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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Hysteria and Medicinal Masturbation: The 19th Century Origins of the Vibrator

M0017861 Vaginal examination , from Maygrier, Nouvelles...1825Yes. You did just read the words ‘medicinal masturbation’ although it certainly was never called that in the 19th century! But more of that later. To start this little article, I need to talk to you about first about ‘hysteria’, a medical condition which was recognised and widely believed for two thousand years. The condition was blamed for causing all manner of maladies in women from nervousness and stomach pain to lunacy.

It was probably the Egyptians who first believed it was a medical problem, but we have to blame the Ancient Greeks for all of the nonsense which came later. The term comes from hystera, the Greek word for uterus, and eminent Greek physicians who followed the teachings of Hippocrates had some funny ideas about this particular female organ.

Aretaeus of Cappodocia describes it thus:

“In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscous, closely resembling an animal; for it moves itself hither and thither in the flanks… it is altogether erratic. It delights, also, in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it had an aversion to fetid smells and flees from them; and, on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal.”

Scary indeed.

tumblr_kpz8iinokh1qztiu5o1_500Hysteria, or wandering womb, was caused when this fidgeting strange little animal was not sufficiently ‘irrigated with male seed.’ Left to wander too far, it could interfere with the delicate female brain. Hippocrates believed hysteria needed to be treated with smells, foul ones at the nose and perfumed ones around the nether regions, to coax the nomadic beastie back into the pelvis, and recommended regular coupling with a vigorous man. Male seed, after all, would prevent it wandering in the first place.

This ridiculous theory persisted through time. By medieval times they had mixed the flawed science with religion as they did with so many things. Hysteria was the Devil’s work and needed to be treated with prayer or penance. Persistent hysterics might even have to be executed for their lustful, unruly, wayward wombs.

By the 17th century as science began to usurp the power the church had over medicine, treating hysteria rather than punishing it became the norm. But with physicians estimating at least three quarters of the female population suffered sporadically from the malady, treating it became a daily part of every doctor’s life.

It was, in many ways, like lancing a boil. Every physician worth his salt knew that if the poison could be drawn from a festering carbuncle, within a few days the surrounding skin would be back to normal. Hysteria simply needed expunging. If smelling salts or a brisk gallop across the fields on the back of a horse did not work, the most effective way to do that was ‘pelvic massage’- a very scientific term for masturbation. The subsequent ‘Hysterical Paroxysm’ would quickly relieve all of the patient’s symptoms. Thanks to the medieval church, masturbation was still considered a sin in the 19th century and one which would very likely send you blind, but if it was a bonafide medical procedure, there was nothing wrong with it. In fact, it was positively encouraged! As a result, doctors earned a fortune doing it for the masses who required it.

This practice was not only widely accepted by the prim and proper 19th century society, it was lauded for its health-giving benefits and the most skilled physicians were inundated with repeat business. Unfortunately, it was time consuming and hard work. Physicians from the time complained about the toll it was taking on their poor wrists and arms. Some women, they lamented, took almost an hour to achieve the necessary hysterical paroxysm, and with so many patients in dire need of their services, the poor fellows were physically exhausted. Some even complained of such persistent symptoms, which today would be called repetitive strain injury, they were unable to work. It went without saying that if a hysteria doctor was not in any shape to be working then he could not reap the bountiful financial benefits from the huge proportion of women suffering from wandering wombs! Something had to be done.

This led to a variety of labour-saving devices being created with the express
purpose of mechanically ‘alleviating’ hysteria while saving the doctors’ joints in the process. And they invented some corkers.

horse-machineGeorge Taylor’s steam powered manipulator involved a coal fired engine in one room connected to a peculiar table-like contraption in another. In the middle of the table was a convenient hole which the hysterical woman sat astride, while the steam made a metal ball vibrate in the cavity. As beneficial as many patients found it, the doctors complained about the amount of coal they had to shovel in the engine, so it’s time was scandalously cut short. There were several hand-wound devices but as they also required the physician’s energy to vibrate, the hunt was on for something easier.

Vigor & Co’s Horse-Action Saddle could be used in the privacy of one’s own home. As could the hilariously named ‘Chattanooga’. I could not for the life of me find a picture of that one, but learned it was almost five feet tall and so cumbersome they mounted it on wheels.

Finally, in 1869, Dr Joseph Mortimer Granville, a man horrified at the idea of using his hands to perform pelvic massage, patented the first electromagnetic vibrator, The Percussor (a term used now for the sort of tools doctors use to test reflexes). The Precussor was the modern precursor to today’s buzzing buddies and was known affectionately–and to its inventors mortification–as ‘Granville’s Hammer’ because it was exactly the right tool for the job!

sears_vibratorsBy the late 19th century and in the early part of the 20th century, a huge variety of vibrating personal massagers came on the market to treat women and they were even widely advertised in newspapers and periodicals, claiming all manner of health benefits and directly aimed at women. They didn’t hide from what it did either. One advertisement in the Sears catalogue of 1903 called a vibrating massager “a delightful companion… that will throb within you”!

Since then, even though the theory of hysteria has been debunked and forgotten, the world continues to feel the good vibrations of Granville’s invention. I just wish I could find a way to put all of this into one of my books!

Virginia Heath writes witty, fast-paced Regency romantic comedies with a modern twist for Harlequin Historical. The Discerning Gentleman’s Guide is out now.

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