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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 homosexuality and Christianity.

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. A gifted medieval philologist, he worked in, among other languages, Catalan, Old Church Slavonic, Ancient Greek, Arabic, and Latin. Boswell received his doctorate from Harvard University in 1975 and joined the Yale University history faculty, where his colleagues included John Morton Blum, David Brion Davis, John Demos, Peter Gay, Hanna Holborn Gray, Michael Howard, Donald Kagan, Howard R. Lamar, Edmund S. Morgan, Jonathan Spence, Robin W. Winks, and C. Vann Woodward. Boswell 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 "top 10" for highest enrollment. To enhance the novelty and high interest in his classes, the multi-talented Boswell would often pen his comments on student papers in perfectly executed italic script.

Jerone Hart & John Boswell are buried together at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, New Haven County, Connecticut, USA. Jerome Hart was a retired industrial engineer; accredited judge of the American Philatelic Society; winner of many awards for collections of stamps, covers, and imprints from Aden, British India, Barbados, and the American Civil War period; avid NASCAR fan and former co-owner of a NASCAR "bush league" race team.

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 ground-breaking and controversial 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." Scholarly reactions varied. More importantly, the book brought forward a fresh emphasis on the crime of rape being the actual sin of Sodom, rather than the homosexual acts themselves. This idea calls into question any connection between gay people today and the Biblical Sodomites. The book was crowned with the American Book Award for History and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981, but Boswell's leading 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 (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.

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, despite the fact that the rites explicitly state that the union involved in adelphopoiesis is a "spiritual" and not a "carnal" one, argued that these should be regarded as sexual unions similar to marriage. 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, 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 made many detailed translations of these rites in Same-Sex Unions, 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, and the article that triggered off the debate, a major feature in the "Rite and Reason" religion column in the paper by respected Irish historian and religious commentator Jim Duffy, has been reproduced on many websites.

Although some of Boswell's books became best-sellers, he made few concessions to the popular market. His books have many footnotes, most of which are more than references to other works but actually add information and insight to the main text. He quotes several ancient and modern languages (notably Greek) in their own alphabets, although he does transliterate Arabic with diacritical marks.

Boswell was a Roman Catholic, having converted from the Episcopal Church of his upbringing at age 16. He remained a daily mass Catholic up until his death, despite his 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. 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 to reconcile his sexual orientation with his faith.

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.

Boswell died of complications from AIDS in the Yale infirmary in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 24, 1994, at age 47.

Although Boswell's earlier works did much to break down the taboo surrounding the serious study of homosexuality in American academia, by the end of his life Boswell was out of step with the main current of scholarly opinion. 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 strident essentialism in the face of changing academic fashions. Since his death, Boswell's work has come under criticism from medievalists and queer theorists, who—while acknowledging his personal courage in bringing the issue of sexuality into the academy—have pointed out the anachronism of speaking of 'gay people' in premodern societies and have questioned the validity of Boswell's conclusions. Several other scholars, including Terry Castle and Ruth Vanita, have followed in Boswell's footsteps, building up the field of lesbian and gay studies (as distinct from queer theory), and demonstrating that categorizations of humans by sexual predilection much predate the nineteenth century (where Foucault and his followers wrongly place it), both in the West (as in Plato's Symposium) and in other cultures (e.g., India).


John Boswell, 1987-88, by Robert Giard (
American photographer Robert Giard is renowned for his portraits of American poets and writers; his particular focus was on gay and lesbian writers. Some of his photographs of the American gay and lesbian literary community appear in his groundbreaking book Particular Voices: Portraits of Gay and Lesbian Writers, published by MIT Press in 1997. Giard’s stated mission was to define the literary history and cultural identity of gays and lesbians for the mainstream of American society, which perceived them as disparate, marginal individuals possessing neither. In all, he photographed more than 600 writers. (

Further Readings:

Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century by John Boswell
Paperback: 442 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press; 8th Edition edition (November 1, 2005)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0226067114
ISBN-13: 978-0226067117
Amazon: Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century

"Truly groundbreaking work. Boswell reveals unexplored phenomena with an unfailing erudition."—Michel Foucault
John Boswell's National Book Award-winning study of the history of attitudes toward homosexuality in the early Christian West was a groundbreaking work that challenged preconceptions about the Church's past relationship to its gay members—among them priests, bishops, and even saints—when it was first published twenty-five years ago. The historical breadth of Boswell's research (from the Greeks to Aquinas) and the variety of sources consulted make this one of the most extensive treatments of any single aspect of Western social history. Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality, still fiercely relevant today, helped form the disciplines of gay and gender studies, and it continues to illuminate the origins and operations of intolerance as a social force.
"What makes this work so exciting is not simply its content—fascinating though that is—but its revolutionary challenge to some of Western culture's most familiar moral assumptions."—Jean Strouse, Newsweek

The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance by John Boswell
Paperback: 506 pages
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (November 1, 1998)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0226067122
ISBN-13: 978-0226067124
Amazon: The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance

In The Kindness of Strangers, John Boswell argues persuasively that child abandonment was a common and morally acceptable practice from antiquity until the Renaissance. Using a wide variety of sources, including drama and mythological-literary texts as well as demographics, Boswell examines the evidence that parents of all classes gave up unwanted children, "exposing" them in public places, donating them to the church, or delivering them in later centuries to foundling hospitals. The Kindness of Strangers presents a startling history of the abandoned child that helps to illustrate the changing meaning of family.

"Highly original, learned, and skillfully written. . . . A mine of fascinating and surprising information about every aspect of the history of family limitation in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance Europe."—Bernard Knox, New York Review of Books

"A formidably learned, ingenious, at times eloquent investigation. Professor Boswell is a young historian of rare force and originality."—George Steiner, New Yorker

"Bold, original and, very likely, controversial. . . . This is a pioneering work of large importance, the first to map out and explore a tangled, mysterious region of human experience."—Mary Martin McLaughlin, New York Times Book Review

Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe by John Boswell
Paperback: 464 pages
Publisher: Vintage (May 30, 1995)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0679751645
ISBN-13: 978-0679751649
Amazon: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe

Both highly praised and intensely controversial, this brilliant book produces dramatic evidence that at one time the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches not only sanctioned unions between partners of the same sex, but sanctified them--in ceremonies strikingly similar to heterosexual marriage ceremonies.

More Particular Voices at my website:, My Ramblings/Particular Voices

Date: 2011-12-24 12:35 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I read Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality with great interest. It's so much more than just debunking the myth of Sodom (the portion of scripture where the myths are most easily dismantled, even by just reading the English translation of the text and not knowing a word of Greek or Hebrew). Much more important, IMO, are his insights into the letters of Paul and the book of Exodus, the passages most frequently cited and misinterpreted to push a homophobic agenda, also his account of ecclesiastical tradition and its role in shaping Western thought throughout history. Fascinating book, I'd really recommend it! :)

Date: 2011-12-24 12:39 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
John Boswell's work is such important, at the level of Bloch or LeGoff to my account. Such a shame he died so young, one can only imagine what he could achieve in a longer life.

Date: 2011-12-24 12:42 pm (UTC)
From: [identity profile]
I agree.


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