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Friday, February 21, 2014

Reid on Medieval Analysis of Same-Sex Marriage and Relationships

In his article "May a Man Marry a Man?" Medieval Canon Lawyers Analyze Same-Sex Unions, Charles Reid tracks medieval discussions of same-sex marriages and relationships. Reid's presentation provides a helpful summary of the arguments of the day, the types of authority that canon lawyers relied on, and how those lawyers used the authority to make their own positions more persuasive to their audiences.

Here is the abstract:

This Article has two principal purposes. The first is to examine the logic and limits of a medieval debate over same-sex unions. The medieval lawyers who engaged in this debate were no friends of same-sex unions. The debate, rather, seemed to take the form of an academic exercise by which the lawyers involved defined more rigorously the boundaries of what counted as marriage and also imported into the jurisprudence of marriage a deeply-hostile homophobia. I do not assert that same-sex marriage was an actual social reality in the Middle Ages. The existence of this debate, however, is quite remarkable in its own right. The Article’s second major purpose, then, is to reconsider the origins of homophobia. By connecting the canon law of marriage with homophobic rhetoric, the medieval lawyers reinterpreted marriage as an institution that not only served certain ends in its own right but existed to defeat the perceived threat of same-sex relations. This linkage, first articulated in the thirteenth century, unfortunately remains a feature of the contemporary debate over same-sex unions.
The article discusses three primary figures who took part in the medieval debate: Hostiensis, Antoninus of Florence, and Johannes Brunellus. The discussion of Brunellus is a bit abbreviated since Brunellus's main significance was that he continued and combined the previous arguments that Hostiensis and Antonius had propounded.

Reid's article is particularly interesting because of it's treatment of the authority that these various figures used. While Reid's summary of the authority is sometimes a bit difficult to separate from the views of the person relying on the authority, a careful reading of Reid's presentation reveals a detailed picture of the thinking of the time. Reid also does a good job of drawing parallels between modern opposition to same-sex marriage and the arguments made in the medieval era. While those parallels are depressing to see, highlighting the extreme nature of past arguments is an interesting way to undermine the current versions of the arguments.

Reid notes throughout the article that same-sex marriage was not "an actual social reality in the Middle Ages." It should be noted (contrary to what Reid has implied elsewhere) that Reid does not present much of a "debate" over the permissibility of same-sex marriage or relationships -- canon lawyers in the middle ages held the unified, unsurprising view that same-sex marriage and relationships were sinful and warranted severe punishment.

In summary, Reid's article is an illuminating piece that concisely summarizes a wide breadth of medieval discussion of same-sex marriage and relationships. While readers might find the constant re-iterations of the evils of homosexuality exhausting and unpleasant, these arguments are a useful background to the history of religious objections to same-sex relationships.

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