The first sex education text printed in North America may have come with a fake pedigree, but it went on to distinction as the go-to for thousands of sexually curious young people. The first American edition, printed in Boston in 1766, is titled Aristotle’s Complete Master-Piece, In Three Parts; Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man (find a copy online here). Since its first publication in England in 1684, it has seen dozens of editions, some more “Complete” than others, and with various titles, with publishers adding, editing, and rewriting material as they saw fit. The first American copy (title page above) appends a work called A Treasure of Health, or The Family Physician, as an attempt, most likely, to give the controversial Master-Piece legitimacy as a medical textbook.
The work—thought to have been written by a self-proclaimed English “Professor of Physik” named William Salmon—has, in fact, nothing to do with Greek philosopher Aristotle; his name provided the text with authority its true author lacked (such pseudepigrapha had been in fashion for ages). It was immensely popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Despite the fact that it may be the least prurient book about sex ever written, according to Dittrick Museum curator Jim Edmonson, it remained the most widely circulated guide to sex and reproduction in North America until 1830, passed under the counter more often than over it. Its sexual mores will surprise no one, except that they sound surprisingly contemporary of present-day traditionalists, proving that the sexual ethics of a good part of America haven’t changed in over two hundred years.
But while the book’s attitudes toward monogamy are unsurprisingly Puritanical, its conceptions of anatomy and biology are outlandish and exotic, more kin to Medieval travel books than Renaissance anatomy texts. Its pages, “cobbled together from the works of Nicholas Culpepper, Albertus Magnus, and… ‘a good dose of old wife’s tale’” include such cases as parents who conceived “monsters” by looking at images while procreating, such as those depicted above in “The Effigies of a Maid all Hairy, and an Infant that was Black, by the Imagination of their Parents.” Most of the text’s woodcuts, even those meant to be straightforwardly anatomical, show a similar preoccupation with the bizarre. And birth defects, abnormalities, and, troublingly, racial differences, are almost uniformly attributed to some parental sin.
The Master-Piece’s traditionally religious morality notwithstanding, it does often break off into rhapsodies about sex, albeit of a strictly proscribed kind—the procreative—such as this verse passage that Jim Edmonson quotes from an 1813 New England edition:
And thus those nobler parts we see
For such the parts of generation be:
And they who carefully survey will find
Each part is fitted for the use design’d:
The purest blood we find if well we heed
Is in the testicles turn’d into seed:
Which by most proper channels is transmitted
Into the place by nature for it fitted:
With highest sense of pleasure to excite
In amorous combatants the more delight.
For in this work nature doth design
Profit and pleasure in one act to join.
There’s quite a bit of meaning for early modern literary scholars to tease out and religious conservatives to agree with. Medical historians may find the book’s conception of heterosexual pleasure surprisingly sunny, though this is only because it was thought to lead to “profit.” As Edinburgh auction house Lyon & Turnbull’s book specialist Cathy Marsden observes,
There are… 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 realised that a woman didn’t have to climax in order to conceive, the idea of a woman enjoying sex was considered far less important.
Aristotle’s Master-Piece has excited the imaginations of not only thousands of low-information adolescents and high-info scholars, but also modern writers themselves fascinated by the cultural complexities of human conception and birth, despite (or more likely because of) it being banned in the UK from the mid-18th century until 1961. In Ulysses, Joyce has Leopold Bloom turn “over idly pages … Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Crooked botched print. Plates: infants cuddled in bloodred wombs like livers of slaughter cows” (perhaps alluding to the page below). Other authors have also found the text a reference for anatomical curiosity and sexual prurience—it tops a list of salacious books in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, for example. The popularity of the book for over three centuries—long after any notion of it as a source of truth or titillation—testifies to its status as a fascinating treasury of early modern Anglo-American sexual attitudes and folk medical practices and ideas.