Arcane Greek lore

Earlier, we saw that pouring forth quotations in Greek might be construed as a sign of possession by a poor old woman believed to be a witch. The supernatural associations of Greek were combined with its aura of high erudition in the strange phenomenon whereby compounds of ancient Greek stems were used in the advertising of medicinal and cosmetic lotions and potions, simultaneously to associate them with precious wisdom and with an almost supernatural potency. ‘We must walk through Holborn and the Strand with a Greek dictionary in hand’, declares a journalist in 1851.49 This marketing technique is parodied in the black-tinted hair oil with the brand name Cyanochaitanthropopion (Blue-Black-Hair-for-Humans) sold in Samuel Warren’s 1841 novel about the adventures of an impoverished draper’s assistant, Ten Thousand A-Year.50 A similar sense of the special powers of Greek knowledge is attested by the popularity of the ancient Greek handbook of dream divination, Artemidorus’ Oneirocritica, which was available in numerous Greek and Latin editions; it was translated into German in 1540, French in 1546, Italian in 1547, English by 1606’1 and even Welsh in 1698.32 But the book which most clearly associated ancient Greek wisdom with arcane lore was the bestseller Aristotle’s Masterpiece or Compleat Masterpiece, sometimes entitled The Works of Aristotle, the Famous Philosopher. Although not by Aristotle, this anonymous racy manual on sex, reproduction and midwifery, with lavish and exciting illustrations, was first published in 1684 and reproduced in hundreds of variant editions thereafter, both English and Welsh.’3

A copy was bought in 1700 by John Cannon, an agricultural labourer, for a shilling. He wanted to ‘pry into the Secrets of Nature especially of the female sex’. In order to verify ‘Aristotle’s’ accounts, he bored holes in the wall of the family privy to spy on the maid.54 Cannon did not find it in a catalogue put out by mainstream publishing houses. It was, writes Mary Fissell, ‘part of a low culture of ephemeral productions, and sold in a variety of venues including “rubber goods shops”, which also sold contraceptives, abortifacient pills, etc.’ Her brilliant essay describes how this ‘wildly popular sex manual ... taught and titillated through the early modern period and beyond’ across the entire class spectrum.”

The reasons why the anonymous author invoked the authority of Aristotle are several. As the acknowledged expert in most scholarly fields—Dante’s ‘Master of Those who Know’—Aristotle possessed the cachet of the intellectual heavyweight.56 But he was also seen as a sex guru. This perception was connected with a prurient 13th-century fiction which described Aristotle’s affair with the courtesan Phyllis, who agreed to have sex with him if she could ride on his back as a dominatrix. The silly tale was made available in English by 1386, when John Gower told it in his collection of sex stories Confessio Amantis. But the immediate impulse to publish under Aristotle’s name was the warm response which an authentic ancient Greek text attributed to him had received. An English translation of The Problemes of Aristotle, with other Philosophers and Phisitions. Wherein are contained diuers questions, with their answers, touching the estate of mans bodie had been published in 1595.

This book is easy to read; it was written by disciples of Aristotle, probably with the intention of publicising Peripatetic biology amongst a general ancient readership. The questions will have been normal in ancient Greek society, but may well have shocked Early Modern Christians. Why do some men wink after copulation? Why do some eunuchs desire women and excel at ‘the act of Venerie’? Why do women love the men who deflower them? Why do fat men produce scanty semen?57 Aristotle’s name soon became a byword for knowledgeability—and knowingness—about sex.

Purchasers of Aristotle’s Masterpiece, believing it to be, like the Peripatetic Problems, a translation of an authentic ancient Greek work, were tempted to part with their money by an almost invariable picture of a naked woman, often being inspected by a scholarly gentleman who might be assumed to be Aristotle, reproduced opposite the title page (Figure 16.5). One popular edition included bawdy poems designed to be read out to a woman being seduced and promising mutual gratification, which it explains (inaccurately) is required for conception.58 But it also contains sensible information about care of the pregnant woman, the development of the unborn child, labour and parturition. This was one reason why it was so much consulted by women as well as men (Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses has her own copy59), but another is that, like John Cannon, adolescent girls were desperate to find out what to expect when they had sex with men. Mary Bertenshaw was 14 and working in a Manchester factory when her friend Gladys brought in Aristotle’s Masterpiece. Mary describes it as ‘a secret book’. They read it, laughing during their breaks until their boss discovered what they were doing. But Mary was grateful that she had read the book when her mother became pregnant.60



Difplaying the Secrets of Nature in the Generation of Man.

Regularly Digclled into Chapters and in SeAions, rendering it far more ufeful and eaty than any yet extant.




Being Choice and Approved Remedies for all the fevcral Dilleinpers incident to the Human Bodies.

The Thirty Firrt Edition.

Frontispiece from Aristotle’s Coinpleat Masterpiece (1776) reproduced by courtesy of the British Library

FIGURE 16.5 Frontispiece from Aristotle’s Coinpleat Masterpiece (1776) reproduced by courtesy of the British Library.

L O N I) O N: _y Filmed and Sold by the Eookfcllcrs. 1776.

