A once-banned book on sex and pregnancy from the 18th century is expected to fetch up to £400 [about $650 USD] when it goes on sale in Edinburgh next week.
Aristotle’s Complete Master-Piece is a manual which is thought to have provided information for amateur midwives and young married couples about pregnancy and sex. It is up sale at Edinburgh auction house, Lyon & Turnbull on 9 January, where it is expected to reach up to £400.
Despite its title, the manual has little to do with Greek philosophy according to Lyon & Turnbull’s book specialist Cathy Marsden. Instead, the anonymous author of the Master-Piece offers dubious 17th century advice – it was first published in 1684, cobbled together from the works of Nicholas Culpepper, Albertus Magnus and, Marsden says, “a good dose of old wife’s tale”.
This didn’t stop it being hugely popular. There were more editions of the Master-Piece published in the 18th century than any other medical text, and it continued to do well on the black market after it was banned for being considered distasteful and lewd until 1961.
By today’s standards, the manual is more amusing than anything else. Marsden says, “It’s fascinating reading. It tells an amazing story about the changing perspectives on sex. There’s nothing in it that would really be considered dirty in our society now.”
“There are things which warn parents about what could happen to their children if they sinned whilst conceiving them, perhaps by having sex outside marriage. It would say that your baby would be born all hairy or it would suggest that conjoined twins were the result of the parents’ sins.”
“There are also interesting bits about the 17th century notion that it was considered beneficial for a woman to enjoy sexual intercourse in order to conceive. It suggests that both men and women should enjoy sex.”
“That’s interesting because much later on, when they realized that a woman didn’t have to climax in order to conceive, the idea of a woman enjoying sex was considered far less important.”
The manual is illustrated with curious, although not particularly graphic, cautionary images which Marsden thinks contributed to the ban. There’s one image of a baby in a womb and the woman’s torso has been ‘cut open’ to show the baby.
“There are other images of hairy children or children with their mouths where their navels are. They are very strange images.”
The edition going under the hammer is thought to date from 1766.