‘Extended’ Breastfeeding in the Elizabethan Period

In the UK today, only 1% of babies are exclusively breastfed by the time they are six months old, as recommended by the World Health Organization. Even fewer infants are breastfed by their first birthday; extended breastfeeding, nursing beyond that age, is rarer still. Yet it was not always so. In Elizabethan times, children could be nursed until they were over two or even three years old, as Shakespeare illustrated in Romeo and Juliet:

On Lammas-eve at night shall she be fourteen;
That shall she, marry: I remember it well.
‘T is since the earthquake now eleven years;
And she was wean’d
, I never shall forget it,
Of all the days of the year, upon that day
Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Act I, Scene 3

This scene highlights the love Juliet’s nurse felt for the girl. Wet nurses could develop strong bonds with their charges, although their role was often contested. Juliet was three years old when she was weaned by the nurse, who had to use wormwood on her nipples to stop her body from producing milk. Shakespeare often mentioned herbs like these in his plays, as most of his contemporaries would be familiar with them.

For I had then laid wormwood to my dug,
Sitting in the sun under the dove-house wall;
My lord and you were then at Mantua –
Nay, I do bear a brain – but, as I said,
When it did taste the wormwood on the nipple
Of my dug and felt it bitter, pretty fool,
To see it tetchy and fall out with the dug!
Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Act I, Scene 3

From what medical writers tell us, babies were usually breastfed for longer in continental Europe than in Britain; keep in mind that Romeo and Juliet is set in Verona. Still, an English person watching the play in a London playhouse wouldn’t have found Juliet’s weaning age unusual. Most 16th and 17th century medical writers, such as Jacques Guillemeau and Jane Sharp, would have advised that infants should nurse for around two years. But why was that?

Breast milk was believed to have powerful medical properties as a remedy, but it was also considered the best nourishment for young children, as it would make them strong and healthy, and transmit love and security. Not too different from the advice new parents receive today!

In the early modern period, it was thought that when someone became pregnant, they would stop menstruating because the blood would feed the infant in the womb. After birth, the same blood would travel upwards in the body, being concocted (literally cooked) and turned into breast milk, to keep on nourishing the baby. This understanding of the human body was deeply embedded in the humoral theory: Guillemeau described breast milk as ‘nothing else but blood whitened’.

According to the midwife Jane Sharp, babies should feed as often and as much as they liked in their first months – what we today call feeding ‘on demand’. As for weaning, she recommended her readers to wait until most of the baby’s teeth had appeared, especially the eye-teeth (canines), which usually come in when babies are between 16 and 20 months old. This meant that the child was ready for solid foods – though usually, a transition phase preceded more robust foods like meats, starting roughly around 8 months old. For Sharp, weaning shouldn’t be abrupt, but a gradual process. Whenever possible, it should vary according to the child’s bodily complexion and temperament:

the stronger the child is, the sooner he is ready to be weaned; some at twelve months old, and some not till fifteen or eighteen months old; you may say two years if you please, but use the child [get the child used] to other Food by degrees, till it be acquainted with it.’
Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book, 1671.

These foods were also used for younger children when breast milk was not available, complementing animal milk. Pap was a mix of warm water and flour, or bread made soft by the addition of milk, water, or eggs. Panadas were also an option and consisted of cereals cooked in broth, similar to porridge. Both were given as supplements to children fed with animal milk as well as on their own. Still, the results could be mixed: the younger the baby, the more likely that they might die without breast milk.

Until the industrial revolution and the widespread use of bottles and, later, the development of artificial feeding through infant formula, breast milk was virtually the only option for babies. Medical writers like Guillemeau and Sharp urged readers to feed children with breast milk – whether it should be the mother or a wet nurse to do so is a different matter. Purees should be introduced little by little and, eventually, solid foods as well. Weaning should be gradual whenever possible. It might surprise you how contemporary (and sensible!) this advice sounds. But, like Juliet’s nurse reminds us, those who care for children have always tried to do their best to help them grow into strong and healthy adults. What we call ‘extended’ breastfeeding today was for centuries just plain ‘breastfeeding’, no adjective needed. With people being shamed for extended breastfeeding today, it might help to look back and see how things were in the past. After all, breastfeeding Juliet had been for the nurse

‘An honour! Were not I thine only nurse, I would say thou hadst suck’d wisdom from thy teat.’
(Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet. Act I, Scene 3

Too bad about how the story ended. Oh well! There wasn’t much the nurse could do, and it wouldn’t be a tragedy otherwise, would it?!


Jacques Guillemeau, The Happy Delivery of Women (London, 1612).

William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, The Riverside Shakespeare, edited by G. B. Evans (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1974). (First published in 1597.)

Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London, 1671).

Further Reading:

David Cressy, Birth, Marriage, and Death: Ritual, Religion, and the Life-Cycle in Tudor and Stuart England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997).

Valerie Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies (Edinburgh University Press, 1986).

