The Medieval Review 17.02.11


Morris, Stephen. "When Brothers Dwell in Unity": Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality. Jefferson: McFarland, 2015. pp. ix, 227. $45.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-7864-9517-7 (hardback).



Reviewed by:


Mark Masterson
Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand
mark.masterson@vuw.ac.nz

"When Brothers Dwell in Unity": Byzantine Christianity and Homosexuality is both a historical investigation and a work of advocacy. It draws a picture of developments over time around same-sex desire in the Byzantine empire and it also means to make the case to the Eastern Orthodox church (and to the general public) that the church should liberalize its attitudes toward same-sex relationships and marriages. Morris speaks of steady liberalizing in the great medieval empire and the employment of oikonomia (pragmatic and humane softening of strictures in the face of human realities) that was interrupted by the fall of empire and the influence of more restrictive western ideas about same-sex relations. The book consists of introduction, five chapters, conclusion, four appendices, notes, bibliography, and a modest index.

The introduction leads off with description of the inflexibility of the Byzantines in the matter of usury and second, third, and especially fourth marriages. This pays dividends later, for here there was little evolution during the empire while the attitudes of the eastern church to sexual relations between men liberalized some over the centuries in ways that modern persons might find surprising: "In terms of 'gay sexuality,' the historical practice of the church is far from what many modern church members might expect it to have been" (3). This is followed by discussion of ancient and medieval understandings of sex. There are many moving parts and snares in this topic that can impede understanding. Morris is generally pleasingly successful at setting forth the various issues around penetrator/penetrated, gender performance, the invisibility of oral sex, and the visibility of anal sex (arsenokoitia) and intercrural sex, i.e., the penis between the thighs. He also points out that, in monastic situations at least, the regulations were more unforgiving of men having sex with adolescent boys than they were of men who had sex with other men. Following this are personal reflections on his experience as a closeted priest, who was asked to make a parish less welcoming to gay men, and his subsequent moves into activism. The introduction concludes with points about the evolution of the adelphopoiesis in Byzantium. Morris' assertion is that over the centuries of the empire the rite increasingly was used by male couples whose relationship seemed to be carnal: "by the twelfth century there seems to have often been a sexual aspect to the made-brothers' relationship" (13). (This important claim, while believable as far as I am concerned, would have benefited from more extensive and explicit support.) Morris says that the rite changed over time and rather than arrest its evolution, "change should be allowed to continue" (12). He argues further: "I like to think of adelphopoiia as a 'blessing begrudgingly bestowed,' not unlike the reluctantly granted blessing given to a second or third marriage" (13). He suggests that the penances around same-sex sexual behavior can stay on the books for the time being, unenforced, just as the ones for second and third marriages are on the books and unenforced.

In chapter 1, "'Receive Not Any Boys, Beardless Youths, and Eunuchs': Monastic Experience and the Beautiful Boys," Morris speaks of the attraction that adolescent males awakened in adult men in the ancient Mediterranean. This of course is pederasty and it was a normatively approved desire for the most part. This created problems, of course, within the monastic context. Younger monks, looking to progress in virtue, were to be welcomed, but they would be a temptation, as would eunuchs. The idea here is that difference in bodily morphology created desire in mature (and hairy) adult males.

Chapter 2, "The 'Gay' Male as Byzantine Monster: Civil/Secular Legislation and Punishment for Same-Sex Behavior," leaves pederasty behind and first considers the legal background to sex between men in the later Roman empire. The great law codes of late antiquity specify execution. Morris provides many examples of the savage punishment, significantly all from the sixth century or earlier. Sex between men (and men with boys) also came to hold a sacrilegious meaning, as the term that came to be preferred, aselgeis, shows. There are small inaccuracies in Morris' analysis at times. For example, in late antiquity, execution by fire is mentioned. Morris says that "execution by fire was never repudiated in later Byzantine legislation" (45). This impresses me as at least not being carefully expressed. Starting with the Eklogē of 741 CE, execution is by sword (17.38: ξίφει). I think too that the use of the word "gay" in this chapter is ill-advised. It assumes that only men who are anally penetrated could be called gay now (for opprobrium in these early centuries falls more often on the penetrated partner). To the extent that this is a work of advocacy meant to speak to people now about current relationships, this will sow confusion, as historical difference is sharp here.

