Women and the Beggar’s Benison

(approx. 3.5 minute read)  

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

For women, the Club existed at a time when they could neither vote nor work in a range of industries, and they did not even have legal guardianship over their own children. In terms of sex, they were not supposed to derive any pleasure from sex. Indeed, it was a common belief in 1700s Britain that a female’s main purpose should purely be to satisfy male sexual needs and bear children. Women had little control over their own bodies. This is especially exemplified by the activities in which members of the Beggar’s Benison participated. 

The Club would fantasize about women through the reading of pornographic texts such as ‘Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure’ and ‘A New Description of Merryland’ (see our ‘Trip to Merryland: Fantasising About Sex’ blog to learn more about this!) Some of the objects used in their meetings featured imagery of vulvas. However, the most disturbing of the Club’s activities was that young girls were paid to come to private club meetings and exhibit their naked bodies to members.  

Vagina Heart Seal Matrix from The Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Seal Matrix, 1731-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1068, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/seal-matrix/762417 

It is important to note that while many sources refer to these models as women, they were in fact young girls. Their ages ranged from 15 to 19 years old, in contrast to the members whose ages ranged from 30 to 50 years old.1 Unfortunately, we have scarce other details about who these girls were. Certainly, it is clear from the Club records that their identities did not matter to the Club. At private meetings, they would be stripped naked with their face’s half covered and would be made to pose for the members.2  

While there were no consequences for the men who participated in these meetings, even when the Club would become more an open secret than a secret, this was often not the case for the girls involved. Their half-covered faces did little to conceal their identity, and this could have repercussions outside of the Club meetings. Indeed, there is one recorded story where a bride on her wedding day was openly mocked and ridiculed for her previous hiring by the Club.3 Meanwhile, members were referred to as ‘gentlemen’ and there are no accounts of them facing any kind of consequences.  

It also must be stressed that there was likely little consent involved in how the girls were exhibited as part of these meetings. Members of the Club were mostly upper middle-class men from the East Neuk of Fife with influence within the local community, whilst the girls exhibited held much lower social status. This difference in status between the members and the girls in tandem with gender expectations at the time, was unlikely to be conducive to an equitable power dynamic. 

The Beggar’s Benison was not the first sex club in Scotland; there was another before it, although short lived. This club was the Knights of the Horn, established in Edinburgh in 1705. Very little detail survives about this Club. However, we do know that in contrast to the Beggar’s Benison, the Knights of the Horn reportedly held “mixed” meetings – in other words they allowed both men and women to participate.4 It is interesting to note that unlike the Beggar’s Benison, this Club was openly mocked and became the subject of hostile satire, in a way the Benison, to our knowledge, never was, even when the Club became an open secret within the local community. There is no clear evidence why the two were treated so differently. But given that the Knights of the Horn was founded in a similar time period to the Beggar’s Benison, it is more likely that this was due to the participation of women, thus evoking more vocal disapproval for the activities and conduct of the Club. 

 

Women’s March in 2017, London 
 
Equality Hurts No One, © Caroline Gunston, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/151312084@N02/32147533110 

      The Beggar’s Benison brings up issues that are still vitally important to discuss today. Women still do not have the same power or freedoms regarding sex, and they don’t always have control when it comes to their own bodies. Activist groups continue to educate people about the idea of consent and its importance. The male gaze is still a significant factor influencing depictions of a woman’s body in the media. But this is changing. Women and marginalised groups are beginning to take control. They are deciding how and when their bodies can be depicted. Female sexuality is starting to be recognised for being empowering, when consent is freely given. We hope our exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club can further amplify these issues through its exploration and display of the Collection of this all-male sex club. 

Written by Nicola Law, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

[1] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[2] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[3] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[4] Stevenson, Chapter Four 

  • Baker-Benfield., G.J, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth Century Britain, 1992  
  • Dabhoiwala, Faramerz, The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, 2012 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals2001 

The Beggar’s Benison Club in the 21st Century

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of the exhibition microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.   

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

Today, the University of St Andrews has objects and archival material in its Collection which relate to the Club. The collection includes badges, sashes, seals, glasses, and a test platter used by Club members, with many being explicitly sexual in nature and often inscribed with sexual innuendos and phallic imagery.  

