In 1684 in London an anonymous writer cobbled together excerpts from Leviinus Lemnius's The Secret Miracles of Nature (1658) and Jacob Rüff's (Rueff) The Expert Midwife, or An Excellent and Most Necessary Treatise of the Generation and Birth of Man (1637) to create Aristotle's Master-Piece, or the Secrets of Generation printed For J. How. Neither by Aristotle nor a masterpiece, this work was the first sex manual in English, providing its readers with practical advice on copulation, conception, pregnancy and birth. This anonymous, inexpensively printed work proved to be enormously popular: At least three editions were issued by J. How in 1684 (see ESTC and below in our description), and it went through well over 100 editions in the following two centuries.Versions even continued to be published into the early twentieth century, with one appearing as late as 1930! Although Aristotle’s Masterpiece was not intended as pornography, its frank discussion of sex and reproduction was seen as unfit for polite society; the book was often issued under false imprints and sold “under the table.” The publication history of the work is discussed in some detail in Roy Porter and Lesley Hall’s The Facts of Life (pp. 54-64) and Mary Fissell’s “Hairy Women and Naked Truths” (p. 47); it should be noted, though, that Porter and Hall were unaware of the 1684 editions of the Masterpiece.
“The subject of Aristotle’s Master-Piece is reproduction. That both men and women will long to copulate, that passion will not prove delusory or destructive, that there is an esteem and respect between the sexes which transcends brute lust—all these are taken for granted, requiring no special pleading, syllogisms or learned footnotes. . . . Aristotle’s Master-Piece feels under no obligation to vindicate to its readers the pleasures of heterosexual intercourse; it will merely instruct them in how to do it well” (Porter & Hall, p. 42). On a darker note, the Masterpiece also contains a discussion of the then-mysterious problem of “monsterous births,” attributed variously to maternal imagination, witchcraft, human-animal copulation or a disorder of the womb. The woodcut illustrations—all depicting “monsters”—are copied from the English edition of Ambroise Paré’s Workes (1634), which included a translation of Paré’s Des monstres et prodigies (1573). The frontispiece woodcut, which makes another appearance at the end of the book, shows a naked woman covered in hair and a black child born to white parents; the remaining illustrations show conjoined twins, a “half man half dog” and other severe deformities.
The first editions of Aristotle's Masterpiece, published by J. How, appeared in 1684; each has its own distinct setting of type, and no priority has been established among them. The editions can be distinguished by their title pages. In the edition illustrated here the title leaf is a cancel, with the imprint at the foot of the title reading “London: Printed for J. How, and are to be sold / next door to the Anchor Tavern in Swee- / things-Rents in Cornhil”; line 11 of the title ends with the word “both” and line 18 ends in “Ge-”. ESTC has recently identified another edition with the “Swee- / things” imprint in which line 18 ends in “Geni-”; see their catalogue entries at http://estc.bl.uk/R504793 and http://estc.bl.uk/R4283. Another 1684 edition, also with a cancel title, has an imprint reading “London: Printed for J. How, and are to be sold next / door to the Anchor Tavern in Sweetings Rents / in Cornhil.” Line 11 in this edition ends in “Sexes” and line 18 ends in “Con-”; see the ESTC description at http://estc.bl.uk/R236899. Until very recently ESTC had stated that line 11 of the “Swee- / things” imprints ends in “reasons,” an error that they have since corrected based on information we supplied them. We have located 12 copies, ours and 11 in institutions; the copy illustrated here is the only complete copy with the "Swee-/things" imprint.