Friday, 11 January 2013

Forbidden Books: Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece

If a book is considered too racy and controversial to be socially acceptable, demand for it will be high.  Of course, there will always be people who tut and sigh, even if the book is designed to be a medical and biological guide intended to inform rather than entertain.  This is the case with Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece, which was first printed in 1680 and became a "banned" book in Great Britain until the 1960s.  In the 18th century, however, more copies of this book sold than for any other medical manual on the market.

Interestingly, the book wasn't written by Aristotle and nor did it draw upon his works; it's thought that the name was used to sell more books through the credence of the name.  It also, strictly speaking, wasn't officially and legally banned, according to Lyon & Turnbull, contradicting earlier news stories about this book.  Sure, it was a work of high taboo and no one wanted to put their printing house on the copies, possibly for fear of persecution or even loss of earnings through association.  Granted, it wasn't a polite book that people admitted to owning or wanted to be caught with.  And yes, no one really wanted to be caught selling it either, but with that many sales, well, you can well imagine the conversation:

"Excuse me, but do you happen to have a copy of, ahem, that book, you know the one, about... women's bits... for sale, perhaps under the counter somewhere...?  I'm a mid-wife/doctor.  I'm only asking for necessity, you understand.  For my job."  "Of course you are..."

Forbidden Book for Auction:  Aristotle's Master-Piece Improved.  "Printed and Sold by the Booksellers" because no one wanted to accept responsibility for printing a medical and sexual manual in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Chapters split into Marriages, Monsters, Conception and Directions for Midwives.

The book actually calls on the earlier works of Nicholas Culpepper and Albertus Magnus, with a very liberal helping of old wives tale.  For example, did you know the best way for a midwife to help a woman with the afterbirth was for her to burn marigolds and generally waft the smoke into the mother's birth canal?  Yeah, there's a reason why you didn't know that.  Not really all that helpful after all, but in 1766, when the book above was published, this was stellar advice.  I have never been so glad for modern medicine.

The book also advises on conception, advising that women and men both should enjoy the act of sex in order to conceive.  This advice being given in the 18th century seems odd to us looking back on it from the modern day, but remember that we're looking back on history as filtered through the straight-laced Victorian era, which is ironic, given Victoria's own exploits.  The book also shows a picture of a baby in the womb, in context of the female body, which would have been quite helpful to midwives -- in theory at least:

Banned imagery -- "The Figure Explain'd:  Being a dissection of the womb with the usual manner how the child lies therein, near the time of its birth."  Being the most explicit picture in this book, it was likely the reason it was banned.

One of the odder chapters is about "monsters and monstrous births and the several reasons thereof".  Of course, it wouldn't be a good medical manual without illustrations of the "monsters" (a word that by today's standards is possibly the only thing still shocking in this book):

Illustrations from the 1766 edition of the banned book Aristotle's Complete Master-Piece Improved of "monsters" -- the only idea presented in this book that is still shocking outside of some of the dodgy medical advice.  It attempts to provide case studies and give advice on how to avoid birth defects.

Much of the advice revolves around the archaic idea of a child that is conceived through sin will suffer such defects as being covered in hair, being conjoined, missing limbs or even having a mouth in the chest or stomach.  "Sin" is often referred to as being extra-marital affairs or the child being conceived outside of wedlock. 

The book is certainly a strange one and I have to admit that I wouldn't mind spending an afternoon reading it.  However, in order to do that, I'd need to participate in the auction on 16th of January, and have approximately £300 ($500ish) to hand.  I may need £300...

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1 comment:

  1. Dear Lorraine,

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