Why aren't all Englishmen circumcised? This wasn't really a question that had ever occurred to me before Saturday night but it became unavoidable halfway through Diarmaid MacCulloch's new series, How God Made the English.
Crudely put, MacCulloch's thesis was this – that a sense of English identity (yes, English not British, they came later) had been calculatedly modelled on the chosen people of the Old Testament. As MacCulloch explained it, the Venerable Bede had started this off when he wasn't venerable at all, constructing the idea that "to be English is to be one people with one Christian God". For Bede, this was a Catholic-flavoured God, but when Henry VIII discovered that papal authority and his own paternal ambition could not be reconciled, the myth had to be retailored a little to fit the king's wishes. Even so, the connection with the chosen race remained. In evidence of it, MacCulloch offered one of the tapestries from the Great Hall at Hampton Court, commissioned by Henry to underline the righteousness of his break with Rome. It showed Abraham circumcising his son – an embroidered reminder that Henry himself was also the patriarch of a chosen people.
So, if this identification with an Old Testament race was so integral to our self-image as MacCulloch repeatedly argued, how come we clung on to our foreskins? Or am I missing something? That, incidentally, was a sensation I had quite a lot during this programme. When MacCulloch pointed to an ornate star and biblical inscription on the floor of the Houses of Parliament, for example, and said "that's a bit of a surprise in what you might think of as a secular democracy". Really? It would have been if the Palace of Westminster had been built last year, but is surely less startling when you consider the assumptions of the men who built it. Or when MacCulloch noted of some biblical frescoes in Westminster, "what's fascinating is that in their original context, the Jewish Bible, these images had nothing to do with the English at all". Well, they wouldn't would they, but then that kind of borrowing has never bothered anyone looking to give their lineage a bit of back story.
It seemed more plausible to me that what really helped define the English as English was outsiders – the Vikings in Bede's time, whose raids provided an urgent motivation to set aside local differences and find common cause, and Catholic Europe in Henry VIII's reign, a very specific inconvenience for the king, but also a very convenient source of alien threat, to help the Reformation go down. The re-engineering of the national myth, so that it was Joseph of Arimathea's visit to Glastonbury that linked us directly back to the tribes of Jerusalem rather than Augustine's conversion, was simply a bit of tinkering with the paperwork so that it matched up with new circumstances. MacCulloch was on stronger ground explaining the consequences of that forged pedigree – a British sense of moral superiority and manifest destiny that allowed us to put ourselves forward as Neighbourhood Watch for the world. But I'd still like him to explain why vicars don't do circumcisions.
What made us British in 1982 was "the Argies", a huge boon to the manufacturers of Union Jacks and a significant headache for the armed forces, who had the tricky task of evicting them from an island on the other side of the world. The Falklands' Most Daring Raid was a very Boy's Own account of the extraordinary plan to bomb Port Stanley airport using Vulcan bombers that were just months away from being mothballed. And it was ripping, frankly, full of stiff upper lip, British understatement and a quixotic indifference to very difficult odds. Since the raid only left one big hole in the runway, I don't know why the Argentinians didn't just patch it up, but they didn't, and it made a difference.Reuse content