|Christian attitudes to circumcision|
What has been the traditional Christian attitude to circumcision?
The readiness with which those eager to fight disease are willing to sacrifice part of the penis is partly an effect of the popular idea that the foreskin is of no importance to any bodily function and thus that its destruction is not really any sacrifice at all. (For two millennia of contrary evidence, click here. ) This in turn is connected with assertions that the western world has not valued the foreskin and that Christianity has traditionally endorsed or at least had a neutral attitude to circumcision. Although they appear regularly in medical journals and popular articles on circumcision, these claims are false. Until the arrival of Islam in the eighth century, the only Mediterranean, European and Asian societies to practise circumcision were the Jews and the Arabs. The Greeks and the Romans admired the normal male body, and abhorred circumcision so strongly that they made several attempts to ban it. (1)
Although Christianity began as a Jewish sect, it soon outgrew its parent, and in the process abandoned and then grew steadily more hostile to the rite. St Paul determined that circumcision was not necessary for converts, and the Church Fathers declared that Christ’s sacrifice had removed the need for further shedding of blood; baptism had replaced cutting as the appropriate initiation for members of the church. (2) There was a good deal of controversy at first, St Ambrose observing in the fourth century that "many persons are disturbed over the question … why circumcision should have been made an obligation under the ruling of the Old Testament, and set aside as useless by the teaching of the New Testament", (3) but by that time the church had passed a law which stated that "Roman citizens who suffer that they themselves or their slaves be circumcised … are exiled perpetually to an island and their property confiscated; the doctors suffer capital punishment". (4) Thomas Aquinas formally restated the Christian ban on circumcision in the Summa, but the peak of the Catholic Church’s opposition was probably reached in the Bull of Union with the Copts (1442) which prohibited circumcision outright and declared that it "cannot possibly be observed without loss of eternal salvation". (5) Even a humanist such as Erasmus, neither a bigot nor an anti-Semite, placed circumcision among the Jewish customs on which "we cry shame". (6)
To most Englishmen, circumcision was a threat from which they had been saved by the defeat of Islamic armies. For Edward Gibbon, the prospect that "the Koran would now be taught in the schools of Oxford, and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mahomet" was the greatest of the "calamities" from which Charlemagne delivered Europe. (7) In the seventeenth century some servants of the East India Company deserted to the Mughals in the hope of a better career path, and in 1649 a company official sadly reported the defection of one Josiah Blackwell, who "most wickedly and desperately renounced his Christian faith and professed himself a Moor, was immediately circumcised, and is irrecoverably lost". (8) Forced conversions were more common than voluntary, however – the fate of several hundred British soldiers captured after the Battle of Pollilur in 1780, who were circumcised and enslaved by Tipu Sultan of Mysore. One ensign recorded his shame in bitter yet revealing terms:
"I lost with the foreskin of my yard all those benefits of a Christian and Englishman which were and ever shall be my greatest glory". (9)
The teenage James Bristow and his mates were so distressed at what had been done to them that they caught and circumcised dogs, knowing that this would incense their captors because Moslems regard dogs as unclean. The action brought further punishment, but Bristow felt it justified because "compelling us to undergo an abhorred operation [was] so base and barbarous an act of aggression, that it was impossible to reflect on it with temper". (10)
As a Christian country, England had no history of circumcision before the late nineteenth century, but there were strong "Judaizing" tendencies in Puritanism, as fundamentalist radicals turned to the Old Testament in their quest to purge Christianity of its popish accretions. Some of these went so far as to adopt Jewish customs such as Sabbath and dietary observance, and a few even tried to circumcise boys – for which offence a certain Anne Curtyn was gaoled in 1649. (11) These impulses were revived in a number of utopian/millenarian sects which flourished during the turbulence of the Industrial Revolution, including the puritanical followers of John Wroe (1782-1863), one of whose disciples was prosecuted for manslaughter in 1824, after a boy he had circumcised in Bedford died from the wound. (12) Despite these examples of enthusiasm, the overwhelming English attitude was horror, and in Tristram Shandy Lawrence Sterne used a threat of circumcision to titillate his readers’ sense of dread, and to emphasise the failings of Shandy senior as a father. (13) In his critique of artificial efforts to improve upon nature, John Bulwer followed the lead of Renaissance anatomists such as da Carpi and Falloppio in condemning circumcision as unnatural and emphasising the role of the foreskin in normal sexual functioning:
That part which hangeth over the end of the foreskin, is moved up and down in coition, that in this attrition it might gather more heat, and increase the pleasure of the other sexe; a contentation of which they [the circumcised] are defrauded by this injurious invention. For, the shortnesse of the prepuce is reckoned among the organical defects of the yard, … yet circumcision detracts somewhat from the delight of women, by lessening their titillation. (14)
