When the Birds and the Bees Were Not Enough: Aristotle’s Masterpiece

Mary Fissell on how a wildly popular sex manual — first published in 17th-century London and reprinted in hundreds of subsequent editions — both taught and titillated through the early modern period and beyond.

Illustration of a “hairy child” born in France in 1597, with umbilical cord sprouting from the forehead, from an 1831 edition of Aristotle’s MasterpieceSource.

John Cannon, a teenaged agricultural laborer, bought a book called Aristotle’s Masterpiece for a shilling in 1700. He usually read chapbooks like Fortunatus and Dr Faustus, but he bought the Masterpiece in order to “pry into the Secrets of Nature especially of the female sex” — to find out about sex. What he learned was so intriguing that he took to spying on the family maidservant when she went to the privy; he bored a few holes in the wall so he “could plainly see” the parts discussed in the book.1

The book that Cannon read so eagerly was neither by Aristotle nor usually considered a masterpiece. It is, however, one of the best-selling books ever produced in English on sex and making babies. First published in London in 1684, it went through hundreds of editions in England and America. It was still for sale, largely unchanged, into the 1930s and beyond. References to the work pop up in the historical record like some kind of Zelig figure, often on the margins of unexpected moments. The huge numbers of editions and the frequency of references to it suggest that this book provided a kind of sex education to the masses long before the concept of sex education was invented.

Such popularity makes us question assumptions about how people in the pre-modern world learned about sex. Often we suppose that rural people like John Cannon did not need to consult books to learn about sex; they lived “closer to nature”, and could abstract what they saw in the barnyard to the bedroom. The most common euphemism for sexual knowledge, “the birds and the bees”, was first used by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1825, at the very moment at which England’s population became more urban than rural for the first time. But Cannon’s experiences, and those of a host of other readers, show us that for centuries English and American readers turned to this cheap book eager for information that was not, in fact, easily inferred from the natural world.

The book itself was pasted together in 1684, a mash-up of earlier works on midwifery and natural philosophy.2 It was an almost immediate bestseller. While John How, its first publisher, obediently registered the work with the Stationers’ Company, the book soon slipped the traces of any form of regulation; it was pirated in its very first year of publication. It was produced in multiple versions by a host of printers and publishers, only some of whom were willing to put their names on the title pages of the works. (For the most popular version, see a 1728 edition here). By the middle of the eighteenth century, there were more editions of the Masterpiece than all other popular works on reproduction combined. It continued to sell steadily until the 1870s in North America, when its publication was curtailed by the Comstock Acts. In Britain, it was still being reprinted into the 1930s.

Title page of a 1728 English edition — Source.

Perhaps the work was attributed to Aristotle in an attempt to provide a cloak of learned authority, but more likely the name was an allusion to Aristotle’s popular-culture reputation as a sex expert. This unlikely role derived from an earlier pseudo-Aristotle text, Aristotle’s Problems, first published in English in 1595.3 The work contains some of the most explicit discussions of the mechanics of sex and reproduction available in English at the time, in an easy-to-read question and answer format, including “What is carnal copulation?” and “How are hermaphrodites begotten?”. Within a decade, the name Aristotle was used as a joking reference to sexual knowledge in plays performed upon the London stage. To many a browser upon a bookstall, the name Aristotle in the title meant — nudge nudge wink wink — a book about sex.

And it wasn’t just the title. The work was almost always accompanied by a frontispiece image of a near-naked woman, implicitly promising the reader titillating information. The most popular version of the book contained a racy poem, ostensibly provided for a husband to read to his bride to get her to bed, with lines like, “Now my infranchis’d Hand on every Side, Shall o’er thy naked polish’d Ivry Slide”. Like much else here, the poem isn’t an original, but rather re-arranged lines from an earlier work by Thomas Carew. The book valorizes sexual pleasure, for both women and men, explaining that mutual delight is needed for conception. Each chapter is summed up in brief verses,

Thus Man’s most noble Parts describ’d we see;
(For such the Parts of Generation be;)
And they that carefully survey’t, 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;

and so on, assuring readers that the design was intended to excite “the more delight” in the “amorous combatants”.4 Such rhyming doggerel was reminiscent of teaching strategies in early modern primary education.