Wine Glass from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Wine Glass, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1064, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/wine-glass/762412 

This Collection is now being put on public display for the first time at the University in our exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum. 

The Exhibition displays the objects through a feminist lens, considering the actions of the Club under the three main themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power. For our exhibition team, this was an opportunity to explore and learn from the past, by using the actions of the Beggar’s Benison Club to reflect upon and discuss continued issues in society today. Curated by an all-women team, the Exhibition served as a platform from which to address consent, sexual identity and freedom, and gender equality. 

              In their devotion to all-male sexual liberation the Beggar’s Benison Club participated in many sexually-themed activities. One of the more shocking events was its hiring of ‘posture girls’, an activity that occurred on multiple occasions. Young women, between the ages of fifteen to nineteen were hired to display themselves naked for the members’ pleasure. While the men were not permitted to touch the young women, the action of viewing them is a very literal representation of the male gaze.  

             To this day, women, particularly young women and girls, are often sexualised, objectified and represented in the media through the male gaze.  

 

Wine Advert in Australia from 2008 
 
…or three or four, © Jes, CC BY-NC 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/91256982@N00/2382662270 

Thanks to television and social media, objectification and gender stereotyping is happening on a global scale, with real world consequences. From a young age, girls absorb hypersexualised images of women which can impact mental health, including anxiety, depression and eating disorders. Young boys encounter these images too, which can lead to forming of stereotypical ideas of gender roles. These ideas often encourage dominance and aggressiveness in men, which increases risks of violence against women. These stereotypical ideas also cultivate a cultural narrative that women do not have autonomy over their own bodies, but in their dominant role men do.   

By displaying this Collection, the audience is prompted to consider the power dynamic that allowed the Beggar’s Benison Club to objectify young women and how this power dynamic still exists today. The exhibition also makes efforts to reclaim parts of the Beggar’s Benison’s legacy for women. Within the Collection only one object shows exclusively female genitalia, a seal with a heart surrounding a vagina. The seal alone is a strong representation of the Club’s possessive attitudes over women’s bodies. In keeping with the feminist theme, the seals design was chosen as the exhibition logo. This not only contrasts with the numerous phallic images in the exhibition, but also demonstrates how women can reclaim the image and use it to represent sexual empowerment.  

Exhibition Logo for Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club Exhibition Logo for Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club, © The University of St Andrews 

            The logo was also the key image used as a pattern for the first event of the Exhibition, an embroidery workshop, hosted on 8 March 2021. Non-coincidentally, the 8 March also marked International Women’s Day, an annual global day which celebrates the achievements of women and raises awareness for greater gender equality. The logo was embroidered alongside other images of women’s bodies to represent female reclamation of their own bodies.  Embroidery itself is part of a wider subversive stitch movement which continues the long legacy of women using needle and thread in protest and resistance. Many of the issues that the Beggar’s Benison Club raise in modern times are issues feminism is still fighting and therefore it is fitting to connect the exhibition to other feminist movements.  

Subversive Stitch: Embroidery Workshop Advert Image 
 
Subversive Stitch: Embroidery Workshop Advert, © The University of St Andrews 

          In viewing this exhibition, audiences will explore the Beggar’s Benison Collection but will also be confronted with the negative power dynamics and objectification that the Club subjected women to. These actions reflect what, over two hundred years later, is still occurring to women. However, today, women have a much stronger voice, proven by the widespread feminist movements to reclaim their power. Audiences should consider whether their daily actions are taking this power from women or placing the power back into their hands

This article was written by Sarah Takhar, Museum and Gallery Studies student 2020/21.

Further reading:

  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001.   
  • Swift, J. and Gould, H, ‘Not an Object: On Sexualization and Exploitation of Women and Girls’, UNICEF USA, 2021. <https://www.unicefusa.org/stories/not-object-sexualization-and-exploitation-women-and-girls/30366>  

The Secret History of the Beggar’s Benison Collection

(approx. 4 min read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activityPlease proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

From medals and seal matrices to phallus shaped drinking glasses, the Collection of the Beggar’s Benison has survived the 185 years since its disbandment in 1836, yet it has spent much of that time hidden.  

