Last summer, the Reverend Gene Robinson became the first openly gay bishop of the Episcopal Church. Though surrounded by a swirl of controversy, Bishop Robinson’s confirmation is remarkable in light of the often rocky relationship between Christianity and homosexuality. In Homosexuality and Civilization, Louis Crompton traces the history of this relationship in European civilization and makes comparisons to the societies of ancient Greece, imperial China, and pre-Meiji Japan to show that outside of the Christian world the two elements of his title were not necessarily incompatible.
Crompton begins his investigation with the earliest centuries of Christianity, examining the intermingling influences of Hellenistic culture and Jewish scriptural tradition in the context of Roman imperial power. He looks first at the cultural influences inherited from classical Greece, especially the practice of paiderastia, or a relationship between an older man and a younger person, usually in late adolescence. Crompton gives evidence that paiderastia was idealized in classical Greek literature, philosophy, and military traditions as a relationship in which the older man served as a protector, teacher, and model of virtue to the beautiful younger man.
Crompton juxtaposes Greek tolerance and even idealization of homosexuality with its condemnation in the Hebrew Bible. He quotes the King James translation of a verse from the Holiness Code in Leviticus 20:13: “If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood shall be upon them.” Crompton speculates that Levitical hostility toward homosexuality arose from the desire to keep the worship of Yahweh distinct from the cultic practices of other cultures in the Ancient Near East, in which transvestite priests often played religious roles. Despite his uncertainty about the motivations behind the passage, Crompton is clear as to its implications: its authors, he argues, intended the law to apply to all of humanity, and it “sealed the fate of men who loved men in the Western world for more than fourteen centuries.”
In the context of the Hellenistic culture of the Near East, homosexuality was one of many issues early Christians faced in deciding how to deal with Jewish scriptural traditions. According to the Gospels, Crompton points out, Jesus was silent on the subject, but Paul’s Epistle to the Romans contains “the most influential of all Christian denunciations of homosexuality.” With Constantine’s official toleration of Christianity in the 313 Edict of Milan, Christian sexual morality came to influence Roman law, eventually leading to the death penalty. At first, laws condemned only the passive partner, in keeping with Roman sexual mores, which tolerated homosexuality among male citizens as long as they played the active role in sexual relations with slaves. The Justinian Code of sixth-century Byzantium, which became widely influential in Western European law, expanded the penalty to the active partner as well.
Meanwhile, according to Crompton, church fathers like Augustine and John Chrysostem perpetuated the interpretation that homosexual behavior was a sin. One of their most influential contributions was the reinterpretation of Genesis 19, the story of God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. According to the prophets, Jesus, and many early Jewish commentators, God destroyed Sodom for its inhabitants’ wealth, arrogance, and lack of hospitality. With the church fathers’ reinterpretation, however, homosexuality became a sin that would bring God’s wrath upon an entire city (hence the word sodomy). During the early middle ages, homosexuality became a scapegoat sin that explained how everything from natural disasters to military losses could befall ostensibly Christian cities. Due to a lack of source material, Crompton devotes little discussion to the centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire, focusing on church councils and a law code misattributed to Charlemagne but unable to make definitive claims about the extent to which capital punishments, where they were mandated, were enforced.
Crompton then discusses two thirteenth-century developments in Christian dogma and practice. Thomas Aquinas gave rational justifications to the Church’s revelation-based doctrine; his Summa Theologiae proclaimed homosexuality a sin against nature. Pope Gregory IX’s Papal Inquisition, established to stamp out heresy, soon came to mandate burning alive as the penalty for “sodomites” as well. In Renaissance Italy, secular forces took over the search for and burning of homosexuals even as artists rediscovered Greek ideals of male beauty and created homoerotic works of art. (This chapter occasionally reads like an outing of every artist on an Intro Art History syllabus.) In Spain, the Inquisition put hundreds of people to death for sodomy in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and explorers used the presence of homosexuality in the New World as justification for Spanish conquest. Crompton includes the reminder, however, that the suffering of Jews, Muslims, and heretics was, numerically, much greater.
