There are many good books available on homosexuality in history, and thank God for that. These have a range of approaches, including scholarly, specialist tomes, more accessible pen-portraits of single notable people, or of single eras or regions. There is after all, an awful lot of history, containing an awful lot of queers.
For any historian, trying to make sense of the full sweep of history is an impossible task – there is just too much of it. Try to be too inclusive, and the reader will drown in the detail. Try to provide an intelligible, rounded account of particular periods in particular places, and far to much will be omitted. Louis Crompton goes for the latter approach, and provides a valuable, immensely readable book – but with some unavoidable but notable gaps (about which more below).
I prefer to begin by reflecting on the strengths, of which there are many. Reputable experts have been enthusiastic in their praise, so I make no attempt to assess its value as historical analysis. Instead, I will comment only on my personal reaction, as a general reader with some prior knowledge, but no specialist expertise.
Crompton has done a fine job of negotiating a careful balance between inserting too much detail for the specialist, and the superficial for the casual reader. The result, is a book that reads easily, with vivid, lively prose, but is always informative and thought-provoking. There is enough material in its 622 pages to be satisfying, but not daunting. (The 16 self-contained chapters which can be read in sequence as a whole, or savoured one bite at a time. ) I also loved the pictures, which are big enough to be appreciated, spread through the text and sufficient in number to be illustrative and satisfying, but not so many that they crowd out the text.
There are numerous arresting details. Right on the first page of the main text, a section heading reads: “A Millenium of Greek Love”. One thousand years? If Boswell is to be believed, that the clear and formal condemnation by the Christian churches dates only from the second millenium, then this Greek millenium of acceptance is longer than formal Christian proscription. This alone is worth thin king about – and comes even before reading the text proper.
Crompton of course, does not accept that Boswell is to be believed on Christian “toleration” in the early church, and presents a substantially harsher judgement on the teaching and practice of he Christian church. Against that, his two chapters on China and Japan includes tales of monastic love by Buddhist monks, some of which have comes down not just as historic tales, but as inspiring spiritual lessons. (Buddhism i s just one of many religious faiths that makes absolutely no moral judgement against homoeroticism, or any other form of sexuality.)
Regrettably, providing adequate space for the satisfying treatment of the periods and cultures he does include have led to some unfortunate omissions. For a work published in the 21st century, he has a curiously limited, Eurocentric view of “civilization”: He does include a chapter each on Judea, China and Japan, but nothing on the great flowering of Islamic civilization, which was so important during the European dark ages, nothing the early civilizations of India or the Middle East, and nothing on the Americas, neither pre-colonial nor the US, and nothing even from Europe of the last two centuries.
To give some idea of the challenges he has grappled with, consider the case of the section on Judea, which is important to make sense of the Christian response which followed. Slotted awkwardly between early chapters on Early and Classical Greece, Crompton dispenses with 1500 years of Jewish history in a single chapter. To resent these gaps would be unfair – he had to make some choices, we must accept the ones he has made, and enjoy the excellent book he has written, not the one somebody else might have done.
This is one I heartily recommend, for reading, to keep, and for occasional reference or rereading.
“An encyclopedic survey of homosexulaity in Western and no-Western civilizations. Compton’s writing is vivid, lively and refreshing.” – David Greenberg (“The Construction of Homosexuality”)
“A minor masterpiece. Each chapter is a work of art in itself”. -William A Percy (“Encyclopedia of Homosexuality”)
“A master work of interpretative scholarship.” - Richard Labonte “A Different Light” bookshop).
“A one-of –a –kind, page-turning tour through gay history” – David Rosen (InsightOutBooks)