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. His nickname, from his initials, was "Jeb". 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, whereupon he joined the Yale University history faculty as its rising star; he 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. The multi-talented Boswell would pen his comments on student papers in perfectly executed medieval calligraphy.
Boswell was the author of the ground-breaking and controversial book Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality (1980), 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 was crowned with the American Book Award for History and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981.
He is known primarily, however, as author of The Marriage of Likeness: Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York: Villard, 1994), in which he argues that the adelphopoiia liturgy was evidence that 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 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.
Boswell also wrote The Kindness of Strangers: Child Abandonment in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance. This may be the first 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," with no reference to Blanche DuBois.
The Royal Treasure is a detailed historical study of the Mudejar Muslims in Aragon in the 14th century.
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 himself was throughout his life a devout Roman Catholic. 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:
Boswell died of complications from AIDS 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.