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17th century sex guide to go under the hammer

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A NOTORIOUS 17th century sex guide - banned in Britain for several centuries - is set to go under the hammer in Edinburgh this month.

One of the earliest surviving versions of “Aristotle’s Masterpiece”, which was a best-seller before it was outlawed in the 18th century, is expected to generate more than £400 because of its unusual nature.

Lyon and Turnbull is selling it at a forthcoming auction of rare books, manuscripts and maps, alongside early James Bond novels and works by Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll.

Originally published in pamphlet form by a Dutch theologist in 1684, the book’s original author was unknown, although elements were known to have appeared in other medical texts and the name William Salmon has been linked to the book by some experts.

However, the book - which is also known as Aristotle’s Compleat Master-Piece - has no links whatsoever to the celebrated Greek philosopher, with his name said to have been added to the title to help boost sales.

Described as one of the earliest published “manuals” for sex and pregnancy, it went on to appear in hundreds of different editions in Britain and America.

It was regularly sold under the counter in Britain after it was banned in the mid-18th century, after being considered too “lewd and distasteful”.

Originally said to have been aimed at married couples, its popularity grew after being banned, and was extremely popular with schoolboys, with some accounts describing it as “semi-pornographic” and unofficial copies were produced by back-street printers to keep up with demand.

Despite being peppered with what Lyon and Turnbull’s experts described as “numerous urban myths”, the book was still widely available, with its contents largely unchanged, in Soho’s sex shops until the 1930s. However, it was read and cited by many leading authors, including Evelyn Waugh, Antony Burgess and James Joyce, the latter of whom featured it several times in his novel Ulysses.

There are chapters in the book on virginity, including sections on “what it is” and “by what means it may be lost”, how women ought to “govern themselves” during pregnancy, and how a woman should “order herself” in order to conceive.

Fine art specialist Cathy Marsden said: “It was certainly a very popular book when it came out. It was the most printed medical text of its kind and there were lots of editions printed over the years.

“It was banned in the mid-18th century because by that time a lot of the content was considered lewd and distasteful, although it wouldn’t be by today’s standards, but even then you could ask for it under the counter, as it were.

“It is also interesting to see the 17th century attitudes that it was considered beneficial for the woman to enjoy intercourse in order for her to conceive.

“There were a lot of urban myths in the book, particularly about the risks of having sex outside marriage and the impact that could have on the birth of the child.”
Ms Marsden said the landmark lifting of the ban on Lady Chatterley’s Lover in Britain also affected a number of books like Aristotle’s Masterpiece, which were able to be freely sold again.

Simon Vickers, a book specialist at Lyon and Turnbull, added: “The Master-Piece emphasises late 17th-century ideas surrounding female sexuality.

“Drawing from the works of Nicholas Culpepper and Albertus Magnus, with a good dose of old wife’s tale, there were more editions of this work published in the eighteenth-century than any other medical text.

“However, Aristotle’s Compleat Master-Piece slowly began to be considered highly distasteful and even downright lewd and was banned in Britain until 1961.”

In one section states: “Let all those of either sex, that have a desire to enjoy the delights of mutual embraces take care that they do it in a married state, with their own wives or husbands, or else it will become a curse to them instead of a blessing. And, to that end, let them consider what is due to the transgressors of his law, who hath said, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery’.”

The book also states that people having sex outwith marriage has “filled the world with confusion and debauchery, has brought diseases on the body, consumptions on estates, and eternal ruin to the soul, if not repented of.“

The version of Aristotle’s Masterpiece going under the hammer at Lyon and Turnbull on 16 January dates from 1766.

Other highlights include first editions of Bond novels Thunderball, Diamonds are Forever and The Spy Who Loved Me, a first edition of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, and a first edition of Bleak House by Charles Dickens.

 

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