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The 600 Year Tradition Behind Same-Sex Unions

John Boswell, in Same Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (1994), published rites of adelphopoesis (brother-making) from liturgical manuscripts of the Eastern churches. The book received tremendous publicity, including a week of cartoons in Doonesbury. But as James Davidson has commented in the London Review of Books (June 2, 2005), “Reviewers (including myself) generally gave it a fairly hard time, and its central claim—that these same-sex unions sanctioned by the Church were analogous to heterosexual marriage rituals—had few takers among churchmen, historians or students of sexuality.” But Davidson, provoked by reading Alan Bray’s The Friend (2003), has rethought his views, and concluded that Boswell, although he overreached, was on to something. I have come to agree with Davidson, because of my research on affrèrements, in the September 2007 issue of the Journal of Modern History. (Click here for news story.)

The affrèrement, which existed in France and elsewhere in late medieval Mediterranean Europe, was a contract that provided the foundation for non-nuclear households of many types and shared many characteristics with marriage contracts, as legal writers at the time were well aware. Non-nuclear households were quite common in Mediterranean Europe — more than half the population probably consisted of people in such households. So it is hardly surprising that the law provided for affrèrements as a means to regulate them.

The consequences of entering into an affrèrement were profound. The new “brothers” pledged to live together sharing ‘un pain, un vin, et une bourse’—one bread, one wine, and one purse. All of their goods usually became the joint property of both parties, and each commonly became the other’s legal heir, cutting off other close relatives. 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, normally the friends of the affrèrés. The model for these household arrangements is that of two or more brothers who have inherited the family home on an equal basis from their parents and who will continue to live together, just as they did when they were children. But the affrèrement was not only for brothers, since many other people, including relatives and non-relatives, and even married couples, used it.

Bonds of family affection provide the essential glue for these partnerships. Frequently, the parties were brothers or other relatives. Sometimes, however, as virtually every legal treatise on the subject indicates, the parties were not related. In these cases, affection also had to be involved — after all, they were sharing a house and committing to make decisions together. But many of these couples are also married men with children, so there is no compelling reason to suspect a sexual relationship.

But what do we conclude when the parties were unrelated and single? Some were under 25. Entering into an affrèrement had drastic effects on the parties’ ability to get married, since it tied up all of their assets in the association. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie noticed the possibilities here over forty years ago in Les Paysans de Languedoc (1966). He pointed to the case in 1446 of Jean Rey of Alès (Gard), whose wife, “a bad woman,” left him. But Rey had a friend, Colrat, and they had “affection, affinity, and love for each other from the heart.” They therefore contracted an affrèrement. Le Roy Ladurie comments that the contract, pointing as it does to “a marital breakup and a strong masculine attachment,” was “not without ambiguities in this instance and in certain others.”

Rey and Colrat’s case does not suggest that the affrèrement was intended as a “gay marriage,” but it does suggest that Rey and Colrat used it for their own purposes. It also gave them “plausible deniability” because the institution was so common: amid the many affrèrements, between close and distant relatives, married couples, and married nonrelatives, their arrangements did not stand out.

Rey and Colrat needed some cover because sodomy was punishable by death. However, the horror of homosexuality in this period has been greatly exaggerated. Prosecutions for sodomy in this period were exceedingly rare: in Aragon, there were fewer than ten per year, for a population of one million; in northern France, one or two per year, for a population of six million. And literature with strong homoerotic content was highly prestigious: even Theodore de Bèze, Calvin’s chief lieutenant, wrote a poem (when a youth) in praise of his boyfriend.

De Bèze later insisted that his male lover was imaginary: he was merely imitating a classical trope. Although his explanation is self-interested, it is impossible to disprove. Similarly, it is essentially impossible to prove that any particular sexual act occurred in any particular relationship—including an affrèrement—in this period, unless it led to the birth of a child. The assumption that all affrèrements were platonic is hard to refute. But it is more plausible to assume that some were sexual.

In this period, evidence abounds that many priests despite their vows of celibacy in fact took common-law wives and fathered children. Why then should ordinary affrèrés, who shared a house and probably a bed, not cuddle a bit at night? But this is somewhat irrelevant to understanding their way of thinking. They loved each other, and the community accepted that. What followed did not produce any documents.

I would not claim, as Boswell was understood to claim about adelphopoesis, that affrèrements were designed for gay couples. Instead, I would say that in this period the affrèrement offered a way for two single, unrelated men to express their love and arrange to live with each other. But even this is a dramatic change in popular attitudes. Prior to the 1960s, anywhere in the West, if two men had sought publicly to enter into such a contract it would have caused a scandal. Four to six centuries ago such contracts were legal and although uncommon occurred regularly without attracting any unfavorable commentary in the surviving records. The very existence of affrèrements shows that there was a radical shift in attitudes between the sixteenth century and the rise of modern anti-homosexual legislation in the twentieth.

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