Aristotle’s Masterpiece

This fascinating piece was written by Martin Crosfill, a member and life long supporter of the library.


Browsing, as one does, among the shelves of the Morrab Library, I came across a book entitled “Aristotle’s Masterpiece” and, inside, the “Works of Aristotle”. As I had seen a copy of these works in twelve large volumes, and as this one was only five inches high, something seemed odd. It turns out that it is one of a number of Pseudo-Aristotelian writings and is, in fact, a sex manual.  The title was possibly used as camouflage, but the work became so widely distributed and so easily obtained that request for it was quite likely to elicit a knowing snigger from the bookseller.

It is, in fact, a remarkable book with a remarkable history. It was first registered at the Stationers’ Office in 1684 by John How, with the subtitle The Secrets of Generation and was an immediate best seller. The author is not recorded, which is fair in that it is a hotchpotch of material from many sources. It owes nothing to Aristotle except the name and a faint echo of his treatise de generatione animalium. Of more mainstream books there are Jacob Rueff (de conceptu et generatioine hominis 1554) and William Harvey (De Generatione Animalium 1651) but  the strongest influence was probably from writers on domestic medicine such as Culpeper (Directory for Midwives), Lemnius (A Discourse touching generation 1664) and John Sadler (A Sicke Woman’s Private Looking Glasse 1636).

It would be fascinating to seek for evidence of plagiarism in the text of the Masterpiece, but it would be a mighty task; not so when the images are concerned – every edition I have seen is illustrated with woodcuts, mostly of monstrous births. I have attempted to trace one, the Ravenna Monster. His/her birth was recorded in 1512 contemporaneously by a Florentine diarist Luca Landucci, who described it from a drawing. “it had a horn on its head, straight up like a sword, and instead of arms it had two wings like a bat’s, and at the height of the breasts it had a fio on one side and a cross on the other, and lower down at the waist, two serpents, and it was hermaphrodite, and on the right knee it had an eye and on the left foot an eagle.” Such an image was too good to waste, and it soon appeared in books of monsters by Boaistuau (1560) Pare (1573) and Lycosthenes (1573). The second leg (and the eagle) were rapidly dispensed with. The monster appeared in the first edition of the Masterpiece and in almost all subsequent editions I have seen, up to and including the twentieth century century. The poor little creature deserves a posthumous fame.  Pope Julius 11 ordered it to be starved to death.

The earliest editions of the book start with the young maid. As soon as she reaches puberty (at fourteen or fifteen) she becomes ‘inclinable to marriage’. Parents are advised ‘not violently to restrain them, but rather to provide for them …. such husbands as may be for their advantage….lest, being crossed in their purposes and delayed, they part with their honour (in) dishonourable ways.’  In other words, they are up for it, but the ‘it’ for which they are ‘up’ is generation, the procreation of children within the bounds of wedlock. The male, it appears, may not be so enthusiastic – ‘the appetite and desire to copulation, which fires the imagination with unusual fancies, or by the sight of a brisk charming beauty, whose wit and liveliness may much incite and more inflame the Courage: but if Nature be enfeebled then are fit Artificial Remedies to restore it.’  There follows an intriguing and comprehensive list of aphrodisiacs. After copulation, the woman must lie on her right side if she wants a boy, on the left if a girl. Next comes an account of the conception and development of the foetus and an interesting section on the time at which the soul is ‘infused’ into the body; this turns out to be around  45 days. There are chapters on the choice of a midwife, on the conduct of the pregnancy and a little on the manipulations of the birth itself, a detailed description of the female genitalia may have helped sales, as may a section, reassuring for both sexes, which states that virginity is not incompatible with an intact hymen.  At last, before the chapter on monstrous births, a word of advice to both sexes on the art of copulation “it is convenient ….to cherish the body with generous Restorative, to charm the Imagination with Musick, to drown all cares with good Wine; that the Mind being elevated to a pith of Joy and Rapture, the sensual Appetite may be more freely encouraged to gratifie it self in the Delights of Nature.”

Some eighteenth century editions are almost a complete rewrite. My 1749 copy starts straight off with a description of the male genitalia and the author is enthusiastic enough to burst into verse:

                    And thus man’s noble parts described we see

                     For such the parts of Generation be;

                    And they that carefully surveys, will find

                    Each part is fitted for the Use design’d

The female parts come in for similar treatment, after which:

                    Thus the womens secrets I have survey’d

                    And let them see how curiously they’re made:                                   

                    And that, tho’ they of different sexes be,                                    

                    Yet on the whole they are the same as we:                                   

                    For those that have the strictest Searchers been,                                   

                    Find Women are but men turned Out side in:

                    And Men, if they but cast their eyes about,               

                    May find they’re Women, with their Inside out.                                   

