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16.12.09, Rapp, Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

The Medieval Review

16.12.09, Rapp, Brother-Making in Late Antiquity and Byzantium

Byzantine practices of establishing and celebrating fictive kinship bonds through a ritual called adelphopoiesis or "brother-making" have inspired a great deal of interest for more than two decades. Claudia Rapp has spent much of that time assembling a remarkable dossier of literary, documentary, and material evidence. She has conducted pioneering philological and detective work on the wide variety of blessings for these rites contained in Byzantine euchologia, or prayer books. She has assimilated the relevant studies of the sources with the goal of a broad synthesis. Her volume presents her results with admirable clarity and prudence. She has pondered this material long and wisely enough to see both the general patterns in the evidence and to be honest about the disjunctures. The result is a masterful and cautious contribution to Byzantine social, cultural, and religious history.

Rapp offers her study, in part, as a corrective to John Boswell's Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe (New York: Villard, 1994), and in this respect she provides a compassionate and necessary intervention (see esp. 41-43, 72-75). Some of this argument expands her fine 1997 essay for Traditio, but much leads in new directions. Given the persistent and mistaken notion in the popular press that in the middle ages Orthodox Christian clergy performed same-sex marriages, professional historians must hope that Rapp's nuanced work gets wider exposure. That said, much of Rapp's book contributes directly to queer history, as she addresses affective bonds between (mostly) men, including life-long commitments of mutual support, arrangements for cohabitation, and vows to bury one's companion upon his death. She attends to the rhetoric that idealizes such relationships, especially in monastic literature. Rapp is not herself explicit about the ways in which the rise of queer theory has reshaped scholars' question about same-sex relations in the past, but it is this conversation above all that I hope will assimilate her conclusions. She also places brother-making within a variety of social settings where its meaning and function vary significantly. By the end of the book, it becomes clear that brother-making was not in fact one thing, but a range of practices, not necessarily closely related.

The book's argument and organization proposes that brother-making emerged among Christian monastics in late antiquity as some monks desired to solemnize their commitments to remain together and share their asceticism. These practices generated prayer formulas now extant in Byzantine prayer books dating from the late-eighth century onward. From the seventh century this practice was adapted to bond monks with lay people--upon which the hierarchy generally frowned--and to join pairs of lay people at all levels of society, including members of the aristocracy and the imperial household. The chapters take up the elements of this narrative in turn, although Rapp admits that some of the links are not entirely certain.

Her introduction briefly frames the central questions of how to interpret Byzantine ritual kinship practices of brother-making given that they do not resemble Byzantine rites of marriage and do not seem to have served "the purpose of sanctioning and sanctifying homosexual relationships" (3), by which she means, mostly, modern gay marriage.

The first chapter surveys a variety of social relations by which Byzantines might be joined to each other either by birth (that is, 'by nature') or by arrangement. Godparenthood (synteknia), marriage, and adoption each created familial arrangements. All carried implications for avoiding incest relations in subsequent marriages, and the latter two affected inheritance rights. Brother-making, by contrast, never counted for reckoning the incest taboo and, with very few exceptions, did not serve to convey money or property after death. Byzantines might call each other "brother" in a variety of contexts, including through the swearing of oaths, by serving in a military cohort, in burial societies, and in monasteries. South Italian and post-Byzantine sources provide intriguing evidence for the diffusion and afterlife of such declarations of brotherhood giving us lenses through which to view the Byzantine evidence and demonstrate the adaptability of the concept of fictive and ritual brotherhood to different circumstances. More central to the question of adelphopoiesis, Byzantine discourses of friendship reveal possible meanings of ritual brotherhood of various sorts and some possible motivations for entering into it. Byzantine sources offer both persistent condemnation of male-male genital relations and rich elaboration of male-male desire, longing, and fidelity, perhaps most acutely in monastic hagiography, which frequently celebrates life-long male-male companionship within the context of expected celibacy.

