Ritual circumcision: A social custom
A number of pre-scientific and mostly pre-literate tribal societies have traditionally practised various forms of bodily modification, on both boys and girls, as a social or religious ritual. These are now understood to mark rites of passage from one stage of life to another, which is why the most common time for operations on the genitals is around puberty. It was only in the late nineteenth century that anybody suggested that these rites had a utilitarian rationale, but the idea soon became an article of faith among doctors who favoured circumcision, and it still has currency in backward medical circles today.
The idea that ritual circumcision was motivated by concern for health was the invention of nineteenth century doctors. They knew nothing of anthropology, but they were keen to find a respectable ancestry for the new surgical therapy they wanted to introduce. Antiquity, they thought, conferred legitimacy. With the increasing frequency of circumcision as a medical procedure came growing interest in the origins of the operation as a religious or cultural rite. The anthropological view was that circumcision originated strictly as a religious requirement and had no medical significance at all. The ninth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (1876) discussed the practice as a religious rite among Jews, Moslems, ancient Egyptians and several tribal peoples, rejecting sanitary or hygienic explanations in favour of a religious one:
Like other bodily mutilations … [it is] of the nature of a representative sacrifice. … The principle of substitution was familiar to all ancient nations, and not least to the Israelites. … On this principle circumcision was an economical recognition of the divine ownership of human life, a part of the body being sacrificed to preserve the remainder.
By the eleventh edition (1910) the entry has been turned on its head: "This surgical operation, which is commonly prescribed for purely medical reasons, is also an initiation or religious ceremony among Jews and Mahommedans": suddenly circumcision is primarily a medical procedure and only after that a religious rite. The entry explains that "in recent years the medical profession has been responsible for its considerable extension among other than Jewish children ... for reasons of health". By 1929 the entry is much reduced in size and consists merely of a brief description of the operation, which is "done as a preventive measure in the infant" and "performed chiefly for purposes of cleanliness"; readers are then referred to the entries for "Mutilation" and "Deformation" for a discussion of circumcision in its religious context.
An eccentric but well informed Victorian scholar of sexual curiosities, John Davenport,  considered that circumcision was "founded almost exclusively upon either religious or political motives", originating with the Ethiopians and Egyptians for unknown reasons and spreading from there to the Arab and then the Jewish peoples, and thence to Islam (Davenport 174). Even as he was putting forward such sensible ideas – broadly confirmed by modern research  – he noted that others were offering speculative theories which sought the origins of the operation in terms of practical outcomes. Hypotheses circulating in the 1870s included (1) dampening men's amorous propensities; (2) physical utility related to a hot climate (as already suggested by Acton); (3) to facilitate conception; (4) for hygiene and cleanliness; (5) as a mark of distinction (Davenport 178-81).
Doctors as amateur anthropologists
Victorian doctors keen to introduce circumcision for their own reasons were naturally at the forefront of the trend to find a materialist explanation for the origins of the operation as a rite, and their suggestions were usually cast in terms of whatever they thought circumcision was meant to achieve in the present-day. The burgeoning confidence of the medical profession was expressed in their conviction that, having mastered the world of illness and disease, they could turn themselves into anthropologists with as little extra training as it took to amputate a prepuce. Eager to invest his new therapy with the patina of antiquity, the surgeon (Sir) John Bland-Sutton was typical of such amateur anthropologising and assumed that circumcision must originally have had a health-promoting rationale and became a religious ordinance only as a means of ensuring its perpetuation.
Bland-Sutton described circumcision as "the most ancient as well as the simplest operation in surgery", differing from others "in possessing among many races and tribes a ceremonial value". He regretted that there should be so much "quibbling" over whether it should be regarded "as an ordinance for cleanliness or a purely religious rite" but insisted that its main purpose was to ensure fertility: "the text is very clear: it was to ensure fruitful coitus in order that the seed of Abraham should multiply according to the Covenant. A long foreskin is a recognised hindrance to convenient coitus". Never having fathered any children himself he certainly ought to have known about that. Bland-Sutton saw the ceremonial face of circumcision as enhancing rather than throwing doubt on its scientific validity; accepted the myths of the Old Testament as though they were factual history; celebrated every bloodthirsty aggression of the ancient Hebrews, including their murder of the Hivites (Genesis 34) and Saul's demand for a dowry of 200 Philistine foreskins (I Samuel 28); and applauded the biblical use of the word "uncircumcised" as an expression of contempt (Bland-Sutton, 1409).