Frontispiece to an early edition of the Masterpiece, 1704. Source
Frontispiece to an 1820s edition of the Masterpiece; by now the naked woman is no longer monstrous and hairy, and she’s lost the black baby – Source: Fissell, personal copy.
Coloured engraving featured as the frontispiece for a New York 1846 edition — Source.

Undoubtedly, the racy poem, the woodcut of the near-naked woman, and the promise of sexual knowledge must have appealed to many a teenaged male reader like John Cannon. But the book also provided a solid framework of contemporary knowledge about the basics of pregnancy, childbirth, and infant health, detailing topics such as the signs of pregnancy, how to tell false labor from true, the various positions the baby might present in, etc. Not surprisingly, since it was plagiarized from another midwifery book, this information was largely unexceptional.

The book’s prose style promised readers that medical knowledge was not difficult. For example, in discussing barrenness (what we’d call infertility) the text assured the reader that if the fault were a malformation of the male partner, “this is plain and easily discern’d, that it needs must be obvious to both Parties”. By the early eighteenth century, the most common version of the text also included dozens of recipes for household remedies and a guide to physiognomy. From this perspective, the book was a distant ancestor of those such as What to Expect when You’re Expecting that crowd the shelves of today’s bookstores.

In the mid-eighteenth century, the British radical Francis Place read the Masterpiece whilst a schoolboy. In his memoirs, he explains that reading about the mechanics of conception made him doubt the Biblical account of the conception of Jesus.5 Like John Cannon, Place was an eager consumer of sexual knowledge; he used to go to London’s secondhand bookstalls and page through medical works, looking for anatomical pictures that he found exciting, until shooed away by irate booksellers.

Illustration of a “monster” born in Ravenna, Italy, in 1512: the X and Y markings shown on the body an uncannily prophetic nod to how human sex chromosomes are now named — Source.

But the Masterpiece was not just read by teenaged boys. In a copy of the first edition held by the University of Pennsylvania, there is a series of inscriptions that tells a different tale.6 First is what appears to be a courtship vow, a promise between a George Hoare and Elizabeth Vincent, living in rural Somerset. Evidently they pledged themselves to each other in 1684, the year the Masterpiece was first published. The vow wasn’t written down, however, until December 12, 1685, with each partner promising, “I do wish that I may never prosper if I be the cause of breaking of it”. A few years later, on June 29, 1687, they pledged again on the next page of the book, and this time the vow seems to have been accompanied by a gift of pieces of silver, probably from George to Elizabeth. Such courtship gifts were not uncommon guarantors of fidelity. Nine years after their first promise, George and Elizabeth were wed on Boxing Day in the small village of Dowlish Wake; ten months later their son William was baptized in the same parish. For this couple, the book, with its implicit promise of marital sexual pleasure, became the tangible form of their commitment to each other.

For others, the book functioned more like a family bible. In the back of the very same copy in which George and Elizabeth had inscribed their promises, one Sarah Fackerall recorded the births of her children: William (1805); sadly, another William (1806); John (1808); Ann (1809); and Charlot (1812). Sarah noted that the book had been given to her by her aunt, who lived in Curry Rivel, a mere ten miles from Dowlish Wake. Fackerell was not the only person to use a book about making babies to record a family’s births. In 1832, Edward Wiett went to court in Tennessee to try to get a pension connected with his military service in the Revolutionary War. He had lost his discharge papers and therefore needed to prove his age. As the court noted, “he has a record of his age in a book called Aristotles Masterpiece”, suggesting that his family also recorded births in their copy of the book.7 Evidently the court was persuaded, for he was paid a pension until 1843.

