Books: The agony and ecstasy

Kate Saunders travels in time for sound advice on sex and baby care from 16th-century Italyrap strap strap strap strap
Click to follow
How To Do It: guides to good living for

Renaissance Italians

by Rudolph M Bell

University of Chicago Press, pounds 19.95, 374pp

ADVICE MANUALS have always been popular. In the 19th century, you could consult Mrs Beeton about sacking servants or cooking turbot. At the end of the 20th, Rosemary Conley promises to help you to a smaller bum. In much the same way, citizens of 16th-century Florence or Rome liked to get their wisdom in bite-sized nuggets. The spread of literacy and the explosion of printed works in the vernacular created a healthy market for the advice manual. Some, such as Machiavelli's The Prince and Castiglione's Book of the Courtier, have honoured places in the canon of world literature.

But who cares about military strategy, or perfect manners? How To Do It is concerned with the popular market, which mostly meant sex. Then, as now, Alex Comfort was likely to outsell Will Hutton. Rudolph M Bell uses modern hits to explain the kind of book he is studying: "The Rules fits nicely at the shallow end of the advice-manual spectrum," he says, referring to the US bestseller about how to make a man marry you. "At the opposite extreme, I would place Dr Spock's recommendations on baby care."

Bell prefers the shallow end, and his fascinating book is a window on a lost world far nearer to our own than we might imagine. The works deal with the nuts and bolts of living - how to conceive, give birth, bring up a child. The advice was usually drawn from the wisdom of the ancients, cleverly rehashed to appeal to the newly-literate urban middle classes.

Hints about sex were often given by celibate friars. They had an interest in ensuring decent Catholic behaviour, but were not above airing choice snippets from the confessional.

Doctors of philosophy and medicine were quick to jump on the bandwagon. Michele Savonarola, grandfather of the more famous Girolamo, reveals a heartening respect for the female orgasm. "Husband and wife should touch each other, especially he should rub his finger on the area between her clitoris and vagina since this is external zone where she gets the greatest pleasure." The wife's orgasm, he declared, is essential for conception.

For those particular about the gender of their baby, Savonarola's advice is practical, if rather painful. "When breeders want a cow to produce a bull calf, they tie the bull's left testicle; readers who want a male child should do the same." Did it work? Did anyone try?

As a mother, I was particularly interested in advice about giving birth and raising a child. Bell's section on baby care is the most beguiling, and scholarly, in the book. He questions the assumption that well-off families automatically put children out to nurse. Mother's milk was held to be best, though that did not stop rich ladies renting a boob. A poor woman could give her child to a cheap wet-nurse, suckle a wealthy child and turn a profit.

This seems heartless, but Bell sternly reminds us about unchanging economic facts. "We modern Americans might reflect on childcare arrangements provided for career families by women of colour, who somehow must attend as well to their own children." Cut through the superstition, he implies, and these old Italians can teach us a thing or two: "The manuals do not offer justification for beating children, which definitely cannot be said of what many parents read in 20th-century America."

Professor Bell comes across as a kind, liberal-minded old cove, who has caught some of the gossipy tone of his subjects. "My preference would be to set aside academic expertise," he says, "and join you instead for an informal chat, maybe over drinks or lunch." Failing that, how pleasant to read his delightful, informative and often hilarious book.