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Mothers Who Weren’t: Wet Nurses in the Medieval Mediterranean

By Cait Stevenson

The mother’s traditional role as first teacher of virtue and religion began with suckling. It’s no wonder, then, that later medieval scholars and preachers, lawmakers and citizens, Christians and Jews and Muslims alike all took a keen interest in regulating a practice as intimate as nursing.

Medieval historians, intent on redeeming our subjects from the old charges that pre-modern parents didn’t love their kids, have typically focused on the parental role in ensuring quality breastfeeding. They have highlighted the role of mothers in initiating wet-nurse contracts, and examined pastoral guidance to fathers on how to protect their children at this vulnerable stage. But the same contracts, civic ordinances, and sermons can also provide insight into the lives of wet nurses—the surrogate, temporary “mothers who weren’t” yet bore the brunt of the responsibility.

Wet nursing was a low status, low paying task, even in the context of “women’s work.”  After the Black Death, as wages for labourers increased, Christian families in Iberia and Italy increasingly opted to use slaves.

Contracts to hire free women as wet nurses, from Jewish and Christian communities in Barcelona, provide some first clues to the undesirability of the day-to-day life of a wet nurse in many cases. Most notably, although archaeological evidence suggests medieval children were gradually weaned between the ages of six months and two years, wet nurse contracts tended to cover much shorter periods—one to nine months, in Anna Rich Abad’s studies. Since medieval parents seem to have been aware of the dangers inherent in switching nurses, the short contract terms suggest the difficulty of finding someone willing to work for longer periods.

Frequently, though not always, even a free wet nurse would have to move into her employer’s house. This was not just a matter of convenience—it allowed the parents to keep a careful eye on the activities and morality of the nurse. Ramon Llull, for example, warned fathers against bringing “evil servant women” into their houses for fear of the negative influence over children. Bernardino of Siena implied in a sermon that Italian mothers would confine nurses to the home with their charges at all times (Bernardino’s real point, naturally, is that the mothers need to spend more time being mothers and less time being dangerously independent women). And a standard provision in wet-nurse contracts required the nurses to abstain from sexual intercourse for the length of the contract. In addition for the need for wet nurses to pass on good morality through their breast milk, academic and popular medical thought alike held that sex would sour the milk and harm the baby physically. In later medieval Castile, sexually active wet nurses in charge of infants who died were charged with murder.

In rare cases, Rebecca Winer points out, free wet nurses might hope to gain something extra. Nursing could provide a short period away from a rough home life, and working for a wealthy urban family might offer a rural woman chance to forge valuable social connections for her own family’s future. But far more common would have been serving a less prominent but aspirational artisan family, or—even worse—working as a city-paid wet nurse for orphans and abandoned children.

For enslaved women forced to serve as wet nurses, the situation was even more demeaning than that of the municipal nurses. Since 1179, canon law had forbidden Christians from hiring Jews and Muslims to nurse their children (although the frequency of reiterations—from Christian and Jewish authorities alike—points to the frequently-informal shared breastfeeding duties among Christian and Jewish women neighbors). And yet from the thirteenth century into the early modern era, slaves in the Christian Mediterranean were almost always purchased, or captured Muslims. To Christian parents, the solution was simple: forced baptism.

British Library Royal MS 10 E IV vol. 29v

And even beyond this indignity, evidence concerning baptized Muslim wet nurses indicates the growing tendency to classify and judge people by skin color. The humour and heat imbalances in darker-skinned women made them bad mothers, according to medical authorities.  And since wet nurses were understood as little more than biological appendages of real mothers, over and over, slave purchase and rental contracts demonstrate a keen preference for light-skinned baptizatae of nursing age.

Yes, rental contracts. Slaves pressed into service as wet nurses weren’t always just serving the family they at least knew and were comfortable with. Owners might hire out a baptizata as a nurse for some extra cash, or sell her altogether if the price was attractive enough. And if no wet nurse was available? The brutal, systematic, and endemic sexual exploitation of women slaves in Iberia could be—was—turned to economic use.

When the foundling hospital of Perpignan was so financially overwhelmed in 1456 that it appealed to the city for extra money, the rectors made it bleedingly clear that aristocratic men bringing in their own bastard children were to blame. One man in 1400 Barcelona openly admitted sending away his child with his slave so she would be free to nurse his legitimate heir.

And therein lay the cruelest blow of medieval wet nursing practice. Medical thought and popular religious teaching alike forbade women from nursing more than one child at the same time. All these wet nurses, all these “mothers who weren’t,” were mothers. They were mothers who weaned their children too early and quickly in order to make some money for the family; they were mothers who lost a child in infancy and had milk but no one suckle; they were mothers sold away from their newborns forever.

In religious art, Mary breastfeeding Jesus was a ubiquitous late medieval image. Through the connection between breast milk and blood, it was a Eucharistic symbol, a reminder of salvation. Through the visceral illustration of biological motherhood, it was a representation of ultimate charity and compassion. Literate women who prayed over the Meditationes vitae Christi envisioned themselves as Mary, experiencing “a great sweetness with nursing this Child such as could never be felt by other women.” But when the beatific Madonna lactans stared down from church altarpieces at late medieval congregations, the “mothers who weren’t” might have found their emotions something less than sweet.

Virgin and Child, 1475–99, by Master of the Saint Ursula Legend

Click here to read Rebecca Lynn Winer’s article, “Conscripting the breast: lactation, slavery and salvation in the realms of Aragon and kingdom of Majorca, c. 1250–1300”

This article was first published in The Medieval Magazine – a monthly digital magazine that tells the story of the Middle Ages. Learn how to subscribe by visiting their website.

Click here to read more from Cait Stevenson

Top Image: Wet nurse depicted in the 1493 Nuremberg Chronicle by Hartmann Schedel



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