Aristotle's Masterpiece, also known as The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher, is a sex manual and a midwifery book that was popular in England from the early modern period through to the 19th century. It was first published in 1684 and written by an unknown author who falsely claimed to be Aristotle. As a consequence the author is now described as a Pseudo-Aristotle, the collective name for unidentified authors who masqueraded as Aristotle. It is claimed that the book was banned in Britain until the 1960s, although there was no provision in the UK for "banning" books as such. However reputable publishers and booksellers might have been cautious about vending Aristotle's Masterpiece, at least in the wake of the 1857 Obscene Publications Act.
After Nicholas Culpeper's Directory for Midwives had been published in 1651, other writers and booksellers sought to emulate its great success. Aristotle's Masterpiece was among the two dozen works in the genre which were published in the following decades. This was in sharp contrast to the three titles which had been published on the subject in the previous century. Through the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the work was published in three different versions in 9, 20 and 78 editions respectively. It was probably the most widely reprinted book on a medical subject in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
The first version borrowed most of its content from two earlier works, the Secret Miracles of Nature by Levinus Lemnius and the anonymous Complete Midwives Practice Enlarged. The latter had been a successful work by itself, coming second only to Culpeper's Directory for Midwives in number of seventeenth century editions.
A second version was released by publisher Benjamin Harris in 1697. The first half contained most of the first version and the second half was borrowed from John Sadler's A Sick Women's Private Looking-Glas, which was published in 1636. The third version was published around 1710 was more different from the previous versions, but again copied material from other works on the subject. These included the Directory for Midwives, John Pechey's 1698 version of the Compleate Midwive's Practice Enlarged and other popular books on sex and reproduction available at the time.
The third version was still printed and sold to a general audience in the early twentieth century. It remained unchanged from the eighteenth century editions because scientifically superior information on sexuality had not yet become available. Because the book was still based on the ancient theory of humorism it provided some misinformation, in particular on the home remedies it prescribed. Nevertheless, it was in fact more accurate and less harmful than some popular works on sexuality dating from the late nineteenth century.
Reasons for attribution to Aristotle
The title of the work was possibly chosen because Aristotle was seen as a sex expert in early modern England. Another popular pseudo-Aristotelian text which covered sex and reproduction, Aristotle's Problems (1595), had been responsible for this reputation. The real Aristotle had also written works about the reproduction of animals (such as History of Animals and Generation of Animals) and was considered an authority on scientific matters in general.
The third version is divided in two parts. The first part covers anatomy, sexual intercourse and marriage. The second part was intended for married women and explains pregnancy and midwifery.
The first part starts with a description of the male and female sex organs in the first chapter. The second chapter advocates sexual intercourse in monogamous relationships and warns against polygamy and adultery because it is forbidden by Christian doctrine. It finishes with an explanation of when the reproductive age begins and ends. The third chapter explores virginity. It correctly states that a torn hymen does not mean a woman is not a virgin.
The second part continues with the process of fertilisation, pregnancy and how the sex of the fetus can be determined. The second chapter provides advice on how women can become pregnant. The third chapter describes the progress of pregnancy. Failure of the pregnancy, infertility and its causes are the subject of the fourth chapter. The part ends with a chapter on things women should do and avoid during their pregnancy.
- Fissell, Mary E. (2007). "Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle's Masterpiece". The William and Mary Quarterly. 60 (1): 43–74. JSTOR 3491495.
- "The Masterpiece, and other works of "Aristotle, The Famous Philosopher"". The Ex-Classics Web Site. Retrieved 2 January 2013.
- Hall, Lesley A. "It wasn't 'banned', and it's hardly rare". Lesley A. Hall Blog. Retrieved 2013-07-05.
- Bullough, Vern L. (1973). "An Early American Sex Manual, or, Aristotle Who?". Early American Literature. 7 (3): 236–246. JSTOR 25070583.
- Fissell, Mary (August 19, 2015). "When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle's Masterpiece". The Public Domain Review. 5 (15). Retrieved August 19, 2015.
- Complete text at The Ex-Classics Web Site
- "Books and Babies" at the Cambridge University Library
- Aristotle's Masterpiece public domain audiobook at LibriVox