnerable to accusations of heresy, and usually also opposing regal as well as papal centralization. During the struggle against previously local prerogatives, popes handed jurisdiction over some offenses, including homosexual acts, to secular courts that were more willing than the ecclesiastical courts had been to punish sodomites.

Sexual repression was a tool used against the feudal nobility by a papacy struggling to centralize power over bishops and rich orders; by kings seeking to centralize their control in opposition to feudal privileges, including that of holy orders within their domain but not subject to their taxes or their courts; and by the emergent mercantile class, which sought to overthrow feudal privileges in general and barriers to trade in particular. The common interest of all three was in breaking the power of the nobility.

Noble privileges were discredited as shields for heresy and sexual license. Such claims rationalized curtailing noble status and prerogatives—not so coincidentally increasing the status and powers of kings, merchants, and popes. The temporary alliance of papacy, royalty and mercantile class might not have occurred; certainly it did not last long (as the mercantile bourgeoisie was supplanted by a manufacturing bourgeoisie; as kings granted religious power, such as Henry VIII, awarded the title Defender of the Faith, decided they could defend the faith and supervise morality without themselves being supervised from the Vatican; and as Jesuits decided they could rule the New World without guidance of kings or popes).

Goodich (1970) showed that the crystallization of beliefs about homosexuality was a byproduct of far larger religious, political, and class struggles ignored by the “old-fashioned social history” of Boswell’s apologia. Prior to the revitalization of Western Christianity in the 11th century, the sexual conduct of Church personnel was not under super-local control, and rarely under much local control, either. But as Crusades against the Muslim hold of the “Holy Land” failed, moralistic crusades were launched within Europe, intensifying the supervision of everyday life: first within the church, and then of the lay population. Aberrant sexuality (always identified as typical of evil opponents and introduced by inferior corrupt foreigners) has been used in wave after wave of social struggle under the guise of Christian “civil” morality with the official support of Christian churches.

The hypothesis that charges of homosexuality were used against the aristocracy seems promising enough to deserve systematic study. Spectacular illustrations—Gilles de Rais (Wolf 1980), the Knights Templar (Legmann 1966), or el gran tío Alonso Telles (Perry 1980:143)—are suggestive, but illustrations do not constitute proof (this is another rule of modern historical method.) Examination of the rhetorics of legitimation used 6 and of what property was seized from whom are necessary. Perry (1980) and Gerard (1981) report that in the jurisdictions they analyzed, denunciations focused on idle and depraved nobles, while insofar as class and profession of those executed can be determined, the lower orders provided most. Greenberg and Bystryn (1982) stress resentment, both bourgeois and popular, for sons of nobles living dissolutely in monasteries supported by compulsory tithes (especially evident in Donatism).

There would appear to be data to integrate into the neo-Durkheimian literature on societal boundary maintenance (see Erikson 1966, Bergesen 1978). Perhaps the most fascinating theoretical challenge in these data is the nearly simultaneous rise of sexual restrictiveness following the stalemates between expansive Islam and resurgent Western Christian civilization and the Mongol conquests, including replacing the Sung dynasty in China, a set of phenomena crying for correlation along the lines of Teggart’s (1939) study of Rome and China as part of the world system (and his suggestion of similar explanations for the fifth century B.C. emergence of world religions in diverse locales). Rather than to try like Boswell to explain what happened in each civilization solely by factors internal to each system viewed in isolation, the relation of similar and simultaneous events and dynamics in three civilizations might be explored.

References Cited

Adam, Barry D. 1981. “Comments on Boswell.” SSSP meeting in Toronto.

Bergesen, Albert. 1978. “Durkheimian theory of witch hunts.” Journal of the Scientific Study of Religion 17:19–29.

Boswell, John. 1980 Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

—. 1982. “Revolutions, universals, categories.” Salmagundi 58: 89–113.

—. 1983. Rediscovering Gay History. London: Gay Christian Press.

Bronski, Michael. 1980. “Gay history.” Gay Community News. Nov. 1–6.

Bullough, Vern L. 1976. Sexual Variance in Society and History. New York: Wiley.

—. 1981. “Boswell on homosexuality.” SSSP meeting in Toronto.

Childs, Maggie. 1977. “Japan’s homosexual heritage.” Gai Saber 1: 41–45.

Crompton, Louis. 1978. “Gay genocide: from Leviticus to Hitler.” In L. Crew, The Gay Academic. Palm Springs, CA: ETC.

—. 1994. “The Theban Band.” History Today 44, 11:23–29.

Devereux, George and E. M. Loeb. 1943. “Antagonistic acculturation.” American Sociological Review 8: 133–47

Dover, Kenneth J. 1978. Greek Homosexuality. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dynes, Wayne R. 1981. “Christianity and the politics of sex.” Gai Saber Monograph 1: 8–15.

Erikson, Kai. 1966. Wayward Puritans. New York: Wiley.

Genovese, Eugene. 1974. The World the Slaves Made. New York: Pantheon.

Gerard, Kent. 1981. “The tulip and the sodomite.” Kroeber Anthropological Society meeting in Berkeley.

Ginzburg, Carlos. 1980. The Cheese and the Worms. London: Paul.

Goodich, Michael. 1979. The Unmentionable Vice. Santa Barbara: Ross-Erikson.

Gould, Meredith. 1981. “The reception of Boswell’s Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality.” SSSP meeting in Toronto.