After 1836, the Collection was left in the hands of one of the last Club members, Matthew Foster Conolly.  Since then, the objects have passed through multiple hands. The Collection held at the Wardlaw Museum is likely only a fraction of what existed during the Club’s height. Even before the Beggar’s Benison disbanded, some of the records of the Club and its objects had already been lost.  

Throughout the life of the Collection, no one has really known what to do or make of it. Certainly, Conolly, who had control of the Collection for about forty years, appears to have been conflicted over whether to preserve or destroy it.  

His uncertainty around what to do with this Collection is somewhat understandable. For instance, on one hand, the Collection contains objects connected to illustrious figures in society at the time. Indeed, the Collection includes a snuff box that is thought to have been gifted to the Club by the then Prince Regent, the later King George IV, whilst visiting Scotland.  He is said to have been intrigued by the Club and was subsequently given an honorary membership. However, on the other hand these objects, due to the imagery displayed, form and function, after the Club’s decline leading to its eventual disbandment may have seemed less warrantable to preserve without its once captive audience.1 For instance, the snuff box is said to have once been filled with pubic hair belonging to the mistress of the then Prince Regent. 

The Prince Regent (later George IV) 
 
George IV (1762–1830) as Prince Regent, after Lawrence, Bequest of Collis P. Huntington, 1900, Open Access API, https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/435697 

Indeed, the historian David Stevenson, who has written a book dedicated to the history of the Club, believes that Conolly’s eventual decision to preserve the Collection mostly probably came down to the fact that he was an avid local historian. However, it is clear this decision was not made without serious consideration, highlighted by the fact that he burnt many of the records, clearly intending to destroy them, but not before he partially copied many. He passed the Collection down to his son-in-law, a Reverend Gordon, on his death. 

Reverend Gordon believed that, despite its nature, the Collection was significant enough to warrant preservation.2 This is evidenced by the fact that after Gordon, the Collection passed to Mcnaught Campbell, who worked at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow. Once in his possession, he loaned them to the Kelvingrove Museum who reportedly displayed some, yet not the more obscene, of the items that formed part of the Collection.  

The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow  
 
The Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum (Glasgow), © Jean-Pierre Dalbéra, CC BY 2.0, https://www.flickr.com/photos/72746018@N00/3839582240 

The Collection later passed on again to a new owner who tried to sell the Collection to the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, now the National Museum of Scotland. The Museum seems to have considered purchasing them but instead chose to pass on the sale. The Collection, it seems, was too obscene for the Museum, making it difficult to display.3 

Eventually, after the death of its last owner, the Collection was donated to the University of St Andrews. For a long time, the Collection sat in the basement of the stores. A University Librarian left a note stating that the Collection “was not for female eyes.” In addition, the Collection was later covered with a sheet. The Collection has since been preserved in storage, deemed unfit for display.   

Now the Wardlaw Museum will publicly display the Collection for the first time as part of the exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy, Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club.  The Exhibition will explore the hidden stories behind this controversial Club and its members. The Exhibition team, along with co-curators from our Advisory Panel, aims to highlight the issues and themes surrounding the Beggar’s Benison Club and its activities. 

In this Exhibition, we particularly wish to examine how the unequal balances of power wielded by the Beggar’s Benison Club relates to continuing issues surrounding sexuality and gender in today’s society. Certainly, this Collection, when explored in a sensitive, collaborative way, can highlight and spread awareness of issues related to sexuality, sexual injustice and gender discrimination. 

Written by Nicola Law, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

[1] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[2] Stevenson, Chapter Two 

[3] Stevenson, Chapter Ten 

  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001. 

