Royal and noble babies were almost always given to wet-nurses when they were born.
Which is ironic if you consider that even then Medieval Breastfeeding chroniclers stressed the importance of a woman nursing her own baby.
Many of these medieval Dr. Spocks even recommended that babies be fed on demand, not on a set schedule!
An 11th-century Catholic monk named Bernard of Clairvaux, according to a later medieval legend, had a vision in which a statue of Mary came to life and nursed him in the middle of a church.
Through her lactation, Bernard was spiritually nourished and healed of a physical sickness.
The medieval manuscript “Le Chanson du Chevalier du Cygne et du Godefroid du Bouillon” tells the story of the eleventh century Count Eustace and his wife Yde, who bore him three sons.
She was considered very unusual for insisting on breastfeeding her babies herself:
“never did Countess Yde…suffer that one of her sons… should be suckled by a waiting-woman.”
When one boy was fed by another as she attended Mass, she suffered a reaction: “all her heart shook” and she fell on a seat in pain, gasping her heart and calling herself a “poor leper.”
Then, trembling in a rage, with her face “black as coal with the wrath therein” this “saintly and devout” Countess shook her son until he vomited up his feed.
Today, this might be considered abusive; then, it was an example of the behavior that led to her deification!
Yde’s was a fairly extreme reaction and completely atypical of most of her contemporaries’ experiences.
Though there’s an interesting story about Anne Boleyn controversially wanting to breastfeed her own child.
Apparently, Henry prevented her because he didn’t want his sleep interrupted!
While the nobility and upper-class women’s primary function was to produce healthy children, preferably sons, it was not their responsibility to nourish them.
That was the job of lower class females.
Much of the surviving evidence suggests upper-class women were keen to pass on their newborns to wet nurses as soon as possible.
One reason was that medical advice warned against intercourse during lactation, as it “troubled” the milk and might result in a new pregnancy which could cut off the milk supply to the detriment of an existing baby. The church advised against it.
Another primary motive for this was the rapid restoration of a woman’s fertility.
Breastfeeding provides natural protection against pregnancy by delaying the onset of the menstrual cycle, usually for between six months and a year.
Wealthy women were expected to have children, preferably sons, as close together as possible.
Medieval Breastfeeding – Wet Nurses
During the first year of their life, most middle and upper-class babies were sent out into the houses of wet nurses, whose suitability was judged very strongly on their physical appearance.
The nurse was considered able to pass on her characteristics to a child through her milk.
Her diet was supposed to be good and wholesome, without too much garlic or strong foods.
Also, she was to be of good, placid nature and healthy appearance, with clear skin and no visible afflictions.
In royal households, tasters were appointed to check her food was not poisoned or too strong before she ate.
Babies were often sent out of cities or towns into the more “wholesome” countryside. Parents sometimes contributed extra to support the wet nurse’s diet or lifestyle.
The doctor John Dee made additional payments towards such essential items as soap and candles for those women breastfeeding his children in the 1570s.
Their vulnerability was also recognized: arrangements were speedily made for the transference of children from one place to another when illness or plague came close.
Bartholomaeus Anglicus described the activities nurses commonly performed: consoling children when they fell or were sick, bathing and anointing them, singing them to sleep, even chewing meat for them.
Folklore remedies advised the breastfeeding woman : she should wear a gold or steel chain to stop milk curdling and to aid her milk flow.
She should sip milk of a cow of a single colour, then spit it out into running water, swallow a mouthful of that water and recite a charm.
When a mother was unavailable, ill, poor, dissolute or deceased, the parish took charge of the infant’s nursing, drawing from what must have been a pool of suitable women
Boys were often suckled for longer than girls though, possibly even up to two years, as they were considered less independent!
Medieval Breastfeeding – Medicine
Virtually all Medieval authorities believed that in the first few days the newborn should have nothing to eat or, if necessary, goat’s milk. Some believed mother’s milk should be denied for the first three weeks; some the first three days.
They believed that colostrum, the highly nutritious milk produced in the first few days after birth, was harmful.
This didn’t deter lower class women who tended to feed babies immediately, for about a year.
It was free and convenient.
Parish records taken from eight towns and villages in Essex between 1530 and 1600, indicate that the average conception interval between siblings was nine months, supporting the theory that among these poorer families, babies were being breastfed by their mothers.
Medieval Breastfeeding – Breast was best
Babies in medieval England fared as well as their modern counterparts because of extended breastfeeding by their mothers, according to tests on bones found in an abandoned village.
Lengthy breastfeeding was recommended by the classical Roman writer Soranus in the 1st century AD, which influenced medieval physicians.
Now it seems this advice was heeded by medieval mothers in Yorkshire who shielded their young from early death by suckling them for up to 18 months.
The first scientific study of breastfeeding habits in medieval England found that otherwise malnourished peasants used breastfeeding to avoid contaminated food and water, and this also helped the babies’ immune systems.
This is not to suggest that Medieval and Tudor parents didn’t care about their children.
They would have considered themselves to have made excellent provision for their babies by arranging a suitable wet nurse.
There are many cases, such as John Dee and his wife, of great care being taken to provide for and safeguard both wet nurse and child.
Ironically, breastfeeding brings the twentieth-century mother closer to the poorer women of the past.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.