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Did the medieval church perform same-sex unions?

Did the medieval church perform same-sex unions?

I lack the theological and historical chops to assess Eric Berkowitz’s claim that the Catholic Church celebrated same-sex unions between men in medieval times, or to distinguish his claims from those of the late historian John Boswell. But I would be delighted to hear from commenters who can give us a sense of whether Berkowitz is saying anything new or significant. He writes:

Despite the risks, devotional relationships between men were common in Europe at the time, at least among the literate, and many of these affairs must have included sex at some point. Knights, aristocrats, and especially clerics left expansive evidence of their intense passions for male lovers, relationships that often ended in side-by-side burials.


If male hustlers on the Rialto were burned to death and other European sodomites were being cut to ribbons, could long-term, loving relationships among men ever be permitted?

The answer, paradoxically, is yes. In the period up to roughly the thirteenth century, male bonding ceremonies were performed in churches all over the Mediterranean. These unions were sanctified by priests with many of the same prayers and rituals used to join men and women in marriage. The ceremonies stressed love and personal commitment over procreation, but surely not everyone was fooled. Couples who joined themselves in such rituals most likely had sex as much (or as little) as their heterosexual counterparts. In any event, the close association of male bonding ceremonies with forbidden sex eventually became too much to overlook as ever more severe sodomy laws were put into place.

Such same-sex unions—sometimes called “spiritual brotherhoods”—forged irrevocable bonds between the men involved. Often they involved missionaries about to set off on foreign voyages, but lay male couples also entered into them. Other than the gender of the participants, it was difficult to distinguish the ceremonies from typical marriages. Twelfth-century liturgies for same-sex unions, for example, involved the pair joining their right hands at the altar, the recital of marriage prayers, and a ceremonial kiss.

Berkowitz’s book is Sex and Punishment. Boswell’s is Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe.


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tobias haller

Does that give me trinitarian status? 😉


It’s amazing what a traditionalist bishop will admit, when you find him in a conversationally candid mood.

An Oriental Orthodox bishop once told me that, while he knew there was nothing in Scripture or Tradition to bar the ordination of women, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around it. “When I think of a woman” he said, “I think of my mother. I was my mother’s whole world. If she had been ordained a priest, how would she ever have been able to devote her life to ME???”

Ah, humans. In all their folly, gotta love ’em (just, y’know, not build your church DOGMA on ’em! ;-/)

JC Fisher

Jim Naughton

Tobias, you wrote:

“I recall a similar admission from a Russian Bishop making the same kind of observation, reported by Martin Smith in an article in an issue of the Cowley journal back in the 80s.”

There are about ten people alive who could write that sentence. And you are three of them.

tobias haller

I think Bill D. has the nuance on this exactly right. I very much doubt these rites were “intended” as same-sex marriage; but there can be little doubt they functioned as such in at least some cases. I recall a similar admission from a Russian Bishop making the same kind of observation, reported by Martin Smith in an article in an issue of the Cowley journal back in the 80s. (IIRC)

Bill Dilworth

Back in the 70s I met an older man whose grandfather had been an Eastern Orthodox priest; he told me his grandfather had performed what sounded like the sort of ceremony Boswell describes, between his grandson and his grandson’s partner. These days the EOs bend over backwards to deny the adelphopoiesis ceremony was ever used for same-sex unions, and it may not have been its original or even primary use, but I think it’s pretty clear that some Eastern European groups used it for exactly that purpose.

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