In her popular midwifery manual Jane Sharp wrote that a few people believed that the "Venerious action" might be performed better without the foreskin, but pointed out that circumcision had been forbidden by St Paul and hoped that
no man will be so void of reason and Religion, as to be Circumcised to make trial which of these two opinions is the best; but the world was never without some mad men, who will do anything to be singular: were the foreskin any hindrance to procreation or pleasure, nature had never made it, who made all things for these very ends and purposes. (15)
When, in the 1870s, Richard Burton remarked that Christendom "practically holds circumcision in horror", (16) the observation was ceasing to be true, but it was certainly the case before Victorian doctors sought to reconfigure the phallus. How odd that some well-meaning medical researchers today should still be treading in their footsteps.
Circumcision and the Bible
1. Hodges, FM. The ideal prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male genital aesthetics and their relation to lipodermos, circumcision, foreskin restoration and the Kinodesme. Bull Hist Med 2001;75; 375-405
2. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, SA. Male and female circumcision among Jews, Christians and Muslims: Religious, medical, social and legal debate, Warren PA: Shangri-La Publications, 2001
3. St Ambrose, Letters, ed. Mary Beyenka. Washington: Catholic University of America, 1954. (Fathers of the Church, Vol. 26), 90
4. Fleiss P. What your doctor may not tell you about circumcision. New York: Warner Books, 2002, 98
5. Proceedings of the Council of Florence, 1438-1445, New Advent Encyclopaedia, seen at http://www.ewtn.com/library/councils/Florence.htm
6. Steinberg L. The sexuality of Christ in Renaissance art and in later oblivion, 2nd edition, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1996, 54
7. Decline and fall of the Roman Empire, chapter 52
8. Dalrymple W. White Mughals: Love and betrayal in eighteenth century India. London: Harper Collins, 2002, 24
9. Colley L. Captives, New York: Pantheon, 2002, 288
10. Lawrence AW (ed.). Captives of Tipu: Survivors’ narratives. London: Jonathan Cape, 1929, 35
11. Shapiro J. Shakespeare and the Jews. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996, 25
12. Harrison JFC. The second coming: Popular millenarianism 1780-1850. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1979, 141-54; Mason M. The making of Victorian sexual attitudes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994, 136-7
13. Darby R. "An oblique and slovenly initiation": The circumcision episode in Tristram Shandy. Eighteenth Century Life 2003;27: 72-84
14. Bulwer, J. Anthropometamorphosis, man transform’d, or the artificial changeling. London: printed for J. Hardesty, 1650, 213-14
15. Sharp J. The midwives book: Or the whole art of midwifery discovered, London 1671, Facsimile reprint, New York: Garland, 1985, 31-2
16. Burton R. Love, war and fancy: The customs and manners of the East from writings on the Arabian Nights, ed. Kenneth Walker, London: William Kimber, 1964, 106
17. Miller G. Circumcision: Cultural-legal analysis. Virginia Journal of Social Policy and the Law 2002;9: 497-585
Captivity and Captivation: Gullivers in Brobdingnag
Review essay by by Robert Darby
During the seventeenth century and much of the eighteenth three great Islamic empires, each more powerful and far wealthier than any European state, held sway over a vast territory in Asia, the Middle East, North Africa, and parts of south-eastern Europe. The Ottomans controlled the eastern and southern shores of the Mediterranean, the Safavids ruled Persia and parts of what is now Afghanistan, and the Mughals struggled to hold India against recalcitrant Hindu kingdoms and rival Moslem sultanates in the south. In North Africa the regencies of Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers were formally subject to but increasingly autonomous from the Sublime Porte, while the powerful Sultan of Morocco, controlling the vital Straits of Gibraltar, was fiercely independent and pursued his own course. An important part of the economy of these four regimes derived from plunder of European shipping in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, and the regimes maintained large corsair fleets for this purpose. Successive Islamic dynasties had been the dominant Middle Eastern power for a thousand years; and although the seventeenth century marked the height of Ottoman expansion and the eighteenth century the beginning of the end, it was not apparent to contemporaries that they were in terminal decline or that defeat outside the walls of Vienna in 1683 or acceptance of the Treaty of Carlowitz in 1699 – which recognized the loss of European territory and acknowledged other powers as equal states – were anything more than temporary setbacks. In the early stages of the Enlightenment radical thinkers such as Spinoza cited the might of Islam and the extent of its dominions as evidence that universal Christianity might not be the world’s divinely appointed destiny, and as late as the 1750s Voltaire commented that nothing very positive had emerged from years of constant warfare with the crescent: “The Christian powers have lost a great deal to the Turks within these five centuries [i.e. since the Crusades], and have scarcely gained anything from each other.” 