Exploring Merryland: Fantasising About Sex

(6 minute read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activityPlease proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

Indeed, a central activity of the Beggar’s Benison Club was to fantasise about sexual exploits. This came in many forms, from conjuring grandiose origin myths, appropriating mythological and Biblical stories, to reading pornographic texts, and drinking toasts to genitalia. These ideas were essentially tied to sexual imagination as a way to satisfy male lust and fantasy. However, they also served a more practical purpose; to support the Club’s quest for sexual pleasure, to validate its rituals and to be ‘enjoyably ludicrous.’1 

It is important to note that here, in this context of the Beggar’s Benison Club, ‘fantasy’ is not associated with innocent, positive connotations. The ways in which Club members fantasised about sex were from a male perspective that was exploitative and misogynistic. These dynamics have not been explored in great detail thus far by historians, especially in terms of the impact and implications for the young women hired by the Club. We endeavour to explore these dynamics within this exhibition and investigate the unequal sexual power dynamics. 

Possibly the most important myth conjured by the Benison was that which explained the Club’s origins, ‘The King and the Beggar Maid.’ The folktale is attached to King James V of Scotland [1513-1542], who possessed hero-status according to the Benison, as he set an example of sexual licence within high society.  

James V 
 
James V, King of Scotland. Reigned 1513-1542. Father of Mary Queen of Scots. Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0), https://wellcomecollection.org/works/a3qh5udr 

While disguised as a commoner, James V visited the Dreel Burn, the river boundary between Anstruther Easter and Anstruther Wester in the East Neuk of Fife. He did not want to wet his feet crossing the water (the height of royal heroism); therefore, he received the help of a beggar maid to carry him across the water. As thanks, James gave her a gold coin and in return, the maid thanked him in the form of a blessing or ‘benison’. 

In this context, ‘benison’ is a colloquial term for sexual favours. Indeed, the Old Scots rhyme associated with the myth describes its sentiments towards wealth (the gold coin) and sex (the benison):  

May your purse naer be toom (never empty) 

And your horn aye in bloom. (always) 

The club also referred to the punchier, anglicised version as their toast and motto:  

May Prick nor Purse never fail you. 

The name of the Club was thus a most suitable title for their endeavours and desires. It references the Beggar Maid myth and its connotations of sex and money. Members idolised King James V as an archetypal figure of sexual fantasy and saw themselves in him; ‘for they too were rulers, by right of the phallus.’2 

Other fantastical origin myths for the Club go even further back than the reign of King James V. Club members metaphorically imagined that the Beggar’s Benison originated with the biblical Creation. This biblical reference can be found on one of the surviving Club medals within the exhibition, where a depiction of Adam and Eve is accompanied by the phrase ‘be fruitful and multiply.’ This coy play-on-words appropriates God’s directive to procreate, into such a meaning that justifies the Club’s desire for sexual pleasure. 

Even within a small town such as Anstruther, the Beggar’s Benison found ways to attach sexual innuendos to their surrounding environment. The Isle of May, off the coast of Anstruther and visible from its harbour, found its way into the Club’s imagination. Members speculated about sex-crazed monks that inhabited the island, taking it for granted that masturbation was a monastic speciality. The name ‘May’ also added to their fantasies as it bore a girl’s name and the month of May was associated with spring and fertility. 

 Isle of May 
 
Isle of May, © Jerzy Morkis, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/5491174 

It must be reiterated that these sexual fantasies were conjured to satisfy only the male perspective. They were not simply cheerful, innocent imaginations of consensual sex. Indeed, Club members may have enabled and encouraged one another in their objectification and fantasising of the female body. As well as drunken songs, toasts and general debauchery, Club members would read and celebrate pornographic texts in order to satiate their male lust. In line with the Club’s love of sexual innuendo and double entendre, 1700s pornographic texts describe the female body through metaphor.  

In texts such as A New Description of Merryland, the notion of male sexual dominance is rampant. The author consistently highlights the imperfections of female genitalia while simultaneously praising his own penis. Female masturbation is considered abhorrent, yet male self-pleasure is considered natural and normal. The female body, denoted as ‘Merryland’, is a foreign country to be conquered as a man’s rightful territory.  

