The modern world is obsessed with love. Dating, relationships, marriage and sex, are all topics of discussion and advice. Love is all over the media, from relationship advice columns to the latest romantic comedy in the cinema. As it turns out, contemporaries from the early modern period were obsessed with love too. Through their advice manuals it is interesting to see the continuities and changes in the advice given on love from early modern period to today.
In many advice manuals from this period, sex and relationships is a hot topic. Aristotle’s masterpiece, which was not actually written by Aristotle, provides ‘a word of advice to both sexes; being several directions respecting the act of copulation’ which can be comical to the modern audience. It is of course, in the seventeenth century, assumed that this natural act will occur between a married man and woman in order to make babies, and only to make babies, because what other reason could there be?!
The author agrees that the way to a man’s heart (or his penis) is through his stomach as explanation by the importance of food in helping along with copulation (see below). This idea is still a popular cliché. It is also advised that both sexes have passion and enthusiasm to fulfil ‘what nature requires’ but even the author is no expert in this area as this can only be taught through love not by him.
The mysteries of conjugal love were revealed to the curious men and women by Nicholas de Venette in 1707. These mysteries seem to be more about sex than relationships or love, yet, like the masterpiece, it is amusing at parts especially the description of ‘what constitution a woman must be of to be very loving’ which brings to question if women not of this constitution are not very loving or are they just less loving? Unfortunately if you, like me, do not have black hair and your breasts aren’t large or hard you are not of the right constitution to be very loving, according to Venette anyway.
Attractiveness continues to be of concern today. Images and descriptions of what constitutes as ‘beauty’ have changed over the years but advice is still given on how to be more attractive, for instance Cosmopolitans articles Beauty Tips and The Secret to Getting Any Guy. Images in the media portray popular ideals of beauty which does not apply to everybody, but this is not to say that if you don’t fit the criteria that you are not beautiful. Today, such articles are likely to be taken with a pinch of salt and I wonder how advice from Venette’s work was really received and if it was taken seriously but that’s a question for a different blog.
Advice on love and sex has certainly evolved since the early modern period although some aspects are similar. Scientific knowledge has undoubtedly played a part in this change yet it is important that such advice has remained a hot topic for advice. Manuals exist throughout history on such advice, dating all the way back to before the first century with Kama Sutra which has even been reproduced today! Slightly more recently, the USO Senior Hostess provided a guideline of how women should interact with men in war time. Even more recently, the famous Men are from Mars Women are from Venus gives advice on having a happy relationship. This is important because it shows that it means that there has always been an interest in such advice.
Looking into these manuals has made me question if they are a way of controlling society by enforcing the idea that sexual relations should take place only within marriage between a man and woman. However, with today’s more liberated view towards sexuality, perhaps todays advice is more varied to reflect a more diverse view on ‘love.’
Please see Aristotle’s Master-Piece Completed, in Two Parts – The Unexpected, a great blog on this advice manual.
1. Aristotle’s Master-piece Completed, in Two Parts (London, 1697),p.91.
2. Venette, N. The Mysteries of Conjugal Love Reveal’d (London, 1707), p. 123.