A 17th-Century Sex Manual That's Legitimately Raunchy

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
June 26 2013 8:40 AM

A 17th-Century Sex Manual That's Legitimately Raunchy

The Vault is Slate's new history blog. Like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter @slatevault, and find us on Tumblr. Find out more about what this space is all about here.

This sex manual, translated from the original French and published in England in 1680, is racy, lewd, and hilarious. Appendix Journal’s Benjamin Breen recently posted about the document after digging it out of Google Books, which offers a fully digitized copy. (Full title: The School of Venus, or the Ladies Delight, Reduced into Rules of Practice.)

In his introduction to an anthology of 18th-century “libertine literature,” literary scholar Bradford K. Mudge points out that written pornography was not uncommon in England in the 17th and 18th centuries. Novels, travelogues, philosophy, and even botanical treatises contained extended erotic passages. In many cases, books with sexual content were published with different title pages or covers to fool authorities who might not approve.

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The book, as you can see from this frontispiece, doesn’t pretend to be about anything other than sex. Venus has but a few major dramatis personae: Katherine (“Katy”), a beautiful virgin who’s completely ignorant about matters of sex; Roger, a suitor interested in changing that; and Frances (“Frank”), Katherine’s more-experienced “kinswoman” who tells Katherine all about sex in order to “fire her Blood” and make her “[long] to be at the Sport.”

A discussion between Katy and Frank comprises the first half of the book. Frank explains the mechanics of erections, teaches the vocabulary used to name erotic anatomy, and describes the normal course of a sexual encounter. Most of all, she reiterates the argument that everyone is "doing it"—even those Londoners Katy thinks of as respectable.

After Katy is persuaded, Roger just happens to drop by, and the two commence her sexual education. In the second part of the book, Katherine tells her relative all about “how she had lost her Maidenhead, [and] the variety of postures Roger had put her in.” This section of the book contains images I won’t reproduce here, but Breen’s post contains a few good ones. (NSFW!)

Throughout the text, it’s the asides that are the most amusing. Katy reports that after deflowering her, Roger “plucked out of his Pockets some Pistachios which he gave me to eat, telling me it was the best restorative in the World after F**king.”

How well-known was this book in its time? Breen writes that famed diarist Samuel Pepys recorded encountering the text (in its original French) in his bookseller’s shop in January 1668. After initially protesting that he was “ashamed of reading in it,” Pepys eventually convinced himself that it wouldn’t hurt to look at it just once—on the general principle that “a sober man” should know about the “villainy of the world.”

Titillated but true to his word, Pepys burned the book right after reading it.

Rebecca Onion, who runs Slate’s history blog The Vault, is a writer and academic living in Ohio. Follow her on Twitter.

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