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  • Adult Breast-Feeding in the Renaissance and Early Modern World July 12, 2010

    Author: Beach Combing | in : Medieval, Modern , trackback




















    Beachcombing has been wasting his summer looking at Early Modern diet fads. Several have appealed to him, but certainly the one that clamoured most urgently for his attention was the belief that human breast milk was a healthy addition to the adult diet. Beachcombing quotes from WANW Ken Albala and his wonderful Eating Right in the Renaissance, 75.

    ‘Easy to digest and containing all the nutrients that had been consumed originally by the mother, [breast milk] is the ideal food for the aged and infirm. Platina [fifteenth-century Italian Renaissance scholar] specifies choosing a healthy, young, and beautiful woman of tempered complexion; naturally the milk was to be imbibed directly from the source.’

    In an era when breast pumps were not available it made sense for the ‘patient’ to find his own wet-nurse to suckle. There inevitably comes though the suspicion – remember the wet nurse had to be young and beautiful – that this activity had erotic overtones for the ancient cholerics who enjoyed these services, especially as many of these will have been learned and frustrated ecclesiastics.

    Perhaps because of these overtones there are surprisingly few references in contemporary sources to adults hiring out a wet nurse for their own use. One indirect source is the picture that heads the present piece where Alonso Cano (obit 1667, Spain) has the BVM lactating St Bernard at a distance, presumably with the milk of wisdom!

    Beachcombing has also stumbled on an English reference to milk being squirted into diseased eyes and sucked up (Prior, Women) by those suffering from pulmonary tuberculosis.

    Ken Albala has given a quotation (slightly altered here on the basis of the original in Moffatt) relating to the English scholar, John Caius (obit 1573), one of the most celebrated physicians of his day – did adult breastfeeding become a British thing?

    What made Dr. Cajus in his last sickness so peevish and so full of frets at Cambridge when he suckt one woman (whom I spare to name) froward of conditions and of bad diet; and contrariwise so quiet and well, when he suckt another of contrary disposition; verily the diversity of their milks and conditions, which being contrary one to the other, wrought also in him that sucked them contrary effects.

    Beachcombing learns from this both that Dr. Caius had two wet nurses and also that it was believed that their qualities and defects transferred to their milk and so onto the good doctor himself.

    He offers his readers a picture of Caius, presumably after a session with the nasty one.

    Could any readers point Beachcombing in the way of any other early modern references to adult breastfeeding? drbeachcombingATyahooDOTcom Beachcombing remembers an Italian Renaissance painting – possibly the dreadful Caravaggio?

    Beachcombing must also note with enormous pleasure that there are some who carry this honourable tradition down to the present day – beating prostrate cancer and annoying your doctor, it doesn’t get much better than this!


    1st Aug: Beachcombing got some very alarming emails about adult breastfeeding. Perhaps a few too many as narrow-minded Beachcombing finds the whole thing a bit foul. One ex-student, Bobby, got in touch with this link:  the reason that Beachcombing will not eat ice-cream again all summer – thanks Bobby! ‘Jen’ (surname not supplied) put Beachcombing in touch, instead, with this remarkable internet centre for modern adult breastfeeding. Beachcombing particularly enjoyed the fatwas for and against adult breastfeeding! He was also much struck by this phrase: ‘There are also many psychological and health reasons why adult breastfeeding is a healthy choice for mature individuals in a consenting adult relationship. While some adult nursing relationships are sexual in nature, most are intimate relationships that may or may not include sexual intimacy.’ Beachcombing spends a lot of his time in hospitals as a patient and this does not reflect his experience of European healthcare… Thanks (of a kind) to Bobby and Jen. (While writing this Beachcombing also remembered the early Christian (?) phrase of sucking on the paps of holy wisdom).