Bad History

The Church and the clitoris

(a talk originally written for the Church of England’s Living in Love and Faith project; delivered to three different sub-groups of the College of Bishops in September 2018)

Can I start by saying, the Living in Love and Faith History Working Group is a very interesting group to be on: we work well together and respect each other as historians. But I do have a range of fears about what we are doing here, which I want to share. 

  • I fear that the Teaching Document is going to be all about LGBTQI+ people as ‘they’, as ‘the problem’. To avoid that, I believe the document has to cover human sexuality of all varieties rather than giving the impression that being straight doesn’t need discussion; that only some of us ‘have’ sexuality. 
  • •Even though we now have women in the college of bishops, I still worry that the document is going to look very ‘male’. Straight people talking about those who aren’t, men talking about women … and we expect to be taken seriously? 

Question: Why is there a group on history? 

I think in history, unlike in the sciences, there’s often a view among the public that anyone can do it; who needs years of training? But…! 

Question: When does prehistory become ‘history’? I’m not asking for a date, more for a principle! 

Most people would put the shift at the point where we have written evidence; which also brings in questions of power, as who is doing the writing? Why are they telling us this? Do they mean it literally or figuratively? The existence of written evidence can tell us more about how people are thinking about what they do, but we need to stress the importance of reading such evidence with literary skills too. 

An example from history 

This is an example of how the Church of England 

(a) Doesn’t always listen to the best evidence: a warning about being swept along by fashion, but also about how the past is another country 

(b) Is hardly without blame for its record on female sexuality, and indeed on pleasure. 

If you’ve read ‘Issues in Human Sexuality’ lately, you may have noticed that female sexuality is barely mentioned. ‘The male genitals’ are presented as being believed to be the ‘sole source of new life’ in ancient Near Eastern societies (2.8). My overall impression of ‘Issues’ is that it is very uneasy – even fearful – even about heterosexual sex, whatever it tries to say about ‘sexual love is a wonderful gift from God’ (3.1 – and in the same sentence there is the cautious ‘if all goes well’). While the authors thought it worth including a reference to necrophilia (3.18), the clitoris was not mentioned at all. Pleasure and joy come across as dangerous. 

Remember, masturbation used to be a sin, and that was helpfully backed up by medical science which argued that it caused a lot of appalling symptoms: the 19th century book Onania, or the Heinous Sin of Self-Pollution, And All Its Frightful Consequences, In Both Sexes, Considered: masturbation leads to ‘Disturbances of the stomach and digestion, loss of appetite or ravenous hunger, vomiting, nausea, weakening of the organs of breathing, coughing, hoarseness, paralysis, … disorders of the eye and ear, total diminution of bodily powers, paleness, thinness, pimples on the face, decline of intellectual powers, loss of memory, attacks of rage, madness, idiocy, epilepsy, fever and finally suicide.’ 

Science moves on. You may find it interesting to think about that when you attend the meeting with the science group! But, while some of what is said in science grows out of what society wants to hear, I believe that there is also real, objective, progress out there. 

Here’s an example, and one with a perhaps-unexpected Church of England link. You can’t do science without doing history; everything has a history; and that includes the clitoris. 

In Victorian London, one form of FGM – clitoridectomy, the surgical removal of the clitoris – came to be seen as an acceptable treatment for a wide range of conditions including ‘hysteria’ and mental illness. It could also be used as treatment for behaviour seen as unfeminine and as a threat to marriage; for example, a ‘distaste for marital intercourse’, ‘a great distaste for her husband’, or even just a woman daring to answer back. 

In 1858, ten years after he became a Fellow of the College of Surgeons, Isaac Baker Brown (1812-1873) set up his own clinic in Notting Hill, the wonderfully-named London Surgical Home for the Reception of Gentlewomen and Females of Respectability suffering from Curable Surgical Diseases, where he could perform what he often called simply ‘the operation’. He already had a reputation as a surgical innovator, as his many contributions to the Transactions of the Obstetrical Society of London make clear. The Archbishop of York supported the Home as a patron; the Archbishop of Canterbury was a Vice-President; and the Church Times advertised it, as well as reviewing his book on ‘the operation’ positively in April 1866. 

(Photograph from the BMJ: ‘epilepsy’ here covers a wide range of behaviours and symptoms) 

In 1865 Brown became the president of the Medical Society of London: he functioned in the medical mainstream, not on its fringes. 

