Beggar’s Benison: Masturbation and Free Love in 18th Century Scotland

testing platter

The Test Platter of The Beggar’s Benison. (Photo courtesy of the Museum of the University of St. Andrews).

Men are gross. I should know – I am one.

But don’t take it from me. Take, for example, the eighteenth-century Scottish men’s club, “The Most Ancient and Puissant Order of Beggar’s Benison and Merryland,” or Beggar’s Benison for short. Formed in 1732 in the small town of Anstruther in Fife, this club comprised men of all ages, and of ranks ranging from tradesmen and merchants to government officials, eventually even including royalty. Its members came together – yes, in that sense of the term – to celebrate male sexuality and the idea of free love. The effluvia of their activity was collected on a “test plate” bearing an engraving of vulva and penis and the motto “The Way of a Man with a Maid.”

This pastime resulted in some interesting meeting minutes: “18 assembled, and Frigged upon the Test Platter. The origin and performance were discussed. The Platter was filled with Semen, each Knight at an average did not ‘benevolent’ [donate] quite a horn spoonful.”(1)

Masturbation was also key to initiating new members, who had to prove their manhood. In the initiation ritual, the novice would lay his erect penis on the test platter, then “The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.”(2)

As homo-erotic as this undoubtedly is, the Benison wasn’t a proto-gay club. Those already existed and were known derogatorily as “molly houses.” In these establishments, men seeking sex with men could meet each other with somewhat less fear of discovery than in other venues, at a time when the punishment for sodomy was transportation or execution. The Beggar’s Benison wanted to distance itself from any such suspicions, either out of homophobia or fear of prosecution (probably both). While its Code promoted “fair trade and legal entry” in sexual matters, it also sought to prevent “a preposterous and Contraband Trade too frequently practiced.”

prick glass

The Wig Club’s prick glass (often misattributed to the Beggar’s Benison). Anyone attempting to drink from it was likely to get a good dowsing, so it was probably used only to initiate new members to the Wig Club.

But the grossness doesn’t stop with semen-filled platters. Other relics of the club included a wig supposedly made of the pubic hair of King Charles II’s mistresses (and have you ever noticed the size of Restoration-era wigs?). Eighteenth-century dandies sometimes adorned their hats with tufts of pubic hair as trophies of their conquests, and this wig was just a much larger version. It would later be transferred to the elite Edinburgh Wig Club (an offshoot of the Benison), and became that club’s icon. Allegedly, the loss of the wig to the Benison’s rival inspired King George IV to donate his own mistresses’ pubic hairs to the club, of which he was already an honorary member. (Unfortunately, the wig disappeared in the early 1900s, but we still have the Wig Cub’s prick glass, right)

The childish jokes almost write themselves. But does the Beggar’s Benison only merit either a derisive laugh or a disgusted “ewww!”?

In his 2001 book on the club, David Stevenson argues that behind what seems a particularly gross frat-boy bawdiness lay an Enlightenment sex-positivity. In contrast to the Puritan view that allowed sex, even within marriage, only for procreation, the Benison aligned itself with other Enlightenment thinkers in viewing sex as pleasurable in itself. This was also a time of rabid anti-masturbation sentiment, which began in 1715 with the publication of Onania, a pamphlet warning that self-pleasure led to “stunted growth, disorders of the penis and testes, gonorrhea, epilepsy, hysteria, consumption, and barrenness.”(3)Stevenson cover

The club can be seen as a reaction to such hysteria: a bold statement of the rights of man to fap when he pleases.

But what of women? As usual with Enlightenment thinking, liberty and equality only went so far. Like the other libertines of the time (and some today), the club viewed women both with veneration and as little more than objects. The Merryland in the club’s name refers to the body of Woman, to be explored and possessed (see the above-mentioned pubic hairs). At best, the club promoted “fair trade” or “free trade” between the sexes, but the emphasis was always on male freedom to pursue “commerce” with “Merryland.” Sexual freedom for the wives and daughters of these worthy family men? Lol.

