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86: JOHN BOSWELL AND LOUIS CROMPTON

May 25, 2014

#86:  JOHN BOSWELL AND LOUIS CROMPTON.  In 1980, the AIDS virus was being diagnosed and a holocaust in small was getting under way; gay visibility was increasing and with it homophobia was getting a fresh lease on life.  Into the left field of this situation John Boswell, a little-known Yale scholar of European history, dropped, if not a bomb, then certainly something of a hand grenade: his study Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century.  It was a work of obvious erudition, drawing on a dozen languages and literatures; it was published with full scholarly dressing by a university press (Yale); it cited and discussed such household names as Aelred of Rievaulx, Valerius Maximus, Baudri of Bourgeuil and Abu’l-Qasim az-Zahrawi; its bibliography barely escaped being “uselessly massive”; and it announced its specific payload right in the title.  In it, Boswell took the popular perceptions of Christianity’s attitude towards homosexuality (in a word: BAD) and opened up long historic avenues of complexity:  the inheritance of classical stances on the subject; the difficulties and ambiguities of moving from the classical languages to expressing Biblical assumptions and attitudes (an entire appendix is devoted to “Lexicography and Saint Paul”); the effects of the rise and ebb of urbanization; the handing-on and snowballing of various chance and influenced translations.  The final result was the upending of a lot of the old simplicities: word-meanings shifted, pockets of acceptance surfaced, old certainties were shown to be resting on swampy ground.  Boswell’s grasp of the historical context and the languages was such that probably only other scholars would be able to dispute his arguments, but the book left the scholarly sales circles and got tackled by a lot of non-specialist readers, and its tone of calm helped to make the old hysterias and hostilities look vulgar and unsustainable.  “What will strike some readers as a partisan point of view is chiefly the absence of the negative attitudes on the subjects ubiquitous in the Modern West; after a long loud noise, a sudden silence may seem deafening.”  The real silences, of course, were in the old majority-rule histories, what Matthew Arnold called “the huge Mississippi of falsehood,” in which gay people figured stereotypically or not at all, as with all minorities—just those silences that the postwar revisionist histories have begun to break open. Boswell, by his own claim, was doing just a first scratching of the surface of the topic; but after thirty years no book has bettered his discussion.  With insight, intelligence and, every so often, a nose- tweaking sense of impudence, he has brought these people out of their forgotten and unhonored graves and given them voice.  A phrase from the AIDS years: “Silence is death.”    

       Almost a quarter-century after Boswell, Louis Crompton crowned a pioneering academic career in gay studies by publishing Homosexuality and Civilization (Belknap/Harvard, 2003), a vast, admirably researched survey of the subject marked by readable prose and a smart eye for the telling anecdote.  It is, in its way, a book of its time:  he hasn’t Boswell’s facility with foreign languages (his bibliography is almost entirely in English or French) but it reflects the miraculous traffic in scholarly and literary translation in the last half of the twentieth century, which enables Crompton to do the prodigious homework he did for the book.  It canvasses attitudes from, of course, the Greeks and Romans on up through popes, poets, princes, Puritans, Samurai, emperors and inquisitors (though, as one reader pointed out, India seems to have dropped off the map—what happened?).  Your attention may waver a bit depending on your interest, or lack of it, in any given period or place, but it’s even-handed and

intelligent throughout, never descends to hysteria, and rises in places to an impressive dignity. As he heads chronologically into the dark times of the Medieval period—his reading of the period differs distinctly from Boswell’s—he writes:  “The killing, maiming and torture of homosexuals ranks among humanity’s innumerable ‘hate crimes,’ crimes encouraged in this instance by the Christian clergy.  We must deduct such actions, as we deduct the persecutions of heretics, witches and Jews, from the enormous debt our civilization owes to the religion preached in Jesus’ name.”  Beat that.

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