The Barbary Corsairs
From the late sixteenth century to the early nineteenth, state-sponsored privateers from North African ports preyed on European shipping and even raided coastal villages in England and Ireland, from which they captured men, women, and children for sale in slave markets. Over the centuries tens of thousands of seamen, traders, travelers, and miscellaneous others were sold into slavery, many spending years in captivity before managing to raise a ransom or, less frequently, escape. Some escapees wrote narratives of their ordeals. Many, such as the seven meticulously edited and annotated by Daniel Vitkus, are extraordinary records of cultural interaction, human adaptability, and sheer endurance. Placed in context by Nabil Matar’s deeply-researched introduction, the narratives range in style from short summaries telling us about the writer’s religious faith and gratitude for deliverance to lengthy and informative accounts of the manners and customs of the Moors – for example, the remarkable memoir by Joseph Pitts, who was probably the first westerner to visit the shrines of Mecca and Medina, and certainly the first known to have survived to tell the tale. Only fifteen when captured at sea in 1678, Pitts spent fifteen years in captivity under a succession of masters, some brutal and some kind, converted to Islam under duress from one of the former sort, was freed from slavery by one of the latter, and eventually managed to escape while on a trip to Smyrna. Even then his misfortunes were not at an end: after a year’s struggle getting back to England, he was immediately kidnapped by a press gang for service in the Royal Navy and saved from another stretch of captivity only by the intervention of a local gentleman. Britons might have sung they never would be slaves, but various forms of forced labor remained common in Europe and America until well into the nineteenth century: assignment of convicts in Australia, black slavery in the USA, serfdom in Russia, and impressed service in the British Navy could all be compared with slavery in North Africa –not necessarily to the advantage of the West. The galleys of Spain, France, Venice, and Genoa were also manned by slaves.
A major sub-theme in the encounters recorded in these texts is the embarrassing fact of male circumcision. Islam was (and remains) the world’s largest circumcising culture, while Christianity had demarcated itself from its Judaic parent by decisively rejecting the rite and declaring its belief in the resurrection of the body with all the bits complete and unabridged. Meetings between two such opposed attitudes were sure to provoke sparks, and one of the deepest fears of Christians taken captive by Barbary pirates was that they would be circumcised as part of a forced conversion. Matar remarks that there were cases of forced conversion involving circumcision and that contemporary observers referred to the practice in general terms, but he provides no evidence from eyewitness accounts. Joseph Pitts agreed to convert after repeated beatings, but he does not reveal whether he was subsequently circumcised. He gives the impression that all that needed to be done when converting under compulsion was to make a declaration of faith and that it was only those who went over voluntarily who were required to take part in elaborate initiation ceremonies; but it is possible that the proceedings were so terrible and humiliating for him that he could not bear to refer to them. Vitkus, on the other hand, suggests elsewhere that the fear of circumcision was the result of exaggerated representations in plays and other popular literature, and that “for those who became Muslims in order to join the Barbary pirates, conversion was probably a mere formality,” involving little or no obligation of religious practice. Stories of forced circumcision were “a scare tactic designed to discourage potential converts”, not an accurate description of what really happened: “Because Christians … did not practise circumcision … this feature of Islamic custom was viewed with horror as an atavistic ritual performed by barbarians.” 