Morris discusses the changing status of same-sex sexual behavior between men in chapter 3, "'Better Than Free Fornication': Suspicious Sexual Relationships in Canon Law and Penitential Handbooks." This chapter, which is the heart of the book and which most powerfully supports his plea that the interrupted liberalization of the Eastern Orthodox church be allowed to resume, gives rich detail on how the penance required for sex between men liberalized over the course of the centuries. Indeed, they liberalized so much that anal sex with one's wife was more serious than anal sex with another man. Morris contextualizes these observations with discussion of the crisis that emperor Leo VI's fourth marriage caused around the year 900 CE. He also reflects some on ritual purity and impurity. The chapter concludes with the situation late in the empire (the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries). A number of Byzantine legal commentators were in agreement that ritual brotherhood was being used by men who were carnal with one another.

In the chapter 4, "Their Teaching Satanic...Their Life Also Diabolical": John Chrysostom on Same-Sex Behavior", Morris discusses the attitude that John Chrysostom took to same-sex sexual behavior. This is important for Morris to do because of the advocacy goal of his book. Chrysostom holds a central place in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, especially in the formation of current church policies around homosexuality. The analysis of Chrysostom's Homily 4 on Romans, On Genesis, and Against Those Who Oppose Monasticism reveals that Chrysostom is out of step with later developments in the empire, in particular as regards the liberalization that medieval times saw and his fixation on the passive partner in anal sex: later Byzantine tradition inclined toward blaming the active partner more.

The fifth chapter is "'Look Down from Heaven, Behold and Visit This Vine': Liturgy and Anthropology ofAdelphopoiia." Provided here is a view of the historical development of the rite of brother-making or adelphopoiia. Morris summarizes the development of brother-making, in particular the way that it progressed over the centuries from a union between men for the purposes of spiritual improvement (eighth century CE) to one that could serve the purposes of alliance and even the expression of "loving affection" (139) in the later medieval period. This chapter also notes the similarities between marriage services and those for brother-making. Present too are reflections on adelphopoiia as a rite of passage and as the "anthropological [equivalent] of the second/third (re)marriage service" (153).

In "Conclusions and Reflections," Morris starts with discussion of John Boswell's book, Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe. He notes that any scholar of Byzantium who wishes to discuss adelphopoiia needs to demonstrate knowledge of liturgical terms and rubrics of the Eastern Orthodox faith. Morris also offers judicious commentary on both the challenges and rewards of interdisciplinary scholarship that means, in addition, to communicate to the general public.

There were some things about the book that were not as successful as others. While chapter 1's discussion of pederasty and the attractions of the beardless to the bearded is valid enough, it is not clear to me why it was necessary for the ultimate goals of this book. A similar problem dogs the second chapter. The attitude of the legal codes and savage punishments predate the appearance of the first brotherhoods. It again is not clear to me how relevant this discussion is to the development of adelphopoiia. A fuller discussion of later attitudes toward pederasty and later negative attitudes toward sex between men would have made these chapters seem more integral to the book. Perhaps, though, these discussions in chapters one and two are driven by the Eastern Orthodox church's favoring of the repressive (and late-ancient) John Chrysostom?

The production of the book could have been better. At the top of every other page in both chapter 5 and "Conclusions and Reflections" appear the words "Conclusions and Reflections," when obviously these words should have only appeared in this way in the "Conclusions and Reflections" section. There are occasional problems with the Greek. For example, on page 48 read διακαιοσύνη instead of δικασύνη, or, on pp. 139 and 193 read υἱοθεσία for υἹοθεσία.

Morris sometimes is not as critical of his sources as he might be. It is regrettable when he says that eunuchs did not serve in the military or have positions of authority (71). This is manifestly not true, see, e.g., Narsēs, Nikēphoros Ouranos, Basileios the Parakoimōmenos. Morris retails invective at this point. He does this again in chapter 4 when he says that eunuchs were regarded as a third sex (111). This again is not true. They were regarded as men for the most part. In Byzantium, most roles that were open to uncastrated men, were open to eunuchs also. The only thing a eunuch could not do in terms of office was serve as emperor or eparch of Constantinople.

I don't want to end on notes of complaint, for I have learned much from this book, especially about the necessity for careful knowledge of liturgy in approaching sexual matters in Byzantium. Morris also counsels the reader on the necessity of considering audiences beyond those in the disciplines of academia. Finding the sweet spot, if it even exists, between mandarin rigor and accessibility to the general public is perhaps the most difficult thing all scholars who wish to address as many people as possible face. I think this book is generally successful in suggesting that Orthodox practice should be allowed to continue develop along the lines that it was pursuing before the empire ended. Indeed, while Morris does not put it in quite these terms, the Orthodox church has been colonized by western intolerance that has been inhibiting its use of the humane and human oikonomia that is one of its glories.



Copyright (c) 2017 Mark Masterson



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