Monday, March 20, 2017

Birthday: “Blessed is he who has learned to laugh at himself for he shall never cease to be entertained.”

John Eastburn Boswell (1947-1994)
Educator, Scholar, Author

One measure of the catastrophic swath AIDS cut through two generations of Americans is to consider, for a moment, what John Boswell accomplished in 37 years, then that, had he lived, he would only be celebrating his seventieth birthday today.

Jeb- as his friends initialized him, was a golden boy, literally and intellectually. He was a polyglot and a polymath into whose classes students fought to get, and who, in 1986, voted Boswell the sexiest man at Yale.

Born in 1947 to a mil­i­tary fam­ily, Jeb spent his child­hood in Boston, Mass. as an Epis­co­palian. By the time he fin­ished his under­grad­u­ate degree at The College of William and Mary in 1969 in Virginia, Jeb had con­verted to Roman Catholicism, to which he remained a devoted fol­lower for the rest of his life.

After col­lege, Jeb pur­sued his doc­tor­ate in his­tory at Harvard University in Cambridge. A tal­ented scholar, Jeb uti­lized his knowl­edge of 17 lan­guages in his stud­ies, includ­ing Ancient Greek, Cata­lan, Latin, Church Slavonic, Old Ice­landic, clas­si­cal Armen­ian, Syr­iac, Per­sian and Ara­bic, among oth­ers. In addi­tion to his intel­lec­tual inter­ests, Jeb was known among peers for play­ing piano music in his room in the all-male grad­u­ate dor­mi­tory Conant Hall. He intro­duced his friends to the world of “Greater Gay Boston,” to which he had been famil­iar­iz­ing him­self for years.

Jeb grad­u­ated from Har­vard in 1975 and imme­di­ately moved to New Haven, tak­ing up a teach­ing post at Yale. He was made full professor in 1982, and served as the chair of the his­tory depart­ment from 1990 to 1992. In 1987 , he helped found the Lesbian and Gay Studies Center at Yale. While at Yale, Jeb pub­lished four books, includ­ing his 1980 work Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality which gar­nered much con­tro­versy and was described as “rev­o­lu­tion­ary.” He was also a much-beloved teacher, with many of his under­grad­u­ate classes rank­ing in the top ten for high­est enroll­ment. He took time to men­tor stu­dents indi­vid­u­ally, and in some cases, used his wide knowl­edge of lesser-known lan­guages to trans­late sources for his stu­dents.

Jeb died of AIDS-related com­pli­ca­tions on Christ­mas Eve, 1994, sur­rounded by his part­ner Jerry Hart, sis­ter Patri­cia Boswell, and friends Aaron Laush­way and Joe Gor­don. He was 47.

The New York Times, which, in its obituary described Boswell’s partner as “a friend” in the awkward formulations of that paper in that time, considered the impact of Boswell’s scholarly work:

He was also controversial. Some scholars and theologians disputed his findings, which gained wide notice in 1980 with the publication of "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe From the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century" (University of Chicago Press).

"I would not hesitate to call his book revolutionary," Paul Robinson, a Stanford University historian, wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "for it tells of things heretofore unimagined and sets a standard of excellence that one would have thought impossible in the treatment of an issue so large, uncharted and vexed." It won the American Book Award for history in 1981.

One major aim of his work, Dr. Boswell wrote, was "to rebut the common idea that religious belief -- Christian or other -- has been the cause of intolerance in regard to gay people."

Among his findings was that there had been, from about 1050 to 1150, "an efflorescence of gay subculture, with a highly developed literature, its own argot and artistic conventions, its own low life, its elaborate responses to critics."

Last June, Dr. Boswell again captured attention -- and provoked much debate -- with "Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe" (Villard Books), based on the study of more than 60 manuscripts from the 8th to the 16th century.

By the 12th century, Dr. Boswell wrote, the ceremony of same-sex union had become a "full office" which involved burning candles, placing the parties' hands on the Gospel, binding their hands or covering their heads with the priest's stole, saying the Lord's Prayer, receiving communion, kissing and sometimes circling the altar.

As to whether the ceremony celebrated a "relationship between two men or two women that was (or became) sexual," Dr. Boswell wrote, "Probably, sometimes, but this is obviously a difficult question to answer about the past, since participants cannot be interrogated."

He was far more confident in declaring that the ceremony was "unmistakably a voluntary, emotional union of two persons," one that was "closely related" to heterosexual marriage, "no matter how much some readers may be discomforted by this."

James Brundage, a professor of history and law at the University of Kansas, said in an interview last summer that "the mainstream reaction was that he raised some interesting questions, but hadn't proved his case."

And Brent D. Shaw, of the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, argued in The New Republic that the ceremonies Dr. Boswell described were more akin to the "ritualized agreements struck between members of the Mafia or other 'men of honor' in our own society."

Scholars were not the only ones wrestling with this matter. At least two newspapers withheld the comic strip "Doonesbury," by Garry Trudeau, in which the character Mark Slackmeyer described the "gay marriages" uncovered by Dr. Boswell: "They were just like heterosexual ceremonies, except that straight weddings, being about property, were usually held outdoors. Gay rites, being about love, were held inside the church!"

Dr. Boswell's other major work was "The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe From Late Antiquity to the Renaissance" (Pantheon Books), published in 1989.

"Marred though it may be by interpretive excesses, this is a pioneering work of large importance," Mary Martin McLaughlin, a historian, wrote in The New York Times Book Review. She added that it was "the first to map out and explore a tangled, mysterious region of human experience."


