Rare complete first edition 17th c. sex manual for sale

Aristotle’s Masterpiece, not a masterpiece nor by Aristotle, was a manual of advice on sex, childbirth and infant care first published in 1684. Its anonymous author took the name of the famous ancient Greek philosopher to give his material an air of intellectual and scientific authority. Aristotle’s Problems, a book about health and sex in question-and-answer format published in 1595, had established the philosopher’s reputation for expertise on sexual matters even though again the author had only borrowed Aristotle’s name. By the early 17th century, the name “Aristotle” was popularly associated with sexual knowledge. The Masterpiece sought to piggyback off of that reputation. In truth it actually contradicted Aristotle’s theory of conception, proposing a two-seed mechanism whereby a man and woman each contribute generative material to create new life while the real-life Aristotle believed there was only one seed, the man’s, which planted a baby in the lady’s womb field.

The book is a compilation of the most sensationalized parts of two 16th century volumes, The Secret Miracles of Nature (1564) by Levinus Lemnius and De conceptu et generatione hominis (1554), a midwifery manual by Jakob Rüff. It was one of almost two dozen books about midwifery printed in the wake of the great success of Nicholas Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives, published in 1651. What made the Masterpiece stand out in the crowd was its promise of advice on “the act of copulation” on the very title page. The more conventional midwifery texts were not so direct. In keeping with the finest tradition of sex sells, Aristotle’s Masterpiece became a bestseller for centuries, reissued in two more versions with additional material from later books and going through hundreds of printings in Britain and the United States. The 1728 version went through more printings than all the other books on midwifery combined and was still in print well into the 20th century.

The inclusion of woodcuts yoinked from French barber surgeon Ambroise Paré’s 1573 treatise Of Monsters and Prodigies first published in English in an edition of his Works in 1634, played a part in the book’s success. Again the title page made it clear what readers could expect to find within: woodcuts of naked ladies and “monsters,” babies born with various anomalies. The title page woodcut was of a hairy woman and a black child, both the result of their mothers having seen something that imprinted on their fetuses during pregnancy or the moment of conception. The hairy lady’s mother while pregnant with her had beheld an image of John the Baptist wearing animal skins. The picture was imprinted in her mind on her developing fetus, resulting in the monstrous birth of a hirsute baby girl. The black child was, ostensibly, the son of two white parents who had a picture of a black man hanging in their bedroom. The mother happened to glance at it while having sex with her husband, and the result of that copulation was a black baby.

It was a tricky thing, this conceiving of a healthy, non-monstrous child. Allowances had to made for women’s colder humours, allowances which fortuitously required husbands actually take the time to excite their wives before getting to the business of insemination. Here’s some advice on foreplay justified by old-timey nonsense science.

When the husband cometh into his wives chamber, he must entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behaviour, and allurements to venery: but if he perceive her to be slow and more cold, he must cherish, embrace, and tickle her, and shall not abruptly, the nerves being suddenly distended, break into the field of nature, but rather shall creep in by little and little, intermixing more wanton kisses with wanton words and speeches, handling her secret parts and dugs, that she may take fire and be in flames to venery, for so at length the womb will strive and wax fervent with a desire of casting forth its own seed, and receiving the mans seed to be mixed together therewith.

But if all these things will not suffice to inflame the woman, for women for the most part are more slow and slack into the expulsion or yielding forth of their seed, it shall be necessary first to foment her secret parts with the decoction of hot herbs made with muscadine, or boyled in any other good wine, and to put a little musk or civit into the neck or mouth of the womb, and when she shall perceive the flux of her seed to approach, by reason of the tickling pleasure, she must advertise her husband thereof, that at the very instant, time, or moment, he may also yield forth his seed, that by the concourse or meeting of the seeds, conception may be made, and so at length the child formed and born.

The first edition of Aristotle’s Masterpiece was published by John How and, as printed on the title page, was “to be sold next door to the Anchor Tavern in Sweethings-Rents in Cornhil.” How registered it with the Stationers Company, an early version of copyright protection which allowed registrees to block publication of their works by unlicensed publishers, but he was unable to prevent pirated copies from getting out there almost immediately. Printers both anonymous and named cranked out copies starting within the first year of its initial publication.

