An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood

Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood

Culbertson, Philip

Castration: An Abbreviated History of Western Manhood. By Gary Taylor. New York and London: Routledge, 2000. 307 pp. $25.00 (cloth).

According to Matthew 19:12, “For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by others, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” Taylor’s excellent and exhaustive study does not deal with the first of these three categories: those who are eunuchs from birth. Rather, he focuses on the other two-the other-emasculated and the self-emasculated-as powerful symbols in the social construction of genital masculinity.

The book is structured around an exploration of Matthew 19:12, set alongside the theories about genital masculinity of St. Augustine, seventeenth-century playwright Thomas Middleton, and Sigmund Freud. Taylor identifies these three as offering explorations of the divine, the social, and the self. In each case he asks how intentional genital mutilation mirrors the way in which men control other men, or how and why men sacrifice their masculinity to the divine, or how we construct the penis and/or the testicles as signifiers of social position and special responsibility.

Taylor, who is general editor of the Oxford Shakespeare, argues that masculinity is defined by the presence or absence of testicles; the penis is irrelevant. The distinction obviously escaped Freud, whose infamous castration complex focused solely on the penis. Anachronistically, Freud reduced castration to a single meaning and reduced sexuality to a single organ.

The church has always had two conflicting interpretations of the Matthean text: one quite literal, and one definitely allegorical. Clement of Alexandria, Tertullian, and Ambrose are among those who argued that Matthew 19 is a call to celibacy, rather than to genital mutilation. For at least the first several centuries of the church, this contradiction remained unresolved, argues Taylor, for within many early Christian sects, a true “servant of Christ” was one who had castrated himself. When Origen, Abelhard, and other greats of the church took the knife to themselves, it was not only to remove their masculine self-definition, but to fulfill a most literal reading of Matthew 19:12. As Taylor points out, the most concrete execution of the dominical observation remains in force in various cults even today. For example, when the bodies of the Heaven’s Gate cult members were found, a number of them had been castrated. The child and the eunuch were assumed to have special access to God.

In the final chapter of the book, Taylor connects Matthew 19 with a larger anti-reproduction message of Jesus, and then raises serious challenges to in vitro fertilization, human cloning, and other contemporary issues in bioethics. Matthew 19 invites us to address the very hard questions about who we are as sexual beings, and what sort of future we want for ourselves as both Christians and human beings.

This well-written, well-documented, and challenging tour de force will be of interest particularly to New Testament scholars, patristics scholars, Renaissance literary scholars, and those who track the social construction of gender. But because it is one of the best books I’ve read this year, I’d recommend it to just about anyone.


Saint John’s Theological College

Auckland, New Zealand

Copyright Anglican Theological Review, Inc. Spring 2002

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