The book covers much the same ground as the first edition, with the same insistence on copulation within wedlock, but the treatment is altogether more knowing and satirical. It also illustrates the other characteristic of later editions, that of accretion. My copy has acquired a section on physiognomy, followed by “The Family Physician” (take a man’s skull, prepared…). Next comes the “Book of Problems”, a series of questions and answers which has a much longer pedigree than has the Masterpiece itself, and finally “The Experienced Midwife” and “His Last Legacy”.  The Midwife, which occupies 150 pages, is an account of how to conduct a birth, comprehensive enough to explain how to remove the head after it has become detached from the body. It is interesting to find that, when things are really desperate, the she becomes a he, heralding the rise of the man midwife.

The rather racy tone and the tendency to lapse into doggerel verse persist into the early nineteenth century. The atmosphere then changes; the Masterpiece now starts with the section on conception, marriage and the infusion of the soul, burying the description. of the genitalia deeper in the text. I find it interesting that in none of the editions I have consulted is there the slightest suggestion of contraception, unless it be that among the treatments for stoppage of the periods are mugwort and pennyroyal – both abortifacients. The Library’s own copy was printed by John Smith of Tooly St, London and can possibly be dated to 1879. It contains crude chromolithographs of the development of the foetus, the wording is much more modern, but the medical advice looks back to the Galenical theory of humours. Of the ‘cold distemper of the womb’, one cure is to take galengal, cinnamon. nutmeg, mace, cloves, each two drachms; ginger, cubebs, nedory, cardamom, each an ounce; grains of paradise, long pepper, each half an ounce; beat them and put them ito six quarts of wine for eight days; then add sage, mint, balm, motherwort, of each three handfuls; let them stand eight days more, then pour off the wine, and beat the herbs and the spice, then pour off the wine again and distil them’. At least these ingredients are easier to get hold of than prepared skull! The book contains all the usual accretions, physiognomy, problems etc, but there is an additional and alarming section on venereal diseases.

This little book went blithely on its way, spawning editions, apparently until the 1930s. What appears to be a twentieth century edition (from The London Publishing Company, 223 Upper St Islington) is bound in smooth red cloth and is, I think, the “little red book” which went the rounds of my school dormitory for us smutty little boys to giggle over. No attempt whatsoever has been made to bring the contents up to date. The advice to midwives is unchanged, the only references are to Hippocrates and Galen. The herbal remedies are just as complex and the medical vocabulary just as medieval. The publishers must have known that they were producing manifest nonsense, but still it sold and, to quote W S Gilbert, there’s a grain or so of truth among the chaff.

A L Rowse in “A Cornish Childhood tells us he found a copy under his mother’s mattress; the Masterpiece also finds a mention in “Ulysses”and in “Tristram Shandy”. It has been graced with a generous amount of serious study. Sociologists, feminists and, for want of a better term, sexologists have all mined its content; missing are the bibliographers. Many editions were published in the USA, almost all are undated and a formal sequential and geographical review is long overdue.

William Wordsworth

249 years ago today William Wordsworth, the great poet of English Romanticism, was born.
Our archives hold a precious letter from Wordsworth to Hugh Seymour Tremenheere. The pair were introduced by Harriet Martineau in the autumn of 1845. As well as belonging to a distinguished Cornish family, Tremenheere was an academic, barrister & school inspector.
It is in the latter capacity that Wordsworth writes to him to suggest that “Knowledge inculcated by the Teacher or derived under her management from books” may be “too exclusively dwelt upon, so as almost to put of sight that which comes without being sought for from intercourse with nature”. And he goes on to say that “too little attention is paid to books of imagination” for “we must not only have knowledge, but the means of wielding it” which is done “more through the imaginative faculty assisting both in the collection and application of facts than is generally believed”.
The importance of the imagination and experiencing the natural world, particularly for children, is ever present in Wordsworth’s oeuvre, and in his own poetic and personal growth as depicted in works like The Prelude. 

Book Review – The Loss of the S.S. Trevessa

Glancing through the shelves in the Jenner Room I came across a book with the title on the spine, THE LOSS OF THE TREVESSA. On opening the book I found that the title page read ‘1700 miles in open boats.’ The book was written by Cecil Foster, Captain of the ss. ‘Trevessa.’ It was originally published in 1924 and this was the second edition of 1926.

The ‘Trevessa’ was a steamer belonging to the Hain Steamship Co. of St.Ives. She was originally a German vessel named Inkenturm and built in 1909. During the 1914-18 War she was interned in the Dutch East Indies and eventually taken over by the British Government and sold to the Hain Line in 1920. Her gross tonnage was 5000 tons. The ships of the Hain Line were named after houses and farms in Cornwall. They would be known as bulk carriers today and went all over the world, picking up cargoes and carrying them from port to port across the great oceans. By the time she left Freemantle, Western Australia, on her final voyage on he 25th May 1923 she had already sailed from Liverpool to Canada, then to the USA and then, via the Panama Canal to New Zealand and Australia.

