If you were living in early modern England (say in the 17th century), there were so many things to consider after you had a baby. But one of the main decisions had to do with breastfeeding: should the mother feed the child herself, or should a wet nurse be hired? (A wet nurse was someone whose job was to care for and breastfeed the baby.) If you chose the latter, how would you choose a wet nurse? Luckily, there was no lack of advice available. Midwifery manuals, recipe books, and domestic guides offered plenty of information, as did sermons at church and conversations with friends and family.
One of the main issues discussed had to do with the controversy over wet nurses. What defined a ‘good’ mother? What role should women have in society? Wet nurses exemplified a commodification of the reproductive body and were viewed with suspicion – yet wet nursing was arguably one of the most common occupations for women at the time.
So, how was breastfeeding understood from a medical point of view? And I don’t mean the use of breast milk as a remedy, which you can read about here. (I also wrote on this subject as a guest blogger on the Recipes Project – you can read the post here.) Well, according to the humoral theory, women stopped menstruating when they got pregnant because the blood was used to nourish the foetus. After birth, it travelled upwards in the body and, through heat, was transformed into milk, to continue its role of feeding the baby. That was why nursing women did not menstruate. Additionally, breastfeeding was usually considered incompatible with sexual activity, as sex might stimulate menstruation and, therefore, dry the milk. The same was true for aphrodisiacs such as celery. Since ancient times, nursing had been used as a contraceptive – and we know today that exclusive breastfeeding can delay the return of fertility, although it varies from one person to another.
That posed the first problem for someone who just had a child in early modern England. If you breastfed the baby, that would probably mean you wouldn’t get pregnant straight away. If you were someone who didn’t want to, such as a peasant wife with plenty of children already, great. But what if you were a queen, and your main job was to produce heirs? For instance, Anne Boleyn is said to have wanted to breastfeed her daughter Elizabeth herself, but because of the pressure to have a son, was not allowed to. Wet nurses were just a fact of life, a fixture of wealthy households and an integral part of society. Royal wet nurses were well paid and enjoyed a comfortable life as well as the prestige of nourishing and caring for royal children.
So, for those who couldn’t or didn’t wish to breastfeed, wet nurses were the best option. (Both animal milk and pap, a mixture using bread, were a less-than-ideal alternative, unsuitable to very young babies.) Wet nursing was one of the most significant female occupations in this period, and one of the most common ways for women to earn money. Many of them would be employed privately by families, but some worked for hospitals (such as the London Foundling Hospital) or were employed by parishes to take care of abandoned children. For families with means, the choice of a wet nurse was a very important matter.
But why was that? As Thomas Raynalde wrote, the ‘affections and qualities [of the wet nurse] passeth forth through the milke into the child, making the child of like condition and manners’. Breast milk had the potential to shape babies, to make them more similar (and emotionally attached to nurses) than to their biological families. In Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Leontes is glad his wife Hermione (whom he believes to be wicked and adulterous) did not nurse their son, thereby contaminating him. (You can read more about it here.) Breast milk was often used in Elizabethan plays as a metaphor for purity/contamination, but also for influence and transformation, such as in Lady Macbeth’s invocation for her milk to be exchanged for gall.
The 16th and 17th centuries were a paradoxical time in England: medical and moral discourse grew increasingly anti-wet nurses, urging women to breastfeed their own children. Yet the number of wet nurses hired by aristocratic families grew. For centuries, wet nurses had been eyed with suspicion, but it was the Reformation that inspired a surge of Protestant writings condemning them and advocating for mothers to nurse their babies. There were two main arguments against wet nurses. The first was medical: milk was the primary agent of heredity, it was what shaped children into the adults they would become, from their health to temperament and physical form. The mother’s body became ‘porous’ through breastfeeding, with the sharing of fluids between mother and infant helping to attain humoral balance and, therefore, health. Medical writers also highlighted the importance of breastfeeding for the mother-child bond, and as the basis for maternal and filial love.
The second argument against wet nurses was less medical and more moral. The nurse’s character was intimately connected to the quality of her milk. The ‘wrong’ nurse could do more damage than good to her charge, through breastfeeding. Protestant writers often described wet nurses as ‘drunkards’, ‘sluts’, or ‘gossips’, corrupted from the inside. Babies could become morally as well as physically degraded by ‘bad milk’, but they were also at risk of neglect, as it was widely believed that only mothers could ‘truly love’ their babies.
Motherhood and breastfeeding are fascinating topics – I’ve only scratched the surface of this subject in this text. Breastfeeding had long been idealised and associated with the sacred, as we can see in the many depictions of the Virgin Mary nursing Jesus. It was undeniably intertwined with sex and sin, but it was also the mark of a true Christian mother. With the Reformation, breastfeeding gradually changed from a ‘sacred’ duty to a ‘natural’ one, which implied a misogynistic perception of wet nurses as potentially diabolic and ‘unnatural’, a deviant version of motherhood. Wet nurses could disrupt the social order, by corrupting children and occupying a bigger role within the family than they ought to. Still, for wealthy women who mostly didn’t breastfeed their own children, they were a necessity, even if potentially dangerous.
Jacques Guillemeau, The Happy Delivery of Women (London, 1612).
Henry Newcome, The Compleat Mother: Or An Earnest Perswasive to all Mothers (especially those of Rank and Quality) to Nurse their own Children (London, 1695).
Ambroise Paré, Works (London, 1634).
Thomas Raynalde, The Birth of Mankinde (London, 1598).
Jane Sharp, The Midwives Book (London, 1671).