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Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

3.97  ·  Rating details ·  725 ratings  ·  43 reviews

At a time when strictures against homosexuality are the subject of impassioned debate, this groundbreaking work of scholarship has generated extraordinary controversy. For in Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe, Yale historian John Boswell, one of our most respected authorities on the Middle Ages, produces extensive evidence that at one time the Catholic and eastern

Paperback, 412 pages
Published May 30th 1995 by Vintage (first published 1994)
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Nov 30, 2008 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book blew my mind. As a historian of Roman religion, early Christianity and the Medieval Church, I never dreamed that the documents he's uncovered would actually exist out there. He's unearthed actual Christian liturgy for same-sex unions, prayers and blessings that couldn't be clearer about giving sanction to the spiritual bond between two people of the same sex the same way the Church does for opposite sex couples. As logical evidence in the current debate, this feels like "game, set, ...more
Aug 09, 2011 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This huge work of scholarship brings to light pre-modern documents concerning heterosexual marriages and same-sex unions. Don't be fooled by the title! Our modern sense of the phrase "same-sex unions" sometimes gets interpreted as "same-sex marriages," which really isn't the case with this book.

Sure, there may have been same-sex unions that entailed more than strong friendship or spiritual unity, but reading this book made me realize how diluted our sense of friendship - and how uneducated our
This book is a short tome for those used to reading academic texts that regularly delve into the original Greek, Hebrew, or other source languages. For me, someone who is not used to being steeped in the arcana of ancient text research, this was a tough read. That said, I enjoyed what I got out of it. And the writer was a preeminent scholar at a renowned institution, so he was well within his scholarly milieu in composing this text in the 90s. The biggest revelation here was that not only did ...more
Brian Childs
Jan 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, sexuality
I both appreciated and was annoyed by how academic the book was. Boswell made the case that the facts he presented were accurate, but by being so meticulous and detail focused he made a book that was difficult to become immersed in.
Nov 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing
Long story short, traditional Roman Catholic practice clearly included same-sex unions of some sort. The evidence seems massive and unmistakable. The author documents the origins of same sex marriage customs, their variety, and the beginnings of a process of repression which seems to date to the fourteenth century. The past may not be as we imagine it.

Reading around a bit you can discover that some reviewers question whether these same sex unions included, you know, sex. Some view Boswell
May 09, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I never thought I'd call a book titled "The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe" fun, but it was actually fun! I'm a massive nerd, so that probably contributed, but I found it understandable (if you have the concentration to ignore the Greek and Latin footnotes), intelligent, and, at times, very funny. The author injects just enough dry humour at the contrast of the world then and now to make me laugh without distracting me from the point. Though if you're not a massive ...more
James Owen Ether
Feb 17, 2009 rated it it was amazing
Before reading this book, I was under the impression that there was no history of same sex unions in premodern europe. It turns out that, in fact, there was enough to fill a very large book with things you'll never learn about in school. Most notable is the discussion of early Christianity and it's view of marriage vs. the marriage beliefs of judaism at the time. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is not already a scholar of the subject.
Apr 11, 2011 rated it really liked it
Fascinating. Marriage is not even close to what you probably thought it was. Especially not Christian concepts of marriage. Those squawking about gay marriage not being traditional (and heck, those on the other side of the debate) should take a gander at this work. Super academic, but accessible and interesting as well.
Andrew Mails
May 16, 2016 rated it it was amazing
An incredible work of scholarship that is well researched and cited. This should be on the reading list for anyone who intends to dive into the discussion of the history of Christian marriage, or the same-sex marriage debate.
May 29, 2013 rated it liked it
Wishful thinking at best, Ridiculous and revisionist in all truth.
Sherry Molock
Dec 01, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Impeccably researched. Very academic but provides great historical insight for same gender marriage
This book did an enormous amount of work opening my eyes to how truly differently people in the past viewed romantic relationships, including marriage. And I'm not just talking about homosexual unions (which are not called marriages here with good reason) but unions of all stripes from antiquity to the middle ages. I haven't had this kind of eye-opening experience since college: The kind where you walk away realizing how small-minded you've been, because there's a much larger gap between your ...more
Welton Marsland
Oct 14, 2017 rated it really liked it
Very academic, so a little dry in parts, but fascinating nonetheless.

Reading this in the midst of this shitty public "debate" regarding marriage equality in Australia right now has been... emotional. All those times we hear homophobes rail against same-sex marriage as not being "traditional" or "the way the Church intended", all that "not Adam and Steve" rubbish - and yet here is the actual history, the well researched facts that show those so-called arguments as the outright lies that they are.
Mar 26, 2020 rated it it was ok
Ehhh, nice try, I guess? I mean, sure, if words mean whatever you want, then any sort of church service for being consecrated to a spiritual brotherhood or sisterhood is a "same-sex union" (with all the postmodern/sexual implications of that phrase) rather than what they actually were, i.e., something akin to a tonsuring ceremony. Revisionist nonsense.
May 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: lgbt, owned, history, religion
A much more even handed and cautious exploration than seen in previous works but compelling nonetheless. Much of what is written here has now been better confirmed but the same problems with this type of research remains. Still a fascinating read and worthwhile. I enjoyed to appendix of translations and am glad they were included.
Apr 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
i don't agree with every conclusion boswell reaches but this is a convincing and fantastically researched study that i am very glad exists
Aug 25, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: history, read-in-2019
Incredibly well-researched book looking into same sex unions in Europe focusing mainly on the Roman Era and then Christian Medieval time period. I am blown out of the water knowing that this was published in 1995 when it feels like it could have been written today. This should be required reading for anyone interested in European history, as it rewrites (literally) many assumptions modern readers have about premodern societies in Europe.