Richard John Neuhaus, the champion of high-toned scorn in his magazine, First Things, got really exercised about Boswell (though he waited until Boswell was dead to haul out his cudgel):

The revisionism being advanced today is influential, misleading, and deeply confused. Robert L. Wilken, the distinguished scholar of early Christianity at the University of Virginia, describes Boswell’s book as “advocacy scholarship.” By that he means “historical learning yoked to a cause, scholarship in the service of a social and political agenda.” Wilken notes that Boswell’s subtitle is Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century . If, as Boswell insists, there were not “gay people” (in the contemporary meaning of the term) in the ancient world, and therefore Paul and other Christian authorities were only criticizing heterosexuals who engaged in homosexual acts, how can one write a history of gay people in that period of history? Wilken puts it gently: “Boswell creates historical realities that are self-contradictory, and hence unhistorical.” Boswell writes that in antiquity there were no prejudices directed “to homosexual relations as a class.” The reason is obvious, observes Wilken: as Boswell himself elsewhere recognizes, “the ancients did not think there was a class of people with sexual ‘preferences’ for the same sex.”

Wilken writes, “The notion that there is a ‘class’ of people defined by sexual preference is a very recent idea that has no basis in western tradition. To use it as an interpretive category is confusing and promotes misunderstanding. Where there were laws or social attitudes against homosexuals, they had to do not with homosexuals as a class but with homosexual acts. Even where certain homosexual acts were tolerated by society (as in ancient Greece), there was no suggestion that sexual preference determined behavior or that certain people were thought to belong to a distinct group within society. Even when tolerated (for example, between an adult male and a youth), there was no social approval given an adult male who played the ‘passive’ role (the role of the boy).” And, as we have seen, Paul and the early Christians departed from the Greeks in judging homosexual acts per se to be unnatural and morally disordered.

“In some cases,” Wilken notes, “Boswell simply inverts the evidence to suit his argument.” For instance, Boswell writes that in antiquity some Roman citizens “objected to Christianity precisely because of what they claimed was sexual looseness on the part of its adherents.” They charged, among other things, that Christians engaged in “homosexual acts,” and Boswell says that “this belief seems to have been at least partly rooted in fact.” As evidence Boswell cites Minucius Felix, a third-century writer who was answering charges brought against Christians by their Roman critics. Among the items mentioned by Minucius Felix, Boswell says, is the charge that Christians engage in “ceremonial fellatio” (the text actually says “worshiping the genitals of their pontiff and priest”). What Boswell fails to say is that this charge”along with others, such as the claim that Christians sacrificed children in the Eucharist”was manufactured out of whole cloth and historians have long dismissed such claims as having nothing to do with Christian behavior.

G.W. Clarke, the most recent commentator on the passage from Minucius Felix writes, “This bizarre story is not found elsewhere among the charges reported against the Christians.” It is, says Clarke, the kind of invention that the opponents of Christianity “would have felt quite free to use for effective rhetorical polemic.” It is noteworthy, observes Wilken, that no such charges appear in any of the texts written by critics of Christianity. They appear only in Christian writings (such as that of Minucius Felix), perhaps because they were slanderously passed on the streets or because their obvious absurdity gave Christian apologetics greater force. The situation, in short, is entirely the opposite of what Boswell suggests. While the passage from Minucius Felix gives no information about Christian behavior, it does undercut the burden of Boswell’s argument. Boswell seems not to have noticed it, but the passage makes clear that, for both Romans and Christians, it was assumed that to charge someone with fellatio was to defame him. Both the Christians and their critics assumed that such behavior is a sign of moral depravity. This is hardly evidence of early Christian “tolerance” of homosexual acts.

It is the way of advocacy scholarship to seize upon snips and pieces of “evidence” divorced from their historical context, and then offer an improbable or fanciful interpretation that serves the argument being advanced. That is the way egregiously exemplified by Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality . David Wright, the author of the pertinent encyclopedia article on homosexuality, wrote in 1989: “The conclusion must be that for all its interest and stimulus Boswell’s book provides in the end of the day not one firm piece of evidence that the teaching mind of the early Church countenanced homosexual activity.” Yet the ideologically determined are not easily deterred by the facts. As the churches continue to deliberate important questions of sexual morality, be prepared to encounter the invocation, as though with the voice of authority, “But Boswell says . . . ”

More characteristic, however, of the Christianist Right’s attacks is an excerpt from a 2007 article at Gay Christian Movement Watch:

His life was tragic because although he retained an enormous gifting of intellect, he used it to subvert Christian teaching on homosexuality. It was equally tragic because despite his stellar intellect, it did not protect him from contracting AIDS and eventually dying from it in 1994 at age 47.

That, of course, makes about as much sense as writing of Pope John Paul II, another extraordinary scholar and linguist,

His life was tragic because although he retained an enormous gifting of intellect, he used it to lock Catholicism into an increasingly reactionary, exclusionist mold that looked the other way as the church’s child abuse scandals unfolded. It was equally tragic because despite his stellar intellect, it did not protect him from contracting Parkinson’s Disease, osteoarthritis and deafness and eventually dying from it in 2005 at age 84.

Boswell took the long view:

Fortunately for the historian, the court to which his evidence is submitted has no fixed term; interesting cases can be argued before it indefinitely. The jury can remain out for as long as it takes to gather the requisite data and come to a sound decision... the historian can watch with delight or consternation as the case is tried and retried by others, who may prove his hunches right or wrong.
Here is an example of Boswell at his best: "Jews, Gay People, and Bicycle Riders," a lecture by John Boswell, Professor of History at Yale University and the author of the prize-winning book "Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality" (1980). Boswell's lecture 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 was introduced by James Steakley (German Department) and 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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