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(Un)sexing, Violence, and Women


Discussion of issues related to violence/murder, mental health/suicide

As she finds out the witches’ prophecy about Macbeth being crowned king and the current king’s imminent visit to their home, Lady Macbeth invokes evil spirits to help her be rid of her feminine qualities so that, together with Macbeth, she can murder the king:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me, from the crown to the toe, top-full
Of direst cruelty! Make thick my blood,
Stop up th’ access and passage to remorse,
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose, nor keep peace between
The effect and it! Come to my woman’s breasts,
And take my milk for gall, you murd’ring ministers,
Wherever in your sightless substances
You wait on nature’s mischief!
(Macbeth Act 1, scene 5)

In one of the most famous soliloquies in the play, Lady Macbeth plans to become a murderess while referencing her female body. However, modern viewers or readers of Shakespeare often overlook these bodily references (blood, breasts, milk), with more attention being given to her psychological changes. Contemporary viewers of the play, on the other hand, would think of physiological and psychological processes as profoundly intertwined. For Lady Macbeth to change her personality and become a murderess, she must also change her biology.

In Tudor times, strict gender roles and expectations associated women with nurture and care; by moving away from her expected femininity, both in mind and body – being ‘unsexed’ – Lady Macbeth exhorts the spirits to make her capable of murder. By asking for the ‘compunctious visitings of Nature’ (menstruation) to cease, she wants to eliminate one of the primary markers of womanhood in the early modern period. Her bodily changes both foreshadow and cause her mental change away from femininity: by blocking compassion as well as the flow of her blood, she can let the king’s blood flow.

In Shakespeare’s time, menstruation was considered a sign of overall female health and a prerequisite to conception. Menstrual blood was thought to feed the growing foetus in the uterus and, after birth, nourish the baby in its concocted form (breastmilk):

…the childe, while it is in the matrice [womb] is nourished with this bloud; and it is as true, that being out of the womb, it is still nourished with the same; for the milke is nothing but the menstruous bloud made white in the breasts; and I am sure womans milke is not thought to bee venomous, but of a nutritive quality.
(Sadler, p. 9-10)

By asking for the milk in her breasts to be replaced with gall (bile), Lady Macbeth hints at the corruption of her body as well as her spirit. In a world where womanhood was often synonymous with motherhood, murdering her femininity is essential for murdering the king: she will have no children but be impregnated with cruelty.

This move away from womanhood and into violence was preceded in the theatre by Seneca’s Medea, translated and published in London in 1581, which is likely Shakespeare would be familiar with. Medea also invokes evil spirits as she prepares to murder her and Jason’s children, referencing her womb, breast, gall, and bloody hands, just like Lady Macbeth. She lets go of her femininity and motherhood to punish Jason through violence. While Medea murders her actual children, Lady Macbeth destroys the possibility of children by making herself barren. The smell of blood and the bloodstains in Lady Macbeth’s hands evoke, therefore, not only the king’s blood and her guilt but also the loss of her future children through her ‘unsexing’. Moreover, they symbolise the end of Macbeth’s line in a patriarchal society, as she will have no heir to the throne. This murder of her potential children by stopping the flow of blood corrupts her body, just like the stopping of the flow of blood in king Duncan’s body corrupts the nation: both go against nature.

Lady Macbeth’s unnatural amenorrhea (lack of menstruation) could also be understood as the physiological cause for her changes throughout the play, as her mental state deteriorates. The absence of menstruation in women of a fertile age was a serious medical concern, not only because it prevented them from fulfilling their primary social role as mothers but also because it was thought detrimental to their general health. Fainting spells, melancholy, and fearfulness were believed to be connected to amenorrhea, as well as sleep troubles and ‘sorrow, and anxiety, obfuscation of spirits, agony, desperation’.

(Burton, p. 478)

Lady Macbeth suffers from all these symptoms after the king’s murder: she faints as the body is found and is plagued by melancholy passions, fears, and somnambulism for the rest of the play. These are, of course, connected to her guilt, and I do not mean to simplify her psychology but rather to add a medical layer to it, as Shakespeare’s contemporaries probably would. In his Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton hinted at the suicidal tendencies the women suffering from this condition might develop – and Lady Macbeth’s suicide is implied at the end of the play.

The replacing of femininity with violence through a process of ‘unsexing’ was not unique to Lady Macbeth. Joan of Arc, who appeared in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part 1 as Joan la Pucelle (literally Joan the Virgin), also did not menstruate. In a world where women rarely engaged in battle, the female body was thought to be unsuited to war – in no small measure because of its natural functions such as menstruation, seen as a ‘debilitating and weakening’ condition. Joan of Arc’s military prowess is linked to her lack of femininity and even witchcraft as a female warrior. This brings to mind Lady Macbeth’s conjuring demons to ‘unsex’ her and replace one kind of blood, the menstrual one, with another one, the blood of violence.

Condemned for heresy and burnt at the stake in 1431, Joan’s trial was nullified in 1455-56, with witnesses testifying to her piety. Her valet attested that ‘she never suffered from the secret disease of women’, reinforcing her purity as a maid, but also linking her amenorrhea to cross-dressing (as Joan of Arc dressed in male military clothes) and her role in battle. Just like Lady Macbeth, for Joan to embrace violence, she would need to let go of her femininity and be ‘unsexed’.

Lady Macbeth’s soliloquy has long been read as a general invocation to eliminate qualities seen as feminine, such as compassion, and commit murder. But the literal understanding of her ‘unsexing’ in physiological terms would have been clear to most of Shakespeare’s contemporaries: the ‘unsexing’ of amenorrhea was a metaphor but also the medical cause of Lady Macbeth’s psychological change.


John Sadler, The Sicke Womans Private Looking-Glasse, London: 1636

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Oxford: 1621.

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