Because it was considered a dirty book with all the sex talk and the naked hairy ladies and four-armed children, it wasn’t overtly sold by booksellers although most of them surreptitiously kept copies under the counter for the client in the know. It was sold by traveling peddlers, in general stores and, as stated in the first printing, in or next to taverns. Never officially banned, publication and sale of the book should in theory have been stymied by Britain’s Obscene Publications Act of 1857 and the 1873 Comstock Law which prevented its sale through the mail in the United States. By then it had such a long record of under-the-table printing and sale that it’s unlikely these hard to police laws had much of an effect on the book’s distribution.

Despite its wide popularity over the course of centuries, Aristotle’s Masterpiece is a rare book today. Out of more than 250 known editions published, very few intact copies have survived. Printed on cheap paper and thumbed through with much vigor, they were prone to heavy wear and having pages torn out. There are less than a dozen of the first edition known to survive, and most of them are incomplete. Two complete copies have recently appeared at auction. One of them sold at Bonhams in 2014 for $32,743, the other sold at Bonhams in 2015 for $29,105.

Now a third complete copy has come on the market. It will be sold at Dominic Winter Auctioneers on March 2nd. The pre-sale estimate is £10,000-15,000 ($14,500-22,000). My favorite part is that the cover of this copy was made from a recycled land deed.

The incomplete deed used for the covers in this copy appears, from the partially visible text, to be a title deed from 30 January [1686], and relates to property owned by George Speke [1623-1689, English politician. Speke was a Royalist during the English Civil War, but after the Restoration became MP for Somerset and an early Whig supporter in Parliament.]

I like to think George Speke donated his old paperwork to the cause of naughty book printing.


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Comment by dearieme
2016-02-08 06:25:23

I only read it for the articles.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-02-10 03:06:25


Comment by JoanP
2016-02-08 11:36:50

Just in time for Valentine’s Day!

Comment by livius drusus
2016-02-10 03:05:39

Screw the chocolates. Bring on the veneries!

Comment by Annie Delyth
2016-02-08 12:22:26

So much for the modern assumption that prior to the 20th century, people (especially of the female sex) were prudes. How wonderful for those earlier women that their men were encouraged to “entertain her with all kind of dalliance, wanton behaviour, and allurements to venery”. That’s the ticket.

But the sad part is the persistance of the idea that a misformed child might be due to something the mother did or saw. I have heard many women state this as fact. Some were uneducated older women just passing on what they were taught when young, but some have actually been reasonably intelligent women with enough education to know better. It is sad.

Though being able to explain an unexpectedly dark child on seeing a picture must have helped maintain domestic tranquility at times. One hopes the child was loved and cherished. One suspects it wouldn’t have been. More sadness.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-02-10 03:04:56

The idea that both parties contributed generative material and that conception was only possible if the woman was properly stimulated made the 17th century a much more welcoming time for women’s sexuality than the 19th century when women’s pleasure and even the very notion of a female libido was pathologized. The Idea of Progress fails again.

We tend to think of superstitions and misinformation as having painful, even fatal, results (witch hunts or blood letting, for example), but as you note, sometimes they could be a very practical shield to hide an uncomfortable truth.

Comment by Rick
2016-02-09 09:51:58

I had an acquaintance in the early 70s who had the misfortune to marry a very attractive but mindnumbing stupid girl. Her mother wouldn’t let her have a parakeet because if she looked at the parakeet the baby might be born looking like a bird! Nor was she allowed to have a baby shower because receiving baby clothes before the baby was born might make the baby die. It was not a successful marriage.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-02-10 02:55:46

Good lord. I can only imagine what kind of conversations took place in that house. That’s the thing about long-term relationships. At some point, you have to come up for air.

Comment by Barbara
2016-02-09 12:17:45

A ‘man’s yard’– that phrase is unknown to me, but certainly carries typical exaggeration.

Comment by livius drusus
2016-02-10 02:53:10

:lol: The phrase comes from an Old English word for rod or stick, but by the time Aristotle’s Masterpiece was written, it had been a unit of measurement for three hundred years. So yeah, definitely a typical exaggeration.

Comment by JoanP
2016-02-09 16:59:44

@Rick —

Not receiving items for a child before the birth is traditional Jewish practice, as is not selecting a name for the child or setting up a nursery.

Like many traditions, these had a practical basis, developing at a time when miscarriages and stillbirths, or early death of an infant, were quite common.

Comment by Edward Goldberg
2016-02-10 17:25:54

Kein Ayin Hara! (No Evil Eye!)

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June 2022


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