Libertines Unite Essay, Research Paper
Libertines unite The Beggar’s Benison: Sex Clubs of Enlightenment Scotland and Their Rituals
265pp, Tuckwell Press Clubs were one of the 18th century’s great inventions. “Clubbable”, a word invented by Dr Johnson, was a coinage for the age. For men, the club promised a new form of sociability. Nowadays we associate clubs with reactionary habits, yet once they were self-consciously modern, allowing enlightened gentlemen to socialise outside the narrow confines of family or profession. In a club, men were to express their common rationality and learn social sophistication. And lowland Scotland, whose capital, Edinburgh, was a hub of Enlightenment culture, was the home to many such associations of like-minded citizens. David Stevenson’s mischievous aim is to show that the 18th-century club was not necessarily the polite and proper organisation celebrated in official propaganda. Some clubs were merely “raucous” – the average meeting more stag night than philosophical discussion group – while others were fervently “libertine”. The Beggar’s Benison, the club to which Stevenson devotes his attention, was dedicated to “the convivial celebration of male sexuality”. It was founded in the town of Anstruther in Fife, though it came to have branches in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Its earliest members were customs officers, merchants and affluent craftsmen – leading members of the community. By the end of the century it included churchmen and aristocrats. All were, in their own eyes, modern “defiers of convention”, liberated hedonists. They dined and drank together, delighting in obscene songs and toasts. They had some earnest interest in matters of sex, and texts survive of “lectures” on what we would call sex education. They used the club’s stock of pornography and were occasionally entertained by naked “posture girls”. And it seems that they indulged in rituals of collective masturbation, participation in this apparently being an initiation procedure. Masturbation was a preoccupation for the club, and Stevenson remarks that this may speak of the lack of available entertainment in 18th-century Fife. He also makes historical sense of it by describing “the great masturbation panic” that began in the early decades of the 18th century, with physicians in particular warning that onanism was “a major health and social problem”. The club’s rituals, he thinks, were a reaction against the backwardness of quacks and moralists. Shameless “frigging” was an expression of intellectual freedom. The evidence of the club’s activities includes many odd relics. Among the impedimenta of would-be libertinism are medals depicting naked human figures, plates and bowls with startling genital decorations and seals depicting the club symbol, a phallus with a small bag suspended from it. This made graphic the club’s benison: “May prick nor purse ne’er fail you”. Forward-looking proponents of commerce, members seem to have been enthusiasts for both free trade and free love. A prize possession was a snuffbox donated by honorary member George IV containing pubic hair from one of his mistresses. As Stevenson concedes, his theme is not entirely new; associations of Georgian rakes have been described by historians before. Many will know of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Medmenham Monks, the so-called “Hell-Fire Club”, whose members blasphemously substituted Venus for Christ in parodies of religious worship and cavorted with loose women in the caves of Dashwood’s estate. What Stevenson manages to show is that such associations were, however oddly, some part of Enlightenment culture. Sometimes his enthusiasm to see his libidinous Scottish gentlemen in their proper historical context leads him to pile anecdote and digression promiscuously together. He cannot omit any good story about sex-obsessed Scotsmen, from the obscene versifying of Alexander Robertson in the 1690s to the sexological therapies for which James Graham was imprisoned in the 1780s. But he certainly shows that his 18th-century countrymen were not quite as restrained or “polite” as is usually supposed.