She had a cargo of zinc concentrates which should not have been a hazardous cargo had it been loaded properly.   The Lloyds Register surveyor at the port supervised the loading and he was satisfied enough to certify that the ship was correctly loaded.

Sailing across the Indian Ocean the ship was on a course towards Durban, South Africa, but on the night of June 3rd, in very stormy weather, it was found that the ship was taking water so seriously that there was no chance that it would remain afloat. After the radio operator had given the ship’s position in the hope that other vessels would come to her rescue, the crew of 44 successfully took to two lifeboats with only oars and a sail for propulsion.The ship sank 1640 miles out from Freemantle and the nearest land which was reachable with the prevailing winds was about 1700 miles to the west. These were islands, the largest of which was Mauritius but small enough to miss with only the sun and stars to navigate by. Rather than attempt to remain in the vicinity of the sinking and chance the unlikely event of a ship finding them before their supplies of water and food ran out it was decided to make for the islands. In any event they were at the mercy of the winds and the currents, and it would have been impossible to have held the two lifeboats close to where the Trevessa sank.

It was fortunate that both Captain Cecil Foster in charge of No. 1 lifeboat and First Officer James Smith was in charge of No. 3 lifeboat were men were of that generation of master mariners who were familiar with sail. Having a wide experience of sailing in all parts of the world they have known the winds and currents of the Indian Ocean. So much depended on the captain and the first officer to maintain discipline in the two very crowded boats, and strict rationing of water, milk and biscuits was enforced. Thirst was the great enemy and there were cases where men succumbed to the temptation of drinking sea water resulting in greater thirst and in one case led to death.

For navigation they depended on the sun and the stars, and it was remarkable that they were able to navigate with some sense of direction. They were without a useful compass and they had no chronometers, both of which are essential for steering and establishing the position of a vessel and the rate of progress. In the beginning the two lifeboats kept together but there were difficulties in keeping together as the captain’s boat was faster than than that of the first officer. They agreed to separate so that the first to reach land could summon help for the other boat.

It was remarkable that strict discipline was kept in such crowded boats with men close to despair. For much of the ordeal they were encouraged by the hope of rescue or of reaching land. They did capture rainwater which provided welcome relief from thirst but not all of it was drinkable since receptacles were contaminated by sea water .       

They spent about three weeks in the lifeboats, very cramped and hardly able to move and all suffered from lack of exercise and, most of all, water and food. The rationing was so strict  that they ended up with supplies they did not use but the length of the ordeal could not have been predicted. Eleven lives were lost, two in the captain’s boat and nine in that of the first officer. These were all due to the conditions suffered by those in the boats except for one instance when a man was accidently lost overboard.

The captain’s boat arrived at Rodriguez Island, part of the Mauritius group and the first officer’s boat arrived at Mauritius itself. No.1 boat had travelled 1556 miles and No. 3 boat 1747 miles. It was quite a long time before the men were able to eat any quantity of food and several were treated in hospital on the islands.

The book is very readable and the text is punctuated by extracts from the logs of the two boats.The captain was very much a man of his time in seeing the superiority of the white races over the ‘coloured’ as represented by the 13 in the lifeboats who were not European. At the same time the captain said that he could not have wished for a better crew and all did what they could to try to ensure the survival of each one of them. With a chart at the back of the book, the progress of the voyage can be easily seen. The book could have done with a glossary of  nautical terms since the language of the sea cannot always be understood by ‘landlubbers.’ The incident, though well known at the time and now largely forgotten, deserves to be remembered today and ranks with such long open boat voyages as that of Captain Bligh, cast off from the ‘Bounty,’ and Mary Bryant, who escaped from Botany Bay. One can also add Shackleton’s 800 mile journey in 1914 an open boat in the Antarctic after the sinking of HMS Endurance .         

The book ends with a summary of the conclusions of the Court of Enquiry into the sinking of the ‘Trevessa’ and there was criticism of the way the ship was loaded and one feels that the excuse ‘that this manner of loading has been general use for many years’ was not good enough. There was no satisfactory explanation as to why plates opened up in severe weather to admit a rush of water to cause the ship to sink.Were the repairs to those rivets in the hull seen to be defective before the ship left adequate?  It is highly unlikely that the wreck, lying at the bottom of the Indian Ocean, will ever be examined by divers which could be the only way to discover answers to these questions.


