"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, February 29, 2016

Beyond Boswell's Tendentious Pamphleteering

Well do I remember the controversy in the mid-90s when a handsome young historian at some school or other started putting it about that Christians, especially in the East, had been hiding for centuries some ritual that he claimed was a proto-marriage liturgy for same-sex couples. The "mainstream" media, with their usual dreary lack of imagination and empty-headed cheerleading, pounced on this, of course, and spread this nonsense far and wide, tarting it up with pity because this "revolutionary" finding was authored by a man who would not enjoy the results, dying of AIDS in the same year as his book appeared. I read first the book and then, with great relish, one take-down after another in scholarly journals by serious historians and theologians (Robin Darling Young among them) who showed  that John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe had tendentiously ginned up a case for pre-determined conclusions, and made the evidence fit those conclusions because today's politics seemed to demand doing so. It was my first awareness of the uses and abuses of history by Christians.

Now we have a serious Byzantinist examining this evidence anew in her just-released book: Claudia Rapp, Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium: Monks, Laymen, and Christian Ritual (Oxford UP, 2016), 368pp. 

About this book we are told:
Among medieval Christian societies, Byzantium is unique in preserving an ecclesiastical ritual of adelphopoiesis, which pronounces two men, not related by birth, as brothers for life. It has its origin as a spiritual blessing in the monastic world of late antiquity, and it becomes a popular social networking strategy among lay people from the ninth century onwards, even finding application in recent times. Located at the intersection of religion and society, brother-making exemplifies how social practice can become ritualized and subsequently subjected to attempts of ecclesiastical and legal control.

Controversially, adelphopoiesis was at the center of a modern debate about the existence of same-sex unions in medieval Europe. This book, the first ever comprehensive history of this unique feature of Byzantine life, argues persuasively that the ecclesiastical ritual to bless a relationship between two men bears no resemblance to marriage. Wide-ranging in its use of sources, from a complete census of the manuscripts containing the ritual of adelphopoiesis to the literature and archaeology of early monasticism, and from the works of hagiographers, historiographers, and legal experts in Byzantium to comparative material in the Latin West and the Slavic world, Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium examines the fascinating religious and social features of the ritual, shedding light on little known aspects of Byzantine society.

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