In Reformation England and France, Protestants and Catholics hurled accusations of homosexuality at one another. Although homosexuality was largely ignored in England until the seventeenth century, burnings continued in France. Still, several monarchs and many aristocrats were perceived by their contemporaries as having same-sex relationships, including Kings Henry III and Louis XIII, Philippe d’Orleans, and four of Louis XIV’s generals. As for England, Crompton argues, against many biographers, that James I and William of Orange had male favorites. After William’s reign, however, toleration of homosexuality decreased in England and hangings became more and more frequent. Meanwhile, French Enlightenment thinkers began to question state enforcement of church-based morality and whether “victimless” crimes should be prosecuted at all. The 1791 Code Pénal de la Révolution made no mention of sodomy, making France the first western European nation to decriminalize homosexuality.
Throughout his book, Crompton anchors his narrative in the wider scope of European history. His two chapters on China and Japan, which function as examples of civilizations in which homosexuality was tolerated and in some cases idealized, can feel somewhat rushed, but they serve well as comparisons to the hostility of contemporary Europe. However, his book suffers from one of the fundamental problems of writing a history of homosexuality: a lack of sources.
There is plenty of art and literature from ancient Greece, imperial China and pre-Meiji Japan depicting various forms of homosexuality, but in European societies the fear of persecution prevented people from putting very much in writing (with the exception of several brief instances of an efflorescence of homoerotic poetry at more tolerant periods of European history). Crompton acknowledges that most of his sources, such as police reports, trial records, and church documents, contain moral condemnations of homosexuality and therefore do not present an objective view of its prevalence. Also, the variation in the primary source material sometimes makes the book read like an uneven patchwork of different types of history: for example, Crompton focuses on the intellectual history of the ancient world, the political history of the French monarchy, and the social history of eighteenth-century England. His style shifts from narrative to statistical to anecdotal without necessarily providing a well-rounded picture of each time period he covers.
The biggest gap, however, is in historical records of lesbianism. Crompton includes lesbians wherever source material is available, but in many cases women generally played only a secondary role in society, and lesbianism in particular was not considered as severe a crime as male homosexuality. For example, colonial New Haven was the only English-speaking city in the world to make lesbianism a capital crime (Crompton does not mention whether any executions took place).
Crompton also grapples with the definition of homosexuality itself. He rejects Michel Foucault’s argument that the idea of a homosexual person did not exist until the term was invented in the nineteenth century. He grants that theologically and legally, many Europeans viewed homosexuality as a series of acts rather than persons with distinct sexual orientations, but the idea of a sexual orientation existed as well, if in a much more limited sense than it does today. Crompton sustains this point throughout his book with examples of poetry and philosophy in which people represented themselves as feeling a natural preference for others of their own gender. From the opposite standpoint, many religious and legal tracts spoke “not only of sodomy but also of `sodomites,’ individuals who were a substantial, clear, and ominous presence.” Finally, Crompton argues that we have a moral obligation not to “dehumanize” the persecuted by differentiating them from modern gay people.
Because homosexuality has for centuries been a highly charged issue, it is difficult for a history of homosexuality to remain morally neutral, especially when it is seen as a linear progression from intolerance to tolerance that is continuing in our day. Crompton’s tone occasionally becomes judgmental: for example, he attacks biographers who refuse to acknowledge that William of Orange or Frederick the Great were gay. His overall tone and his comparisons of non-Christian, tolerant civilizations to intolerant, Christian Europe make for a largely negative view of Christianity; he makes a few, scattered references to the good that Christianity has done for civilization, but they tend to sound like lip service. Had Crompton continued his narrative a century and a half into the future, it would include the election of an openly gay bishop to the Episcopal church and the beginnings of a rapprochement between Christianity and homosexuality.