ARISTOTLE, pseud. The Works of Aristotle the Famous Philosopher, Containing his Complete Masterpiece, and Family Physician; his Experienced Midwife, his Book of Problems, and his Remarks on Physiognomy. Complete Edition, with Engravings. London: ‘printed for J. Smith, High Holborn’, [c. 1850-1880].

Sextodecimo (120 x 85mm), pp. 463, [1 (blank)], [1 (blank verso of seventh plate)], ‘464’-‘465’ (seventh and eighth plates)], [1 (blank verso of eighth plate)], [8 (‘Useful Receipts’)]. Lithographic frontispiece printed in red and black depicting a young woman bathing in a stream, lithographic additional title printed in red and black (‘Medical Knowledge’ with imprint ‘London published for the Booksellers’) with vignette depicting a new-born baby with its mother and a midwife or nurse, and 8 lithographic plates printed in red and black (frontispiece, additional title, and plates all printed on coated stock but included in the pagination). Wood-engraved illustrations in the text. (Some light browning, occasional light spotting or wax-marking, a few ll. slightly creased at margins, small indentation on additional title.) Original red pebble-grain cloth, boards blocked with upper and lower borders of triple black rules, upper board with central ornamental band in black extending onto spine, lower board with central caduceus enclosed by leafy sprays, spine blocked in gilt with title and decorated with gilt putto reading a book, spine-ends decorated with gilt rules and dots, coated lemon-yellow endpapers, all edges red. (Spine slightly faded, extremities slightly rubbed and bumped, slightly shaken.) A very good copy in the original cloth.                    

Reprint. In the early modern period, the popularity of manuals on conception, pregnancy and childbirth – especially Nicolas Culpeper’s Directory for Midwives (1651) – intersected with the continued popularity of Aristotelian works and the skills of writers and booksellers in reacting quickly to such trends for their own benefit. In this environment, the pseudo-Aristotelian Aristotle’s Masterpiece (first published in 1684) became ‘the best-selling guide to pregnancy and childbirth’ and witnessed ‘more editions than all other popular works on the topic combined’ through to the late nineteenth century (Mary E. Fissell, ‘Hairy Women and Naked Truths: Gender and the Politics of Knowledge in Aristotle’s Masterpiece’, The William and Mary Quarterly 60 (2003), pp. 43-74, at p. 43). Indeed, such was its impact on popular culture that references to it can be found in the literature of the early twentieth century; for example, Leopold Bloom is shown a copy in a Dublin bookshop in James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and references to the text recur in the novel, while the second chapter of Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930) describes customs officers at Dover searching Adam Fenwick-Symes’ luggage for banned books, and consulting a list ‘which began “Aristotle, Works of (Illustrated)”’. 

The first edition of the text, which appears to have survived in three main states, was a combination mostly of Levinus Lemnius’ Secret Miracles of Nature (1559, first and only English edition 1658) and the anonymous Complete Midwives Practice, which was itself a compilation of earlier texts, and the text was revised, reworked, and modified throughout the following two centuries. The present, attractive mid-nineteenth-century copy appears to be one of a number of variant editions produced in the 1850s which continued the tradition of making these topics attractive to a contemporary audience, here with red-and-black lithographic plates as illustrations. This copy has a slightly risqué frontispiece, depicting a nude woman bathing her feet sitting at the side of a lake. The facing, additional title shows two women tending to a baby, apparently illustrating the topic of midwifery. The other plates are somewhat stylised anatomical images of each month of pregnancy from conception to delivery, and near-nude portraits of man, woman and child (‘Nature’) and a woman’s figure surrounded by the signs of the zodiac. The illustrations in the text agree closely with those in other editions, and show physical abnormalities from the wonderous to the monstrous.

The textual contents are comprehensive and interesting: from virginity to the assignation of the child’s sex in the womb; from the difficulties and complexities of conception to the perils of each month of pregnancy; from the progress of and complications in childbirth to children’s diseases; and from breastfeeding to cures for common diseases. Towards the end, there are sections on physiology presented in a question-and-answer structure (including the questions on why the world spins in a drunk man’s head, why old men have difficulty sneezing, and why milk is not wholesome, all answered within the humoral theory of the time), as well as an extensive section on physiognomy. Overall, the entire spectrum of family health is covered. 

This edition is scarce, and we can only trace three copies which appear to match it in UK institutional collections via JISC Library Hub Discover: British Library, Cambridge University Library, and Royal College of Nursing Library.


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