Curdled Milk in the Breast: Take II

I was so intrigued by Jennifer Park’s post on curdled milk and Shakespeare that I decided to look whether there were Greek and Roman precedents. As I read Jennifer’s post, I could not recall any references to curdling of breast-milk in ancient texts. However, quick searches with the help of the Digital Library of Greek Literature (the Thesaurus Linguae Graecae), sure enough, led me to passages on ‘cheesy’ breast-milk that blocks ducts. The physician Soranus (turn of the first and second centuries AD), in his description of women’s milk, writes that one must look out for the following characteristics:

Colour; smell; composition; consistence; and with regards to its taste, whether it changes with time… Consistence and thickness: it should be moderately thick. For fluid, thin and watery milk is not nutritious and may disturb the bowels; while thick and cheesy milk is hard to digest and, in the same way as food that has been partially chewed, it blocks up the pores (i.e. ducts) and, as it occupies the main passages of the body, it is a danger to life. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.22].

The word I translate as ‘cheesy’ is turōdēs, from the verb turoō, make into cheese curdle. Note that ‘cheesy’ in relation to breast-milk has nothing to do with taste and smell: it is all about consistence. Curdling of milk in a woman is an extremely dangerous condition. Soranus compares it to choking, when half-chewed food gets stuck in airways. It can lead to death. Other ancient medical writers concur with Soranus: cheesy breast-milk is unhealthy for the woman and a sign that she is sick.

But what exactly constitutes cheesy breast-milk? Conveniently, Soranus gives two easy ways to find out. First, one should drop a small amount of milk onto a smooth surface such as a nail or a bay leaf. If the milk ‘congeals like honey and remains motionless then it is thick’. The second test involves dropping milk dropping milk into twice the amount of water: one will know whether the milk is thick if:

the milk does not disperse and sink down after a while, so that, when the water is poured out, one finds around the bottom [of the jar] a substance that is cheesy, thick and hard to digest.

I must say that it was very difficult for me not to make a retrospective diagnosis here. Surely, Soranus was simply describing mastitis or blocked ducts. Yet something was not quite right. There was no description of the raging fever that accompanies mastitis. Then Soranus was not only referring to curdling of the milk within the breast – the constitution of little lumps which the modern reader could so easily interpret as signs of inflammation – he was also referring to curdling outside the breast. Woman’s milk should not curdle.

Pandora, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1878
Pandora, Dante Gabriel Rosetti, 1878

Interestingly, when they discuss other types of milk, the ancients do not consider ‘cheesy’ to be a bad characteristic – quite the contrary. Cow’s, goat’s, ewe’s milk should be made into cheese, of which Greeks and Romans were very fond. Now, Greeks and Roman regarded women as very close to beasts: Pandora, the first woman, had the mind of a bitch after all. They always feared that the wild, animal side of women would take over. What was seen as positive in female animals should be feared in women: woman’s milk should not turn into cheese.

To go further in this line of enquiry, I will need to look into metaphorical uses of the word ‘curdling’ in ancient texts. This is beyond the scope of this post. I would like, however, to point to one such metaphorical use. It is in a passage of the Bible text Job, which was translated into Greek in antiquity (as part of the famous Septuagint project). Job laments all the disasters that have befallen him and cries out to God:

Remember that you moulded me as clay and that you shall turn me again to earth. Did you not pour me out like milk, and curdled me like cheese? [Job 10:10]

As I am no Bible scholar, I consulted interpretations of this passage. According to some readings, Job is here referring to the process of procreation, when milk/semen curdles to form an embryo. Remember that in the ancient world, milk and semen were thought to be concocted blood. Curdling of blood/milk/semen is to be expected in the formation of an embryo but not when a woman is nursing. In this context, it would be wrong to read references to ‘curdling of woman’s milk’ merely as mastitis or milk that has gone sour. There is something much more serious at play, a subtle web of metaphors and connotations that leads us to Pandora/Eve and her similarity to wild beasts.