Significance of captives
In the sci-fi adventure Planet of the Apes the extra-terrestrials are persuaded that their human prisoners must be rational beings only when they catch a small animal in their enclosure and keep it in a cage, for only a rational being would keep other animals in captivity. But if caging other animals is a sign of rationality, perhaps it is a characteristic of humanity to lock up and observe members of one’s own species: homo sapiens is the only species known to take its own kind captive; and if Linda Colley is to be believed, this tendency is a major but neglected factor in world history, having an impact far beyond the walls of any prison. In her stimulating and beautifully written study, Colley re-examines the experience of the British Empire from the perspective of the soldiers and minor officials who did the spadework overseas, great numbers of whom were captured by powerful and often cruel enemies in three significant theatres of cultural interaction – the Mediterranean and North Africa, North America, and India – with a concluding excursion into Afghanistan. Throughout the book she scrutinizes received readings and questions many myths, both imperial and anti-imperial.
Post-colonialist accounts are also dissected with polite but telling intelligence. Colley acknowledges the seductiveness of the orientalist case, particularly Edward Said’s eloquent argument that Europeans have stereotyped Arab and Islamic societies as mysterious, superstitious, backward, feminine, and stagnant, but counters with the observation that European attitudes were quite diverse and changed over time. The principal arena for the Christian encounter with Islam was the Mediterranean, where (until the 1760s) it was strong and Britain weak. The Ottomans had powerful navies and held strategic positions; Britain could not prevent its subjects from being captured and sold into slavery, and did not have the strength to rescue them. Morocco’s standing army was many times the size of Britain’s. In order to protect its vital bases at Gibraltar and Minorca, her majesty’s government paid protection money to the rulers of Algiers and Morocco, and it relied on North Africa to supply food to its garrisons. Thus we see the surprising picture of English slaves in Algiers or Tangier visiting the English consul in those places to try to arrange a ransom and occasionally (though this was dangerous for all concerned) an escape. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries it was Europeans who were more likely to be feminised, violated, and penetrated, especially by Moslem captors who sold them into slavery, subjected some of them to circumcision, and occasionally forced them to play the passive role in sexual intercourse. No doubt the Christian picture of the sodomitical Turk was part of a demonizing caricature; but the fondness of Middle Eastern and North African men for white youths, especially if blond, is attested to this day by many a satisfied European and American sex-tourist.  As Joseph Pitts noted in the eighteenth century: “men, women and children would flock to see me, and I was much admired for having flaxen hair and being of a ruddy complexion. I heard one of them say, ‘Behold! What a pretty maid it is’.” It is hard to believe that he did not receive sexual attentions, though he does not mention any in his reticent narrative.
The ambiguities of “otherness”
In her own discussion of such issues, Colley points out that, for the protestant English, the chief “other” was not Islam but Catholicism. The early captivity narratives collected by Vitkus describe far worse cruelty and oppression at the hands of Spanish or Genoese captors, who reportedly tortured Protestant refugees in the hope of forcing them to embrace the true faith, than from Moslem owners in North Africa, who were more interested in getting steady work or a fat ransom out of them. John Locke, in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1685, published 1689) advocated toleration for Jews and Moslems, but probably not for Catholics and certainly not for atheists.  The English contempt for poverty, despotism, superstition, and backwardness, so characteristic of eighteenth-century consciousness of nationhood, applied far more often to Catholic Europe, especially Britain’s great rivals, France and Spain, than to the Islamic world. For their part, by the 1750s prominent Catholic intellectuals were concerned that Deists and spiriti forti (freethinkers) were greater threats to Christianity than Islam and Judaism combined [7A] – and they were of course right.
