Amidst the hysteria over the “redefinition” of marriage, we should remember that in fact, redefinition of marriage and its terminology have been a constant feature of social and theological history. As one thought – provoking illustration, I offer you an example of a royal same-sex marriage from the United Kingdom, in the seventeenth century.
The English historian Alan Bray described in his book “The Friend“, numerous examples of male couples whose relationships were solemnized in religious rituals, legal contracts or joint burial. On page 96, he quotes in full a letter from King James I of England /James VI of Scotland, apparently to his intimate friend George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham:
My onlie sweete & deare chylde, notwithstanding of your desyring me not to wrytte yesterdaye, yett hadde I written in the euening, if at my comming in out of the parke suche á drowzieness hadd not comed upon me, as I was forced to sitte & sleep in my chaire halfe an howre & yett I can not contente myselfe, withowt sending you this prst praying god that I maye haue a ioyefull & confortable meeting with you, & that we maye mak at this christenmasse a new mariage, euer to be kept hearafter, for, god so loue me, as I desire onlie to liue in this worlde, for youre saik, & that I hadde rather liue banished in anie pairt of the earth with you, then liue a sorrowefull widowes lyfe without you, & so god blesse you my sweete chylde & wyfe & grawnte that ye may be euer be á conforte to youre deere daide & husbande.
For easier reading, I offer my own version in more modern language – and add emphasis, to highlight the relevant words.
My only sweet and dear child, notwithstanding your desiring me not to write yesterday, yet had I written in the evening, if at my coming in out of the park such a drowsiness had not come upon me, as I was forced to sit and sleep in my chair half an hour and yet I can not content myself, without sending you this, praying god that I may have a joyful and comfortable meeting with you, and that we may make at this Christmas a new marriage, ever to be kept hereafter, for, God so love me, as I desire only to live in this world, for your sake, and that I had rather live banished in any part of the earth with you, than live a sorrowful widow’s life without you, and so God bless you my sweet child and wife and grant that you may be ever a comfort to your deer dad and husband.
On the face of it, this seems clear. Writing to a man, with whom we know he had a close and intimate, possibly sexual, relationship, he describes how much he is looking forward to their impending marriage. He describes Buckingham as his “wife”, and himself as “husband”. Reference to “Christmas”, as Bray later explains, also suggests that this will be in church, taking the sacrament in a religious ritual.
But all is not as it seems. This is not marriage as we understand the term, but a ceremony to mark, or to re-affirm, their status as “sworn brothers” a relationship between men that for several centuries was recognized and solemnized by the Church with formal ritual, much as the Eastern church had its own ritual, as the rite of “adelphopoeisis” (literally, an “act of making brothers”). Bray is careful to point out that that these sworn brotherhood’s were not necessarily sexual, but some undoubtedly were, such another royal example: Edward II and Piers Gaveston. But neither were they examples similar to modern male buddy relationships. “Friendship” was a much more intimate relationship, recognized as such in the need for formal contract or religious ritual.
That contractual element is emphasised in another word for the sworn brother relationship, that will sound surprising to modern ears: the term was “wedded brothers”. Bray explains King James’ use of the word “marriage”:
In his letter James uses “marriage” to mean the act of a “wedding”: the solemn exchange of promises (the “wed”) that could create kinship among those it encompassed. The term is of the same provenance as the “wedded” or “sworn” brothers that had been a familiar part or English society from at least the fifteenth century (and probably for long before that). The terms that James employs repeat the covenant of two such “wedded” brothers.
Elsewhere, Bray explains that wedded brother relationships were not limited to the aristocracy, nor did they exclude other committed relationships. It was not uncommon, for instance, for two wedded brothers also to marry women. The point I am trying to make with these illustration is just this: although the idea of gay marriage, which has aroused such strong emotions, seems a new idea, same-sex male weddings, even in church, are not. Only their significance has changed.
The redefinition of marriage, by the church and by the rest of society, has been a constant phenomenon across history.
Boswell, John: Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe
Bray, Alan: The Friend
Jordan, Mark D: Blessing Same-Sex Unions
Salzmann, Todd, and Lawler, Michael: The Sexual Person: Toward a Renewed Catholic Anthropology
Sullivan, Andrew: Same-Sex Marriage: Pro and Con: A Reader
- Coalition for (Equal) Marriage: Sign the Petition
- Valentine’s Day: Same Sex Lovers in Church History
- An Authentic, Catholic History of Marriage
- The Catholic Redefinition of Marriage
- The Evolution of Catholic Teaching on Sex and Marriage
- What Constitutes a “Family”? Empirical Study Finds A Wider View
- In DC, a Bishop Makes the Christian Case for Gay Marriage.
- Chart of the Day: Religion and Gay Marriage