‘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.

*****
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.

Cooking up the Romans: Mrs Beeton’s Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

Paragraph 285 of the 1861 edition of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management is a recipe for baked red mullet with a sauce of anchovies, sherry and cayenne. As is usual in the Book of Household Management, this recipe starts with a list of ingredients (with quantities), followed by the mode of preparation, the time needed for the preparation, the average cost, an indication as to when the dish is seasonable (at all times), some notes on other modes of cooking, and an illustration. Paragraph 285 does not end there, however. It concludes with the following notes, in smaller characters, on the history of the red mullet:

THE STRIPED RED MULLET. — This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.

Photo of a facsimile of Mrs Beeton's Book of Household Management, showing pages 142 and 143. This includes paragraph 283 on the pickled mackerel; paragraph 284 on the grey mullet, with a drawing of a grey mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 285 on the red mullet, with a drawing of a red mullet, a type of fish; paragraph 286 on fried oysters, with a drawing of the edible oysters; and the beginning of paragraph 287 on scalloped oysters. The text on the red mullet reads as follows: RED MULLET. 285. INGREDIENTS -- Oiled paper, thickening of butter and flour, 1/2 teaspoonful of anchovy sauce, 1 glass of sherry; cayenne and salt to taste. Mode. -- Clean the fish, take out the gills, but leave the inside, fold in oiled paper, and bake them gently. When done, take the liquor that flows from the fish, add a thickening of butter kneaded with flour; put in the other ingredients, and let it boil for 2 minutes. Serve the sauce in a tureen, and the fish, either with or without the paper cases. Time. – About 25 minutes. Average cost, 1s each. Seasonable at any time, but more plentiful in summer. Note. – Red mullet may be broiled, and should be folded in oiled paper, same as in the preceding recipe, and seasoned with pepper and salt. They may be served without sauce; but if any is required, use melted butter, Italian or anchovy sauce. They should never be plain boiled. THE STRIPED RED MULLET. -- This fish was very highly esteemed by the ancients, especially by the Romans, who gave the most extravagant prices for it. Those of 2 lbs. weight were valued at about £15 each; those of 4 lbs. at £60, and, in the reign of Tiberius, three of them were sold for £209. To witness the changing loveliness of their colour during their dying agonies was one of the principal reasons that such a high price was paid for one of these fishes. It frequents our Cornish and Sussex coasts, and is in high request, the flesh being firm, white, and well flavoured.
Pages 142 and 143 of Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management, showing paragraph 285 on the red mullet [full text of paragraph 285 in the Alternative Text].

Beeton peppered her Book of Household Management with such historical notes, focusing especially on antiquity, which particularly interest me as an ancient historian. In these notes she named various ancient sources: the Scriptures, Homer, Herodotus, Aristophanes, Aristotle, Xenophon, Theocritus, Cato, Caesar, Horace, Martial, Virgil, Pliny, Dioscorides, Galen, Athenaeus, Apicius, and Julius Firmicus. However, in most cases, her knowledge of these sources was second-hand: she had borrowed it from a curious book published in 1853, the Pantropheon, which was circulated under the name of Alexis Soyer, a famous and flamboyant Victorian chef (but origianllly composed in French by Adolphe Duhart-Fauvet). The Pantropheon retraced the history of food and eating habits, with a focus on antiquity. It drew on numerous classical sources, listed, with varying degrees of accuracy, in the ‘table of references’. Beeton only acknowledged Soyer’s Pantropheon once (paragraph 1016), probably deeming the information to be, as it were, ‘in the public domain’.

Some of Beeton’s borrowings are word-for-word copies of what she found in the Pantropheon. In most instances, however, she reworked the Pantropheon’s material . For instance in her paragraph on the red mullet, she brought together various passages from the Pantropheon’s chapter on this fish, and added the information on where to find the fish in the British isles.

Even though Beeton’s historical notes are trivia apparently selected at random, two types of anecdotes recur with particular frequency. First, she often commented on the religious practices of the ancients, usually displaying a critical attitude towards what she deemed to be superstitions.  Second, she often included anecdotes relating to the excesses and cruelty of the ancients. We have already encountered her comments on the cruelty of the Romans towards the mullet. In paragraph 214, which is part of her general introduction on fish, she also wrote that ‘with all the elegance, tastes, and refinement of Roman luxury, it was sometimes promoted or accompanied by acts of great barbarity’. Writing on the luxurious excesses of the ancients (and more particularly of the Romans) was nothing new, but Beeton seems more angered by cruelty towards animals than by conspicuous displays of wealth. The theme of humane treatment of animals is  one that runs through the Book of Household Management: historical anecdotes helped Beeton reinforce her argument against animal cruelty. Thus, even with plagiarised material, Beeton managed to convey at least two moral messages. Her readers may have been oblivious to these implicit lessons, but they cannot have been to her explicit aim to educate her middle-class readers in every aspect of household management and its history.

Photo of a Roman mosiac displaying an eel and three fishes.
Roman mosaic with fish from Utica, Tunisia. Photo by Kritzolina, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia.

