‘A Few Drops of Milk Will Do’: Breast Milk as Medicine

The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.
The traditional Madonna lactans: the breastfeeding Mary. Madonna Litta, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci © Wikimedia Commons.

By Julia Martins

A few weeks after my baby was born, I noticed her tear ducts were blocked. Echoing Galen, the midwife suggested a few drops of breast milk to help treat and open the ducts. A few days later, the problem was solved, much to my astonishment. If you Google medical uses for breast milk, you might be surprised at the number of articles mentioning it as a treatment for ear infections, eczema, acne, eye problems, and many other conditions in babies. While most of this evidence is anecdotal, we know breast milk has antimicrobial properties, so it may indeed help.

Using breast milk as medicine is nothing new, however. Nor is it only a Western phenomenon, with human milk being used in imperial China. For centuries, medical recipes (especially those in the vernacular tradition) contended that menstrual blood in its concocted form of breast milk could be used to treat a myriad of conditions. Vernacular books published for a broad readership, such as Thomas Reynalde’s The Birth of Mankind, a 1540 adapted version of the 1513 German midwifery manual Rosengarten by Eucharius Rösslin, contained many recipes using human milk. As a general reproduction and fertility manual, Reynalde’s book also contained advice about childrearing and how to treat childhood ailments. So, when discussing the swelling of infants’ eyes, Reynalde recommended a mixture containing ‘woman’s milk’. He also suggested putting amber dissolved in breast milk inside the child’s nose.

Reynalde’s breast milk medicines for infants, used for ailments ranging from hiccups to stomach issues and sleeping problems, were not unusual. Like many entries in the book, these uses were taken from Ibn Sina’s Canon or Rhazes’ Practica Puerorum. Other early modern books contained milk in their recipes, such as John Gerard’s and John Partridge’s formulas to provoke sleep. As in The Birth of Mankind, these were books aimed at a wide readership, to be primarily used in a domestic setting.

As a readily available, free resource, breast milk was not only recommended for treating children. Since antiquity, it was thought that milk could also answer questions about what the pregnant body contained. In a passage copied from Ibn Sina, Reynalde told readers how breast milk could be used to determine the sex of the unborn child:

But if ye be desirous to know whether the conception be man or woman, then let a drop of her milk, or twain, be milked on a smooth glass or a bright knife, other [or] else on the nail of one of her fingers. And if the milk flow and spread abroad upon it by and by, then it is a woman child. But if the drop of milk continue and stand still upon that the which is milked on, then it is a sign of a man child.

Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.
Female trunk, from The Birth of Mankind. © Wellcome Collection.

Human milk could even be used to treat the one giving birth. Following a difficult birth, early modern people believed that abscesses and other problems could be healed with medicines containing human milk. Reynalde also told readers how, if the foetus died in the womb, drinking breast milk (albeit from another woman) might help someone to ‘expel the dead birth’. This belief was probably inherited from the medieval tradition, such as the Trotula, reminding us of the many continuities in the history of medicine.

‘Woman’s milk’ was not the only kind of milk used in early modern recipes. For instance, in Alessio Piemontese’s Secrets, another best-selling vernacular book published in the period, Piemontese recommended that women drink mare milk to facilitate conception. The milk from a dog just delivered could induce labour in women whose babies had died and needed to be expelled; this resembled the recipe using another woman’s milk. The symbolic association between ‘mothers’ meant that animal milk could have similar effects to human milk, working sympathetically to produce the desired goals.

In early modern medicine, humoral theory played a crucial role in understanding the body and reproduction. In its concocted form of breast milk, menstrual blood was often found in recipes published in the vernacular. Even though human milk as medicine seems to have been more prevalent among laypeople who read and wrote in the vernacular than in higher, more educated circles, such as university physicians, it is important not to trace too sharp a divide between ‘learned’ and ‘popular’ traditions, with perceptions about menstrual blood and breast milk varying widely. However, it is comforting to think of the links between Ibn Sina, 16th-century vernacular books, and what I was told as a new mother that I could do to help my baby, even if the reasons behind these recommendations have changed.

References:
Gerard, John. Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes. London: 1597.

Partridge, John. The Widdowes Treasure. London: 1595.

Piemontese, Alessio. De’ secreti del reverendo Donno Alessio Piemontese. Milan: 1559.

Rhazes, The First Treatise on Pediatrics [Practica Puerorum], translated by Samuel X. Radbill. American Journal of Diseases of Children 112.5 (1971): 369-76.

Reynalde, Thomas. The Birth of Mankind: Otherwise Named, The Woman’s Book. Edited by Elaine Hobby, Farnham: Ashgate, 2009 (originally published in 1540).

Rosslin, Eucharius. Der Swangern Frauwen und Hebammen Rosegarten. Strasbourg: 1513.

Ibn Sina, The General Principles of Avicenna’s Canon of Medicine [Liber Canonis]. Translated by Mazhar H. Shah. Karachi: 1966.

The Trotula: A Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine. Edited and translated by Monica Green. Philadelphia: 2001.

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Julia Martins is a PhD candidate in History at King’s College London. Her thesis focuses on the translation of early modern recipes about the female body and reproduction (‘secrets of women’) from Italian into French and English. Her research is about how medical knowledge was changed as it circulated in print in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century vernacular books of secrets, and what these modifications can tell us about the way gender and the sexed body were understood in the period. Julia’s research interests are gender history, the history of medicine, and recipes literature.


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