John Eastburn Boswell (March 20, 1947 – December 24, 1994) was a historian and a full professor at Yale University. Many of Boswell's studies focused on the issue of religion and homosexuality, specifically Christianity and homosexuality. All of his work focused on the history of those at the margins of society.
Boswell was born in Boston, Massachusetts the son of Colonel Henry Boswell, Jr. and Catharine Eastburn Boswell. He earned his A.B. at the College of William & Mary, and his PhD at Harvard University before being hired to teach at Yale University.
A medieval philologist, Boswell read or spoke seventeen languages, including Catalan, German, French, Old Church Slavonic, Ancient Greek, Arabic, Hebrew, Akkadian, Armenian and Latin. Boswell received his doctorate 1975 and joined the Yale University history faculty, where his colleagues included John Morton Blum, David Brion Davis, Jaroslav Pelikan, Peter Gay, Hanna Holborn Gray, Michael Howard, Donald Kagan, Howard R. Lamar, Jonathan Spence, and Robin Winks. Boswell was made full professor in 1982, and A. Whitney Griswold Professor of History in 1990.
Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality (1980) is a work which, according to Chauncey et al. (1989), "offered a revolutionary interpretation of the Western tradition, arguing that the Roman Catholic Church had not condemned gay people throughout its history, but rather, at least until the twelfth century, had alternately evinced no special concern about homosexuality or actually celebrated love between men." The book won a National Book Award[a] and the Stonewall Book Award in 1981, but Boswell's thesis was criticized by Warren Johansson, Wayne R. Dynes and John Lauritsen, who believed that he had attempted to whitewash the historic crimes of the Christian Church against gay men.
(1988) is a scholarly study of the widespread practice of abandoning unwanted children and the means by which society tries to care for them. The title, as Boswell states in the Introduction, is inspired by a puzzling phrase Boswell had found in a number of documents: aliena misericordia, which might at first seem to mean "a strange kindness", is better translated "the kindness of strangers," echoing the line "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" from A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams.The Kindness of Strangers: Child Abandonment in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance
(New York: Villard, 1994) argues that the adelphopoiia liturgy was evidence that the attitude of the Christian church towards homosexuality has changed over time, and that early Christians did on occasion accept same-sex relationships.
Rites of so-called "same-sex union" (Boswell's proposed translation) occur in ancient prayer-books of both the western and eastern churches. They are rites of adelphopoiesis, literally Greek for the making of brothers. Boswell, stated that these should be regarded as sexual unions similar to marriages. Boswell made many detailed translations of these rites in Same-Sex Unions, and stated that one mass gay wedding occurred only a couple of centuries ago in the Archbasilica of St. John Lateran, the cathedral seat of the Pope as Bishop of Rome. This is a highly controversial point of Boswell's text, as other scholars have dissenting views of this interpretation, and believe that they were instead rites of becoming adopted brothers, or "blood brothers." Boswell pointed out such evidence as an icon of two saints, Sergius and Bacchus (at St. Catherine's on Mount Sinai), and drawings, such as one he interprets as depicting the wedding feast of Emperor Basil I to his "partner", John. Boswell sees Jesus as fulfilling the role of the "pronubus" or in modern parallel, best man.
Boswell's methodology and conclusions have been disputed by many historians. James Brundage, professor of history and law at the University of Kansas, observed that "the mainstream reaction was that he raised some interesting questions, but hadn't proved his case."
Irish historian and journalist Jim Duffy, in his "Rite and Reason" column in The Irish Times, praised Boswell's work. Welsh LGBT historian Norena Shopland, in Forbidden Lives, examines a number of translations of Gerald of Wales's extract from the third book of Topographia Hiberniae, ‘A proof of the iniquity (of the Irish) and a novel form of marriage’. Shopland shows how all translations currently being used were originally made before homosexuality was legal, and so reflect those times. She includes evidence supporting Boswell's translation of ‘marriage’ and not, as others claim ‘a treaty’.
Boswell was a Roman Catholic, having converted from the Episcopal Church of his upbringing at the age of 15. He remained a daily-mass Catholic until his death, despite differences with the church over sexual issues. Although he was orthodox in most of his beliefs, he strongly disagreed with his church's stated opposition to homosexual behavior and relationships. He was partnered with Jerone Hart for some twenty years until his death. Hart and Boswell are buried together at Grove Street Cemetery, New Haven, Connecticut.
In "Revolutions, Universals, and Sexual Categories", Boswell compares the constructionist–essentialist positions to the realist–nominalist dichotomy. He also lists three types of sexual taxonomies:
Boswell died of complications from AIDS in the Yale infirmary in New Haven, Connecticut, on December 24, 1994, aged 47.