The book continued to garner readers, both well-known historical figures and unknowns. In 1761, a sailor used his copy of the book to record a series of purchases from the purser: a jacket, two caps, breeches, and a pair of shoes, totalling to £1.3.6. And a copy now held by the British Library proclaims that it was owned by none other than William Bligh, the captain at the center of the mutiny on HMS Bounty. In 1872, the widow Belle Gordon pleaded with an Indiana court for custody of her daughters, but the girls’ guardian claimed that she was not of good moral character, evidenced by her ownership of a book on birth control and a copy of the Masterpiece.8

By the later nineteenth century, the book seems to have moved downmarket, but it still attracted a range of readers. Often it included crude chromolithographs, with images of babies in the womb colored bright red (see image below). In Joyce’s Ulysses, Leopold Bloom looks at a copy of the Masterpiece on a Dublin bookstall, and describes images of “infants cuddled in a ball in bloodred wombs like livers of slaughtered cows”. Molly Bloom already had her own copy, which she called “Aristocrat’s Masterpiece”.9

The “blood-red” chromolithographs Joyce mentions. Many editions are not even chromolithographs but have the red color crudely hand-stencilled – Source: Fissell, personal copy.

A fourteen-year-old Manchester girl, Mary Bertenshaw, first encountered the Masterpiece while working in a cap and hat factory during the First World War. Her friend Gladys brought in a copy, which Mary described as a “secret book”. She and her workmates pored over the book at lunchtime in fits of giggles, until one day their boss caught them reading, much to their shame. Afterwards, they “felt dubious” about men and assiduously avoided walking anywhere near to what they knew to be the local venereal disease clinic. Historians have claimed that working-class girls like these demonstrated their virtue by remaining conspicuously ignorant of the facts of life.10 This story suggests that girls were certainly eager for knowledge, even if they might pretend innocence. A year later, Mary’s mother fell pregnant again. Mary recalled that she visualized the growing fetus inside her mother’s body from what she remembered of the Masterpiece illustrations. So for Mary Bertenshaw, the Masterpiece functioned in multiple ways: as a kind of entertainment; then a source of shame; and finally a source of biological knowledge.11

It wasn’t just city girls like Mary who reached for the book. When the noted Shakespeare scholar A. L. Rowse went up to Oxford in the early 1920s, he never mentioned to his mother that he was studying Aristotle, because, as he explained, the name Aristotle “would have meant to my mother, as secretly to Victorian women, his book on child-bearing: unmentionable”. But Rowse knew that the book was tucked away in her chest of drawers back in his home in rural Cornwall.12

Frontispiece to the 1788 New York edition — Source.

The work remained an iconic symbol of sexual knowledge for generations. In Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930), when a Customs Officer, his office walls “lined with contraband pornography”, inspects Adam Fenwick-Symes’ books to make sure he is not bringing any forbidden works into the country, he does so with the help of a printed list, headed by “Aristotle, Works Of (Illustrated)”.13 In the mid-1950s, copies of the Masterpiece were for sale in a Charing Cross Road bookshop, piled high next to Marie Stopes’ Married Love (1918).14 In the 1970s, an East Anglian agricultural worker told an oral history interviewer that she knew about reproductive matters from what she called “Harry Tottle’s little book”.15

Although little-known today, Aristotle’s Masterpiece was the go-to book for generations of British and American readers, male and female, who wanted to know about sex and making babies. Long after medical theories about reproduction and childbirth had changed, the book continued to promise readers access to hidden secrets and titillating details, a promise whose luster seems to have remained bright until almost yesterday.

Mary Fissell teaches the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins and edits the Bulletin of the History of Medicine. She writes about the ways that ordinary people in the past understood the natural world and their bodies. Vernacular Bodies (Oxford, 2004) explored how everyday ideas about making babies mediated large scale social changes. She is currently writing a cultural history of Aristotle’s Masterpiece.