Beliefs about the origin and purpose of ancient circumcision tended to be a projection of doctors' assumptions about the utility of the operation in the present. Those anxious to stop masturbation were convinced that circumcision was introduced to discourage that habit, while those specialising in syphilis were equally certain that its original purpose was to confer protection against venereal disease. Uncritical celebration of Old Testament wisdom reached its fulsome extreme in the writings of American doctors such as Abraham Wolbarst and Edwin Hirsch, who wrote in 1930:
The prophets knew their venereology so well that even in spite of scientific advancement the Bible remains the classic on illnesses of sexual origin. Biblical Jews … regarded gonorrhoea as a distinct affection …. Circumcision was inaugurated as a national custom under the auspices of religious practice, and the sagacity of removing the prepuce on the eighth day is now universally recognised (Hirsch 414-15).
But the claims did not end with VD: Dr Arthur Dampier-Bennett believed that circumcision was invented as a treatment for epilepsy. There was, he thought, evidence that "in all primitive peoples there is a peculiar tendency to epilepsy", which may be caused by cerebral pressure or "local irritation" such as that generated by a tight foreskin. He had treated "epileptiform convulsions" in a four-year old by excising his "remarkably long and adherent" prepuce, and he thus considered it "more than likely that, amongst wild tribes … it has been discovered that a pacifying result follows the … the operation" (Dampier-Bennett, 243-4). James Allen, a doctor employed by the South African railways, advanced the theory that circumcsion had been introduced as a preventive of the parasitic infestation now known as schistosomiasis; andproposed that if man was to prosper in the African tropics, circumcison would be mandatory - suggestions taken all too seriously by G.N. Weiss and Brian Morris.  He was unable to explain why, even though they lived in similar conditions, with rivers infested with the parasite, some African tribes did it and some did not (Allen 1909 and 1910). The medical profession's lack of interest in improving women's health by preventive surgery on their genitals is evident in the fact that nobody pointed out that many of these African tribes and Islamic cultures also practised circumcision and various other forms of genital mutilation on women.
Exaggerated claims as to incidence
Along with these anachronistic projections went a tendency to exaggerate the incidence of circumcision among tribal peoples. Bland-Sutton's "many nations" turns out to be Jews, Moslems, a few east and west African tribes and some Aboriginal tribes of north and central Australia. Dampier-Bennet referred "the universal dissemination of … this rite", while a Dr John Knott described the operation as practised by Jews, Egyptians, the Arab peoples, many African tribes, the Aborigines of Australia and the Malay archipelago, Polynesians and people in "the Balkan regions … Asia Minor, Persia and a great part of India" (Knott, 441). Dr Albert Churchward claimed that his recent book – Signs and symbols of primordial man – proved that "circumcision was practised in the Central States of America at least 10,000 years ago … and was brought here from Ancient Egypt" (Churchward, 424). None of these speculations has been confirmed.
Although some east Asian and Pacific peoples practised mild forms of penile mutilation (such as super- and sub-incision) it seems that amputation of the foreskin originated in north-east Africa, whence it spread to some southern tribes and north to the Middle East and the Arabian Peninsular. Of 108 tribal societies considered by a contemporary anthropologist, Karen Paige, only 23 practised some form of penis mutilation (usually circumcision, but in some cases dorsal slitting or subincision), and most of these were found in Africa (10 out of 18) and the southern or eastern coast of the Mediterranean (8 out of 10). Only one mutilating culture was found in the Pacific, and none in the Americas (Paige 1981, 286-9). The wide distribution of circumcision across the Balkans, central Asia, India and south-east Asia is the outcome of military conquest by Islamic armies from the eighth to seventeenth centuries, imposing the Muslim religion and the rule of circumcision on the conquered peoples by force, and attempting to wipe out the indigenous cultures with the same sort of fanatical zeal the Taliban recently displayed in blowing up historic Buddhist statues in Afghanistan.
When discussing circumcision among the ancient Hebrews or Egyptians, doctors were quick to ascribe sanitary motivations, but no such assumptions were made in relation to circumcision among the Australian Aborigines. As described by James Frazer, their reasons for doing it were so bizarre and the associated rituals so incomprehensible that they merely confirmed the Aborigines' place as the lowest and most primitive race on earth (Fraser 1904). It was only a rationalist like Herbert Spencer and a critic of circumcision like Herbert Snow who picked up the inconsistency. Spencer rejected the hygiene argument because "while the usage does not prevail among the most cleanly races in the world, it is common among the most uncleanly races" (Spencer, Principles of sociology, I, 67).
