Aristotle’s Masterpiece, the “banned Georgian sex manual”

As a historian who works on the eighteenth century, I am always interested when Georgian stories appear in the news. And right on cue for Valentine’s Day, various news outlets were covering the sale of a “banned Georgian sex manual” at an auction in Derbyshire.
The book in question was an edition of a book entitled Aristotle’s Masterpiece from 1720, which contains advice on sex, pregnancy and female health. It is a window on a world that had very different ideas about medicine, the body and sexual difference.
Contrary to the headlines, it was not by Aristotle, it was not banned and it was not a sex manual. We don’t know who wrote it: the title “Aristotle” was probably adopted as he was an authority on matters scientific. It was not “banned” as books in England could not be banned in that way: shops may have been nervous about stocking it in the wake of the Obscene Publications Act in the 1850s, but that was a century later. The Georgians were much more open in talking about sexual matters, and indeed the book went through dozens of editions so was widely available. It was often given as a wedding present, as it was more of a guide to obstetric health than a “sex manual” as such.
The book does indeed give advice about sex, but it is a short chapter at the end of a very long book about pregnancy. Its advice should therefore be seen in that light. For example, it recommends that couples should “cherish the body with a generous Restorative, to charm the Imagination with Musick, to drown all Cares in good Wine”. This was about having better sex, but not just as an end in itself. Rather, they believed that good sex was the key to a successful and healthy pregnancy.
This is because people in this period thought that the body was based on the four humours and was governed by fluid and heat. Conception occurred when men’s and women’s fluids mingled and transformed, and this required the “heat” signified by orgasm. So men and women both had to enjoy sex, suggesting that the Georgians believed in equality in the bedroom.
The book continues, that “when the Act is over, all is not done; for … the Husband must not presently separate himself from his Wife’s Embraces”. To us this sounds merely affectionate and considerate, but the advice is given with conception in mind: “lest the Air should suddenly strike in, and so prevent the happy issue of their Labours”. Afterwards, the woman should “compose herself to all the rest and quietness imaginable”, since they believed that the woman’s thoughts had a direct impact on the foetus, and would affect the health and appearance of the child. This was therefore a holistic understanding of the body, which understood “generation” in terms of the universe, magic and God’s creation.
This week’s tittilating reportage therefore tells us more about 2018 than 1720. The book reads more like an NCT class than the Kama Sutra. Georgians were fairly relaxed about bodily pleasure, and did not regard sexuality as a matter for anxiety, neuroses or embarrassment. Our own hangups about sex owe more to the Victorians than their predeccessors.
It was a fun story for Valentine’s Day though. And the auction house are no doubt happy, as an obscure item estimated at around £100 will now probably go for much more than that.
Matthew McCormack

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