1. John Cannon, Memoirs of the Birth, Education, Life and Death of: Mr. John Cannon. Sometime Excise Officer & Writing Master at Mere Glastenbury & West Lydford in the County of Somerset. (1743). Somerset Record Office, Ms. DD/SAS C/1193/4, p. 41. For a modern edition, see The Chronicles of John Cannon, Excise Officer and Writing Master, ed. John Money, (Oxford: Published for the British Academy by Oxford University Press, 2010).

2.The book has often been attributed to the popular medical writer William Salmon because a prefatory poem to the 2nd version (first published 1697) bears the initials “W.S.”. However, there is no evidence that Salmon had any role in the book’s composition 13 years earlier.

3. The Problemes of Aristotle, with other Philosophers and Phisitions. Wherein are contayned diuers questions, with their answers, touching the estate of mans bodie, (At Edenborough: Printed by Robert Waldgraue, 1595).

4. Aristotle’s Compleat Master-piece. In Three Parts. Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man… to Which Is Added, a Treasure of Health; Or, the Family Physician, The seventeenth edition, (London?: printed, and sold by the booksellers, 1728), 40, 15.

5. Francis Place, The Autobiography of Francis Place, ed. by Mary Thale, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972), 45.pp. 261.

6. Aristoteles Master-piece, or, The secrets of generation diplayed [sic] in all the parts thereof…. (London: printed for J. How, and are to be sold next door to the Anchor Tavern in Sweetings Rents in Cornhil, 1684). Van Pelt Library, University of Pennsylvania EC65 A100 684a2.

7. Va. Revolutionary War Pension file of Edward Wiett – S3557 in the case of Edward Wiett, County of Anderson in the State of Tennessee (Act 7th June, 1832.) accessed on http://www.vagenweb.org/shenandoah/cem/wiett.html on June 30 2015.

8. Aristotle’s compleat master piece. In three parts…, 27th edition, ([London?]: Printed and sold by the booksellers, 1759), private collection. Aristotle’s master-piece: or, the secrets of generation displayed in all the parts thereof… (London: printed for W.B. and are to be sold by most booksellers in London and Westminster, 1694), copy at British Library 1094.c.6. Garner v. Gordon, Supreme Court of Indiana, Nov. 1872.

9. James Joyce, Ulysses, ed. Jeri Johnson, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993): 226, 722.

10. Simon Szreter and Kate Fisher, Sex before the Sexual Revolution: Intimate Life in England 1918-1963, Cambridge, UK ; New York : Cambridge University Press, 2010.

11. Mary Bertenshaw, Sunrise to Sunset. An Autobiography, (Bury, Lancs: Printwise Publications, Ltd., 1991): 111, 113.

12. A. L. Rowse, A Cornishman at Oxford, (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965): 196.

13. Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies, (Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1999): 23, 24 [1st published 1930].

14. Maurice Gorham, Londoners, (P. Marshall, London, 1951).

15. Personal communication, Michael Winstanley.

Public Domain Works

Further Reading

Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England
Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (Oxford University Press, 2007)

by Mary E. Fissell

Fissell explores gender relations and power seen through texts concerning the femal body, and how conception, pregnancy, and childbirth were understood in Early Modern England.

Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England
Imagining Sex: Pornography and Bodies in Seventeenth-Century England (Oxford University Press, 2007)

by Sarah Toulalan

A study focusing on pornographic writing in 17th-century England, examing the contemporary ideas and representations of sex, sexuality, and eroticism.

Books link through to Amazon who will give us a small percentage of sale price (ca. 6%). Discover more recommended books in our dedicated section of the site: Further Reading.

  • josepgrau

    A fascinating read!