Including historical and scientific information in Books of Household management was not entirely new. Books of household managements published at the beginning of the nineteenth century sometimes included sections on geography, history, architecture, or similar topics. Yet, I would argue that what Beeton was doing was new in two respects. First, rather than concentrating all her historical notes in one chapter on the history of food, she offered food history in bite-sized parcels. Second, she integrated those  historical bites into the structure of her recipes. These innovations may appear trivial, but they are not. The readers of Beeton’s Book of Household Management could irgnore her historical notes only with some difficulty. These readers may have chosen not to read them, but it would have been very difficult not to see them. If the readers ever chose to examine some of these historical and scientific notes, they could do so in very little time. Beeton was well aware that time was of the essence for many of her readers who did not often have the leisure to read for pleasure.

It is for this time-poor reader that Beeton pre-chewed and bite-sized history. One could easily imagine a reader of the Book of Household Management pausing for two minutes to read the notes on the red mullet once she had placed her concoction on the stove. In that reader’s mind the trivia she had learnt about that fish thereafter would be associated with the smell of the roasting fish. To today’s reader, Beeton’s didactic method may appear surprisingly modern: she had chopped history into small bits easy to memorise, and by associating them with recipes, she made the learning experience a multisensory one. Of course, it would be wrong to overinterpret Beeton’s didactic method, but it would be equally wrong to deny that Beeton had didactic intentions. The Beetons were fervent advocates of female education.

In her small way, then, Beeton did contribute to the education of the middle classes. Isabella would certainly have disagreed with Sarah Sewell who in 1868 argued that ‘Women who have stored their minds with Latin and Greek seldom have much knowledge of pies and puddings’ (Woman and the Times we Live in, p. 51) . As any aspiring domestic goddess will know a woman’s brain can well accommodate pie and pudding recipes as well as Latin and Greek!

 

“Like a Collapsible Concertina”: Cosmetic Interventions in Fin-de-Siècle London

Jess Clark

In the Fall of 2020, new reports revealed a marked increased in cosmetic procedures—surgery, injectables, and other dermatological treatments—over the course of the COVID pandemic. During the global crisis, some people of means have flocked to plastic surgeons, cosmetic dermatologists, and other experts for appearance-altering treatment. Observers attributed this uptick to patients’ “opportunity” to be out of the public eye for extended recovery periods, not to mention the distorting effects of long hours on social media and online meetings. Whatever the cause, the “Zoom Boom” meant a surging interest in artificial enhancements. According to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, some 64 per cent of its practitioners experienced increased demand for online consultations since the beginning of the pandemic.

“Face Harness,” from William A. Woodbury, Beauty Culture (New York: G.W. Dillingham Company, 1911), p. 341. Public Domain via Hathi Trust.

While this level of interest in cosmetic interventions may be unique to 2020-21, invasive procedures that required weeks of downtime are not. We need only to look to a handful of court trials taking place in fin de siècle London to hear dramatic accounts of cosmetic enhancements, their demands, and dangers. In the early twentieth century, London’s periodical press focused on a spate of cases against self-proclaimed “beauty doctors” who promised to renew the youth and looks of British women. The fact these stories only appear in the public record in the case of botched procedures suggests far more widespread—and concealed—instances of dramatic cosmetic enhancements that remain beyond the reach of historians.

One notable case unfolded in October 1904, when Britain’s periodical press covered the scandalous story of a “beauty doctor” taken to court over the alleged defrauding—and deep discomfort—of a client. Under headlines like “Wrinkles Came Back” and “’Beauty Doctor’s’ Promise,” articles detailed a Marylebone Police Court case in which a dissatisfied dressmaker described the effects of unsuccessful cosmetic treatments. Garnering laughter from the court, the dressmaker used vivid language to describe the beauty doctor’s dealings, conjuring unsavory images invoking various foodstuffs:

Madam, she said, put some stuff on her clients’ faces, which had a burning effect, and caused them to swell to a tremendous size. She then put on a sticky plaster, which was allowed to remain fifteen or sixteen hours, and when it was removed the face was like a half-roasted beefsteak. After that she administered a sticky jelly. That left the face like a pudding basin, and it was allowed to remain in that state four or five days, during which time the unhappy victim was unable to part her teeth, and had to be fed with milk in a feeding cup.

Despite these unappetizing descriptions, the dressmaker reported that the treatment’s effects were transformative. When “the mask was taken off….whatever your age, the face was that of a young woman of 18 years of age—full, clear, and fat; beautiful, in fact, without a wrinkle, a scar, or a blemish.” Although the client’s skin was “very, very red,” the effects reportedly delighted the “deluded” customers. Within days, however, “wrinkles gradually reappeared, and the face became like a collapsible concertina.”[1] Like contemporary injectables and thread lifts, the results were temporary, despite the pain experienced to garner these results.

“The Geography of a Dissipated Woman’s Face,” from Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), p. 318. Public Domain via Hathi Trust..

