Circumcision in Britain
In Britain circumcision was not practised at all until the eighteenth century, and never as a routine or preventive procedure until the late nineteenth century. Men valued their foreskins as "the best of your property" and regarded circumcision as a humiliating disfigurement. In the eighteenth century surgeons started treating serious venereal infections of the penis by amputation of the diseased tissue. Since the venereal sores were usually on the foreskin, this was analogous to circumcision, but it was only done in advanced cases of disease, and only if the men agreed to it (which many did not). Such sores often caused phimosis by producing scabs which fused the foreskin to the glans, again requiring treatment; some surgeons treated the condition by amputating the foreskin (recommended by the English Robert James in his Medicinal Dictionary, published in the 1750s), others preferred conservative treatments and operated only if gangrene was present or threatened (such as recommended later by the French venereal disease expert, Philippe Ricord).
The rise of extreme medical anxiety about masturbation in eighteenth century (the masturbation phobia) turned the normal fondling of the penis which all young boys and many babies did into a wicked and harmful vice which had to stamped out. This led to the gross medical error which characterised the normal phimotic condition of the infant and child penis as a pathological abnormality requiring immediate surgical correction. The main reason advanced for circumcision in Britain from 1840s onwards was to cure phimosis: that is surgically "correct" the natural condition of the penis. The later claims that circumcision could prevent cancer, epilepsy, paralysis, convulsions etc were all based on the original medical error that "phimosis" was pathological and had to be fixed. Various theories were advanced as to how, such as the tight foreskin pressing on the glans and causing imbalance of nerve force. Even those who did not support circumcision believed that the infant foreskin had to be separated from the glans and forced to retract within a few weeks of birth. It was not until the 1930s that this dogma was questioned, and not until Douglas Gairdner's article on 1949 that the error was dispelled (at least in Britain, though not for a while in Australia, and not for even longer in the USA).
Circumcision in childhood was first introduced by French and English doctors as a treatment for masturbation in the 1830s and also recommended for spermatorrhoea (involuntary loss of semen) in adult men. Much of this was based on the crazy theories of Claude-Francois Lallemand (1790-1853), whose vast treatise Les Pertes seminales involontaires (Involuntary seminal losses) was published in three volumes in the 1830s and translated into English in the 1850s. Circumcision as a treatment for phimosis had the same origin: nobody had worried about phimosis in childhood until masturbation became an issue, but once that was seen as a problem, phimosis also became a problem because the "secretions" it was supposed to trap caused irritation and led boys to fondle and scratch their penis (equals masturbation). Circumcision was not routine at this stage or even common, only done by a few over-anxious and highly punitive parents. It took nearly a century of advocacy and the invention of additional "health" reasons (the most important of which was the claim that it provided protection against syphilis, first raised in the 1850s, but not seriously pushed until the 1890s), and then various forms of cancer, before it became general.
Various absurd stories are told about circumcision in the English royal family, among the British in India and in the case of Louis XV of France, who is supposed to have suffered from such severe phimosis that he was obliged to submit to circumcision before he could perform his most important royal duty. All these stories are nonsense. The story that Queen Victoria imagined she was descended from the biblical King David and had her own sons circumcised was invented by the British Israelites and given wider currency by a popular writer using the pen name Bud Berkeley. The story about Robert Clive getting circumcised by Indian Moslems is a fairy tale made up by Allen Edwardes in The rape of India, a work largely of fiction masquerading as a factual history book. He invented a whole sequence of scenes involving circumcision as a pornographic fantasy, and footnoted them to imaginary documents and records. His exposure and disgrace is mentioned by Ronald Hyam in Empire and sexuality: The British experience. It is true that some hundreds of British soldiers were captured, forcibly circumcised and enslaved by the Muslim Sultan Tipu of Mysore after their defeat in the Battle of Pollilur in 1780, but that is a different matter. (1)
As for Louis XV, a recent article proves that he could not have been circumcised, but that he might have had a short frenulum (frenulum breve) that was quickly and simply fixed with a touch of the bistoury. (2)
Circumcision became "routine" (i.e. done by adults to children showing no signs of disease or abnormality) and widespread among the rich at the end of the nineteenth century as a result of a combination of several factors, any one of which would not have been enough. It received an immense boost from the claim that it provided significant protection against syphilis, the AIDS of that era. The rate of infant circumcision in Australia doubled between 1910 and 1920, the decade which marked the height of the syphilis scare, and increased substantially in Britain. (There’s a parallel here with AIDS today). Circumcision was recommended as a preventive of masturbation, nervous diseases, syphilis, and cancer, not to mention bed-wetting, epilepsy, pimples and hip joint disease, all of which were equally important in securing its widespread acceptance; by itself, none of these factors could have tipped the balance.