Cedric Appleby, Library Member

What you can find in the Morrab…

If you go through the green baize door into the Reading Room at the Morrab Library, you will see in front of you a shelf with the title  “What you can find in the Morrab” The selection of books displayed will change approximately every month. It is intended to demonstrate the wide range of material that the Library holds.

This month’s theme is “BOOKS WRITTEN IN JAIL”

 Sir Walter Raleigh “History of the World  According to ‘’1066 and All That” Raleigh was executed because he was left over from the previous reign. In fact he disapproved of the incoming monarch, James 1; the feeling was mutual and Raleigh spent thirteen years in the Tower, which gave him plenty of time to write. He was released to do a bit of piracy on behalf of the crown, but his trip to Venezuela was no more forthcoming that it might be today, so in 1618 he was decapitated.  

Sir John Friend “History of Physick”  Friend was a distinguished and scientifically reputable London physician. He made the mistake of going into Parliament (as  MP for Launceston). He was suspected of having Jacobite tendencies and spent six months in prison, where he started the first of a scholarly two volume history of medicine. The second volume came out after his release in 1726 and is surprisingly difficult to find.  

John Cleland 1709-1789 “Fanny Hill – Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure” Cleland, like Friend a Wickhamist (but, unlike Friend, expelled) led a varied and undistinguished career until he ended up in the Fleet debtors’ prison. Here he wrote Fanny Hill, a novel of such explicit pornography that even in the eighteenth century it was immediately suppressed. He was hauled up before the Privy Council where Lord Glanville found in it some literary merit and awarded him a pension of £100. It remained suppressed, but widely circulated, until 1970. In these more enlightened times it has been reissued with illustrations, as a Wordsworth Classic; no respectable library should hold a copy.  

John Bunyan 1628-1688 The Pilgrim’s Progress   Bunyan was the son of a tinker, but attended a grammar school at least for long enough to learn to read and write. A devout Anglican, he made a deep study of the Bible, absorbing on the way the rhythms and cadences of the King James’ version. He was on the Parliamentary side in the civil war, where he was exposed to the passionately held and widely differing ideas  of how to live the Christian life. He gradually espoused Calvinist doctrine and became a Baptist preacher. It was his refusal to conduct services in the prescribed format that led to a decade long imprisonment and to Paradise Lost. Packed with incident and mildly satirical it needs no praise from me.

“The Man Died. The Prison Notes of Wole Soyinka.” Set at the time of the hideous Nigeria/Biafra/Oil war , this is one of the hardest hitting accounts of life under a despotic regime that one can read. Soyinka was a poet, author and playwright who became Africa’s first Nobel Laureate.  

Adolf Hitler “Mein Kampf In the mid twentieth century everyone knew about Mein Kampf but very few had read it. It is an extremely boring account of the rise of the Nazi party, written whilst Hitler was in jail for his political activities after the first world war. It degenerates into a long and frenzied diatribe against the Jews. This edition was produced in parts by the Red Cross in order to remind us what we were fighting against. The illustrations are enlightening.  

Sir Thomas Malory (1416-1470) “Le Morte d’Artur He was not a good boy. By the time he was 35 he had committed attempted murder, rape (twice) and had sacked an abbey. This earned him his first jail sentence; after his release he committed the even greater crime of switching from Yorkist to Lancastrian. This earned him two more years in jail, during which time he completed the work. It was published by Caxton, but he may never have seen a copy as he died five months after release.  

Boethius “Consolations of Philosophy  Boethius was a senior civil servant under the Ostragothic King Theodoric. He attempted to bring together the Eastern and Western Christian churches. This was a mistake and he was accused of treason and spent a year consoling himself with philosophy before trial and, in 532 AD, execution. Some say he was framed, others do not; some say he was hanged, others that his head was compressed until the eyes popped out.     

Oscar Wilde “De Profundis This is in the form of a letter from jail to his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas. He possibly wanted to send it page by page, but this was forbidden, so, on his release he passed the whole 50000 words to Robert Ross, for onward transmission. It was Ross who gave the letter its title and who published a heavily redacted edition.  

“Prison Noir” edited by Joyce Oates  This is the noirest of noir. An anthology of short stories, it contains rapists, drug dealers, multiple murderers and mere single ones – and that is just the authors. It is hardly surprising that the stories were selected from a submission of many hundreds; the USA, with 5{68e87bb9641c9f43af8c28c29e83868a48fcd62dffda0820d3a7be1c382fd810} of the world’s population, holds 25{68e87bb9641c9f43af8c28c29e83868a48fcd62dffda0820d3a7be1c382fd810} of all its prisoners. Have a stiff drink before you start the book, and an even stiffer one afterwards.

Martin Crosfill Honorary Librarian