American War of Independence
Crossing to another hemisphere, Colley’s discussion of captivity in North America covers not only the narratives of settlers abducted by Indians, but the experience of all those who fought in the many conflicts among French, Spanish, British, and colonists about who would rule the territories that eventually became the United States and Canada; and Colley adds new dimensions to our understanding of the American War of Independence, particularly the significance of prisoners in the propaganda aspect of that struggle. In the early stages of colonization Indian defeats were related to divisions among the tribes, which allowed British and French forces to ally with one or other against their rivals in a complex play of shifting partnerships that was not possible in the Mediterranean but was pretty much replicated in India. At the same time, the demands of European commitments meant that Britain did not permanently station a large body of troops in America until after the Seven Years War, and they were not intended to assist the settlers in subduing Indians so much as to contain frontier conflict and keep settlers and Indians apart. Lack of funds stymied the plan to send a force of 10,000, and by the 1770s there were only some 4,500 troops to cover the entire vast expanse from Florida to Canada. The British were not racially exclusivist, and their policy of protecting Indian lands in the west annoyed the colonists: as a consequence, in the War of Independence, more support for Britain came from Indians, Negroes, and other racial minorities than from British Americans.
Fractured Islam in India
The Christian-Moslem encounter was never a confrontation of pure essences. Even in the Mediterranean, Christians were divided by national and sectarian allegiances and fought as much among themselves as against the Turk; for many Christians, the main enemy could be Catholic, Protestant, atheist, or sceptic. In India these polymorphous and fracturing tendencies were magnified many times over. A traditional polytheism, later codified as Hinduism, held its own locally against Moslem monotheism; but Islam itself was riven by the great Sunni-Shi’ite division, and the Sunni Mughals had no empathy with the Shi’ite heretics to the south. In the eyes of strict Persian purists, Islam as practiced at Hyderabad or Mysore was heavily contaminated by Hindu superstition. One emigre recorded his disgust at the Hindus’ blatant joy in sex and at people who removed neither their pubic hair nor the foreskins of their boys, and he was shocked that children of mixed marriages were left to choose their own religion as they matured. From the west came Portuguese and French Catholics and, later, English Protestants, followed in the eighteenth century by British who were scarcely Christian at all, but sceptical adherents of Enlightenment Deism. They held that human nature was pretty much the same everywhere and were open to other cultures, the worth of which they judged pragmatically on the basis of their contribution to individual happiness and social well-being, rather in the utilitarian manner implied by the words of the wise Tahitian in Diderot’s Supplement to Bougainville’s Voyage (quoted in the epigraph). They disapproved of religious fanaticism and would have agreed with the sort of detachment shown by Edward Gibbon in his celebrated characterization of religious life under the Roman Empire: “The various modes of worship which prevailed in the Roman world were all considered by the people as equally true; by the philosopher as equally false; and by the magistrate as equally useful. And thus toleration produced not only mutual indulgence, but even religious concord.” 
Europeans in India
Such diversity was pretty close to the situation the early European arrivals encountered in India. They were not conquerors or missionaries, but traders who wanted to make money through exchanges profitable to both parties. The missionaries came later, intent on restoring purity of faith and demarcating believer from non-believer: Jesuit priests intended to keep the Portuguese in line; and British parsons disapproved mightily of the lax, idolatrous, and sometimes polygamous habits of so many East India Company employees. Writing back from Portuguese Goa in 1560, one Jesuit official stated that “the Inquisition is more necessary in these parts than anywhere else, since all the Christians here live together with the Muslims, the Jews and the Hindus, and this causes laxness of conscience. … Only with the curb of the Inquisition will they lead a good life.” In similar vein, an English missionary denounced the “brahminised British” of the 1780s-1820s in his indignant tract, The Government Connection with Idolatry in India (1851): “The chief officers of the Government [sic] belonged to a peculiar class. … [They] were on the whole an irreligious body of men; who approved of Hinduism much more than Christianity, and favoured the Koran more than the Bible. Some hated Missions from their dread of sedition; and others because their hearts ‘seduced by fair idolatresses, had fallen for idols foul’.” Among other lessons, the research in Colley’s Captives and in William Dalrymple’s enthralling saga, White Mughals (from which these revealing quotations are taken), confirms the validity of Jane Jacobs’ suggestion that warrior or administrative cultures are characterized by values such as exertion of power, deception, revenge, and respect for hierarchy, tradition, and discipline; while commercial cultures nurture qualities like honesty, voluntary agreements, collaboration with strangers, dissent, respect for contracts, openness to novelty, and rejection of force.  Much of British-Indian history from the mid-eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century might be interpreted as the sad process by which the former syndrome conquered the latter.
