Cosmo’s Big Toe

The British Museum in London is to display the contents of the Secretum:

Some items even have names, such as St Cosmo’s “big toe”, which dates from 18th-century southern Italy, where it was said to be a popular sex toy. Unmarried maidens prayed on St Cosmo’s day: “Blessed St Cosmo, let it be like this.” (Link)

Date: Mon, 12 Aug 2002 10:41:04 +0100
From: “Martin Adamson” (spam-protected)
To: (spam-protected)
Subject: Sex secrets of the British Museum

The Sunday Times

August 11, 2002

Sex secrets of the British Museum

Jonathan Leake and Jane Mulkerrins

THE British Museum is to shed the last of its inhibitions. A secret collection of sex toys, chastity belts and antique erotica that has been locked away since Victorian times could finally be opened to the public. The collection contains more than 400 provocative items described by the museum’s Victorian curators as “abominable monuments to human licentiousness”.

They banned anyone except those of “mature years and sound morals” from seeing them — and may even have added to the collection by snapping off the “corrupting” parts of classical nude statues on display in the museum.

After more than a century of pressure from art historians it emerged this weekend that the museum is considering reversing the policy. It has already thought of turning the collection into a money-spinner by mounting a special exhibition.

Dr David Gainster, a senior curator who is writing a book on the collection, has sent a proposal to the management recommending that it should be exhibited. “Its importance is at last being realised. It is of great value both for the individual artefacts and as a time capsule of Victorian interest in sexual material,” he said.

The collection contains erotica from the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Indian empires as well as from renaissance and medieval times. Artefacts range from a statue of Pan intimately involved with a she-goat to a medieval-style iron chastity belt and images from one of the first sex education books, printed in the 16th century.

Some items even have names, such as St Cosmo’s “big toe”, which dates from 18th-century southern Italy, where it was said to be a popular sex toy. Unmarried maidens prayed on St Cosmo’s day: “Blessed St Cosmo, let it be like this.”

The museum has made tentative plans to display about 400 of the items in an exhibition provisionally entitled Sex and Sensibility. It means the ancient erotica would take pride of place next to the Elgin marbles.

Such an exhibition could be just the money-spinner the museum needs after being forced to cut staff, close galleries and reduce its research and restoration work. The government is preparing to give it up to £15m to help bail it out.

The exhibits, locked in a cupboard in the Secretum (secret museum), have been open to those who submit a personal application. They are largely the collection of George Witt, a Victorian doctor-turned-banker and one-time mayor of Bedford.

Dr Witt, who donated his unusual collection, perhaps wisely just after the passing of the first Obscene Publications Act, is thought to have been at the centre of an international circle of wealthy gentlemen who collected erotica.

“In Victorian times, when to have had representations such as these was very much frowned upon, he probably collected them to show to his male friends after dinner parties,” said Judy Rodoe, another curator.

One item that would doubtless have amused his guests is a gentleman’s tobacco box, decorated on the outside with pleasant country scenes. Under the lid, however, is a graphic portrayal of a couple in flagrante delicto, leaning against a startled-looking horse.

Other items reveal much about ancestral beliefs in health, illness and fertility, and include phallic symbols that in the 17th century were used to lobby the gods to bring relief to a suffering believer. One such curio is an alabaster phallus on animal legs, engraved with birds and animals.

The Secretum also contains the only pornography to survive from the renaissance period. The 16th-century I modi set of engravings shows more than a dozen different sexual positions and was used as the benchmark for pornography for the next two centuries. “It forms the basis for a lot of erotic art from that time onwards — it really is the first good sex guide,” said Gainster.

More recent items include 18th-century condoms made from animal intestines knotted at one end with a silk ribbon.

The British Museum already displays several erotic items. A silver Roman cup featuring a homoerotic scene was controversially bought last year for £1.8m using £300,000 of lottery money.

“This collection tells us so much about the Victorian attitude to sex,” said Gainster. “It is a historical artefact in its own right, and it also serves as a warning to future historians against imposing their own prejudices on past cultures.”

Additional reporting: Roger Dobson

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