The age at which circumcision was done in Britain varied. It was often done in infancy, but it was also common in childhood, particularly just before a boy started school, as a precaution against picking up the habit of masturbation there. Many boys were not circumcised as a routine thing, but because it was found that their foreskin was not retractable (as was perfectly normal in boys before puberty), or because they were caught masturbating: it was a treatment/punishment as much as a preventive. Where it was done to correct "congenital phimosis" it was on the basis of a serious medical error and failure to understand normal penile development.
Nor was the style and technique of circumcision standardised until much later, probably with the invention of the Gomco clamp in the 1930s. In the late nineteenth century there was immense disagreement among doctors about how it should be done and how much tissue should be excised; some urged the maximum possible, others the minimum needed to free the glans, others a middle course. Jewish practice was often taken as a model, but it was the modern Jewish style, involving the tearing back of the foreskin and its radical removal which attracted the most support. In fact, English (and then American) circumcision techniques turned out to be significantly more severe than most ritual or tribal varieties. Little was known about Islamic circumcision techniques, but Moslems they did not enjoy the high status achieved by Jewish people, who came to be regarded as exemplars of sanitary wisdom in the late nineteenth century.
Herbert Snow made much of these disagreements and used them to try to discredit circumcision in his attack on the practice (The barbarity of circumcision as a remedy for congenital abnormality, 1890), but so deeply had the myth of phimosis as a congenital defect sunk in by the 1890s that even he conceded that something had to be done about non-retractability in early childhood, and he had little to offer on the functions and value of the foreskin. Circumcision was never classified as serious surgery (and thus reserved to qualified surgeons), but as a minor procedure (like scratching off a wart) which any GP, medical student or expert in women’s health could do. The crude and ugly results bore witness to the fallacy of that assumption.
Circumcision always had its critics in Britain. Parts of this vehement denunciation from Elizabeth Blackwell in 1894 still has relevance today:
A serious warning against the unnatural practice of circumcision must here be given. A book of "Advice to mothers" by a Philadelphia doctor was lately sent to me. This treatise began by informing the mother that her first duty to her infant boy was to cause it to be circumcised! Her fears were worked upon by an elaborate statement but false statement of the evils which would result to the child were this mutilation not performed. I should have considered this mischievous instruction unworthy of serious consideration, did I not observe that it has lately become common among certain short-sighted but reputable physicians to laud this unnatural practice, and endeavour to introduce it into a Christian nation.
Circumcision is based upon the erroneous principle that boys, i.e. one half of the human race, are so badly fashioned by Creative Power that they must be reformed by the surgeon; consequently that every male child must be mutilated by removing the natural covering with which nature has protected one of the most sensitive portions of the human body. The erroneous nature of such a practice is shown by the fact that although this custom (which originated amongst licentious nations in hot climates) has been carried out for many hundreds of generations (by Moslems and Jews), yet nature continues to protect her children by reproducing the valuable protection in man and all the higher animals, regardless of impotent surgical interference.
Appeals to the fears of uninstructed parents on the grounds of cleanliness or of hardening the part are entirely fallacious and unsupported by evidence. It is a physiological fact that the natural lubricating secretion of every healthy part is beneficial, not injurious to the part thus protected, and that no attempt to render a sensitive part insensitive is either practicable or justifiable. The protection which nature affords to these parts is an aid to physical purity by affording necessary protection against constant external contact of a part which necessarily remains keenly sensitive; and bad habits in boys and girls cannot by prevented by surgical operations. Where no malformation exists, bad habits can only be forestalled by healthy moral and physical education.