A New Description of Merryland 
 
A New Description of Merryland P.C.20.b.7.(1), title page, British Library, Public Domain, https://blogs.bl.uk/untoldlives/2019/02/smutty-stuff-for-debauched-readers-the-merryland-books-in-the-private-case.html 

Other texts read by the Beggar’s Benison include Memoirs of a Woman of Pleasure by John Cleland, or more commonly known as Fanny Hill. The text describes Fanny, aged fourteen, as lewd, promiscuous and sexually insatiable, with a theme of shame which she should feel for her pleasures. Again, the double standards of celebrated male sexuality and shamed female sexuality is shown here, not to mention the shocking imbalance of power concerning the sexual relations between a fourteen-year-old girl and older men. We know that this text was read by the Benison on St Andrew’s Day in 1737, where ‘two nymphs’ of eighteen and nineteen years old exhibited themselves nude for the members.  

This act of hiring girls to pose naked will be explored in the ‘Subversive Sex’ and ‘Women of the Beggar’s Benison’ blogs. In this context, however, it shows us how Club members were obsessed with fantasising around the female body in male-dominant and misogynistic forms. This sexual imagination was compounded with the exploitative physical observation of naked young women.  

Written by Leonie Leeder, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

Sources:

1 Stevenson, 14. 

1 Stevenson, 17. 

  • Dubois, Sharon O’Toole, ‘Merryland: Gender and Power in an Eighteenth Century Pornotopia’, Utopian Studies, 11:2 (2000). 
  • Lord, Evelyn, The Hell Fire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies, 2008. 
  • Peakman, Julie, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteenth Century, 2004. 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001. 
  • Stretzer, Thomas (pseudonym Roger Phequewell), A New Description of Merryland: Containing a Topographical, Geographical and Natural History of that Country, 10th ed, 1742. 

Subversive Sex

(Approx. 3 minute Read) 

Trigger Warning Disclaimers:  

This blog post concerns sexually explicit content which potentially includes historical non-consensual sexual activity and images. Please proceed with caution. Resources can be found in the Resources tab of this microsite for anyone who is affected by these issues.  

Language used in these blogs refers to cis, heteronormative gender identities owing to the historical context of the Beggar’s Benison Club. Today, we are aware of and acknowledge a wider spectrum of gender identities. 

From 1732 to 1836, Anstruther in the East Neuk of Fife was home to the Beggar’s Benison Club. The secret all-male club was devoted to the idea of male sexual liberation. Members created symbolic sexual imagery and may have practised sexual rituals. Members also had interests in subversive politics and illegal smuggling.  

The Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum aims to explore this Club and its Collection through the three central themes of Subversion, Fantasy, and Power.  

Taken at face value, the objects from the Collection displayed within this Exhibition will likely elicit shocked gasps and exclamations, especially due to their appearance with many featuring phallic imagery. Certainly, as is explored in our ‘The Secret History of the Collection’ blog, these objects have been left undisturbed in storage since the mid-1800s as they were simply deemed too obscene to show to the public.  However, the Club’s fascination and celebration of sex must not be misunderstood and dismissed as merely raunchy. The Club used the idea of sex to be politically subversive, to fantasise about male dominated sexual exploits, and to exhibit power over women. This blog will briefly discuss the subversive nature of the Club’s relationship with sex, which is reflected by the objects from the Collection and the activities of the Club. 

Indeed, the surviving relics of, and records belonging to, the Club explicitly highlight their members’ convivial advocation of male sexual freedom. They emphasise the Club’s belief that sex should be enjoyed for pleasure, which at the time was extremely subversive, rebelling against the widespread belief in the 1700s that sex should be purely for procreation.   For instance, the records belonging to the Club, which will be presented as part of our online exhibition, describe a version of the initiation ceremony in explicit detail. From these we learn that new initiates to the Beggar’s Benison Club were required to demonstrate their ability to perform sexually. This included exhibiting his phallus to his fellow members-to-be, masturbating in front of existing members, and sometimes masturbating together as a sociable activity.  

The novice (prospective member) would be ‘prepared’ in a closet in which two members would ‘[cause] him to propel his Penis until full erection.’ Coming out of the closet (an interesting choice of words given the Club’s disapproval of homosexuality, as shall be explored in later blogs), the initiate was greeted by existing members who wore sashes and medals in full fanfare. He was required to place his phallus upon the Test Platter to demonstrate his ability to perform sexually.  