And I doubt these men wanted their own daughters to participate in a service some village girls performed for the club. The Benison employed “posture girls” (eighteenth-century strippers), although, oddly, it kept its masturbatorial and viewing activities separate. Speaking to or touching the girls was forbidden, and the girls (literally girls, as they ranged in age from 15 to 17) were allowed to wear masks while posing nude. Then every Knight “passed in turn and surveyed the Secrets of Nature.”(4) Ironically, “free love” becomes sex (or titillation) for cash.

The sex-for-cash theme goes back to the club’s founding myth, in which the Stuart King James V, traveling in commoner’s disguise, comes to Dreel Burn, a stream dividing the two neighborhoods of Anstruther. Not wanting to get his feet wet (how noble!), he employs the services of a “beggar lass” to carry him on her back across the water. He gives her a gold coin for the service, and she gives him a blessing or “benison” in return: “May your purse naer be toom [empty], and your horn aye in bloom.” From this verse of double entendres sprang the club’s salutation: “May prick nor purse never fail you.”(5)

Edinburgh Beggar's seal

The Seal of the Edinburgh branch of the Beggar’s Benison, bearing the image of the prick and purse. The anchor has nothing to do with the navy, but is a sexual metaphor (a man “dropping anchor” in a woman’s “harbor”).

So the Beggar’s Benison wasn’t just a sex club, but wove Jacobite and free-trade themes into its codes and mythology. The trade metaphors may be even more important than the sexual aspect. The merchants of the club, like most dutiful Scots, engaged in smuggling to circumvent onerous English taxes. Think of them as early Libertarians. Stevenson even suggests that the bawdy activities of the club might have been a mere cover to allow smugglers and corrupt customs officials to meet. And who would want to check up on the club, considering the type of activities one might find at its meetings?

In the end, the Beggar’s Benison may have been little more nor less than the equivalent of a bunch of guys visiting a strip club, with all the sexism that implies. Stevenson makes the case that they kept to themselves and harmed no one, apart from some of the posture girls’ reputations. They also hosted lectures on what amounted to sex education, encouraging the use of condoms: “the sexual embrace should be independent of the dread of a conception which blasts the prospects of the female.”(6)

As Stevenson points out, far worse can be said of other, better-remembered Scots, such as Robert Burns, whose affairs led to illegitimate children and untimely ends for the mothers, or James Boswell, whose seventeen bouts of gonorrhea no doubt contributed to the spread of venereal disease among the many, many prostitutes he frequented. Compared to these and other eighteenth-century rakes (the denizens of the far more notorious Hellfire Clubs, for instance), the men of the Beggar’s Benison merely seem like spunky schoolboys.

Sources

(1) Stevenson, David. The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and their Rituals. Tuckwell Press, 2001. p. 38

(2) Stevenson, p. 39

(3) Allen, Peter L. The Wages of Sin: Sex and Disease, Past and Present. University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 87

(4) Stevenson, p. 38

(5) Stevenson, p. 12

(6) Stevenson, p. 36

Further Reading

Black, Annetta. Objects of Intrigue: Beggar’s Benison Prick Glass. Atlas Obscura. (Unfortunately, this article misattributes the intriguing prick glass as belonging to the Beggar’s Benison. According to Stevenson, it belonged to the later Wig Club.)

Perrottet, Tony. Hellfire Holidays. Slate.

Roderick, Danielle. Masturbation Clubs of the 1700s. The Hairpin.
http://www.slate.com/

HogueFinal A_macLarry Hogue’s writing is all over the place and all over time. He started out in nonfiction/nature writing with a personal narrative/environmental history of the Anza-Borrego Desert called All the Wild and Lonely Places: Journeys in a Desert Landscape. After moving to Michigan, he switched to writing fiction. He’s a fan of folk music, and got the idea for Daring and Decorum while listening to Loreena McKennitt’s outstanding adaptation of Alfred Noyes’ poem, The Highwayman. When not speaking a word for nature or for forgotten LGBT people of history, he spends his white-knighting, gender-betraying energies on Twitter and Facebook, and sometimes on the streets of Lansing, MI, and Washington DC. His new historical romance, Daring and Decorum, is due out August 1 from Supposed Crimes. As might be expected from this article, the novel can be described as “Regency Romance, minus the hunky, shirtless lords.”
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