Feminae: Medieval Women and Gender Index

  • Title: Death and the wet nurse
  • Creator: Master of Philippe of Guelders
  • Description:

    In this illumination, a dancing, skeletal figure representing death takes a woman by the hand. The figure of death is draped in a white sheet and the woman wears laborer’s clothes, a gown with tight-fitting sleeves, an apron, and a white cap. The wet nurse holds a swaddled infant in her left arm, and the front of her gown is low-cut, emphasizing her breasts and their capacity to nourish the baby. The three figures are shown indoors against a background of a tiled floor and tapestry, framed by a pair of columns. Below the picture are two columns of verse text, reading in English translation:

    Wetnurse, follow your fair child.
    Notwithstanding his coverlet
    And his fine bonnet in three ply knit;
    You won’t take him to play any more.
    Move along without delay,
    For you both will die together.
    You can’t stay here any more.
    Death takes all when it seems right.

    The Wetnurse
    I must go to the dance
    As the priests go to Communion.
    I would like to hang back
    But I feel swelling under my clothing,
    Between my arms, when I breathe.
    This child is dying of plague.
    Sudden death is a great pity.
    One may not have an hour or half an hour."
    [From The Danse Macabre of Women edited by Anne Tukey Harrison]

    The image and text are framed by a decorative border of squares containing flowers, insects, fruit, and acanthus leaves.

    The Danse macabre des femmes is an illustrated manuscript version of a poem in which the figure of death comes to claim women of all social statures stations, inviting them to join the Dance of Death. Based on the earlier Danse macabre des hommes, a version in which Death invites various men to join in the dance, the Danse macabre des femmes appeared first in a 1482 manuscript and shortly after as a printed book. The manuscript image above is accompanied by a verse text, beginning with brief remarks from Death and the author and then moving to short dialogues between Death and the various women. The Dance of Death motif was extremely popular in late medieval Europe, appearing often in murals and illustrated poems. Scholars disagree on the inspiration behind the motif. It was once thought to have stemmed from an obsession with death following the wars and plagues of the 14th century, but recent scholars like Gertsman argue that macabre motifs (especially The Encounter of the Three Dead and the Three Living) appeared in European art decades before the advent of the plague. Ultimately, The Danse macabre des femmes reminds the viewer of both death’s inevitability and its disregard for social station.

    In the Middle Ages, many wealthy families saw wet nursing as an essential part of the child-rearing process. They would draw up a contract with a woman who had recently given birth to breastfeed and care for their child, either in the family’s home or in the countryside. While the work was often short-term and intermittent, wet nurses were usually paid better wages than domestic servants. In the poem that accompanies the image, Death’s statement that the wet nurse “won’t take [the child] to play any more” may indicate that the nurse has remained with the family for some time- studies suggest that medieval children were weaned between the ages of two and three, around the time that children begin to play more actively. The wet nurse, then, has remained with the family for some time and has taken on child-care responsibilities that extend beyond breast feeding.

    The wet nurse’s description of her symptoms (“I feel a swelling under my clothing, between my arms, when I breathe”) suggests that she and the child have been infected with the Black Death. Swelling in the armpits was recognized as a plague symptom almost as soon as the first outbreak began in 1347. In the introduction to the Decameron, for example, Boccaccio writes that “[the plague’s] earliest symptom, in men and women alike, was the appearance of certain swellings in the groin or the armpit, some of which were egg-shaped whilst others were roughly the size of the common apple.” Infection of the lungs was also a recognized symptom, with Michele da Piazza, a 14th-century Franciscan in Sicily, writing that the swelling glands “forced the said human body to spit up blood. When the bloody septum reached the throat from the infected lungs, [this was a sign that] the whole human body was putrefying.”

    While this edition of the Danse macabre was created well after the plagues of the 1340s, the second half of the 15th century saw renewed outbreaks in 1456-57, 1464-66, 1481-85, and 1500-1503. The plague remained a fresh and deadly force in the popular imagination. The wet nurse’s acceptance of her certain and swift death suggests the fear the plague evoked for the book’s audience.

  • Source: classes.bnf.fr on Pinterest - https://www.pinterest.com/pin/407646203747892067/
  • Rights: Labeled for non-commercial reuse.
  • Subject (See Also): Black Death Death, Image of Infants Mortality Wet Nurses
  • Geographic Area: France
  • Century: 15- 16
  • Date: Ca. 1500
  • Related Work: Other images from the Bibliothèque nationale copy of the Danse macabre des femmes:
    Death and the knight’s lady
    Death and the newlywed
    Death and the old woman
    Death and the witch
    Digital copy of Ms. fr. 995 including the Danse macabre des femmes in Gallica
  • Current Location: Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, Ms. fr. 995, fol. 34v
  • Original Location: Paris
  • Artistic Type (Category): Digital Images; Manuscript Illuminations;
  • Artistic Type (Material/Technique): Vellum (parchment); Paint;
  • Donor:
  • Height/Width/Length(cm): 31.3/20 [full page]/
  • Inscription:

    “La Morte
    Apres nourrice vostre beau filz
    Nonobstant son couatouer
    Et son beau bonnet a troys filz
    Vous ne la menerez plus iouer
    Deslogez vous sans delaier
    Car tous deux vous mourrez ensemble Vous ne pouez plus cy tarder
    La mort prent tout quent bon luy semble

    La nourrice
    A cest dance fault aller
    Comme font les presbytres aux seyne
    Ie voulsisse bien reculer
    Mais ie me sens la boce an lame
    Entre les bras de mon alaine
    Cest enfant meurt despidimie
    Cest grant pitie de mort soudaine
    Il nest qui ait heure ne de mie”

  • Related Resources: The Danse Macabre of Women: Ms. fr. 995 of the Bibliothèque Nationale. Edited by Ann Tukey Harrison with a chapter by Sandra L. Hindman. Kent State University Press, 1994;
    Gertsman, Elina. The Dance of Death in the Middle Ages: Image, Text, Performance. Brepols, 2010;
    Medieval and Renaissance Lactations: Images, Rhetorics, Practices. Ed. Jutta Gisela Sperling. Routledge, 2013;
    Oosterwijk, Sophie. “‘Muoz ich tanzen und kan nit gân?’: Death and the Infant in the Medieval Danse macabre,” Word & Image: A Journal of Verbal/Visual Enquiry 22, 2 (2006): 146-164;
    Pandemic Disease in the Medieval World: Rethinking the Black Death. Ed. Monica H. Green. ARC Medieval Press, 2015. Also available online;