Finally, the ancient Greek savant’s spurious manual lay behind one radical’s questioning of Christian dogma, bringing this chapter full circle back to the issue of the Bible. Francis Place went on to play a leading role in the 1824 Repeal of the Combination Act, thus helping early Trade Unionism, and later in Moral-Force Chartism. But he was originally the illegitimate son of a man who ran a Drury Lane sponging-house, born in 1771. Before he was apprenticed to a maker of leather breeches in Temple Bar at the age of 14, Francis used to tour the bookstalls of London looking for exciting anatomical pictures in medical works, and read the Masterpiece while still at school. Aristotle, who did not believe in the direct involvement of any deity in human life, would have approved of one upshot of the Masterpiece’s physiology. Greek, however inauthentic, here did work that many of Place’s contemporaries would have regarded as diabolical. For Place said that it was learning from its scientific description of the process of human conception that made him doubt forever the whole Biblical tradition of the Virgin Birth.61


  • 1 Anne Dacier later converted: see above p. 28.
  • 2 Wood (1969) 95-104. On Luther’s insistence that reading the New Testament in the Latin vulgate rather than Greek would distort its meaning, see Goeman (2017).
  • 3 Dr. Johnson is said to have used an Elizabethan folio edition of the Greek Bible, Biblia Craeca Septuaginta (1594) to strike down Thomas Osborne, ‘because that notorious bookseller’ had blamed a ‘learned and diligent employee for a negligence’: [ackson (1930) I, 167.
  • 4 see Chapter 17 p. 342.
  • 5 See Cueva, Byrne and Benda (2009).
  • 6 Whitehead (2016); see also Edwards (1985) 83-114, 144-158.
  • 7 Lawley (1868) 18.
  • 8 Plot (1686) 280.
  • 9 Plot (1686) 282.
  • 10 Plot (1686) 282-4.
  • 11 Mark-All (1610), the last three pages. There are no page numbers printed.
  • 12 Mark-All (1610), third page from the end.
  • 13 Mark-All (1610), third page from the end.
  • 14 Linebaugh and Rediker (2000) 143-73.
  • 15 Grose (1791) 40-1.
  • 16 Farrant (2009) n.p.
  • 17 Crawford (2009) 263, 316, 318, 320.
  • 18 Grose (1785) iii, v-vi.
  • 19 Stamper (2017) 154.
  • 20 Grose (1785) s.v. GREEK.
  • 21 See under these words as alphabetically lemmatised in Grose (1785); there are no page numbers in this part of the book.
  • 22 Grose (1791) 7.
  • 23 Crummell (1898) 10-11.
  • 24 ‘Provincial medical and surgical association’, Tretvman’s Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser, Thursday, August 26th, 1852; Issue 4522.
  • 25 Knowledge of Greek as cancelling lack of entitlement based on class and gender was instanced prominently 20 years later in the USA, where it also features in a prodigy narrative as signalling quasi-supernatural power. Tilton (1871), a biographical sketch of Victoria Woodhull, in 1872 the first woman to run for U.S. president, explains how she used the authority of Athenian statesman Demosthenes to legitimise her audacious move. Raised in a one-room wooden shack in Homer, Ohio, and the recipient of less than three years’ education, she practised as a medium and grew up to be a freethinker, abolitionist and suffragist. She was often visited by the spirit of Demosthenes, who presented her with the text of a petition to Congress when she was asleep. He wrote on a scroll ‘The Memorial of Victoria C. Woodhull’, claiming under the Fourteenth Amendment the right of women as of all other ‘citizens of the United States’ to vote.

Anon. (1871); see further Hall (2013b) 292-3.

Holcroft (1784) 74.

The showman designing a Harlequin Hercules in Hawkesworth (1754) 14 (see below, p. 346) proposes hiring the Learned English Dog to impersonate Cerberus. Bondeson (2011) 17-18.

Quoted in Everitt (1985) 182.

Bondeson (2011) 19.

Cervantes (1741) 33.

Cervantes (1741) 37

Cervantes (1741) 38.

‘The Learned’ Pig, reproduced in Person (1815) 54-5, 54 and n.

Hood (1839) 540.

Hall (2016a) 455 and n.30.

John Johnson Collection of Handbills Animals on Show, no. I (7), Bodleian Library. See Xenophon, Anabasis 1.5.3.

Bondeson (2008) 180-1.

Anon. (1751a).

Anon. (1751b), title page. The author of the pamphlet was probably Richard Bentley. Anon. (1751b) 19—20.

Quoted in Chambers (1835) 439.

Chambers (1835) 439.

Wilkie (1757) iv. On working-class knowledge ofjosephus and of Pope’s Homer, see esp. pp. 4-5 and 45.

Chambers (1835) 439.

On the Foulis brothers, see the library holdings and bibliography catalogued in Whitaker (1986) and Gaskell (1964), respectively.

Duncan (1831) 127-31.

Anon. (1851) 358.

Warren (1841) vol. II, 101-2; Strachan (2007) 222-5. The name is dependent on a formula used of the dark-haired god Poseidon and of Hector in Homer, e.g. at Iliad XX.144 and Od. IX.536.

Ryff (1540), Fontaine (1546), Lauro (1547), ‘R.W.’ (1606).

Jones (1698).

It is possible that the book was by the medical writer William Salmon; see Fissell (2015) no. 1.

Cannon (1743) 41.

Fissell (2015).

Hall (2017).

See the recent edition with translation by Mayhew (2011).

Fissell (2015).

Joyce (1922) 722; see also 226.

Bertenshaw (1991) 111, 113.

Place (1972) 45, 261.

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