John Boswell

John Eastburn Boswell (March 20, 1947 – December 24, 1994) 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.

John Eastburn Boswell
Born(1947-03-20)March 20, 1947
Boston, Massachusetts
DiedDecember 24, 1994(1994-12-24) (aged 47)
New Haven, Connecticut
OccupationHistorian, writer, educator
Alma materCollege of William & Mary
SubjectHistory, homosexuality, religion

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. He died that same year from AIDS-related complications.


Early life

Boswell was born in Boston, Massachusetts the son of Colonel Henry Boswell, Jr. and Catharine Eastburn Boswell. He earned his A.B. at the College of William & Mary,[1] and his PhD at Harvard University before being hired to teach at Yale University.


A medieval philologist, Boswell read or spoke seventeen languages, including Catalan, German, French, Old Church Slavonic, Ancient Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Armenian and Latin.[2] Boswell received his doctorate 1975 and joined the Yale University history faculty, where his colleagues included John Morton Blum, David Brion Davis, Jaroslav Pelikan, Peter Gay, Hanna Holborn Gray, Michael Howard, Donald Kagan, Howard R. Lamar, Jonathan Spence, and Robin Winks. Boswell was made full professor in 1982, and A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History in 1990.[1]

The Royal Treasure (1977) is a detailed historical study of the Mudéjar Muslims in Aragon in the 14th century.

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 twelfth century, had alternately evinced no special concern about homosexuality or actually celebrated love between men." The book won a National Book Award[3][lower-alpha 1] 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.[4]

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," echoing the line "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.

The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York: Villard, 1994) argues that the adelphopoiia liturgy was evidence that the attitude of the Christian church towards homosexuality has changed over time, and that early Christians did on occasion accept same-sex relationships.[5]

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."[6][7][8] 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's methodology and conclusions have been disputed by many historians.[9][10][11][12][13][14][15] James Brundage, professor of history and law at the University of Kansas, observed that "the mainstream reaction was that he raised some interesting questions, but hadn't proved his case."[1]

Irish historian and journalist Jim Duffy, in his "Rite and Reason" column in The Irish Times, praised Boswell's work.[16] Welsh LGBT historian Norena Shopland, in Forbidden Lives, examines a number of translations of Gerald of Wales's extract from the third book of Topographia Hiberniae, ‘A proof of the iniquity (of the Irish) and a novel form of marriage’. Shopland shows how all translations currently being used were originally made before homosexuality was legal, and so reflect those times. She includes evidence supporting Boswell's translation of ‘marriage’ and not, as others claim ‘a treaty’.[17]

Faith and sexuality

Boswell was a Roman Catholic, having converted from the Episcopal Church of his upbringing at the age of 15. He remained a daily-mass Catholic 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 twenty years until his death. Hart and Boswell are buried together at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.[18][19]

In "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories",[20] Boswell compares the constructionistessentialist positions to the realistnominalist 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.


Boswell died of complications from AIDS in the Yale infirmary[21] in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 24, 1994, aged 47.


  • During the late 1980s, the influence of Michel Foucault's writings led to the emergence of a social constructivist view of human sexuality which emphasised the historical and cultural specificity of sexual identities such as 'heterosexual' and 'homosexual'. Despite Boswell's friendly relations with Foucault, he remained adamantly opposed to the French theorist's views, which he characterised as a reemergence of medieval nominalism, and defended his own striking essentialism in the face of changing academic fashions.
  • Since his death, Boswell's work has come under criticism from certain medievalists and queer theorists, who—while acknowledging his personal courage in bringing the issue of sexuality into the academy—have argued it is an anachronism to speak of "gay people" in pre-modern societies and have questioned the validity of Boswell's conclusions.[22][23]
  • Several other scholars, including Terry Castle, Ruth Vanita, and Rictor Norton, have followed in Boswell's footsteps, building up the field of lesbian and gay studies (as distinct from queer theory), and proposing that categorizations of humans by sexual predilection much predate the 19th century (where Foucault and his followers place it), both in the West (as in Plato's Symposium) and in other cultures (e.g., India).[24]
  • In 2006, Boswell was named with online resources as an LGBT History Month Icon.[25]


