Medieval medicine is often known for its interesting cures to the various ailments. Plants, animal parts, and even stones were used to treat sicknesses and other health problems. In a recent paper, Rosemary A. Buck of Eastern Illinois University details another cure: women’s breast milk.
In ‘Woman’s Milk in Anglo-Saxon and Later Medieval Medical Texts,’ Buck finds that milk was sometimes used as an ingredient in medical recipes, in particular for problems related to eyes and ears. For example, the Anglo-Saxon text Bald’s Leechbook, which was penned in the 10th century, advises that for deafness one should “mix with woman’s milk juice of green coriander, and a drop of honey and of wine, warmed together.” Meanwhile, when dealing with an eye problem, the text advises to “lay upon the eyes green coriander rubbed fine and mixed with womans milk.”
Buck also finds that the later medieval medical texts also mention the use of mother’s milk. In fact, she notes that while breast milk is usually mentioned as part of cures for eye and ear problems in Anglo-Saxon England, in later centuries “it also appears as an ingredient in the treatment of an increasing variety of other illnesses. In other words, instead of diminishing in frequency of mention within medical texts over time, it is rather included in an increasing number of recipes for the treatment of other diseases.”
These diseases include chest colds, inability to speak, ulcers, jaundices and insanity. One fourteenth-century Middle English text even notes how it could be used in diagnosis: “And to know whether a patient is going to live or die, a test is performed: a woman should milk over (a bucket of?) the patient’s urine; if the milk falls down to the bottom, the patient will die, but if it floats, the patient will live.”
The use of mother’s milk for eye and ear problems remained popular throughout the Middle Ages. They would often be mixed with various other ingredients, such as the white of an egg, oil of roses or honey, and would be made into drops or salve that would be administered directly. The texts rarely revealed why they thought a particular medicine would be effective, but this tradition goes back to antiquity, as even ancient Egyptian medical texts note the healing properties of breast milk.
Buck adds, “In the reading of these recipes, we are struck by the active, searching-out of women in their everyday activities that would have been necessary in the preparation of these recipes. Women would have been continually sought after, interrupted from their daily chores and activities, perhaps led away from the private space of their homes, so that their bodies could be used actively in the preparation of these medicines.” She suggests that mother’s milk might have been more readily available to female healers.
Her article, ‘Woman’s Milk in Anglo-Saxon and Later Medieval Medical Texts,’ appears in the journal Neophilologus, Vol.96 (2012). Click here to get access this to the article from SpringerLink.