Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Medieval Gay Marriage? Not quite

Headline at MSNBC: "Gay marriage goes way back: Historian says men wed as early as 600 years ago in medieval Europe". Well, not quite, but close. Let's strip out the rank advocacy and see what the historian is really saying. First, here's what the story highlights via paraphrase:
Civil unions between male couples existed around 600 years ago in medieval Europe, a historian now says.

Historical evidence, including legal documents and gravesites, can be interpreted as supporting the prevalence of homosexual relationships hundreds of years ago, said Allan Tulchin of Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania.

If accurate, the results indicate socially sanctioned same-sex unions are nothing new, nor were they taboo in the past.
I've emphasized the caveats and qualifications, but notice how the story leads with an assertion-as-fact that "Civil unions between male couples existed around 600 years ago in medieval Europe..." OK, so what does Tulchin base his interpretation on:
[Tulchin] found legal contracts from late medieval France that referred to the term "affrèrement," roughly translated as brotherment. Similar contracts existed elsewhere in Mediterranean Europe, Tulchin said.

In the contract, the "brothers" pledged to live together sharing "un pain, un vin, et une bourse," (that's French for one bread, one wine and one purse). The "one purse" referred to the idea that all of the couple's goods became joint property. Like marriage contracts, the "brotherments" had to be sworn before a notary and witnesses, Tulchin explained.

The same type of legal contract of the time also could provide the foundation for a variety of non-nuclear households, including arrangements in which two or more biological brothers inherited the family home from their parents and would continue to live together, Tulchin said.
Medieval contracts aren't up my alley, but I'd bet that while affrèrement "contracts" can be likened to a marriage contract, there's a good chance they can be likened to other medieval legal documents. But setting them up as "like a marriage contract" is laying the groundwork for Tulchin's theory.
But non-relatives also used the contracts. In cases that involved single, unrelated men, Tulchin argues, these contracts provide “considerable evidence that the affrèrés were using affrèrements to formalize same-sex loving relationships."
The MSNBC story doesn't provide all of Tulchin's reasoning, for that we go to the press release (heh, imagine, promoting potentially controversial scholarship. Welp, it works!):
The effects of entering into an affrèrement were profound. As Tulchin explains: “All of their goods usually became the joint property of both parties, and each commonly became the other’s legal heir. They also frequently testified that they entered into the contract because of their affection for one another. As with all contracts, affrèrements had to be sworn before a notary and required witnesses, commonly the friends of the affrèrés.”
This is a bit more solid. But it isn't clear if the "They" he's alluding to are those in agreements between blood brothers (or other relatives) or those between un-related men or both. It's also not clear to me how he knows that two men are unrelated. If they're cousins, would they have the same last name? What if one is a bastard? I don't think you can tell if they are un-related for sure by just looking at the documents. Again, it's an assumption.

Back to the MSNBC story:
The ins-and-outs of the medieval relationships are tricky at best to figure out.

"I suspect that some of these relationships were sexual, while others may not have been," Tulchin said. "It is impossible to prove either way and probably also somewhat irrelevant to understanding their way of thinking. They loved each other, and the community accepted that.
Let's call it like it is: there are weasel words aplenty there. Tulchin admits there is no proof, he only "suspects". Worse, he then says proving his suspicion or not is irrelevant because "[t]hey loved each other, and the community accepted that." No, it is relevant because maybe the community accepted them because the "freres" weren't regarded as "married" homosexuals but as legally-bound "buds." It's possible that men could be affectionate of each other but not be lovers, even in the gory middle ages, right?

Again, though, this was clearly a contractual, not a spiritual arrangement. No mention is made of the clergy attending the "ceremony". Besides, if it was a recognized marriage, why not call it, well, marriage?

From what I can gather from the press release (the whole article is in the September issue of the Journal of Modern History), Tulchin is making some pretty big assumptions about human motivation based on written documents only. His facts appear to be right, but they don't support his suppositions. Yet historical accuracy--supported by facts, not conjecture--is less important to him than grounding a contemporary political agenda in a wished-for past.

Even if that is not his intent, it is clearly the result:
Opponents of gay marriage in the United States state that nuclear families have always been the standard household form. Turns out this may not be true. While gay marriage itself may not have happened in medieval times there is evidence that homosexual civil unions did and that could lend important historical insight to the debate.
Of course, insight = support. Maybe I'm being too hard on Tulchin, but scholars have to be aware that what they say--whatever they theorize--will be picked up, expanded, expounded and hyperbolized by those who seek to benefit or "lose" from a particular spin. In the particular case of history, it's dangerous to go too far down the path of unsupported conjecture as opinion becomes fact and history becomes an idealized past.

ADDENDUM: Tulchin mentioned similar arrangements and is probably talking about adelphopoiesis (via TMI), which historian John Boswell attempted to liken to same-sex marriage in his book Same-sex unions in pre-modern Europe.
Boswell maintained that they were celebrating romantic, indeed sexual unions between two men, and thus a forerunner of gay marriage. Boswell comments on the lack of any equivalent in the Catholic church; however, the British historian Alan Bray in his book The Friend, gives a Latin text and translation of a similar Roman Catholic rite from Slovenia, entitled Ordo ad fratres faciendum, literally "Order for the making of brothers"...

Alternative views are that this rite was used in many ways, such as the formation of permanent pacts between leaders of nations or between religious brothers. This was a replacement for "blood brotherhood" which was forbidden by the church at the time. Others such as Brent Shaw have maintained also that these unions were more akin to "blood-brotherhood" and had no sexual connotation...

It is worth noting that Boswell himself (Same-sex Unions, pp. 298-299) denies that adelphopoiesis should be properly translated as "homosexual marriage". He decries such a translation as "tendentiously slanted". This, however, has not stopped many gay activists from claiming (incorrectly) that Boswell's book purports to demonstrate that "gay marriage" was in fact sanctioned by Christian churches in the past.

At the same time, Boswell claims that "brother-making" or "making of brothers" is an "anachronistically literal" translation and proposes "same-sex union" as the preferrable rendering. Boswell's preference, however, is not unproblematic. "Sex", for instance, while pointing to a seemingly "objective" characteristic of the participants involved in the rite, in fact draws attention to the physical condition or biological sex of the "brothers" -- whereas the rites for adelphopoiesis explicitly deny that the union itself is a "carnal" one.

"Union of spiritual siblings" is perhaps a more "neutral" translation than Boswell's "same-sex union."


air said...

I saw that story as well (it's being reproduced everywhere) and was concerned for similar reasons. However, I wonder how much this is the media spinning (helped by that UChicago press release [thanks for pointing to that]) and how much is the actual article. I'm looking forward to reading it, regardless.

Meeg said...

This is a good thorough analysis of the article. It seems to me that the Professor who wrote the actual article is careful not to overreach when describing afrerement, but of course in the popular media scholarly studies are often reported in an over-simplified, selective, sensationalized and/or innaccurate way. This is a pet peeve of mine. A lot of people seem to be spinning this article, trying to make the phenomenon seem more significant than in no doubt was: some in an attempt to give same-sex unions the legitimacy of antiquity and other simply to spice up a news item about history.