904F Aristotle pseudo Possibly by Salmon, William. 1644-1713

DSC_0005 Aristotle’s master-piece: or in all the parts thereof; Containing 1. The Signs of Barrenness. 2. The way of getting a Boy or Girl. 3. Of the likeness of Children to Parents. 4. Of the Infusion of the Soul into the Infant. 5. Of monstrous Births and the Reasons thereof. 6. Of the benefit of Marriage to both Sexes. 7. The Prejudice of unequal Matches. 8. The discovery of Insufficiency. 9. The cause and cure of the Green-Sickness. 10 A Discourse of Virginity. 11. How a Midwise ought to be qualified. 12. Directions and Cantions to Midwives. 13. Of the Organs of Generation in Women. 14. The Fabrick of the Womb. 15 The use and action of the Genitals. 16. Signs of Conception, and whether of a Male or Female, 17. To discover false Conception. 18. Instructions for Women with Child. 19. For preventing Misoarriage 20. For Women in Childbed, 21. Of ordering new-born Infants; and many other very useful Particulars, To which is added, A word of Advice to both Sexes in the Act of Copulation, and the Pictures of several Monstrens Births. Very necessary for all midwives, nurses and young-married-women.

London : printed for W.B. and to be sold by most booksellers in London and Westminster, 1704.                              $ ON HOLD


Duodecimo, 134X85 cm.     A1-G12 H9 (lacking final three leaves) This copy has been restored in an appropriate full sheep binding. It is now sturdy and readable.

This is a book which has experienced heavy use.     Originally (first)  published in 1684, this extremely popular work on generation and sexual reproduction was still being printed well into the 19th century. Despite it’s popularity or because of it it turns out that all early editions are rare, and there are very few pre 1741 editions in this country.  English Short Title Catalog, T83424.  Listing only one copy, of the 1704 at the  University of Minnesota with the note “MATCHERS BEWARE! another issue without hyphen between “married “and “women”. Also, end of title reads…sexes in the act of copulation. Very necessary for all…” There is another 1704 edition at Ohio State listing 135 pages (this edn is 183)  .  This  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 .  The work was in fact assembled from Levinus Lemnius’s The Secret Miracles of Nature (1564) and Jakob Rüff’s midwifery manual De conceptu et generatione hominis (1554). The attribution to Aristotle is totally spurious and was probably a vain attempt to give the work some measure of respectability; but although it was effectively banned until the mid-twentieth century, the prohibition didn’t keep it from circulating: it was reprinted endlessly until the early twentieth century and became one of the most notorious and widely distributed sex books in the English language, right up to the 1960s. Such enduring popularity was partly due to the practical advice on pregnancy and the care of infants, and partly to its rather sensationalised descriptions of the sexual act and forms of monstrosity.

More than a Guide for the Delivery of children, this is a true HOW-TO book on conception, as you can see from the image excerpted below it is quite graphic even by standards three hundred years advanced.

“Aristotle’s Masterpiece was the most popular book about women’s bodies, sex, pregnancy, and childbirth in Britain and America from its first appearance in 1684 up to at least the 1870s. More than 250 editions are known, but all are very rare… It was sold furtively by country peddlers and in general stores and taverns; regular booksellers seldom advertised it, though they usually had it under the counter” (The Library Company of Philadeplphia, ‘Treasures’, online catalogue).

” Aristotle’s Masterpiece, a manual of sex and pregnancy, first saw the light of day about 1680. It is not, of course, the work of the ancient Greek philosopher, but its true authorship is unclear. Other works by the same or other hands were accreted to the original “Masterpiece” until by about 1735 the four parts here published made up the canon. Banned in Britain until the 1960’s, it nonetheless has had a long but mostly clandestine career as a quasi-pornographic book. Grubby copies were produced in back-street printers, sold in rubber-goods shops or Holywell Street, and passed from hand to hand until they disintegrated. Many young boys got their first inklings of sex from it. It was also sometimes given by their mothers to women about to get married; the effect it had on the mind of a virgin bride can only be conjectured. It has been read (or at any rate mentioned) by James Joyce, William Carleton, Evelyn Waugh, Anthony Burgess and many others, and probably has had more influence than is realized.”


There is a wonderful article by Fissell, Mary E. (2007). “Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece”. The William and Mary Quarterly 60 (1): 43–74. JSTOR 3491495., available on Jstore follow the link.

“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.”


904f 1

While naturally popular and cheap this is one of those books which were read into scarcity, there are very few copies listed in the holdings in libraries worldwide (see the Estc info above) and most surviving copies are just that, worn and in bad shape, the last nice copy I saw was at auction and made a considerable price.

Lot 47•
Aristoteles Master-piece, or, The Secrets of Generation diplayed in all the parts thereof…, J. How, and are to be sold next door to the Anchor Tavern in Sweethings-rents in Cornhil, 1684, THE ONLY KNOWN COMPLETE COPY OF ONE OF THE TWO EARLIEST SURVIVING EDITIONS
Sold for £22,500 (US$ 32,375) inc. premium
AUCTION 21764:
12 Nov 2014 13:00 GMT.

The copy I offer is not complete YET it is close, also it is not $32,000. It is strange indeed that this copy has not sold already.

904f 2.jpg

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).

The Facts of Life
The Creation of Sexual Knowledge in Britain, 1650-1950
Roy Porter and Lesley Hall
03/20/95, Cloth
ISBN: 9780300062212
Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England
 Mary E. Fissell (2007-01-18) Paperback