Chapter 2 turns to the ritual of brother-making itself, as represented by sixteen different prayers found in extant euchologion manuscripts. Rapp provides in the appendices a catalogue of sixty-eight manuscripts that include prayers for adelphopoiesis ranging from the eighth to the sixteenth century, all but two of these in Greek, as well as translations of all sixteen prayers. These manuscripts were meant to provide priests or other officiants all the prayers necessary for conducting their ritual duties. The manuscripts derive from both monastic and lay congregations and demonstrate the wide distribution of these prayers including in Syria and Palestine, Constantinople, and South Italy (a region exhibiting the widest variety of prayer forms for the rite). In terms of provenance, diffusion, and date, the euchologia present a pattern typical of Byzantine manuscripts more generally.

The rubrics for brother-making include a number of ritual gestures. The men present themselves in the church and place their hands on a Gospel Book, or kiss it. The priest recites the indicated prayer, and then the men embrace, kiss, or bow to each other. The rites lack the two most salient elements of the Byzantine marriage rites: the exchange of rings and the use of crowns over the heads of the couple. Two prayers in particular predominate. The most common calls upon God to grant the couple "faith without shame" and "love without suspicion" (82). The second most common prayer (represented in the earliest manuscript) invokes biblical and saintly pairs as types, including James and John, Philip and Bartholomew, Sergius and Bacchus, and Cosmas and Damian. The key is that the men are "not bound together by nature, but by faith" (83). The prayer asks that God grant them "to love one another" and to "remain without hatred and free from offense...all the days of their lives" (83). Pace Boswell, given Byzantine canon law and moral teachings against homosexual acts, these prayers would seem to militate against consecrating a sexual relationship, although they may well have consecrated to each other two men whose primary emotional commitment was to one another. Perhaps Rapp's analysis only further underscores how much of "gay history" we have missed by looking for the wrong things, or by looking for them in the wrong ways. Although she does not cite it, Rapp's work exemplifies the critique of and roadmap for gay history put forward by David Halperin in How to Do the History of Homosexuality (University of Chicago Press, 2002), including the need to narrate the history of intense friendships.

Chapter 3 offers an extended discussion of copious evidence for small monastic groups. Monks lived together in twos or threes during the whole history of Byzantium. Rapp examines these arrangements because she suggests the probability that Byzantine prayers for the making of brothers originated in monastic contexts, where a priest or an abbot might consecrate two monks as a pair, or where monks might make vows to each other. She admits that her argument is "not watertight" (88), and I confess that I myself have been skeptical of this proposal in the past. That said, I found myself increasingly convinced. Moreover, the evidence offers a rich portrait of the ways in which Byzantine monastics might live together and regard each other as brothers. While some of the evidence is archeological--the excavation of monastic enclosures especially in Egypt, where two monks dwelled together--most of the evidence is literary. At the same time, it is unclear where groups of three monks fit into the history of the joining of two men as brothers. Manuscript evidence that adelphopoiesis could be for more than two men is both rare and late.

In this chapter, Rapp sets aside the self-avowed positivist questions driving her enterprise (46) to consider the persistence of literary portraits of monastic pairs. I have written about some of this evidence myself, emphasizing its literary qualities for understanding monastic companionship (Journal of the History of Sexuality [2011]). Rapp carries this reading to a wider range of sources, with interesting results for the history of emotions. From the beginning of the fourth century, Christian monastics lived in a variety of configurations, not merely according to the binary distinctions between cenobites and hermits. The Sayings of the Desert Fathers and the Lives of the saints abound in tales of monks pairing up and forming fictive kinship bonds, whether as father and son or as brothers. Some shared a single cell; others had cells near to each other. Some pairs existed within the confines of larger monasteries. Rapp notes that some pairs began as school chums or as disciples of the same monastic master; others met on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Places. In the texts, the men sometimes make promises to each other to share the monastic life, and sometimes they have prayers recited over them by a spiritual father, a priest, or an abbot. In some cases, the late antique hagiographical descriptions echo language found in the euchologia, including the hope that the monastic pair will live "without suspicion" (132). In many cases, the commitment causes one man to share in his spiritual brother's penance, especially when the brother has fallen into sexual sin, usually by going to the town and having sex with a woman. Rapp supplies smart readings of some peculiar and less known texts, including the Life of Paul of Qentos and John of Edessa, attending to the pious John's desires to share a life with Paul, a construction worker, whom John practically stalks. Although they will share a refuge outside the city, Paul insists on returning to the world. John's is a homoerotic longing that never quite reaches fulfillment. Rapp also notes the frequency with which monastic companions die within days of each other or are buried together, emphasizing their vows to be united even in death. She also bridges the late antique sources for monastic coupling with the middle and late Byzantine ones, considering the ninth-century abbot, Theodore the Stoudite, the late tenth- and early eleventh-century mystic, Symeon the New Theologian, and the diffusion of such themes among the Slavs. In the end, however, this chapter tends more to catalogue stories of monastic companionship than offer readers a wider analysis of Byzantine monastic homosocialities and some presumed celibates' homoerotic desires, even if these topics are persistently on Rapp's study's horizon (138-139).

