This week we celebrate the 25th annual World Breast Feeding Week. Cheers, I say and milk moustaches all round. Breastfeeding maintains an oddly controversial issue in our society and stories of nursing mothers being thrown off buses or asked to cover up for daring to air the dairy in public regularly feature in the media. Reactions to boob food oscillate wildly from milky militants who insist on breastfeeding their children until they are ready to leave for university, and those who view breastfeeding as some form of cannibalism. Despite our enthusiasm for bovine milk, we remain oddly squeamish about ingesting the milk of other animals (humans included). Many cite the sexualisation of breasts as the reason for our unease, but the truth is that breastfeeding has long been a source of anxiety in the West.
Most early medical sources are unanimous in urging mothers breastfeed their babies. The Ebers Papyrus (1550 BC) has advise on mums maintaining an adequate supply of milk for new-borns (rubbing your jubblies with oil that has been stewed with fish fins, if you’re interested.) The Babylonian goddess Astarte was worshipped as the Mother of fertile breasts, and Aristotle and Plutarch argued strongly in favour of mothers nursing their own babies. Yes, breast milk has long been understood to be a superfood. So much so that breast milk was regularly prescribed to adults for health reasons right up until the eighteenth century.
Roman physician Pliny the Elder (23-79CE) devotes an entire chapter in his Natural History to various remedies made from breast milk. Greek physician, Pedanius Dioscorides (40-90CE) went one further and recommended milk ‘suckled directly from the breast’ as a cure for lung disease, gout and ulcers. Marsilio Ficino (1433-99) agreed and believed ailing old men could rejuvenate themselves by breastfeeding from young women. And Pope Innocent VIII (1432-92) spent his last days being breastfed on his deathbed.
Ironically, whilst breastmilk served at source was widely believed to have healing properties, the figure of the wet-nurse has long been regarded with suspicion. This stems from an ancient, deep rooted belief that breastmilk took on the temperament of the woman supplying it, which would then contaminate the recipient. Even a ‘good’ woman could accidentally contaminate her milk if she was having a strop; this was known as ‘angry’ or ‘vexed milk’. Angry milk was so dangerous that it was often cited as a cause for unexplained infant deaths. In 1591, Isabel Alviol’s son suddenly died and witchcraft was suspected. At the trial, more plausible explanations were sought and common sense prevailed when everyone agreed that Isabel had accidentally killed her son with angry milk.
Although witchcraft was disproved on this occasion, witches were known to do funny things with milk. When Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth calls out for ‘unholy spirits’ to ‘take my milk for gall’ she is voicing widespread superstitions around breast milk and witchcraft. The European witchcraft trials peaked in the seventeenth century and saw thousands of people (mostly older women) executed. The folkloric, misogynistic figure of the witch subverted all that was thought potentially maternal and nurturing in women. Whilst yummy mummies breastfed babies (and possibly the pope), witches suckled Satan in the guise of familiars.
When James VI & I published his witch hunting guide Daemonologie in 1597, he stated that when Satan suckled his disciples he left behind a distinguishing mark; the witch’s teat.
Moles, scars and even haemorrhoids were interpreted as the witch’s teat and conclusive proof of a demonic titty wagon. Although, the bite could be anywhere on the body, more often than not the witch confessed (under torture) that she had been suckled on her breast or her genitals. For example, in 1612 Alison Device admitted the devil, disguised as a black dog, suckled ‘at her breast, a little below her paps’. In 1618, Margaret Flower confessed to allowing a white rat to suckle under her left breast. And in 1682, Susanna Edwards confessed the devil had ‘sucked her breast and her private parts’. All three were executed.
Further inverting the bountiful mother who gives milk, witches were known for stealing milk. So much so that Martin Luther called witches ‘milk thieves’ in Table Talk (1566). Scottish trials tell of witches causing new mother’s breastmilk to permanently dry up. The Malleus Maleficarum (1487) warns that witches regularly use ‘harmful magic’ to steal cow’s milk, or stop entire herds from giving milk so they could cream off the best for themselves. Witches were believed to be able to milk wooden sticks, turn fresh milk sour, and colour milk blue just by looking at it. It was even said that the Devil recruited his followers with promises of butter and ‘milkiness’.
The image of demonic women spoiling, stealing and syphoning off milk, whilst breastfeeding their familiars from teats in their ‘private places’ seems to be directly linked to deep rooted unease around a lactating female body. Breastfeeding has long occupied a position of cognitive dissidence in our culture; whilst our ancestors knew breast was best for baby, they also feared pollution, and contamination. The subversion of the bountiful boob with the perverted witch’s teat is testament to the long history of breasts being at once nurturing and naughty. So, should you ever encounter a boob-botherer telling a mum she can’t feed her baby alfresco, rather than allow the poor lass to be cover up or sequester herself in the toilets, ask her directly if she is a witch. If she says no, then you could encourage the offended bystander to have squirt of the white stuff for health reasons (though, she may be quite cross and producing ‘angry milk’.) And should she tell you that she is a witch, well, you know what to do.