Template:Infobox writer John Eastburn Boswell (March 20, 1947 - December 24, 1994), was a prominent historian and a professor at Yale University. Many of Boswell's studies focused on the issue of homosexuality and religion, specifically Roman Catholicism.


Born in Boston in 1947 into a military family, Boswell earned his undergraduate degree from the College of William and Mary, where he converted to Roman Catholicism. His nickname, from his initials, was "Jeb". A gifted medieval philologist who spoke (inter alia) fluent Catalan, he received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1975, whereupon he joined the Yale University history faculty as its rising star; he was made full professor in 1982. In 1987, Boswell helped organize and found the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale, which is now the Research Fund for Lesbian and Gay Studies. He was named the A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History in 1990, when he was also appointed to a two-year term as chair of the Yale history department. Boswell was a gifted and devoted teacher. His undergraduate lectures in medieval history were renowned for their organization, erudition, and wit, with the course often making the making the 'top 10' for highest enrollment. The multi-talented Boswell would even pen his comments on student papers in perfectly executed medieval calligraphy. His golden boy looks, astonishing intellectual gifts, and personal kindness all combined to make his early death appear to students like something out of a tragic Greek fable.


Boswell was the author of the ground-breaking and controversial book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980), which, according to Chauncey et al. (1989), "offered a revolutionary interpretation of the Western tradition, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church had not condemned gay people throughout its history, but rather, at least until the twelfth century, had alternately envinced no special concern about homosexuality or actually celebrated love between men." The book was also crowned with the American Book Award for History and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981.

He is known primarily, however, as author of Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York: Villard, 1994) in which he argues that the adelphopoiia liturgy was evidence that attitude of the Christian church towards homosexuality has changed over time, and that early Christians did on occasion accept same-sex relationships.[1]

Rites of 'same-sex union' occur in ancient prayer-books of both the western and eastern churches. They are rites of adelphopoiesis, literally Greek for the making of brothers. Boswell argued that these were sexual unions similar to marriage. This is a controversial point of the text, as other scholars have dissenting views of this interpretation, and believe that they were instead rites of becoming adopted brothers, or "blood brothers".[2][3][4]

Boswell pointed out such evidence as an icon of two saints, Saints Sergius and Bacchus (at St. Catherine's on Mount Sinai), and drawings, such as one he interprets as depicting the wedding feast of Emperor Basil to his "partner", John. Boswell sees Jesus as fulfilling the role of the 'pronubus' or in modern parallel, best man.

Boswell made many detailed translations of these rites in his book The Marriage of Likeness, and claimed that one mass gay wedding occurred only a couple of centuries ago in the Basilica of St John Lateran, the cathedral seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome.

Boswell's writings touched off detailed debate in The Irish Times some years ago and the article which triggered off the debate, a major feature in the "Rite and Reason" religion column in the paper by a respected Irish historian and religious commentator, has been reproduced on many websites[5]

Faith and sexuality

Boswell himself was throughout his life a devout Roman Catholic. Although he was orthodox in most of his beliefs, he strongly disagreed with his church's stated opposition to homosexual behavior and relationships. To a certain degree much of the work and research Boswell did regarding the Christian church's historical relationship with homosexuality can be seen as an attempt (which some regard as successful) to find grounds for reconciliation between his religious beliefs and his sexual orientation.

In Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories (1982, revised), Boswell compares the constructionist-essentialist positions to the realist-nominalist dichotomy. He also lists three types of sexual taxonomies:

  • All or most humans are polymorphously sexual ... external accidents, such as socio-cultural pressure, legal sanctions, religious beliefs, historical or personal circumstances determine the actual expression of each person's sexual feelings.
  • Two or more sexual categories, usually, but not always based on sexual object choice.
  • One type of sexual response [is] normal ... all other variants abnormal.

Aside from sexuality issues, his Royal Treasure is a detailed historical study of the Mudejar Muslims in Aragon in the 14th century.


Boswell died of complications from AIDS-related illness on December 24, 1994, at age 47.


  • Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities Under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century (1977) – Online
  • Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980)
  • Rediscovering Gay History: Archetypes of Gay Love in Christian History (1982)
  • The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (1989)
  • Homosexuality in the Priesthood and the Religious Life (1991) (co-author)
  • Forms of Desire: Sexual Orientation and the Social Constructionist Controversy (1992)
  • The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Union in Premodern Europe (1994)



  • Boswell, John (1989, 1982). "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories", Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past, Chauncey et al., eds. New York: Meridian, New American Library, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-452-01067-5.
  • Chauncey et al., eds (1989). "Introduction", Hidden from History: Reclaiming the Gay & Lesbian Past (1990), New York: Meridian, New American Library, Penguin Books. ISBN 0-452-01067-5.

See also

External links

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