Brown believed that masturbation put pressure on the nervous system. He did not think that his surgery in any way unsexed a woman, and regarded the point that those who had undergone it became pregnant as ‘indisputable evidence that the clitoris is not an essential part of the generative system’; this is despite evidence from women who had undergone the surgery that they felt ‘unsexed’. 

The operation was hailed as a great success. Women seeking a divorce under the 1857 Divorce Act – clearly a sign of mental illness – were able to return home to their husbands after surgery, Brown citing the example of one who ‘became in every respect a good wife’. A 17-year-old girl with catalepsy, a nervous condition that causes bodies to become rigid and unresponsive to external stimuli, recovered: 

Five weeks after operation, she walked all over Westminster Abbey, whereas for quite a year and a half before treatment, she had been incapable of the slightest exertion. 

One of Baker Brown’s supporters cited a success story of a young woman with idiocy (severe learning disabilities?) who, after the surgery, was able to read her Bible and obtained a position in service. What interesting indicators of success! And a satire on Brown by ‘John Scoffern’ quoted the Bible, ‘If thy right hand offend thee, cut it off…’ 

When the home was closed down, it was not because of what Brown was doing, but because he had been doing it without the consent of … no, of course not the women themselves, but the husbands and fathers of his patients. And the operation went on being performed in England until the 1890s. There was also an element of class here: Brown’s use of advertising was seen as questionable, since a true gentleman would not do this. 

So there you have a historical example of dodgy science mixed with the enthusiastic support of the church: an example which now looks like something of which we should all repent. 

If we are going to take the clitoris seriously, where can we go? You all know about Christopher Columbus who ‘sailed the ocean blue/in fourteen hundred and ninety two’. Columbus accidentally discovered America. Less well known is Realdus Columbus, who in 1559 said he had discovered the clitoris. He published a book, De re anatomica, in which he described a small oblong area which, if touched, caused great pleasure. He gave it a name: ‘since no one has discerned these projections and their workings, if it is permissible to give names to things discovered by me, it should be called the love or sweetness of Venus.’ The sweetness of Venus… a great name. But of course just as America was there before Christopher noticed it, the clitoris was there before Realdus touched it. In the history of human sexuality, the clitoris is highly significant, but in Christian circles it is hardly mentioned. Why not? Because of having no role in procreation? It turned up in the comments feature of one of Ian Paul’s recent blog posts and a participant in the College of Bishops event pointed me to Rowan Williams’ mention of it in The Body’s Grace, leading him to ask ‘But if God made us for joy… ?’ 

Does the Bible help? Or is the absence of the clitoris from the Bible evidence that we shouldn’t be thinking about it? I’ve read commentaries suggesting it is lurking in the Song of Songs – ‘Honey and milk are under your tongue’. In classical literature, it is probably the sweet-apple [glukumelon] ripening to red in Sappho’s poetry: in ancient Greek it’s also the myrtle-berry. And it’s the numphe, a word which also means a girl about to be married. There are rich metaphors here: the house encloses the wife, the veil keeps the bride apart, and the woman herself encloses a sexual secret (cf. Winkler). Less poetically, it’s the ‘little fleshy thing’ in 1st/2nd c AD medical writer Soranus. Modern science has challenged this ‘littleness’; in 1998, Helen O’Connell demonstrated that the anatomical structure is far larger than this, extending around the vagina (images and basic discussion on 

In a document on human sexuality, are we going to forget about the clitoris, excising it from our thinking as Baker Brown literally excised it in order to make women conform to his society’s view of proper female behaviour? I hope not! 


This paper is a version of something I published in my 1998 book, Hippocrates’ Woman, and more recently revisited in an article for The Conversation. It draws on: 

British Medical Journal, 1867 

Brown, Isaac Baker (1866a) On the Curability of Certain Forms of Insanity, Epilepsy, Catalepsy and Hysteria in Females, London: Robert Hardwicke. 

— (1866b) On Surgical Diseases of Women (3rd ed.), London: Robert Hardwicke. 

O‘Connell, Helen et al. (1998) ‘Anatomical relationship between urethra and clitoris’, The Journal of Urology 159(6): 1892-7. 

Scoffern, John (1867) The London Surgical Home; or, Modern Surgical Psychology, London: published by the author. 

Tanner, Thomas Hawkes (1867) ‘On excision of the clitoris as a cure for hysteria, &c.’, Transactions of the Obstetrical Society of London for the year 1866, 8: 360–84. 

Williams, Rowan (1989) The Body’s Grace 

Winkler, Jack (1981) ‘Gardens of Nymphs: Public and Private in Sappho’s Lyrics’, in Helene Foley (ed), Reflections of Women in Antiquity 

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