Grant, Michael. 1968. Armies of the Caesars. London: Widenfeld & Nicolson.

Greenberg, David F. 1981. “Boswell and the ‘Judaic tradition’.” SSSP meeting in Toronto.

Greenberg, David F., and Marcia H. Bystryn. 1982. “Christian intolerance of homosoexuality.” American Journal of Sociology 87: 515–48.

Guttman, Herbert. 1976. The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom. New York: Pantheon.

Herdt, Gilbert H. 1984. Melanesian Ritualized Homosexuality. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Hodgen, Margaret. 1974. Anthropology, History, Cultural Change. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Horn, Walter & Ernest Born. 1980. The Plan of St. Gall. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Johansson, Warren. 1981. “Ex parte themis.” Gai Saber Monograph 1: 1–7.

Kaegi, W. E. 1968. Byzantium and the Decline of Rome. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kuhn, Thomas. 1977. The Essential Tension. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Lauritsen, John. 1980. Review of Boswell (1980). GAA 3,12: 9–18.

Legman, Gershorn. 1966. The Guilt of the Templars. New York: Basic.

Ladurie, Emanuel Le Roy. 1979. Montaillou. New York: Braziller.

Murray, Stephen O. 1980. “Resistance to sociology at Berkeley.” Journal of the History of Sociology 3:61–84.

—. 1981. “Inheritance rules, the status of women, the acceptance of homosexuality, and the circulation of the Mamluke elite. Pacific Sociological Association meeting in Portland. [Published in Islamic Homosexualities by S. Murray & W. Roscoe, New York: New York University Press, 1996.]

Pagels, Elaine H. 1979. The Gnostic Gospels. New York: Random House.

Palmerton, Patricia R. 1978. Movements and Rhetorical Vision. M.A. dissertation, University of Minnesota.

Payer, Pierre J. 1984. Sex and the Penitentials. University of Toronto Press.

—. 1982. Introduction to Peter Damian’s (1048) Book of Gomorrah, pp. 1–23. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press.

Perry, Mary E. 1980. Crime and Society in Early Modern Seville. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England.

Schmitt, Jean-Claude. 1980. Le saint lévrier. Paris: Flammarion

Teggart, Frederick J. 1939. Rome and China. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Tentler, T. N. 1977. Sin and Confession on the Eve of the Reformation. Princeton University Press.

Wallace, Anthony F. C. 1956. “Revitalization movements.” American Anthropologist 58: 264–281.

Wolf, Leonard. 1980. Bluebeard. New York: Potter.

An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1981 annual meetings of the Society for the Study of Social Problems in Toronto, where helpful comments were made by Barry Adam, Gregory Baum, Vern Bullough, David Greenberg, and by Meredith Gould, who organized the session; it also draws upon my review of Goodich (1979) published in the Boston Gay Review (9:19) in 1981. The text was revised in 1984 for publication for a book that was contracted but which never was published.

©1981, 1984, Stephen O. Murray


  1. Not untypically, Boswell (1980) distorted the term, identifying “modern social history” as the application of social science concepts to historical data (see also the peculiar classifications of social history in Boswell 1982b). His own weak offer of “urbanization” as an explanation puts his work within his own definition of “modern social history” and attempting to solve a problem rather than to produce literary narrative would place him within the definition of another (Murray 1980, Teggart 1939, Hodgen 1974). What is “old-fashioned” was his concentration on elites rather than masses, on theology rather than documentation of religious behavior, and his isolation of a segment with no consideration of a “world system.”
  2. Perhaps more familiar American exemplars are works on slave society, e.g. Genovese 1974, Guttman 1976.
  3. Boswell used the term gay very loosely, not even limiting application to our species. A gay/straight homosexual/heterosexual contrast does not appear to have been made in ancient Greece and Rome, nor in medieval Western Christendom, so, of course, neither Church Fathers nor Scholastics took any position on the proper moral evaluation of a category they never considered.
  4. Moral responsibility is another matter—and of some relevance given that Boswell’s purpose manifestly (see Boswell 1982) is to exculpate the Church from responsibility (specifically contra Crompton 1978 and Bullough 1976).
  5. Although it is hardly news to sociologists of religion that “reformation” is a process rather than a single event (see Wallace 1956), some historians seem unaware of this. The project of reforming ecclesiastic morals as a first step to increasing social control of the laity, tied to attempts to centralize state power, was undertaken by St. Basil’s changes in monastic rules in the 4th century, by the emperor Justinian in the 6th century; and 12th-century efforts were prefigured by those of Charlemagne and his heirs, who saw the political stability of Western Europe hinging on Christian social control, and therefore attempted to standardize the clergy (see Horn and Born 1980). The internalization of external discipline Marx attributed to the Reformation of Luther and the extension of surveillance and discipline in everyday life about which Foucault has written extensively were related in a recurrently-breaking wave.
  6. Palmerton (1978) provides an exemplary analysis of Christian rhetoric in the campaign to repeal a gay rights ordinance in St. Paul, Minnesota. Much of it is the same as in the medieval discourse.

About The Author

Stephen O. Murray grew up in rural southern Minnesota, earned a B.A. from James Madison College (within Michigan State University), an M.A. from the University of Arizona, a Ph.D. from the University of Toronto (both in sociology), and was a postdoctoral fellow at Berkeley (in anthropology). He is the author of American Gay, Homosexualities, etc. and lives in San Francisco.