Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Steven F. Kruger

Committee Members

Glenn Burger

Michael Sargent

Subject Categories

Catholic Studies | Christianity | Cultural History | European Languages and Societies | History of Christianity | History of Religion | Intellectual History | Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Studies | Literature in English, British Isles | Literature in English, North America | Medieval History | Medieval Studies | Modern Literature | Other Classics | Philosophy of Language | Rhetoric and Composition


circumcision, Shakespeare, foreskin, Patristics, medieval, Chaucer


“Literary Theories of Circumcision” investigates a school of thought in which the prepuce, as a conceptual metaphor, organizes literary experience. In every period of English literature, major authors have employed the penis’s hood as a figure for thinking about reading and writing. These authors belong to a tradition that defines textuality as a foreskin and interpretation as circumcision. In “Literary Theories of Circumcision,” I investigate the origins of this literary-theoretical formulation in the writings of Saint Paul, and then I trace this formulation’s formal applications among medieval, early modern, and modernist writers. My study lays the groundwork for an ambitious reappraisal of English literary history, challenging the received understanding of pre-modern literary theory’s sexual politics.

Whereas feminist medievalists have emphasized the heteronormative valence of pre-modern literary theory, this study demonstrates that, within the school of preputial poetics, the male anatomy queerly embodies the plasticity and multiplicity of rhetoric. I also argue for the necessity of thinking about post-medieval literature from a pre-modern theological framework that, in its spiritual orientation and in its use of genital metaphors, sidesteps the discourses of identity and sexuality that often have preoccupied queer theorists.

Chapter 1 examines how, in response to Paul’s teachings about circumcision, early Christian theologians used the foreskin as a key term for theorizing allegory and for using allegoresis to appropriate pagan philosophy.

Chapter 2 examines how Paul’s metaphor developed into a conceit, by which the foreskin came to structure attitudes toward various rhetorical devices (especially allegory, concision, and witticism, as well as marriage plots).

Chapter 3 examines how monastic applications of the trope changed in response to the rise of medieval humanism, so that rhetorical circumcision governed the negotiation between doctrine and liberal learning, especially as this negotiation interrelated with shifting modes of masculinity.

Chapter 4 tracks the vernacularization of theological constructions of the literary-theoretical foreskin: I argue that a literary theory of the foreskin structures the narrative trajectory of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as the poem’s protagonist ventures from a literal to an allegorical perspective. I argue that the narratological “circumcision” of the poem’s textual body aligns the genre of the Arthurian romance with the more explicitly religious material of the rest of the Gawain manuscript.

Chapter 5 considers how theological constructions of marriage-as-uncircumcision shape the narrative trajectory of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” especially as that poem’s protagonist ventures from a literal to an allegorical perspective. I argue that the Wife stages a “circumcision” of the flesh of marriage in order to promote the spiritual aspect of conjugal matrimony.

Chapter 6 surveys the metaphor’s uses among Puritans, arguing that Puritan attacks upon the Renaissance theater as “uncircumcised” can provide a framework for understanding how Measure for Measure and Merchant of Venice intertwine marriage plots with threats from overly literal antagonists (Puritan Angelo and Jewish Shylock).

The study’s Coda examines uses of the trope by Pound and Williams, who reflect upon modernism by redefining Paul’s theories of circumcision.