Christ’s Foreskin and Other Gifts

Dear CF,

I’ll see your foreskin-inspired puffed sleeves and raise you the seventeenth-century’s idea of a holiday gift: Christ’s bleeding prepuce.  I wrote awhile back about Beowulf and the contractual dimension to male (and female) gift-giving. Today? Foreskins, and what they represent.

(By the way, a great overview of the conversations happening around female circumcision is here. Warning: there is, in fact, an “Adopt a Clitoris” program with a website called “Clitoraid” (h/t).)

Robert Herrick, who we know best for his cavalier poems on Julia’s clothes and the liquefactions thereof, wrote a poem called “To his Saviour. The New yeers gift” in which he makes the following request:

That little prettie bleeding part

Of Foreskin send to me.

There is in fact a genre of seventeenth-century “circumcision poems.”  Milton wrote one (“Upon the Circumcision”). Herrick wrote several. And Crashaw? Well. I’ll save Crashaw for last, because let’s face it: we’ll never top that.

So. What do we do with this category? The practice (which obviously precedes the poetic genre) seems to spark two big debates. The first is the extent to which the foreskin constitutes a contract. (Catherine of Siena famously related her mystic marriage to the infant Christ, in the course of which she received from him a wedding band made of his foreskin.) The second is the extent to which circumcision was meant to be understood metaphorically (as a “circumcision of the heart”) as opposed to physically.

Let’s start with the contract. In his article “The Wit of Circumcision, the Circumcision of Wit” (published in The wit of seventeenth-century poetry, ed. Claude J. Summers and Ted-Larry Pebworth), Jim Ellis states that “Christ’s blood in the circumcision poems is always simultaneously something else: a balm, a gift, rubies. He argues that

the poetry of the circumcision calls for a changed reading practice, one that can be identified as a circumcised wit, that reads the body in a particular way. … From its origins, circumcision has worked both to demonstrate submission to the law and to establish membership in a community. The practice among Jews was initiated, says the Bible, by Abraham, who was circumcised at the age of ninety-nine. In Gen. 17:10-11 God says to Abraham: ‘This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You shall be circumcised in the flesh of your foreskins, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between you and me.’  Calvin emphasizes above all else the status of the sacrament as a seal, comparing it to “the seals attached to government documents and other public acts.” The force of Calvin’s argument is to give the sacrament the status of a signature on a contract under which both parties have obligations. …

Lancelot Andrewes, who personally oversaw the translation of the Authorized (or King James) version of the Bible, reads the circumcision as “the signature of Abraham’s Seed,” which is written on Christ’s flesh. Christ voluntarily submits to the ritual, “That so He, keeping the Law, might recover backe the chirographum contra nos, the handwriting that was against us; and so set us free of the debt.”

“The legal language here,” Pebworth and Summers say,”

is typical of discussions of circumcision: the reading from the Epistles for the Circumcision in the Book of Common Prayer, for example, quotes Rom. 4:14, which states of God’s promise to Abraham’s descendants that “if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.”

Now you may be wondering about the terms of this contract. Luckily, the Bible (and Herrick) can help. Deuteronomy 10.16 and 30.6: “Circumcise the foreskin of your heart” and “The Lord thy God will circumcise thine heart.”

And if we read the rest of Robert Herrick’s poem requesting Christ’s foreskin, we learn that he is in fact proposing a trade: his bleeding heart for Christ’s bleeding netherbits:

That little prettie bleeding part
Of Foreskin send to me:
And Ile returne a bleeding Heart,
For New-yeers gift to thee.

Rich is the Jemme that thou did’st send,
Mine’s faulty too, and small:
But yet this Gift Thou wilt commend,
Because I send Thee all.

This is in many respects a Beowulfian tit (ahem) for tat. Christ’s rich foreskin for Herrick’s small, faulty heart. Obviously metaphorical size is an issue here—Herrick’s heart, his all, can’t compare to this tiny part of Christ’s body. The trade emphasizes Herrick’s inadequacy. But it’s also a request for literal sacrifice in exchange for metaphorical faith—not exactly a bargain, on Christ’s end.

