Prof. Mary Fissell
For 250 years, a popular British medical book went through various incarnations and remained a bestseller, curiously alternating between being considered a basic science book and a raunchy volume. The book, Aristotle’s Masterpiece
, first published in London in 1684, is an early work about sex and reproduction that continued to be published and sold in England and America through the 1930s.
“If your great grandmother—or great great great great-grandmother—lived in the Anglo-American world and had a book on sex tucked up in her sock drawer, very likely this was it,” said Mary Fissell, a professor in the department of the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University. Speaking at an NLM History of Medicine lecture, she is writing a social and cultural history of the book.
More or less a midwifery guide, Aristotle’s Masterpiece provided midwives and mothers information about conception, pregnancy, childbirth and baby care. Unusual for this genre, said Fissell, the book also offered advice on sex, both to men and women, and included several illustrations and stories of “monster babies.”
Aristotle’s Masterpiece had numerous publishers and printers. By the middle of the 18th century, there were more editions of it than of all other popular books on reproduction combined. But the book was not actually written by Aristotle. The author remains unknown. Fissell said the title paid tribute to Aristotle’s reputation as a sex expert and an authority on reproduction in 17th century England.
The advice and information, relatively accurate for its time, represented vernacular, everyday knowledge that was pieced together, much like the book itself. The Masterpiece was a patchwork of older texts. Interestingly, over the more than two centuries that the book was republished, the text remained largely the same, said Fissell, despite scientific advances, changes in gender roles and ideas about sexuality and an evolving understanding of reproduction and childbirth.
By 1850, four different versions existed of the basic text. In 19th century England, the most common was version three, the raciest of the bunch, which included a discussion of the anatomy of the genitals and an erotic poem, said Fissell. During that time period, in America, version two was most prevalent, which began with a discussion of marriage and omitted the erotic poem. The different versions may help explain differing perceptions of whether it served a medical or prurient purpose.
At left, Fissell chats with Michael North, head of the rare books and early manuscripts section, History of Medicine Division, NLM. At right, a 1753 edition of the perenially popular Aristotle’s Masterpiece.
Photos: Ernie Branson
The Masterpiece appealed to various audiences. One man admitted he read the book “while a mere schoolboy, and describes thumbing through illustrated anatomical books on secondhand bookstalls, looking for clues about sex and sexuality, until the booksellers shooed him away,” said Fissell. Indeed, some booksellers wound up in court, having to defend themselves for selling radical works, among them Aristotle’s Masterpiece.
The book’s popularity in the mid-19th century can be attributed partly to the growth of the urban centers of the sex trade in London and New York, said Fissell. More provocative illustrations get added to later versions. “So the Masterpiece was repackaged as a racy read for young men,” said Fissell. They were reading it on the sly. “But in the 1840s, such male readers no longer have to borrow their mother’s copy of the book; it has been remade for them.”
Even after publishers stopped printing the racier versions, in the late 1850s, “The book nevertheless retained its identity as a titillating read, and became increasingly problematic as both England and America started to police what became called ‘obscene works,’” Fissell said.
Aristotle’s Masterpiece got repackaged and republished many times during its long run. “The book’s cultural identity as a guide to sexual and bodily knowledge for both men and women endures across centuries,” said Fissell. “I think the book’s plasticity—its openness to constant reshaping—helps to account for its extraordinarily long life.”