Seminary LI: `brothers’ in Byzantium

Due to reasons of travel idiocy I missed the antepenultimate Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research this term, and although I made it to the penultimate one on 3rd June, Professor Claudia Rapp presenting on “Ritual brotherhood in Byzantium: origins and context”, so did Magistra and it it is very much more her thing than mine. One could say, eruditely, that complex questions of masculinities and historians’ attitudes to them were involved which she is far better educated in teasing apart than I am, or you could say, as she put it when we discussed it later, that she is the Internet’s go-to person for gay monks. I’m not about to argue with someone who can claim that sort of status, I tell you. And therefore she has done a proper write-up of it, which you should go and read, and I will therefore only do a summary so that you know roughly what was at issue.

Icon from St Catherines Sinai of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fifth-century martyrs, used by John Boswell as the cover image for his Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

Icon from St Catherine's Sinai of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, fifth-century martyrs, used by John Boswell as the cover image for his Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe

There is in Byzantine liturgical texts, 62 of them in fact, a rite called `adelphopoiesis‘ for allowing two men to become spiritual brothers, supporting each other above all others, cohabiting and sharing their property. It basically established an artificial kinship tie, but unlike the other two ways of doing this, marriage and sponsorship of baptism (that is, godparenthood), it doesn’t preclude marriage to others and doesn’t give any inheritance rights so doesn’t disenfranchise the family. (This latter, it should be said, came into question in the latter part of the paper.) Professor Rapp has written about this before, but was returning to it after some time away.1 One of the reasons it’s an issue is that the controversial John Boswell included adelphopoiesis in his book Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York 1994) as a cover for gay marriage, or at least a marriage-like arrangement. (Hello Byzantium? This is the 21st-century UK and California calling, we need to talk to you about wording… ) I haven’t read Boswell’s book so I don’t know if he suggests that this is what it was invented for or merely that it was allowed to perform this function, but this is what Professor Rapp was initially writing against. (You can find Paul Halsall, no less, speaking for Boswell’s defence with due respect to Professor Rapp, online here with an account of Boswell’s wider controversy and the sometimes vicious reaction it has engendered.)

Excavated monastic cells at the desert settlement of Pherme, Western Nile Delta, Egypt

Excavated monastic cells at the desert settlement of Pherme, Western Nile Delta, Egypt

In this paper, however, Professor Rapp was expanding on something that she only touched on in that earlier paper, the monastic context in which she believes the rite developed. Certainly she had lots of evidence for this kind of association, between hermits and disciples, between pupils of such hermits, and generally quite a lot of formations with which one might have been led to believe that the Lives of the Desert Fathers is full once you start looking. She also looked at building layout (as shown by archæology of monastic sites like Pherme, above), shared burial and general lifelong friendships being recognised in sources and attempted to place the whole thing in a much wider context of male homosociality that none of us, I think, would deny were it not raised in this context. Speaking as one whose work is fundamentally based on the idea that the fact that some people in the Middle Ages got on with some other people but didn’t get on with still others has historically explanatory value, I am all for this, but I still didn’t quite think she’d bridged the gap between the desert and Constantinople five centuries later. Perhaps this is just because she had so much evidence from the desert that it swamped the rather thinner trail to the later centuries, but it seemed to me that there was room for other antecedents and not enough ways to distinguish the results of this ceremony from ordinary lifelong friendship. The liturgy is evidence of a serious thing, yes: but we can’t use other male-male life collaborations as evidence for that same thing because that same thing seems to be defined by the liturgy, you see. If you argue that the liturgy is only recognising a pre-existent thing you wind up having to explain the liturgy as aberrant and thus losing all your evidence for social recognition of whatever it is you think is going on. There is more that could be said here and Magistra says much of it: here is a taster.

1. Claudia Rapp, “Ritual Brotherhood in Byzantium” in Traditio Vol. 52 (New York City 1997), pp. 285–326.

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