Test Platter from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Test Platter, 1783-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1072, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/test-platter/762421 

This action was accompanied by ‘four puffs of the Breath Horn’ to simulate ejaculation. The records then note ‘The Members and Knights two and two came round in a state of erection and touched the novice Penis to Penis.’  

 Breath Horn from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Breath Horn, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1062, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/breath-horn/762410 

A wine glass displaying the Club’s motif was then used to drink a toast to the new member, who was bestowed with his own sash and medal. The ceremony was thus concluded by reciting the Club’s motto: ‘May Prick nor Purse never fail you.’  

Wine Glass from the Beggar’s Benison Collection 
 
Wine Glass, 1732-1836, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: TEA-HC1064, © The University of St Andrews, CC BY-NC 4.0, https://collections.st-andrews.ac.uk/item/wine-glass/762412 

This ritual was inspired by the founding myth of the Club. According to this, in the mid-16th century, King James V travelled around Scotland pretending to be a common subject. He acquainted himself with his subjects in this way. In Anstruther, he met a maid whom he offered a golden coin for carrying him across a stream. In turn, she thanked him with a ‘benison’, a slang term for sexual favours.   

Another activity adopted by the Club in the 1700s was to add pubic hairs of mistresses to a wig. Specifically, the mistresses of King Charles II (1660-1685). The King offered it to his friend and Club member, the Earl of Moray. Later Minutes of the Club confirm in 1775 that new members must kiss the wig and wear it during their initiation ceremony. The collection and use of pubic hair in this way is an example of how these sex clubs attempted to objectify, possess and control the female body. It was an act to wield power over women through somber mockery.  

Initiation rituals were adopted by the Club to legitimize their male sexual activity and advocation of male sexual pleasure. They served to prove a potential member’s ‘manhood’ and sexual capability. Both these criteria were essential to be accepted into the Club.  

However, discretion had to be taken to ensure such interests did not cause public scandal, as such sexual conduct went against the moral and ethical teachings of the Church and State. Hence, the secrecy that surrounded the Club. As the historian David Stevenson, who has written a history of the Club, puts it, the Club’s activities had ‘the spice of being naughtily outrageous’.  

Indeed, throughout the 1500s and 1600s, there was a rise in religiously inspired sexual repression, where sex for anything other than procreating was strictly prohibited. Until the end of the 1700s, a strong taboo surrounded masturbation. This theme will be explored in a later blog, ‘Sex as Science’.   

The Age of Enlightenment in the 1700s and 1800s was important for developing new ways of thinking about sexual liberation (for heteronormative men). The Enlightenment was an intellectual and philosophical revolution where scientific inquiry was favoured over religious faith. The idea of sexual freedoms and sex as pleasure fitted perfectly into progressive thinking at this time. As such, the attitudes of the Beggar’s Benison Club toward sex align with this wider movement. 

Fast forward to the present day, it is interesting to think that whilst the Beggar’s Benison Club was sexually subversive during the 1700s and 1800s, the Collection of the Club was still deemed to be too subversive and obscene to display until very recently. Indeed, our Exhibition Sex as Subversion, Fantasy and Power: The Beggar’s Benison Club at the Wardlaw Museum will be one of the first bold public displays of the Collection at the University. The exhibition aims to explore the theme of subversion further, and deconstruct and discuss the taboos surrounding the Club. Certainly, this chapter in Fife history and display of sexuality and sexual freedom, can also help us to explore and discuss issues relating to sexuality and sexual freedom ongoing today.    

Written by Leonie Leeder, student in MLitt. Museum and Galleries Studies at the University of St Andrews

Sources:

  • Peakman, Julie, Lascivious Bodies: A Sexual History of the Eighteen Century, 2005 
  • Stevenson, David, The Beggar’s Benison Club: Sex Clubs of Enlightened Scotland and their Rituals, 2001 

L’Ami du Peuple

Maddie DeFilippis – museum staff and soon-to-be-graduate!

Maddie DeFilippis is a soon-to-be-graduated student at the University. She has worked at the Museum since her first year, and is so excited to have been part of the transformation of it into the Wardlaw Museum. In her spare time, she loves to attend any type of event related to art or history! She has studied the French Revolution in French and History courses, and is excited to have written this wee post about one of the University’s most infamous honorary graduates, Jean-Paul Marat!