The plea that this unnatural practice will lessen the risk of infection to the sensualist in promiscuous intercourse is not one that our honourable profession will support. Parents, therefore, should be warned that this ugly mutilation of their children involves serious danger, both to their physical and moral health.
Elizabeth Blackwell, The human element in sex: Being a medical enquiry into the relation of sexual physiology to Christian morality (1884; 2nd edition, London, 1894), pp. 35-6
Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910) was born in Britain and emigrated in childhood to the United States, where she became the first woman to take a medical degree. She later practised in both the USA and Britain, where she played a significant role in the campaign to repeal the Contagious Diseases Act during the 1880s. She also denounced masturbation and fornication but believed they should be controlled by moral willpower. See American National Biography (1999), Vol. 2.
There are no reliable statistics on the circumcision rate in Britain, but it was overwhelmingly an upper class phenomenon. Circumcision was very common among the richer and better educated, but rare among the poor, labourers, farmers etc. The key was the respectable obsession with "cleanliness": the rich had baths and washed themselves, the poor and working class were the great unwashed, and their foreskins were the final proof of how filthy they were. As George Orwell pointed out, the middle class believed the working class smelled. The cleanliness of the circumcised boy was the guarantee of his superior social status, plus the fact that the scare over masturbation was most concentrated in the richer and better educated classes, and was an obsession at the public schools they attended.
An example of how unpredictably the knife fell in Britain during the period when circumcision was common is given in the autobiography of the eminent classical scholar, Sir Kenneth Dover, who also reveals that boys were more likely to resent the operation than to accept it. As he writes:
I was born at a time when the craze for circumcision, which infected England in the latter part of the nineteenth century, was reaching its peak, and I was one of its millions of victims. Of the dozen boys I knew best at my school, at least five were circumcised, but at least five were not, and these included Alec and Martin, to whom I was closest. Each of us naturally championed his own kind of cock. One night, however, just before I went to sleep, a message which seemed to come from outside myself told me, with magisterial finality, that foreskins are good and circumcision is bad. This message was not articulated in words, but invaded me in two shock waves about a second apart: whoof! ... whoof! I felt that my whole system of values had been turned upside-down, and from that moment I have never been reconciled to my mutilation. [...] My dislike of circumcision did nothing to make me anti-Jewish, partly because I don't think anything could have done, and partly because I knew from my reading in anthropology and ancient history that it wasn't the fault of the Jews; it began independently in Egypt, from which it has spread into central and eastern Africa, over the whole Islamic world, and in some areas of the south-west Pacific. I am pretty sure, however, that it turned me off Semitic languages, in which I was beginning to be interested, and reinforced my loyalty to the Greeks and Romans, who rejected and ridiculed circumcision.
Two surveys of army and airforce recruits in the early 1950s (i.e. men born in the 1930s) showed that about one third were circumcised, but these would have been mainly from the higher socio-economic groups. Before the 1950s the incidence of circumcision in Britain was strongly correlated with wealth: the rich generally had it done, the poor generally did not. A friend of mine who was a pupil at a (minor) public school in the early 1960s recalls that slightly less than half the boys (born late 1940s, early 50s) were circumcised even then. He was not, but his younger brother was – not as a routine thing, but because of a supposed phimotic problem in childhood. Circumcision had never been publicly financed in Britain and was already dying out in the 1940s, probably because hospital resources were stretched by the war, before Douglas Gairdner gave it the death blow.
1. Robert Darby "Captivity and captivation: Gullivers in Brobdingnag", Eighteenth Century Life, Vol. 27, Fall 2003.
2. G. Androutsos, "Le phimosis de Louis XVI (1754-1793) aurait-il ete a l'origine de ses difficultes sexuelles et de sa fecundite retardee?" Progres Urologique, 12 (1), 2002
Sources on this site