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Same-Sex Marriage in History

Excerpted from

Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con


Whatever effect these liturgical ceremonials were intended to achieve, it is clear that they used ecclesiastical formalities to make two men "brothers," and employed various rituals and symbolic claims to confirm this relationship within the confines of the church. All of Boswell's documents relate to practices rooted in the societies of Greece, the Balkans and the eastern Mediterranean between the twelfth and sixteenth centuries though, as he rightly argues, they surely reflect practices that were current from periods dating back to the end of the Roman empire, and probably earlier. The original documents that he cites are therefore in Greek, the ecclesiastical lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean. The only Western versions of them are translations made into Latin from the original Greek prayer and liturgical books-wherein, notably, it seems that the Latin translators did not understand the purpose of the originals very well.

The ecclesiastical rituals that bless adelphopoiesis, or the making of a brother, include prayers and invocations of Christian virtues, particularly agape, or the Christian concept of love. They note that conditions of peace, not conditions of hate or vituperation, should exist between the two parties. Appeal is also made to pairs of men in the Christian tradition who were thought to exemplify these virtues: Philip and Bartholomew, among the disciples of Christ, and Serge and Bacchus, among the martyrs of the early church. Other elements of the ceremonial include, most significantly, the shaking or "juncture" of right hands; the exchanging of tokens; the mutual bestowing of a ritualistic kiss; and the holding of a celebratory feast or banquet to mark the occasion.

Such agreements and rituals are "same-sex" in the sense that it is two men who are involved; and they are "unions" in the sense that the two men involved are cojoined as "brothers." But that is it. There is no indication in the texts themselves that these are marriages in any sense that the word would mean to readers now, not in any sense that the word would have meant to persons then: the formation of a common household, the sharing of everything in a permanent co-residential unit, the formation of a family unit wherein the two partners were committed, ideally, to each other, with the intent to raise children, and so on.

Although it is difficult to state precisely what these ritualized relationships were, most historians who have studied them are fairly certain that they deal with a species of "ritualized kinship" that is covered by the term "brotherhood." (This type of "brotherhood" is similar to the ritualized agreements struck between members of the Mafia or other "men of honor" in our own society.) That explains why the texts on adelphopoiesis in the prayer-books are embedded within sections dealing with other kinship-forming rituals, such as marriage and adoption. Giovanni Tomassia in the 1880s and Paul Koschaker in the 1930s, whose works Boswell knows and cites, had already reached this conclusion.

This likely interpretation is made more likely by an extensive modern study of which Boswell appears to be unaware. In 1987 Gabriel Herman, a professor of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, published Ritualized Friendship and the Greek City. In that book, and in several papers and articles on the subject published in leading journals of history and literature, Herman has analyzed the phenomenon of fictive "brotherhood" and "friendship" in the context of the world of the Greek city-state, and also in the cultures of the ancient Near East and in the regions that would later become parts of Slavonic Europe. In Herman's studies one finds all the phenomena regarded as indicative of "same-sex marriage" by Boswell: the ritual of the handshake, the exchange of tokens and right hands (dexiai), the declaration of love and friendship and of "no hostility or animosity" between the two parties, the exchange of a ritualistic kiss and the celebration of a common feast or banquet at the time of the formation of the compact.

Such ceremonials created ritualized friends who often spoke of each other as "brothers" and forged a close bond of brotherhood between themselves. They were "made brothers" rather than "brothers by nature." Hence the terminology, in Boswell's documents, of adelphopoiesis, or the ritual connected with "the making of a brother," and the phrases in his liturgical documents that specify that the two men "are not joined by the bond of nature, but rather by means of faith / trust and spirit," or similar words. This is why the documents contain references to the right of "protective asylum" (asylon anepereastos) and "safe conduct" (asphaleia) as divine attributes.

The kinds of words used to express the new relationship of "brothers" (words that are also found in Boswell's ecclesiastical rituals) were employed precisely because the men often entered into these relationships not out of love, but out of fear and suspicion. Hence the effusive emphasis on safety and trust.

Tags: Marriage