8 thoughts on “Curdled Milk in the Breast: Take II”

  1. Laurence, this is absolutely fascinating! Were there any cures that Soranus or others mentioned for women in danger of such cheesy milk? Was there any sense that a purging of some sort would help at all? I love his comparison of the phenomenon with choking, and I wonder to what extent the early moderns compared the two in medical texts, which I’ve not looked at yet–in Macbeth (no medical text of course), the idea of choking/being stuck or clogged in some way comes up as a concern as well, not directly regarding the milk, but I’m arguing that the concerns are coming from a similar place in the space of the play. It’s also interesting to me that the image of curdling milk becomes one so tied into simply *being* human. That fascinating Job verse–and interpretations thereof–make me wonder how prevalent this idea was, and make me think of a line in another early modern play, John Webster’s Duchess of Malfi, in which a character contemplates, “what’s this flesh? a little cruded milke.” I’d always wondered why exactly Webster is using a curdled milk image here, and it may be related to just what you point out, how individuals throughout the centuries had thought about milk/blood/semen in the production of life.

  2. Goodness, this is interesting! And much more complex and deep than one would originally think. Thank you for this particularly fascinating post.

  3. Hi Jennifer,

    Sorry for not answering earlier. I had to do a bit more research to find some answers. There are some remedies against curdling of breast-milk in several ancient authors. They are relatively simple remedies, in particular cerate (applied externally). A common ingredient in these preparations is vinegar. Also, by complete coincidence, I read yesterday a passage of Paul of Aegina (seventh century CE), where curdled milk (no mention of what type of milk) is considered a poison when drunk in too large a quantity. The word for ‘curdled’ here is not the same as Soranus’ ‘cheesy’. Paul (and other authors, I think it was a common belief) refer to milk to which rennet (putia) has been added. This poisoning manifest itself through a feeling of suffocation:

    Those who have taken a large amount of curdled milk (literally, milk containing rennet) suffer from a great feeling of suffocation (pnigmos) because it is lumpy. (Paul 5.58)

    The cure: vinegar, but nothing salty lest the process of coagulation is enhanced, and the curdled milk transforms into cheese.

    As for the reference to Job, I would not be surprised at all if early-modern and modern playwrights were referring to it – they knew their biblical stuff… I have read a bit more on Job, and it appears to be a relatively late text (6-4 century BCE), at a time when there was much intercommunication and trade in the Mediterranean basin and its hinterland. I would not want to argue in simplistic terms of influence here, but again there is clearly quite a lot more to be said.
    I should probably have said that lactation was considered a very important function of women, and that early Christian writers spilt a lot of ink over the question of Mary’s lactating breasts.

  4. Hi Laurence, really great stuff, and I’ve been thinking about what you’ve said. I’m fascinated the distinction you point out between “curdled” and “cheesy”–what are the primary differences definition-wise in the two words that are being used for each?

    I’ve been thinking about curdled milk being poisonous, or at the very least “indigestible” in a way, and I am finding the poison/suffocation/coagulation integration to be an interesting one. The Hamlet passage for example talks about poison in the blood “posseting” like curds in milk, presumably forming solids that clotted the blood, and possets apparently consisted of milk poured into heated wine/ale which then curdled. I’ve not actually tried this, but I’d be curious to find out how exactly that works!

    What I thought was interesting in some of the early modern recipes I found was that specifically for curdled milk in the breast, it was a topical remedy rather than an ingested one. Is that the same in the ancient recipes, or would the vinegar have been one of the ingredients consumed? I also came across a few curious remedies in which goat’s milk, or “milk” generally was one of the ingredients used for the cure! Does that ever come up in the ancient recipes as well? It was originally in my blog post but I had taken it out because I wasn’t yet sure what I’d want to say about it exactly–the weirdness (or perhaps it’s not so weird?) of milk being used to cure milk problems.

  5. Hi Jennifer. Sorry I never answered your second query. The more I looked into the question, the more I had to say. I therefore decided to write another post, which was published today.

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