Gay Rites

updated 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/27/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JOHN BOSWELL FULLY EXPECTED TO raise a ruckus. After all, the Yale University historian was publishing a new book that, despite its distinctly unprovocative title, Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, contained a startling claim: that for hundreds of years during the Middle Ages, Catholic and Orthodox churches condoned—and even performed—gay marriage ceremonies. What Boswell, 47, didn't expect was for the brouhaha to erupt in the panels of Doonesbury. But after cartoonist Garry Trudeau got wind of Boswell's findings and featured the book in a weeklong series of strips tweaking the Vatican and the Church's antigay stance, what would under other circumstances have been an academic debate spawned a lively tempest.

Some Catholic officials responded to the flap with indignation. "A sacramental marriage could never be consecrated between two members of the same sex," fumed one priest in New York City. Several newspapers, fearful of offending Catholic readers, promptly canceled Doonesbury for the week. And though some fellow historians have praised Boswell's book as an impressive piece of scholarship, others have taken strong exception to his conclusions. Critics contend that Boswell, a distinguished medievalist, has mistakenly interpreted as homosexual unions ancient descriptions of "blood brother" ceremonies and fraternity rites. "There is no question that he's found something; the question is whether it means what he says it means," says Robert Wilken, a professor of the history of Christianity at the University of Virginia. Boswell, who is gay and Roman Catholic himself, insists his evidence will stand up. "I seriously doubt that most of the critics have read the book yet," he says. "It's just flak over the whole idea."

Boswell became interested in the subject of medieval gay unions in 1982, when he received a letter from a Jesuit priest referring to a 17th-century liturgical manual that seemed to contain a same-sex marriage ritual. His curiosity piqued, Boswell then spent 12 summers scouring libraries in Italy, France, England and Greece for other mentions of such rites. In all, Boswell discovered 80 manuscripts that made some reference to same-sex unions, some from as early as the 8th century. In many cases, the interpretation of the manuscripts turned on the meaning of a few words, which required Boswell, who reads 20 languages, including several now used only in liturgies, to be painstaking in his translations. Fearful that the texts found in monastery archives might "disappear" once he published his findings, he even took the trouble to photograph the documents. Each evening after he completed his day's research, he would take his precious film to a one-hour photo developing shop.

Boswell admits that even he found it hard to believe what he was unearthing. "I kept thinking that this is maybe just a ceremony of special friendship, just a wild-goose chase," he says. For him, the clincher was a manuscript that he found in a small Italian monastery an hour outside Rome. It describes a ceremony between two men and specifically uses the word gamos—Greek for marriage. "That was the most crucial and revealing piece of material," says Boswell. "This was a permanent relationship between two people, most often solemnized by communion, which suggests more than 'blood brothers.' "

An Army brat, Boswell grew up around the U.S. with his sister and two brothers. In his teens he converted on his own to Catholicism. After graduating from the College of William and Mary in 1969 he earned his doctorate in medieval history at Harvard, then began teaching at Yale. He completed his new book while battling a serious progressive illness. Boswell prefers not to discuss his ailment in detail, other than to say that 2½ years ago doctors gave him only three to six months to live.

Boswell, who resides in a bright, sunny apartment in New Haven with his companion, stresses that his research has not been driven by a personal desire to find a religious precedent for gay marriage. "I have lived with someone for a long time and don't feel the need to marry," he says, "though that doesn't mean people shouldn't have the option." In the end, he wants to be known only as a scholar who happens to be gay, not as an advocate of gay causes. "The point of being a historian is to recover the past," he says, "not to tell people how to live their lives."

ANNE LONGLEY in New Haven

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