06/25/2012 05:34 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Gay Marriage: Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed, Something Blue

There's an old French romance from the 12th century about two boys, Amis and Amile, born on the same day, baptized by the Pope on the same day, who grow up to be indistinguishable in physical appearance as if they were one and the same person. The deep love they share is "pushed to a sort of passionate exaltation" of clasping and kissing, sleeping in the same bed, even eating from the same dish. The relationship survives misadventure and two tricky marriages (one wife is carried off by the Devil and the other draws an equally short straw, agreeing to live "in perfect chastity" with her husband and his friend). In the end Amis and Amile will die in the same battle, only for the priests to bury them separately until, on the morning following their funerals, the body of one is found miraculously translated to lie by the body of the other.

It's a sweet story with deep roots, even in the legends of early Christian saints. Sergius and Bacchus, soldiers of the Roman army who were, according to tradition, martyred around 310 C.E., are described as "lovers" in one account. They too are inseparable: when Sergius has a moment of doubt about martyrdom, Bacchus, already dead but "with a face as radiant as an angel's, wearing an officer's uniform," promises in a dream that he will be Sergius' reward in Heaven. John Boswell's controversial interpretation suggested that they went through a ceremony akin to marriage, common among people of the same sex in the early Christian epoch. Whether or not the story is true, the writing of it reflects a contemporary truth.

At the heart of Amis' and Amile's romance is a similar truth: they are bound by the Pope himself in a union symbolised by the gift of identical cups, for the common cup was a mark of betrothal then. That union lasts for all eternity: "as it had pleased God to make their lives lovely and pleasant together, so in their deaths they were not divided."

So what's all the fuss about gay marriage? Any survey of its history will show that tying the knot has been all things to all people: a contract between families or states, a sort of purchase order of a woman and her property, a document for the legalization of children, a form of adoption, and a symbol of romantic love. Variously siblings have married, people have been forced into and out of marriage, adopted polygamy and monogamy as legal norms, and two people of the same sex have exchanged vows.

In pre-Christian Greece and Rome formalized relations between males of differing ages, wherein the younger would require the consent of his father, certainly occurred as did unions between men and between women of similar ages. Alexander the Great's lover, Hephaestion, became his brother-in-law so that "he might be uncle to Hephaestion's children" -- their sibling brides essentially surrogate mothers. The Roman Emperor Nero contracted a perfectly legal wedding with a man called Sporus, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Poppaea, the wife Nero had kicked to death. Sporus struck a blow for her, digging his husband's grave while the Emperor muttered, "What a loss I'll be to the arts!" In another Roman tale, Queen Berenice marries her female lover to protect her from a horrid, unwanted suitor. Then in 342 C. E. Christian emperors enacted a law which banned same-sex marriages. Some Christians may have despised homosexuality, but the reality of such edicts is that they were intended to consolidate the power of Emperors over citizens not reflect the teachings of Christ. Besides, the fact of this law contradicts what many scholars have maintained, that same-sex unions are a modern invention: why ban something that doesn't exist?

Regardless of this muddled mix of law and faith, religion has rarely had much to do with marriage. In fact marriage didn't become a sacrament of the Church until the 13th century, 900 years after Christianity's supremacy in the West. The early Church Fathers were distinctly equivocal about it as something akin to legalized fornication: "If we are to pray always," Saint Jerome wrote tremblingly, "it follows that we must never be in the bondage of wedlock, for as often as I render my wife her due, I cannot pray." Celibacy was infinitely preferable to the sinful indulgence of sex, even between husband and wife. Besides, the world was about to end through the Apocalypse rendering procreation unnecessary, indeed undesirable. Saint Augustine wrote that an end to marriage would bring the longed-for Second Coming that much closer.

Here in the UK, as in the U.S., the issue of gay marriage remains a political sore point, despite the introduction of civil partnerships. To spare the blushes of the bishops of the Church of England the "m" word has not been used, until now that a true blue Tory Prime Minister has taken up the LGBT banner to redress this discriminatory anomaly, saying "I don't support gay marriage despite being a Conservative, I support gay marriage because I'm a Conservative." This has discomforted some in the Church hierarchies who see the sky falling in on us and an end to the 500-year-old compact between Church and State. It's no secret, however, that this compact is premised on a cynical ploy by Henry VIII to redefine marriage as an opportunistic dynastic convenience. Seventy-five years ago, another king couldn't take up the job because he wanted to wed a divorcée; no one's challenging Prince Charles' right of succession for doing the same. So if gay Christians want to borrow some traditions of marriage, why should the fuddy-duddy bishops stop them?

The point is that attitudes change: The old enlightenment returns as the new; the world doesn't end and marriage doesn't either, it glimmers and shifts like a shape-changing sea everyone wants to sail upon; only some still batten down their minds as if caught in an old storm, a storm that never really came to anything, that never really was a storm in the first place. In the words of Walter Pater, whose analysis of the story of Amis and Amile first suggested its homoerotic nature, "The adherents of the poorer and narrower culture had no sympathy with... a culture richer and more ample than their own. After the discovery of wheat they would still live upon acorns."


  1. Amis and Amile, E Mason (trs), Cambridge, Ontario 2001, p. 17
  2. Arrian of Nicodemia, Anabasis of Alexander, vol. II, P. A. Brunt (trs.), Loeb Classical Library, Harvard 1983, bk. VII, 4.29
  3. Augustine of Hippo, On the Good of Marriage,
  4. Boswell, J., Christianity, Social Tolerance and Homosexuality, Chicago 1980, p. 84; Same-Sex Unions in Pre-Modern Europe, New York 1994, pp. 146-56
  5. Cantarella, E., Bisexuality in the Ancient World, Yale 2002, pp. 81-83
  6. Dover K., Greek Homosexuality, London 1978, pp. 89-91
  7. Eskridge, W. N. (Jr), "A History of Same Sex Marriage," Yale Law School Legal Scholarship Repository, 1.1.1993, pp. 1439-40,
  8. Jerome, The Principal Works of Saint Jerome, W. H. Fremantle (trs), vol. VI, New York 1893, "Against Jovianus," Bk I. 16
  9. Pater, W., The Renaissance, Studies in Art and Poetry, D. L. Hill (ed.), Berkley and London 1980, pp. 7-11
  10. Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, R. Graves (trs.), London and New York 2007, pp. 228, 241-43