  • The Royal Treasure: Muslim Communities Under the Crown of Aragon in the Fourteenth Century (1977)Online
  • Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) — winner of the National Book Award,[3][lower-alpha 1] ISBN 978-0226067117
  • 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)
  • Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994), Villard Books, ISBN 0-679-43228-0

See also


  1. This was the 1981 award for hardcover History
    From 1980 to 1983 in National Book Award history there were dual hardcover and paperback awards in most categories, and several nonfiction subcategories including General Nonfiction. Most of the paperback award-winners were reprints, including the 1981 History.


  1. Dunlap, David E (25 December 1994). "John E. Boswell, 47, Historian Of Medieval Gay Culture, Dies". New York Times.
  2. Jane Kamensky, 'Fighting (over) words', in Richard Wightman Fox, Robert B. Westbrook (eds.) In Face of the Facts: Moral Inquiry in American Scholarship, Cambridge University Press, (1998) 2002 p.120.
  3. "National Book Awards – 1981". National Book Foundation. Retrieved 2012-04-13.
  4. Homosexuality, Intolerance, and Christianity: A Critical Examination of John Boswell's Work
  5. "People with a History: An Online Guide to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Trans* History". Fordham University, 1997.
  6. "The Life of St. Theodore of Sykeon (7th Century)". Fordham University. Retrieved July 1, 2015.
  7. "Archived copy". Archived from the original on May 9, 2006. Retrieved May 9, 2006.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  8. Halsall, Paul (December 17, 1995). "Reviewing Boswell ". Fordham University.
  9. Woods, David (2000). "The Origin of the Cult of SS. Sergius and Bacchus". From "The Military Martyrs". University College Cork. Retrieved June 25, 2009.
  10. Young, Robin Darling (November 1994). "Gay Marriage: Reimagining Church History". First Things. 47: 43–48. Retrieved June 25, 2009.
  11. Shaw, Brent (July 1994). "A Groom of One's Own?". The New Republic: 43–48. Archived from the original on May 7, 2006. Retrieved June 25, 2009.
  12. Christopher Walter, review of Elizabeth Key-Fowden, The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius between Rome and Iran in Revue des études byzantines, 59-60:p. 279
  13. Albrecht Classet, Marilyn Sandidge, Friendship in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age, p. 209
  14. Fowden, Elizabeth Key (1999). The Barbarian Plain: Saint Sergius Between Rome and Iran. University of California Press. p. 9 and note. ISBN 0520216857. Retrieved July 19, 2012.
  15. Jordan, Mark D. (2005). Blessing Same-Sex Unions: The Perils of Queer Romance and the Confusions of Christian Marriage. University of Chicago Press. p. 134. ISBN 0-226-41033-1. Retrieved February 29, 2012.
  16. Duffy, Jim (August 11, 1998). "CHRISTIANGAYS.COM: When Marriage Between Gays Was a Rite". The Irish Times (Dublin).
  17. Shopland, Norena. 'A wonder of nature' from Forbidden Lives: LGBT stories from Wales, Seren Books, 2017
  18. "Known as Jeb".
  19. "Jerone Hart obituary".
  20. Boswell, John (1989). "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories" (PDF). In Duberman, Martin Bauml; Vicinus, Martha; Chauncey, Jr., George (eds.). Hidden From History: Reclaiming the Gay and Lesbian Past. Penguin Books. p. 17-36.
  21. Dunlap, David W. (December 25, 1994). "John E. Boswell, 47, Historian Of Medieval Gay Culture, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved May 6, 2010.
  22. Paglia; Boswell Reviews, The Washington Post, July 17, 1994
  23. Warren Johansson and William A. Percy, Homosexuality in the Middle Ages, "", 2009.
  24. Norton, Rictor (2016). Myth of the Modern Homosexual. Bloomsbury Academic. The author has made adapted and expanded portions of this book available online as A Critique of Social Constructionism and Postmodern Queer Theory.


  • 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.
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