The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality

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The Boswell Thesis: Essays on Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality. Edited by Matthew Kuefler. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2006. Pp. viii, 348. $75.00 clothbound; $27.50 paperback.)

The publication in 1980 of Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (hereafter CSTH) by John Boswell marked the beginning of radical changes that persist to the present in the ways that historians, especially medievalists, deal with same-sex relationships. The sixteen chapters that make up The Boswell Thesis seek to assess some of the ways that Boswell's work has continued to roil historical scholarship during the past quarter of a century.

The opening essay by the editor, Matthew Kuefler, outlines the central tenets of Boswell's argument. In brief, Christianity, according to Boswell, emerged in a Mediterranean world where intimate relations between persons of the same sex were widely tolerated, if not invariably condoned. Neither the Christian Scriptures nor the early church Fathers, Boswell maintained, expressed blanket disapproval of homosexual practices.Those who now believe that they did so, he asserts, misunderstand the sources.The moral neutrality toward homosexual relations that characterized the Early Church, Boswell continues, persisted throughout the early Middle Ages. Hostility toward same-sex relationships began to surface in Christian Europe only during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. As condemnation of same-sex relationships and those who engaged in them grew more severe, Boswell concluded, mainstream scholars and church authorities began to read their own attitudes back into the documents of the Early Church in order to justify their position.

Boswell, to say the least, set the cat among the pigeons, and feathers continue to flutter furiously, both among those who accept his views and those who find them unpersuasive or even abhorrent. Both groups, it must be said, include people of all sexual orientations. Indeed some of the earliest and most vociferous critics of Boswell's views were members of the gay community, many of whom considered his judgments of the Church far too benign, as Kuefler points out in his extended account of the reviews that CSTH received upon publication. …