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January 31, 2004

Games of History

As you may have inferred, I'm reading Andrew Sullivan's "reader" of works having to do with same-sex marriage, Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con. Therein, I just came across an instance of the sort of thing of which one must be wary in arguments about an ideologically divisive issue. Facts are not necessarily facts, and for this particular issue, Sullivan is to be commended for including the materials necessary to spot — although he doesn't draw attention to — a rather remarkable lie.

If you've followed this issue with any devotion, you've likely heard of the book Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, in which author John Boswell claims to have found Christian ceremonies for gay marriage. Sullivan presents a portion of Brent Shaw's criticism of the book, followed by a response to that criticism by Ralph Hexter. In that last piece, Hexter writes (on page 20):

In the words of Montaigne, who witnessed the adelphopoiesis ceremony [the "gay marriage" ceremony in dispute] performed in Rome in 1581, "ils s'espousoint masle à masle à la mess" ("they married, one man to another, at a mass"). Apparently contemporary authorities didn't interpret the ceremony as the "ritualized" friendship Shaw would have us believe it is, unless we are also to believe that such friendships called for the burning that we know at least some of those who participated in the ceremony suffered in the sixteenth century.

Even as presented, one could respond that it was perhaps the heretical cooption of what was meant to be a brotherhood ceremony to cover gay marriage that sparked the flames, so to speak. But turning the page and reading Montaigne's actual account, one notes that Hexter (perhaps taking from Boswell) is guilty of more than shady analysis:

I met a man who informed me humorously of... San Giovanni Porta Latina, in which church a few years before certain Portuguese had entered into a strange brotherhood. They married one another, male to male, at Mass, with the same ceremonies with which we perform our marriages, read the same marriage gospel service, and then went to bed and lived together. The Roman wits said that because in the other conjunction, of male and female, this circumstance of marriage alone makes it legitimate, it had seemed to these sharp folk that this other action would become equally legitimate if they authorized it with ceremonies and mysteries of the Church. Eight or nine Portuguese of this fine sect were burned...

So, not only is it untrue that Montaigne actually witnessed the same-sex union ceremony — hearing of the incident through anecdote, and humorous anecdote, at that — but it wasn't even the adelphopoiesis ceremony that he did not witness. One wonders how often those who cite history count on the ignorance of their readers.

Posted by Justin Katz at January 31, 2004 11:49 AM
Marriage & Family