A first edition of an early English sex manual, a 17th-century work that discourses on everything from “the use and actions of the genitals” to “monstrous births, and the reasons thereof”, is going on sale this weekend.
Titled Aristoteles Master-Piece – although it is neither by Aristotle, nor really a masterpiece – the anonymously authored work was first published in 1684. Just three complete first editions are known to survive today, according to bookseller Jeremy Norman, which has set a price of $65,000 on the edition it is selling at the California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Oakland*.
The work adopts a frank, straightforward approach to sex, providing its readers, says the bookseller’s catalogue, “with practical advice on copulation, conception, pregnancy and birth”. It deals variously with “the way of getting a boy or a girl”, which has to do with what position the female assumes after sex; “a discourse of Maiden-heads”; “signs of conception”; and “signs of barrenness”.
Subtitled “the Secrets of Generation displayed in all the parts thereof”, the manual offers “a word of advice to both Sexes in the Act of Copulation”. One passage, quoted in The Routledge History of Sex and the Body, advises that “when the Husband commeth into his Wives Chamber, he must entertain her with all kinds 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 ... intermixing more wanton Kisses with wanton Words and Speeches, handling her Secret Parts and Dugs, that she may take fire and be inflamed to Venery.”
A woman might know if she has conceived, meanwhile, by the following signs, which will come “three to four days after convenient and satisfactory Copulation”: “Pains in the head, Virtigo, and dimness of the Eyes, the Aples of the Eyes decrease, the Eyes themselves swell, and become of a dull or dark colour, their veins waxing red and shut with blood.”
The manual also tackles “monstrous births”, which the author variously attributes to “maternal imagination, witchcraft, human-animal copulation or a disorder of the womb”, said the bookseller. Woodcut illustrations of the “monsters” are included, from a naked woman covered in hair, to a half-man, half-dog and conjoined twins.
“Books of this type were very heavily used, and most copies were read out of existence; thus the rarity of the first edition, and the incomplete aspects of nearly all surviving copies,” said Norman. “Another extraordinary aspect of this work was that it continued to be reprinted to meet popular demand for information on sex and reproduction over the centuries, even as late as the early 20th century.”
According to the bookseller’s catalogue description for the text, the work was in such demand that it went through well over 100 editions in the two centuries after it was first published, with one appearing as late as 1930. The work is even referenced in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which was first published in 1922. “Mr Bloom turned over idly pages of ... Aristotle’s Masterpiece,” writes Joyce. “Crooked botched print. Plates: infants cuddled in a ball in bloodred wombs like livers of slaughtered cows.”
Although the book was not intended to be pornography, its frank takes on sex and reproduction meant that it was “seen as unfit for polite society”, according to the bookseller’s catalogue, and it was “often issued under false imprints and sold ‘under the table’”.
Roy Porter and Lesley Hall’s The Facts of Life, a history of sexual knowledge in Britain, says the work “feels under no obligation to vindicate to its readers the pleasures of heterosexual intercourse; it will merely instruct them in how to do it well”. The subject of the book, according to Porter and Hall, “is reproduction. That both men and women will long to copulate, that passion will not prove delusory or destructive, that there is an esteem and respect between the sexes which transcends brute lust – all these are taken for granted, requiring no special pleading, syllogisms or learned footnotes.”
Jeremy Norman’s first edition comes in a worn binding, with frayed edges and “occasional worming and staining”, but is otherwise “a good, unsophisticated copy of a book that was mostly read out of existence”.