  • bgrnathan


    by Babu G. Ranganathan (B.A. Bible/Biology)

    Will there be sexual relations in heaven? Some say “No” because Jesus says in Matthew 22:30 that we will be like the angels. But, in the context of what Jesus was talking about in Matthew 22:30, what Jesus meant is that we will be like the angels in that there will be no marriage in heaven.

    A question was given to Jesus concerning a woman who had several husbands in her lifetime (each husband having died and the woman outliving them all). The question given to Jesus was who will be the woman’s husband at the resurrection since she had several husbands. Jesus responded by saying that, like the angels, there won’t be marriage in heaven. That doesn’t mean there won’t be sexual relationships in heaven. Marriage is required for sex only in this life. Heaven is another issue.

    We won’t be like angels in every other way. For example, Scripture says that believers (Christians) in their next life, in their resurrected (immortal bodies), will enjoy food and drink, even though eating and drinking won’t be necessary anymore, but believers in glory will still be able to enjoy those and other pleasures. After His resurrection, Jesus Himself ate and drank with the disciples. Jesus said that in the future Kingdom He would enjoy wine with His disciples again. Angels, on the other hand, are strictly spirit beings and don’t consume food or drink.

    How can God allow sexual relations in heaven without marriage? In heaven there’s no need for anyone to belong exclusively to another because there will be no building of families as marriage involves. Scripture teaches that marriage is a unique test and picture of faithfulness, but in heaven no such test is necessary for only the faithful will be there.

    There is no logical reason for why there won’t be sex in heaven. If other bodily enjoyments like eating and drinking will be there then, most certainly, it is reasonable to expect that there will be sexual enjoyment also. Sex in heaven will be driven spiritually and by perfect love.

    Human sexuality is so powerful because it is not only for reproduction. It involves intercourse of spirit and soul, as well as body. The Song of Solomon in the Bible is filled with sexual imagery. Human sexuality has meaning beyond marriage and having children. Seniors have sex beyond childbearing years! Animals only have sex during mating season and only for reproductive purposes. Animals don’t have sex all the time, but humans do.

    The Bible teaches that there will be both spiritual and bodily enjoyment in heaven. Psalm 16:11 tells us that in God’s presence there will be fullness of joy (this is spiritual) and at His right hand there will be pleasures (plural) forevermore (pleasure is something experienced physically). In fact, various passages in Scripture imply that for believers all human faculties (spirit, mind, and body) will be actively engaged and fulfilled throughout eternity. Eternity won’t be boring!

    Doesn’t the Bible say we will have spiritual bodies in heaven? In context, what the Bible means by a spiritual body is that our physical bodies will be under total control of our spirit. In the case of Jesus, after His bodily resurrection, He as able to appear and disappear before His disciples at will.

    We’ll be able to control our appetites (i.e. when we want to be hungry and how much we want to be hungry) so that we can enjoy food and drink during fellowship with one another in those mansions above.

    Because Jesus Christ, God’s eternal and only begotten Son, paid the penalty for sin, on our behalf, that we can never fully pay, and rose from the dead, the Bible says that through genuine faith in Christ we can be forgiven of our sins and perfectly enjoy God’s presence and everything He has for us in heaven. The Bible says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16, KJV).

    Just as a co-signer to a loan takes the responsibility to pay someone’s else’s debt should the loan go into default so too Christ took the legal and moral responsibility of paying the debt for mankind’s sins. Because Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins, God can be just in forgiving us our sins when we put our trust in Christ as Lord and Savior.

    Love and follow God first, and some day everything and all enjoyment, physical as well as spiritual, will be yours for eternity, my friend. “No good thing will (God) withhold from them that walk uprightly” (Psalm 84:11).

    Read the author’s popular Internet article, TRADITIONAL DOCTRINE OF HELL EVOLVED FROM GREEK ROOTS

    The author, Babu G. Ranganathan, has his bachelor’s degree with concentrations in theology and biology and has been recognized for his writings on religion and science in the 24th edition of Marquis “Who’s Who in The East.”