Sharing Is Caring: The Use of Breast Milk in Early Modern Maternity Treatments

Imagine you are a woman giving birth, having already endured a long and laborious labour, with limited to no pain relief. You hear the words of encouragement from the midwife, you are aware of your friend sat behind you, lifting your shoulders back so you may sit more comfortably and offering prayers. You can feel the hard edge of the eagle stone, the hollow stone with a smaller stone inside it and intended to assist with drawing the child out, digging into your thigh against the bed frame. You become aware of a quiet conversation in a corner of the lying-in room, the midwife delivering hurried instructions, and then a cup is pressed into your hand. Inside it, you see a small amount of breast milk.


While perhaps taboo in our modern age, being given another woman’s breast milk was considered to be a helpful remedy to assist a woman enduring a more difficult birth. Many treatments suggested for pregnant, labouring and postnatal women in the early modern period involved breast milk. All of this research has been uncovered from within the RCP’s collection of receipt books, predominantly unpublished texts that were tied to the home and often written by or contributed to by women.


Sources of such female knowledge in the early modern period are far from wide-ranging. While previously considered to be the domain of women, the maternal body became the subject of intense medical interest amongst learned men too, who often presented their understanding of the female body as superseding or expanding the abilities of female midwives and healers. Beginning with Thomas Raynalde’s exceedingly popular midwifery text The Byrth of Mankinde in 1540, a translation of the German Rosegarden for Pregnant Women by Eucharius Rösslin (1513) and continuing in the published works of medical practitioners such as Jacques Guillemeau, Jakob Rüff and Nicholas Culpeper; these works offered advice for, and descriptions and explanations of, the female reproductive body. The vast majority of these published works were written by men and often read by their male peers, as well as some female healers. The historian Monica H. Green describes this rise in male involvement in matters involving the female reproductive body as a ‘masculine birth – a birth without female involvement, either as maternal principle or assisting midwife'. Such frustration with this rise in male gynaecological authority can be seen within one of the RCP’s receipt books, as Sarah Wigges in c. 1616 wrote that ‘this medicine will mar the practice of the men midwives and may gain much money if you keep it private.’


Recipe written by Sarah Wigges.
Excerpt from MS654, ‘Sarah Wigges Hir Booke. Live Wel, Dye Never. Dye Wel, Live Ever.’, (1587 – 1882)


Therefore, we must look to sources other than only printed works for a glimpse into the way women understood their own bodies, particularly during the uncertain times of pregnancy, labour and post-childbirth. Early modern receipt books are vital examples of women’s agency and medical knowledge within the home. Often containing hundreds of recipes for the treatment of various disorders, as well as and alongside receipts for cookery, these books provide us with a way of considering early modern maternal care in conjunction with, or sometimes entirely independent from, the advice given within the published male-authored midwifery texts.


Breast milk is therefore of particular interest as it is not a widely administered medicine as suggested by male medical practitioners of the time and is very different from the maternity care we receive in England today. Sarah Wigges, who we mentioned previously, included a recipe ‘to provoke throws in a woman in travel’ or, essentially, to make birth quicker. As well as suggesting a variety of herbal remedies, she wrote that the patient must be given ‘breast milk to drink.’ Interestingly, the timing of administering the breast milk is also key, as she cautioned the midwife to ‘have a care that she never give her any thing to provoke birth throws too soon.’


In the receipt book MS513, ‘A Collection of Medical and Culinary Recipes c.1667 – 1671’, in which the author(s) are not identified, a receipt ‘for ease in child bearing’ suggests ‘four spoonfuls of another woman’s milk drunk in labour, helps deliverance.’ However, breast milk was not just limited to being administered orally and for problems during labour. The receipt book MS500, which includes writing from the 16th-17th centuries, suggests spreading breast milk, along with honey, flour and other ingredients on leather and binding it to the woman’s breast, as a treatment for a ‘canker in the breast.’


Recipe for advice for breast milk.
Advice for breast milk to be drank in labour, MS513


So why, exactly, was breast milk being administered to women with the belief that it would aid their labour or sooth their pain? And how would early modern people have perceived this practice? Breast milk was believed to be the mother’s blood, that travelled up to the breasts when needed and in the process became white. The mother’s whitened blood therefore contained many of the elements that made up her body, including her behaviour and mannerisms, that could then be passed on to the child via breastfeeding. As a result, breastfeeding was regarded with anxiety amongst some men, who feared a mother’s power over her children during this time. Jacques Guillemeau wrote in 1612 that ‘the manners and conditions of the mind, do follow the temperament of the body, and the temperament arises out of the nourishment’, meaning nourishment that was received as an infant. The English clergyman Robert Burton, wrote in The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621)  that ‘man and beast participate of her nature and conditions, by whose milk they were fed.’ These popular beliefs surrounding breast milk therefore provide us with some potential explanations for why breast milk was being used as a treatment for adult women. A healthy woman’s breast milk, containing her blood and bodily makeup, may have corrected internally where another woman’s body was struggling. As extreme cold in body temperature was believed to restrict the processes of reproduction in women, the increased heat from the breast milk of another woman may have also been believed to open up the womb and allow the child to pass through. Another, less concrete, explanation is that it may have been thought the body would respond to milk intended for a foetus, motivating the womb to expel the child to be fed. It also may be simply that animal milk was seen as a useful source of nourishment and thus that human milk was being associated with the same soothing properties.


Such treatments give us an insight into the relationships between early modern women that is often difficult to see amongst the male-authored information we are more readily able to obtain. For women to exchange not just words, advice, physical contact, recipes or prayers for labour, but also their own bodily fluids, hints towards a feminine connection that we are perhaps missing in our modern world. Communities were united not just through marriage or friendship, but through the giving and receiving of a deeply personal type of medicine. If the breast milk was obtained from a household’s wet-nurse, a woman employed to feed children where the mother chose not to or could not breastfeed, this alters the perception we may have of the relationship between a Mistress and her employed staff, reliant as she would have been on the wet-nurse’s body, adding to discussions of hierarchy and class separation in the early modern period amongst women. It illustrates that whilst men may have been attempting to enter and understand the secret confines of the birthing chamber, it was women, their bodies and their relationships between each other that remained central to early modern experiences of childbirth.


Olivia Langford, Completed as part of my AHRC-funded PhD project with the RCP ‘A Great Secret: Women and Childbirth in the Royal College of Physicians’ Early Modern Recipe Books.’



  • Monica H. Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2008)
  • Jacques Guillemeau, Child-birth or, The Happy Deliuerie of Women (London: 1612)
  • Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (Oxford: 1621)

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