Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

John Boswell: Posting Historical Landmarks at the Leading Edge of the Culture Wars

Academic journal article Journal of the National Collegiate Honors Council

John Boswell: Posting Historical Landmarks at the Leading Edge of the Culture Wars

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

One of the most enduring and controversial figures in the field of history is John E. Boswell. His work on homosexuality and the history of the Christian Church was published at a key time during the Stonewall Riots in the late 1960s and the removal of homosexuality from the list of diagnostic mental disorders in the mid 1970s. This social upheaval created a dynamic that not only influenced Boswell personally but contributed to the vehement reaction to his book Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century. Written in 1980, this book has profoundly influenced theological debates in numerous Christian denominations, particularly in the United States.

Boswell earned his PhD at Harvard in 1975 and was immediately hired in a tenure-track position at Yale University (curriculum vitae, Boswell Papers). His first book was based on his doctoral dissertation, The Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities Under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century, which displayed his gifts as a medieval philologist working in Catalan, Aragonese, Castilian, French, and Latin with equal facility. The book investigated mudejeres (later called moriscos), Muslims living under Christian protection prior to 1492 who did not convert to Christianity. The book received favorable reviews, and Boswell developed a reputation as an Iberian scholar with a talent for languages and an interest in the religions of medieval Western Europe. He also seemed to have special insight into the challenges of being the outsider within a dominant Christian culture, a talent that would be important to his second monograph, Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (hereafter CSTH), published in 1980.

Boswell's private papers illustrate the controversy surrounding the publication of CSTH, the heart of which centered on his contention that Christianity was not always hostile to homosexuality. This contention was poorly received by secular gay activists on the left, who were negative about the Church, as well as by religious conservatives on the right, who were negative about homosexuality. Boswell's book created a moment in time when politically odd bedfellows worked together to defend outdated but cherished ideas about how Christianity historically treated homosexuals.

THE ARGUMENT OF CHRISTIANITY, SOCIAL TOLERANCE, AND HOMOSEXUALITY

Boswell writes in the introduction to his book that his intent is to "rebut the common idea that religious belief--Christian or other--has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people" (CSTH 6; this and all other citations of CSTH refer to the University of Chicago edition of 1980 unless otherwise noted). Boswell divides his book into four sections and twelve chapters. The first two chapters handle the introduction and definitions. The exposition starts in the third chapter on Rome, which is the foundational chapter, and proceeds chronologically through the ninth on the High Middle Ages. Boswell uses the final three chapters to analyze and conclude his argument.

Boswell argues in Chapter Ten that proscriptions against homosexuals came about as a result of social change, but, unlike what had been claimed previous to the publication of CSTH, he argues that the legal prohibitions had been the result of a general interdiction in Europe against all groups that did not conform. What is remarkable about this argument is not that it is new but that it reiterates an argument that medieval historians generally agree on: that restrictions on groups that did not conform were on the rise in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. Prior to CSTH, few had acknowledged that homosexuals were caught up in this shift in sentiment in Western Europe. Boswell mentions two key events that had a profound influence on the shift: the Third Council of the Lateran in 1179 and the Fourth Council of the Lateran in 1215. …

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