As the editor of the radical newspaper L’Ami du Peuple, Marat expressed some of his most controversial views. L’Ami du Peuple translates to ‘Friend of the People’, a popular sentiment during the French Revolution and a direct reference to the tripartite cry of ‘liberté, égalité, fraternité’. Marat was a radical proponent of democracy, and his newspaper contributed to the ideological stirrings of the French Revolution.

L’Ami du Peuple, courtesy of a private lender.

Starting in 1789 (the widely accepted start-date of the French Revolution), Marat became the published advocate for many disenchanted French people as he decried the aristocracy and the monarchy. Freedom of the press was not a guarantee at the time, and so Marat’s physical safety was threatened. Although he was sentenced to prison and had to flee the country multiple times into exile, Marat was so popular that his fame provided him with relative security during some of the most turbulent times of the early Revolution. Indeed, many Parisians subscribed to his newspaper because of its dedication to the ‘société des patriotes’. Marat was a politician as well as a writer, and became a delegate of the National Convention in 1792, on a platform of the reformation of the government. As a prominent politician and a controversial published author, Marat made enemies, and one of them took matters into her own hands.

“The Death of Marat” by Jacques-Louis David © Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels

Charlotte Corday was a supporter of a moderate republican group, which desired an end to the monarchy but disapproved of the Revolution’s fiery attitude and its deadly consequences. On the 13 July 1793, Corday gained access to Marat’s rooms, and stabbed him to death. She assassinated Marat because she blamed him for taking the Revolution in a more extreme direction that had led to the execution of thousands of people. Her actions, however, caused even more support to swell for Marat and what he stood for. In addition to the painting by Jacques-Louis David, which visually martyred Marat in a style similar to Michelangelo’s Pietà, parades were held in Paris celebrating the martyrs of the Revolution. Some have even called David’s work ‘The Pietà of the Revolution’, a testament to Marat’s effect on morale during the darkest days of the Revolution.

The Death of Marat © Philip Colbert 2020, from Philip Colbert, The Death of Marat and Birth of the Lobster at the Wardlaw Museum

A copy of the newspaper L’Ami du Peuple was on the table beside his bath at the time of his death, alongside a letter form Charlotte Corday, which featured in the masterpiece ‘Marat assassiné’. Although Marat was the editor of multiple newspapers during his lifetime, L’Ami du Peuple is the most famous, as it is the one Marat was known to be editing as he was murdered.

Marat Stool © Philip Colbert 2020, from Philip Colbert, The Death of Marat and Birth of the Lobster at the Wardlaw Museum

This original copy of L’ Ami du Peuple, visibly stained with Marat’s blood and bathwater, will be displayed in ‘The Death of Marat and the Birth of the Lobster’ exhibition by artist Philip Colbert at the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews.

‘It’s gonna be a good rock, Houston’: the NASA Telegram

Have you ever thought what the Isle of Skye, home to some of Scotland’s most iconic landscapes, has in common with the Moon? Or have you ever considered that while tramping the Cuillin, one of Skye’s majestic geological features, you are somehow exploring lunar structures? Although it is only one small step for man, and not necessarily one giant leap for mankind, a hike to the Gars-bheinn, a mountain in southern Cuillins, makes you closer to the Moon than most places on Earth?

NASA Telegram, 1971, Image Credit: Museums of the University of St Andrews

November 1969
Four months after Apollo 11 astronauts successfully landed on the Moon, the next Apollo mission was launched on a rainy evening of 14th November 1969 from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. Five days later, commander Conrad and pilot Bean achieved a precise landing at their expected location. Their landing site was located in the south-eastern portion of the Ocean of Storms.
The astronauts collected rocks and lunar samples, and set up equipment that measured seismicity, solar wind, and magnetic field on our natural satellite, and relayed the measurements back to Earth. The Apollo 12 mission finished on 24th November with a successful splashdown. While Conrad and Bean brought 34.35 kilograms of lunar samples, all Apollo missions delivered 382 kilograms of samples to Earth.