Chapter 4 moves beyond the monastery to consider the joining of monks with laymen, monks with clergy, or pairs of laymen. A careful combing of the sources reveals a surprising wealth of seventh-century examples, many of them with some connection to Cyprus, either because their authors or the saints celebrated derived from the island or the principle figures traveled there. John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria, claimed as a ritual brother a certain Niketas, first cousin to the emperor Heraclius. A late version of his narrative even calls Niketas John's adelphopoietos. The writings of Antony of Choziba explore "close emotional relations between men" (187). Theodore, the holy bishop of Sykeon, entered into a ritual brotherhood with a wealthy lay donor named Thomas. Such relationships tied churchmen to the state and to members of high society. In addition to coordinating power and wealth, such unions required both men to pray on each other's behalf. As such rites came increasingly to cross the "monastic-lay boundary" (193), church officials developed concerns that such ties to the world compromised monastic seclusion and disengagement from secular life. From the ninth-century, abbots and canon lawyers warned against or forbade monks from entering into such unions. Their explicit concerns mirror their qualms about monks functioning as godparents or attending weddings, including fears that attending celebrations would challenge their ascetic discipline, exposing them to eating and drinking and opportunities for sexual relations.

Rapp also addresses many cases of the joining of prominent laymen in the middle and late Byzantine centuries. The ninth-century emperor Basil I and John, the son of the rich widow and kingmaker Danelis, provide the most famous example. But narratives of such associations appear frequently enough to suggest that they were an important element of imperial and aristocratic social relations. One thing that remains puzzling: the emotional structure of these relationships, at least as they are narrated in the sources, is rather different from the close bonds between monks, and the forms of these laymen's lives are not so closely coordinated. Rapp does not entirely account for how much this brother-making differs from the monastic examples, perhaps eliding that we are not looking at one phenomenon but many. Although the literary evidence focuses on elites, the evidence of the prayer books confirms that such ritualized relations were celebrated at all levels of Byzantine society.

The organization of Chapter 5 into a series of questions and answers, imitating a Byzantine legal treatise, engages a useful strategy to deal with technical issues. Rapp reviews pronouncements that the rite of adelphopoiesis had no legal standing either in imperial or ecclesiastical courts. Opprobrium against the rite appears frequently enough to reveal that Byzantines themselves had persistent questions about how to regard made-brothers or whether to become one. Canonists distinguished adelphopoiesis from the legal advantages of adoption, both fraternal and filial, for conveying estates. In some cases men and women joined in a making of siblings, and canonists clarified that this did not preclude their subsequent marriage. Being joined as lay ritual brothers did not preclude being married to someone else. Rapp carries her observations into the Ottoman and modern Greek eras, including an epic poem of Dionysios Solomos and Nikos Kazantzakis's novel Kapetan Michalis, which explores a ritual brotherhood between a Turk and a Greek in the late nineteenth century. She ends with reports of a pair of Serbian friends blessed in 1970s Yugoslavia. Thus Byzantine practices of brother-making presented a long legacy in Greek, Slavic, and Syrian Orthodox societies. Indeed, earlier in the book, Rapp considers the ritual blessing of the friendship between two North American scholars of Syriac Christianity by the Syrian Orthodox Archbishop of Jerusalem in the 1980s (50-53).

The wealth of sources that Rapp examines and the questions she raises suggest many paths forward. Her work will augment ongoing scholarship on pre-modern friendships and the history of emotions. Others will integrate her findings into a more theoretically oriented queer history of Byzantium and the medieval Mediterranean. Studies of legal, ecclesiastical, and literary history should attend anew to brother-making within larger contexts for regulating and narrating Byzantine society. Rapp has given us a magnum opus, but not the last word.