The book seems surprisingly modern, with its emphasis on “pleasure and delight” for the bride as well as the groom.
Aristotle’s Masterpiece wasn’t the only sex manual masquerading as a medical text circulating in colonial America, but it was, perhaps, the most popular. More shocking than the realization that the buckled-shoe-and-turkey-dinner set actually had sex lives is the fact that this guide held views of female sexuality that wouldn’t be seen again until well into the twentieth century. Cobbled together from various treatises (but none penned by the titular Greek philosopher), Aristotle’s Masterpiece blazed through over 150 editions after its publication in England in 1684. The first American edition appeared in 1766, but copies of the book had reached these shores long before that.
Aristotle’s Masterpiece styled itself a guide to pregnancy and childbirth for midwives. These topics were ripe not only for descriptions of the female body, but also for discussing the act of procreation — and hints on how to handle the wedding night. Here, the book seems surprisingly modern, with its emphasis on “pleasure and delight” for the bride as well as the groom. It even mentions the “clytoris” — an organ entirely absent from many nineteenth- and early twentieth-century sex manuals — and notes that a little extra attention in this area might help stoke “the coals of . . . amorous fires.” Lest one imagines the book was wildly ahead of its time, though, its rationale for including this genitalia was that God had made the female orgasm a requirement for conception.
It was racy stuff nonetheless. (“There is in the neck of the womb of young maids a pendulous production, called a hymen, which is like the bud of a rose half-blown,” the reader is informed. “Nature causes much delight to accompany ejection, by the breaking forth of the swelling spirits, and the swiftness of the nerves.”) Some editions even carried an ominous warning about what might happen if the book fell “into the Hands of any Obscene or Wanton Person” — a surefire dog whistle to those in search of exactly that. Indeed, Aristotle’s Masterpiece was one of the “lascivious” volumes at the heart of a scandal in Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1744, when a group of boys was charged with reading “bad books” and then mocking neighborhood girls with information they gleaned. (The boys’ parents rushed to their defense when a committee was convened to investigate the matter — and one of the lads asserted he didn’t “care a turd” about the proceedings. Some things never change.)
The young women of Northampton surely didn’t appreciate it at the time, but words like “satisfaction” largely disappeared from discussions of female sexuality in the marriage manuals that followed Aristotle’s Masterpiece, in part, historians speculate, because doctors realized that orgasm had nothing to do with conception. Perhaps the emphasis on feminine delight in Aristotle’s Masterpiece is exactly what kept it in print for over 200 years.