America’s First Sex Manual

Originally published in England in 1684, Aristotle’s Complete Master-Piece, In Three Parts; Displaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man saw its first American edition in 1766. The book (which does not actually draw on Aristotle) was the most popular of its kind until 1830:

[W]hile 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 … 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. …

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.

Check out illustrations from the book here, and the full book is available here.