Anti-racism of the Enlightenment
Under the influence of the universalist ideals of the Enlightenment – and before the rise of territorial imperialism, evangelical Christianity, and racism in the mid-nineteenth century – there was a blending of cultures in India: British officials of the East India Company adopted local customs, dress, food, and lifestyle and formed sexual liaisons (both solemnized and otherwise) with local women (and sometimes surreptitiously, as Ronald Hyam reminds us, with local men and boys).  Many of these were captivated rather than captured by their hosts, like Gulliver by the Houyhnhnms, and “went native” to varying degrees. Before company policy put a stop to the trend, British India was on the road to becoming a Creole society. Some of these went back to England as the atmosphere chilled and made a living by preparing curries for other returned India hands who were homesick for their adopted native land and found England itself a place of exile. India offered two main religious choices for those willing to drift away from Christian certainties. William Gardner married a Moslem princess, and his son a grand daughter of the Emperor Aurungzeb; and although it eventually inherited the Gardner barony, the family elected to remain in the East. Major General Charles Stuart, a somewhat mysterious Irishman who arrived in the 1780s while still a teenager, turned to polytheism, published several defences of Hindu customs and culture and became known as “Hindoo Stuart.” He built a temple at Saugor and when he visited Europe took statues of his favourite Hindu gods with him. Other prominent figures who similarly went native were Sir David Ochterlonie, the British resident at Delhi, and General William Palmer, envoy to the Hindu Marathas, who was eventually removed by the Governor-General, Richard Wellesley, for excessive sympathy with the Indians. Another product of this hybrid milieu was James Brooke, born in 1803 to an old EIC family in Bengal. Rejecting EIC employment himself, he pressed further east and became the founder of another cross-cultural political entity, the white rajahs of Sarawak.  Many of these characters practiced polygamy, and some accumulated quite large harems in the true style of a local grandee. One EIC employee was believed to have no fewer than sixteen concubines; when asked what he did with them all, he replied: “Oh, I just give them a little rice and let them run around”. So much for the mystique of the seraglio.
James Kirkpatrick, white Mughal
Caught up in and exemplifying this momentous transformation, with its implications for every aspect of British-Indian life, from strategic policy to dinner parties, were James Achilles Kirkpatrick, EIC envoy to the Nizam of Hyderabad from 1798 to 1805, and his secret bride Khair un-Nissa, youngest daughter of an important aristocratic family connected with the court. British concern at the possibility that Kirkpatrick had “turned Turk” (he had reportedly embraced Islam in order to marry Khair in accordance with Moslem forms) was heightened by alarm at the large number of Tipu’s captives who had gone over to his side. Whose interests would Kirkpatrick serve? William Dalrymple’s engrossing account of Kirkpatrick’s life offers many pleasures, including the genealogical complexity of the Wars of the Roses, the dynastic intrigues of Salman Rushdie’s Shame, and two star-crossed lovers torn apart by mistrust between their respective societies and more particularly, by the angry, jealous, and exclusivist males of Khair’s family and the EIC executive. A moving personal story is firmly situated within the context of the grand commercial and increasingly territorial aspirations of the EIC, encompassing a panorama of princes, begums, zenanas, female power, money, riches beyond belief, colorful ceremonies, landscapes, cities, gardens, architecture, portraits, affection, fraternal rivalries and jealousy, as well as love, birth, death – and even taxes. It is a story as teeming with detail as the streets of India itself. The scholarship is impressive throughout, and the author has made use of materials in Indian languages not often consulted by Western scholars; he has also translated local and contemporary accounts that offer crucial details or telling insights, has used hitherto unexamined letters from women, and speculated intelligently in places where the evidence peters out. As an aesthetic bonus the book is beautifully illustrated and is written in a style accessible to the general reader.
1. "Essay on the Manners and Spirit of Nations", 1754, in Isaac Kramnick, ed., The Portable Enlightenment Reader (New York: Penguin, 1995), p. 370.
SOURCE: Robert Darby, “Captivity and Captivation: Gullivers in Brobdingnag”, Eighteenth Century Life, Vol. 27, Fall 2003