Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Born Today in 1947, LGBTQ Historian John Boswell

John Boswell was born today, March 20, in 1947. He was a historian and a full professor at Yale University. Many of Boswell's studies focused on the issue of religion and homosexuality, specifically Christianity and homosexuality. All of his work focused on the history of those at the margins of society.

His first book, The Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities Under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century, appeared in 1977. In 1994, Boswell's fourth book, Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, was published, but he died that same year from AIDS-related complications.

Boswell was born in Boston, Massachusetts. He earned his A.B. at the College of William & Mary, and his PhD at Harvard University before being hired to teach at Yale University.

A medieval philologist, Boswell read or spoke 17 languages, including Catalan, German, French, Old Church Slavonic, Ancient Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Armenian and Latin. Boswell received his doctorate in 1975 and joined the Yale University history faculty. Boswell was made full professor in 1982, and A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History in 1990.

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) is a work 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 12th century, had alternately evinced no special concern about homosexuality or actually celebrated love between men." The book won a National Book Award and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981, but Boswell's thesis was criticized by Warren Johansson, Wayne R. Dynes and John Lauritsen, who believed that he had attempted to whitewash the historic crimes of the Christian Church against gay men.

The Kindness of Strangers: Child Abandonment in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance (1988) is a scholarly study of the widespread practice of abandoning unwanted children and the means by which society tries to care for them. The title, as Boswell states in the Introduction, is inspired by a puzzling phrase Boswell had found in a number of documents: aliena misericordia, which might at first seem to mean "a strange kindness," is better translated "the kindness of strangers."

The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994) argues that the adelphopoiia liturgy was evidence that the attitude of the Christian church toward homosexuality has changed over time, and that early Christians did on occasion accept same-sex relationships.

Rites of so-called "same-sex union" (Boswell's proposed translation) 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, stated that these should be regarded as sexual unions similar to marriages. Boswell made many detailed translations of these rites in Same-Sex Unions, and stated that one mass gay wedding occurred only a couple of centuries ago in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome. This is a highly controversial point of Boswell's text, as other scholars have dissenting views of this interpretation, and believe that they were instead rites of becoming adopted brothers, or "blood brothers." 

Boswell pointed out such evidence as an icon of two 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 I to his "partner," John. Boswell sees Jesus as fulfilling the role of the "pronubus" or in modern parallel, best man.

Boswell was a Roman Catholic, having converted from the Episcopal Church of his upbringing at age 15. He remained a daily-mass Catholic up until his death, despite differences with the church over sexual issues. Although he was orthodox in most of his beliefs, he strongly disagreed with his church's stated opposition to homosexual behavior and relationships. 

He was partnered with Jerone Hart for some 20 years until his death. Boswell died of complications from AIDS in the Yale infirmary in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 24, 1994, at age 47. Hart and Boswell are buried together at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.

The video below is "Jews, Gay People, and Bicycle Riders," the full lecture by Boswell. It was held on April 25, 1986, in Birge Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison as part of the series "Out & About: Celebrating Gay and Lesbian Culture." Boswell is introduced by John Kirsch (Zoology Department). The video was made by David Runyon, Professor of Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, for his weekly program "Nothing to Hide," which was broadcast on the public access cable station WYOU Community Television in Madison, Wisconsin.

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