The Jew’s Penis: Circumcision and Sexual Pathology in Eighteenth-Century England

Article Summary by Noelle Gallagher

This paper explores the contradictory prejudices against circumcision and Jewish male sexual behaviour that were circulating in English medical and popular discourse between 1660 and 1800. For centuries, Jewish men had been labelled as, on the one hand, lustful sexual predators, and on the other hand, harmless emasculated weaklings. I argue that in eighteenth-century England, these contradictory stereotypes about Jewish male sexual behaviour were paralleled by equally contradictory beliefs about the dangers of circumcision. Eighteenth-century writers warned that removing the foreskin could lead to impotence, infertility, or penile disfigurement—yet at the same time, eighteenth-century writers also expressed concerns that the procedure made Jewish men more lustful, and more capable of spreading venereal disease, than their uncircumcised counterparts. Ultimately, I argue that these paradoxical views of circumcision constitute not just another example of what Sander Gilman has termed “bipolar” anti-Semitism, but also a foreshadowing of the shift towards identifying Jewish difference on the basis of anatomy and health rather than religion or culture.

Read the full article on the Medical Humanities journal website.

 

Noelle Dückmann Gallagher is Senior Lecturer in Eighteenth-Century Literature and Culture at the University of Manchester. Her most recent book, Itch, Clap, Pox: Venereal Disease in the Eighteenth-Century Imagination, was published by Yale University Press in 2019.

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