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Aristotle's Masterpiece -- Introduction

The Masterpiece, and other works of "Aristotle, The Famous Philosopher"


 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: the name of William Salmon has been suggested. 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.


The woman who kept the Francis Street establishment was a widow, a Mrs Richardson, but never upon any occasion did I see her look into a book. Whether it was she herself who collected and arranged the library, I cannot say. I only hope, for the honour of her sex, it was not; because such a mass of obscenity and profligacy was (out of Holywell Street, the Jewish establishment in London) never put together. How booksellers were found to publish the books it is difficult to say, or how they escaped prosecution. There was not a book in the whole library but Mrs Richardson was acquainted with its character, a fact which she never denied.

One of them, for instance, was the History of Mrs Leeson or in other words the history of the infamous Peg Plunkett, who figured during the viceroyalty of Lord Manners, and of whom the anecdote of 'Manners, you dogs,' is yet told. The History of the Chevalier de Faublas was also there, and another revolting abomination under the nickname of Aristotle.
-- William Carleton, Autobiography

Mr. Bloom turned over idly pages of . . . . Aristotle's Masterpiece. Crooked botched print. Plates: infants cuddled in a ball in bloodred wombs like livers of slaughtered cows.
-- James Joyce, Ulysses.

'Now then, what's this about books?' said the chief [Customs officer].
With the help of a printed list (which began 'Aristotle, Works of (Illustrated)') they went through Adam's books, laboriously, one at a time, spelling out the titles.
-- Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies..


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