Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Choosing a wet nurse
  • Creator:
  • Description:

    The term “wet nurse” refers to a type of female worker who typically was hired by wealthier families to breastfeed and wean their infant children. Most of the time, wet nurses were young married women of a non-slave status who had recently given birth and possessed breastmilk of significant quantity and good quality. However in order to become a wet nurse, a woman needed written permission from her husband and was required to refrain from any sexual activity. Elite families often insisted that a wet nurse come into their home for the duration of her employment in order to closely supervise the way she cared for their child and also her own health. As the wellbeing of the infant was of paramount importance, it was expected that the wet nurse would remain close to her charge and not run away or neglect her duties. If she failed to meet these expectations, she could be severely punished. Despite the difficulties, wet nursing was an excellent position for women, as it demanded respect and paid a significant wage. Also due to their inclusion in the intimate lives of their employers, wet nurses had the opportunity to make important connections for their own children with those of noble birth. Such relationships could be lifesaving in the event of danger or distress in subsequent years.

    In this image, a wet nurse, dressed in a simple gown and hairnet, presents her breast to a noblewoman for inspection. This woman is likely her employer or potential employer, and her action of holding or probing the breast suggests that she is testing it for quality. Considering that it is a noblewoman and not her lord husband who is interacting with the wet nurse, it may indicate in this case that the noblewoman was in charge of hiring, supervising, and paying the wet nurse within her household. Such contact between the mistress and her wet nurse is significant because it is unmediated by a male presence. During the thirteenth century in which this illumination was created, male religious and medical authorities were increasingly asserting their responsibility in the realm of childcare and warned that it was dangerous and immoral for a young child to be left alone with a woman caregiver. The careful oversight of the male head of the household was needed to ensure good health and safety. However, this illumination seems to contradict this patriarchal assertion. It is one of several decorative capitals in the text, Le Régime du corps, representing medical themes.

    The testing of the breast also had moral implications. Since early medieval medical models, breast milk had been conceptualized as a form of blood capable of transmitting character traits as well as lineage. To prevent their child from “inheriting” poor morals or developing a malicious character, parents were encouraged to look for external signs of good health, moral fortitude, moderate habits, and a nurturing temperament in a wet nurse. In some cases, the ethnicity or religion of the nurse was believed to have an impact on the “moral” quality of the milk. John Tolan discusses a bull by Pope Innocent III in which he states that Jewish parents forced their Christian midwives to express breastmilk into the latrine for three days after having taken communion. Jewish sources do not support this practice, and Tolan argues that the Pope seeks to demonstrate the power of the Eucharist while spreading further anti-Jewish rumors. Although it is not clear that these kinds of beliefs persisted across Western Europe, it is certain that the medieval Spanish preoccupation with ethnic purity, imagined culturally as purity of the blood, was common to some degree to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities in Iberia. Consequently, the milk-as-blood theory discouraged cross-cultural wet nursing and placed a limit on the opportunities of potential wet nurses.

  • Source: British Library
  • Rights: Public domain
  • Subject (See Also): Breast Feeding Infants Mothers Wet Nurses Work
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 13
  • Date: 3rd quarter of the 13th century
  • Related Work: Le Régime du corps: http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/record.asp?MSID=8573&CollID=9&NStart=2435
  • Current Location: London, British Library, Sloane 2435, f. 28v
  • Original Location: Lille (?)
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 295/190/
  • Inscription:
  • Related Resources: Bergmann, Emilie. "Milking the Poor: Wet Nursing and the Sexual Economy of Early Modern Spain." In Marriage and Sexuality in Medieval and Early Modern Iberia, edited by Eukene Lacarra Lanz. Routledge, 2002. Pages 90-116;
    Fildes, Valerie. "The Culture and Biology of Breastfeeding: A Historical Review of Western Europe." In Breastfeeding: Biocultural Perspectives, edited by Patricia Stuart-Macadam and Katherine Dettwyler. Aldine De Gruyter, 1995. Pages 101-126;
    Tolan, John. "Of Milk and Blood: Innocent III and the Jews, Revisited" IN Jews and Christians in Thirteenth-Century France. Edited by Elisheva Baumgarten and Judah D. Galinsky. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. Pages 139-149 (see pages 146-147 for the discussion of wet nurses). Also available open access: https://www.academia.edu/1896777/Of_Milk_and_Blood_Innocent_III_and_the_Jews_revisited;
    Winer, Rebecca Lynn. "Mother and the Dida [Nanny]: Female Employers and Wet Nurses in Fourteenth-Century Barcelona." In Medieval and Renaissance Lactations: Images, Rhetorics, Practices, edited by Jutta Gisela Sperling. Ashgate, 2013. Pages 55-78.