I gave this four instead of five stars because this book
Adam Ross
A fascinating work of compelling, erudite scholarship. The eminent Yale historian John Boswell takes on a monumental study of same-sex behavior in premodern Europe, forwarding the controversial claim that both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches not simply permitted but actually performed official marriage rites for same-sex couples prior to the eleventh century.

Boswell begins with careful discussions of the terminology and definitions of the words employed in the study, which was
Jun 22, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Make no mistake, this is a scholarly text. It is not fluffy, it is not an easy read. There are numerous inclusions of Greek, Arabic, Latin, Russian and Hebrew in the text, in the footnotes, and, in some cases, entire works in these languages in the appendix. It is a well documented, well researched treatise on Same Sex Unions in Premodern Europe (meaning from the time of Ancient Greek and Roman culture up through the end of the "Dark Ages" in Europe)

Truthfully, I had no idea how much I didn't
Balthazar Lawson
Jun 24, 2011 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Despite a certain amount of enlightenment, I did not enjoy reading this book one bit. It was too academic for me and how could it be anything other than that seeing as it contained 20 pages of ancient Greek text, pages and pages of translated documents and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of footnotes.

A large part of this book was about trying to understand the meaning of words, such as brother or sister, in the context that they were used and attempting to put aside the modern meaning. It
David Black
May 30, 2013 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Superb book altho' too scholarly and too footnoted for the average reader....makes the undeniable case that throughout much of Europe--both East and West--same-sex "unions" were widely known and recognized, and often accompanied by formal nuptial many cases, with priests as witnesses or officiants. Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern church had formalized liturgies, and several dozen have been found in various archives and libraries. Observers recall witnessing such ...more
Scott Williams
Dec 27, 2012 rated it really liked it
John Boswell's meticulously researched book may find its audience limited because of its title. While the author is mostly interested in same-sex marriages the entire first half of the book is necessarily dedicated to an exploration of the origins of marriage in general. I almost found tracing the evolution of marriage more interesting than the same-sex union ceremonies he has uncovered. The roots of marriage (even Christian marriage) are quite different from what one might expect.

Boswell goes
David Mckinnon
Jun 19, 2012 rated it it was amazing

It is a difficult read. It is a book of scholarship written in the language of the serious scholar. This does not mean that the interested reader should not scale this mountain. If one has the discipline and the interest to read through its pages, the rewards are many.

The controversies that exist today within the Christian religions in regard to same-sex relationships/ unions/ marriages are not rooted in the history, philosophy or theology of the early Christian church. Records of ceremonies
Nov 15, 2013 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jul 31, 2013 rated it liked it
Thanks to a Towleroad post this book is popping back up into view before it's brought back into 'print' at the end of August. Have been curious when Boswell's book would become a part of the conversation concerning gay marriage again. Remember reading this when it came out 20 years ago. Not exactly what you think it is, but well worth a look. As holy histories go it ain't a Dan Brown page turner, but interesting stuff. Boswell was flogged by other historians for his interpretation of what he ...more
Jun 25, 2013 rated it really liked it
This book is not for the faint-of-attention-span. It's highly academic and covers so much more than just same-sex unions. It includes the history of marriage in general, to give readers a reference point for the ceremonies and traditions for same-sex relationships in the time periods. The book had huge sections of footnotes and substantial appendices with documents referred to in the text to aid experts in the field and had many terms left in their original Greek, Latin, Russian and Hebrew with ...more
Sep 05, 2007 rated it liked it
A lot of the larger picture was lost in an overwhelming amount of attention to detail - need he waste so much time on the concept of brothers and sisters? We got it, Boswell, move on. Is it also necessary to use the original Greek letters in every other sentence? If only the average reader of this academic text were fluent or even functionally literate in ancient Greek. To be sure, Boswell assumed he would be.

I feel like this had the potential to be a much more enlightening book. Unforunately,
This is an extremely dense, well-researched text. The footnotes alone cover anywhere from 1/4 to 3/4 of each page. Boswell goes into extreme detail on the linguistic differences between Greek and Latin, and how the limitations and translations can be interpreted. Because it is so in-depth, it takes much longer to read -- it's a book that requires intense focus -- but it's very much worth it. Boswell clearly knows his scholarship and supports his hypothesis/ conclusion with excellent and ...more
Overall fascinating. Who would have thought that Christians had a same-sex marriage ceremony established from Ireland to Armenia? While occasionally dry (as I find most books by historians can be) Boswell's book is full of great stories and insights. A useful book to think about the possibilities for structuring human relationships that fall outside what we would think of as "normative" (and to point out how "normative" is relative!).
Sep 04, 2007 rated it it was ok
Recommends it for: anthro/religion/history folks, gay activism
Shelves: recentlyfinished
Not the most well-written book in the world, but it preceded the current hullabaloo about civil unions for same-sex couples in medieval Europe by... oh, at least a few years.

Now, whether or not this research actually holds the same kind of water - that I can't tell you off the top of my head. It's an interesting read, though, with a lot of intriguing evidence that does certainly seem to stack up in the right direction.
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John Eastburn Boswell was a prominent historian and a professor at Yale University. Many of Boswell's studies focused on the issue of homosexuality and religion, specifically homosexuality and Christianity. Boswell graduated from the College of William & Mary and earned his phd at Harvard. He died in 1994, age 47.

Librarian note: There is more than one author by this name in the database. See

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