The Moon from the telescope. Image Credit: Kasia Czubak

6th May 1971
A year and a half later, on 6th May 1971, the University of St Andrews received a telegram from NASA. It detailed the dispatch of lunar samples to the American Embassy in London from where they would be delivered to St Andrews on 23rd May 1971. The telegram was addressed to Harald Irving Drever, Professor of Geology.

“PRIORITY DR HARALD I. DREVER DEPARTMENT OF GEOLOGY
UNIVERSITY OF STANDREWS FIFE
UNCLAS TL.4 WE ARE TRANSMITTING TO THE STATE DEPARTMENT
LUNAR MATERIAL TO BE SENT VIA DIPLOMATIC COURIER TO THE AMERICAN EMBASSY IN YOUR COUNTRY THE EMBASSY SHOULD NOTIFY YOU WHEN THE SAMPLES IN THEIR HANDS THE EMBASSY PROBABLY ASK FOR YOUR IDENTIFICATION MICHAEL DUKE LUNAR SAMPLE CURATOR NASA HOUSTON TEXAS”

Professor Harald Irving Drever, FRSE

Harald Irving Drever, Professor of Geology, Image Credit: the University of St Andrews

As a postgraduate at the University of Cambridge, Drever joined student geological expedition to the west Greenland and Baffin Island in 1937. After being appointed at the University St Andrews in 1938, Drever organized the first of nine visits to Ubekendt Ejland, west Greenland. During his university career he studied also volcanic rock samples from the Isle of Skye.

His research on Ubekendt Island and in the west of Scotland included detailed analysis of ultrabasic rock minerals, which were comparable with specimens brought by the Apollo 12 mission. Drever’s research and expertise resulted in an invitation to participate in the NASA Lunar Research Programme. He joined a group of few other geologists selected by NASA and analysed the Moon samples delivered by the Apollo 12 and later missions. Drever was eventually appointed the Principal Investigator with the Apollo programme from 1971 to 1973. He died two years later, in 1975, at the age of 63.

Lunar sample sent to the University of St Andrews in 1971, no. 12065, NASA

 

Lunar sample sent to the University of St Andrews in 1971, no. 12002, NASA

Skye and the Moon – a geological connection
One of the most distinctive textural characteristics of lunar igneous rock of basaltic type is the crystallisation of olivine, pyroxene, and plagioclase in immature forms. Drever’s scientific interests laid primarily in this immature crystallisation and textures that characterise it. Indeed, many igneous rock samples from the Apollo 12 and Apollo 15 missions demonstrate these features.

The Cuillin Hills of Skye, Scotland. Image credit: Conall Treen, 2019

In particular, Drever studied textures in Procellarum samples 12002, 12009, 12021, and 12065, which, falling within his direct experience, represented the closest terrestrial analogues. A specimen of a terrestrial rock with a relevant texture came from Skye. It was a rock located a few centimeters below the top of the horizontal western extension of the Gars-bheinn intrusion. Analogical lunar and terrestrial textures were subject to rigours optical analysis. Drever demonstrated that of all igneous textures, porphyritic texture is the one with which the interpretation of the major differentiation of lunar basalts is mainly concerned. Many lunar rocks have this texture, the most typical phenocrysts being lime-poor pyroxene; less common are forsteritic olivine and anorthitic plagioclase still less.

Andrea Moise, Lunar Sample Courator. Image Credit: NASA/Charis Krysher, Core Dissection Specialist

6th May 2020 – Space exploration at St Andrews
Although Drever was most likely the first St Andrews based researcher who touched the Earth’s natural satellite, he was one of many university scholars studying the space, stars, and the Moon. While our fantastic researchers explore the universe and do their best to improve understandings of the extra-terrestrial world, the University has also hosted NASA astronauts and scientists. In addition, the Museums of the University of St Andrews care for, study, and promote the heritage of generations of scholars looking up towards the sky and investigating our stellar environs. This heritage is presented in the Gallery no. 4 at the Wardlaw Museum.

Great Astrolabe, 1575. Image Credit: Museum of the University of St Andrews

Written by Dr. Kamila Oles