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Sex and the Citizen: Doctors, Reproductive Manuals, and Fashionable
MRIC 2004/05

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"Sex and the Citizen: Doctors, Reproductive Manuals, and Fashionable

April 12th 
Sean Quinlan - History

Abstract: In the early years of the Napoleonic Consulate and Empire (1799–1815), there appeared an extraordinarily popular (and salacious) medical literature on human sexuality, reproductive strategies, and child-rearing. These best-selling works, which formed a kind of medical ‘grub street’, included J.-A. Millot’s The Art of Making the Sexes at Will (1800), L.-J.-M. Robert’s Essay on Mega-Anthropogenesis (1801), and anonymous texts like The Propagation of the Human Species (1799) and Philopaedia, or the Art of Having Children without Passions (1808).

Using printed and manuscript sources from the period, this presentation explores this literature, showing how medical writers addressed these ‘how to’ sex manuals to the new fashionable and urbane elites of Napoleonic society. Their authors promised to explain the so-called ‘mysteries of generation’, enabling parents to propagate healthy, vigorous, patriotic, and politically moderate children for the Napoleonic state. Often written by outsiders to the Paris medical establishment, these manuals appealed to an engaged reading public who wanted to raise new French citizens attached to the principles of 1789 but who were opposed to radical Jacobinism, reactionary royalism, and religious revivalism. These readers (primarily women, if contemporary critics are to be believed) hoped to raise their children within the context of particular civic and moral values.

Largely secular in outlook, though not hostile to religious sentiment, these readers looked to scientific materialism and domestic paternalism to maintain patriotic virtue and republican sentiment. Medicine thus provided a common, ‘objective’ language to discuss divisive political and social questions. As the analysis further demonstrates, however, these reproductive manuals fit into a long-standing Enlightenment tradition of medical books about sex and reproduction, many which were hilarious, subversive, and pornographic in scope in tone. In this manner, the reproductive manuals of the Consulate and Empire toyed with erotic traditions that undermined the conservative values they sought to maintain.

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