The Christian debate over exactly what the foreskin and circumcision meant devoted a lot of energy to this problem. Generally, the Christian scholars tried to argue that this was in fact a fair trade—that too literal an interpretation ran the risk of Jewishness, and that what was meant by circumcision of the penis was actually circumcision of the heart.

James Shapiro writes (in Shakespeare and the Jews) that the biblically available conflation of foreskin and heart (in Deuteronomy, for instance) was accentuated by Christian thinkers who wanted to draw a clear distinction between themselves and the Jews. In one of his sermons, John Donne reasons that “the principal dignity of this circumcision was that it … prefigured, it directed to that circumcision of the heart.”  Jewish circumcision, moreover,  “were an absurd and unreasonable thing if it did not intimate and figure the circumcision of the heart.”

One reason why Shakespeare’s Shylock is so monstrous, Shapiro argues, is that he doesn’t actually want his “pound of flesh.” What he wants instead is to penetrate Christian resistance to physical circumcision and “cut his Christian adversary in that part of the body where the Christians believe themselves to be truly circumcised: the heart.”

Shylock’s threat gives a wonderfully ironic twist to the commentary on Paul’s Romans that ‘he is the Jew indeed … who cuts off all superfluities and pollutions which are spiritually though not literally meant by the law of circumcision.'”

Paul was pretty interested in distinguishing Jew from Christian by breaking the genealogical link and reformulating the contractual stuff—the covenant—as a tension between letter and spirit.  But nobody actually knew what he meant, and the heart/foreskin confusion created all manner of trouble for Christian interpreters. (Shapiro has lots to say about this.)

To make matters worse, Paul introduces the idea of uncircumcision.

Even if a faithful Christian were circumcised in the heart, what if one’s body still carried (as Paul’s did) the stigmatical mark that revealed to the world that one was born a Jew? The seventeenth-century Scottish preacher John Weemse recognized that the early Christians were embarrassed by this Judaical scar: “When they were converted from Judaism to Christianity there were some of them so ashamed of their Judaism that they could not behold it; they took it as a blot to their Christianity.” Uncircumcision, then, was the undoing of the seemingly irreversible physical act that  had been accomplished through the observance of Jewish law, and it was a topic that Paul would return to obsessively (in large part because it was a pressing issue within the new Christian communities he was addressing).

One has only to look at Paul in Romans to see how confusing this gets: “if the uncircumcision keep the ordinances of the Law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature (if it keep the Law) condemn thee, which by the letter and circumcision art a transgressor of the Law?”

Two kinds of circumcision, two kinds of uncircumcision. And to crown it all (heh), here is Crashaw, that great bad bard of bodily liquids, who sidesteps the metaphorical and dives straight into the blood and the knives of the thing, inviting us to imagine tasting the blood from Christ’s foreskin as a sort of aperitif preparatory to the crucifixion and Communion:

Our B. Lord in his Circumcision to his Father.

To thee these first fruits of my growing death
(For what else is my life?) lo I bequeath:
Tast this, and as thou lik’st this lesser flood
Expect a Sea, my heart shall make it good.
Thy wrath that wades here now, e’re long shall swim,
The floodgate shall be set wide ope for him.
Then let him drinke, and drinke, and doe his worst
To drowne the wantonnesse of his wild thirst.
Now’s but the nonage of my paines, my feares
Are yet both in their hopes, not come to years.
The day of my darke woe is yet but morne,
My teares but tender, and my death new borne.
Yet may these unfledg’d griefes give fate some guesse,
These Cradle-torments have their towardnesse.
These purple buds of blooming death may bee,
Erst the full stature of a fatall tree.
And till my riper woes to age are come,
This Knife may be the speares Praeludium.