Snow wrote that it was "simply preposterous to imagine … that the numerous savage tribes (witness the Hottentots and Australian Aborigines) … could ever have been actuated by any such considerations" as medical hygiene (Snow 6). That these "ignorant and filthy savages" did much the same thing to boys' penises as learned Jews and hygiene-conscious Moslems was a conundrum which neither Victorian medicine nor its anthropology was able to resolve. Despite their fascination with primitive rites, the doctors missed the one point of striking similarity between their own and the savage world. In some of the Australian Aboriginal tribes which circumcise boys at puberty, the young and fertile women were monopolised by the old men, meaning that initiates faced a long period of celibacy before they could obtain a wife (Page 1981, 6). Such a system is oddly analogous to middle class life in Victorian England, embodying William Acton's insistence that youths must earn the right to marry, and pass the waiting period in strict continence.
1. John Davenport, 1789-1877, a businessman and amateur scholar of erotic subjects. Publication of his book was financed by Henry Spencer Ashbee. See Ian Gibson, The erotomaniac: The secret life of Henry Spencer Ashbee, New York, Da Capo Press, 2001, pp. 24 and 54.
2. For an introduction to an inconclusive literature, see Gollaher 2000, ch. 3, and Paige 1981 for more extended discussion
3. Brian Morris, In favour of circumcision (Sydney 1999), citing (with evident admiration) G.N. Weiss, "Prophylactic neonatal surgery and infectious diseases", Pediatric Infectious Diseases Journal, Vol. 16, 1997, pp. 727-34 - a preposterous farrago which, for sheer anti-scientific loopiness, outdoes even the posthephobic rantings of P. C. Remondino. Weiss was shot down in flames by Robert Van Howe in a coolly analytic reply, "Circumcision and infectious diseases revisited", Pediatric Infectious Diseases Journal, Vol. 17, January 1998, pp. 1-6. Leonard Glick reports that after this effort Weiss was unable to get anything further published in a mainstream refereed journal and was reduced, like Edgar Schoen, to the humiliating expedient of self-publishing: see Marked in your flesh, pp. 200-206
Allen, James, "Bilharzia haematobia and circumcision", Lancet, 8 May 1909, pp. 1317-20; "Bilharziosis and how to prevent it", Lancet, 6 August 1910, pp. 375-6
Churchward, Albert (1910), letter, BMJ, 12 February, 424
Davenport, John (1875), Curiositates eroticae physiologiae, or tabooed subjects freely treated, London, privately printed, reprinted as Aphrodisiacs and love stimulants, with other chapters on the secrets of Venus, ed. Henry Hull Walton, London, Luxor Press, 1965
Dampier-Bennett, Arthur (1907). "The origin of circumcision", BMJ, 27 July, 243-4
Fraser, James (1904), "The origins of circumcision", BMJ, 24 December 1904, 1704-5
Gollaher, David L. (2000), Circumcision: A history of the world's most controversial surgery, New York, Basic Books
Hirsch, Edwin (1930), "An historical survey of gonorrhoea", Annals of Medical History, NS Vol. II
Knott, John (1906), "Literary notes: John Knott on circumcision", British Medical Journal, 25 August, p. 441
Paige, Karen Ericksen and Jeffery Paige (1981), The politics of reproductive ritual, Berkeley, University of California Press
Snow, Herbert (1890), The barbarity of circumcision as a remedy for congenital abnormality, London, Churchill
Spencer, Herbert (1876-82), Principles of sociology, Vols 1 and 2, repr. Westport, Connecticut, Greenwood press, 1975
Sami A. Aldeeb Abu-Sahlieh, "To Mutilate in the Name of Jehovah or Allah: Legitimization of Male and Female Circumcision", Medicine and Law, Vol. 13, Nos. 7-8 (July), 1994, pp. 575-622
M. Fox and M. Thomson, "A covenant with the status quo? Male circumcision and the new BMA guidance to doctors", Journal of Medical Ethics, Vol. 31, 2005, pp. 463–69
Ashley Montagu, "An anthropologist looks at circumcision and its probable origin",
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