 

It is unclear what precisely went into these “rejuvenating” recipes. While not identified by name, the description of the “sticky jelly” suggests some form of “face skinning”—or chemical peels—which grew in popularity through the early twentieth century. As historian of cosmetics James Bennett has shown, early experimental peels could include “[t]inctures of iodine and lead, lime compresses and chemicals such as salicylic acid, resorcinol, phenol, croton oil and trichloroacetic acid.” By the twentieth century, processes of “écorchement” (or “flaying”) included caustics like salicylic acid, resorcinol, carbolic acid, and electricity to remove upper layers of the skin and reveal the “youthful” skin below. In most cases, reported American beauty entrepreneur Harriet Hubbard Ayer, a client took “board for a week or two or three with the professional skinner.” In doing so, “she pays for her board and torture in advance.”[2] Then, as now, clients remained out of sight in the aftermath of their cosmetic procedures. Whether due to self-imposed or government-mandated isolation, this time represents processes of alleged transformation, albeit at a potential cost.

 

 

[1] “Price of Beauty,” Daily Mirror (24 October 1904): 5. See also “A ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (22 October 1904): 165; “Beauty for £20,” Daily Mail (24 October 1904): 3; “A Concertina Face,” Daily Express (24 October 1904): 5; “A Face Cure,” The Times (24 October 1904): 11; and “Another ‘Beauty Doctor’s’ Victim,” The Lancet (29 October 1904): 1230.

[2] Harriet Hubbard Ayer, Harriet Hubbard Ayer’s Book of Health and Beauty (New York: King-Richardson 1902), 185, quoted in James Bennett, “Face Skinning,” Cosmetics and Skin, 25 January 2019, http://www.cosmeticsandskin.com/aba/face-skinning.php

One of Many Ways for Macanese Aluar

By Mukta Das

Aluar de Anita Lei Tao

1 cate de farinha

½ cates de assucar pedra

6 taels de farinha pulu

3 cates de amendoas

5 cates de pinhao

½ cates de manteiga

3 cocos (metade para santem)[i]

– Albertina Borges, M d C., Receitas culinárias macaenses, 10 March 1936 – 6 October 1937, MO/AH/CCS/05, p. 44. Macau Historical Archives, 44.

Aluar is a Macanese Christmas candy which bears a striking resemblance to South Indian coconut sweet aluva, itself linked to middle eastern halva and to Portuguese alfelos. Aluar’s imprecise origins reveals something of the circulation of culinary knowledge within the Portuguese colonial empire, which claimed this southern Chinese coastal city from 1557.

The recipe above is complete, and there are no accompanying cooking instructions. It is one of many handwritten recipes contained in a notebook in the Receitas culinárias macaenses collection in the Macao Historical Archives. The collection comprises 13 recipe notebooks written between 1932 and 1943 by two women, Candida Carvalho and her daughter Albertina Borges, who wrote in Portuguese, Macanese, English and transliterated Cantonese. The only source of its kind in the archives, these faded, age-browned texts reflect the linguistic diversity demanded from those living in colonial Macau. The original notebooks were deposited by Candida’s granddaughter and Albertina’s niece, Cíntia Conceição Serrano.

Written sources for Macanese food history are rare; recipes were passed on orally among women, but “were never really detailed … and measurements were often incomplete”[ii] – with observers suggesting that recipes were jealously guarded and reluctantly shared.

Judging a recipe as incomplete is problematic. Janet Floyd and Laura Forster argue that handwritten sources had an ambiguous role in the transmission of knowledge. Recipe writing for women was a community enterprise on to which was “inscribe[d] individual lives and situations.”[iii]

Candida’s and Albertina’s notebooks mirror these ideas. Anita Lei Tao’s recipe for aluar (above), transcribed by Albertina, is one of several attributed to other women, including Marinquinha Lung whose recipe uses cooked potato and comes with cooking instructions. Recipes for ‘cake de Felicia Marquez’ and ‘pudim de ovos e laranja (Sara Remedios),’ for bebincas, soportels,diabos, curries, wedding cakes, Christmas cakes, Easter candies, fish and pork pastries, sambals, marmalades and fig syrups are repeated several times, attributed to a dozen women and with similar creative variations.

Macanese senhora in her traditional attire, the dó, early twentieth century. From Ana Maria Amaro, “Sons and Daughters of the Soil: The First Decade of Luso Chinese Diplomacy,” Review of Culture, No. 20 (2nd series), 1994, Cultural Institute of Macao; and Lisbon Geographic Society. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

This culinary corpus was and remains powerful and agentive because it was generously shared and added to, but also restricted to those who embodied a certain set of somatic skills. The Portuguese maintained their presence in their port colonies by the cheapest and most sparsely populated means possible. Subjects—sailors, soldiers, priests, traders, producers and processors—drawn from local populations, with little or no help from the state, made their own way by trading on their level of Portuguese-ness, through blood, Catholicism, custom, by adopting Portuguese names but also by demonstrating knowledge of how to cook. Racially diverse women who could cook creatively from a flexible oeuvre gave this corpus its power, where Portuguese cooking techniques and tastes originating from Lisbon met an array of local ingredients and flavourings such as coconut and rice flour. Those who could cook well drew power from it, becoming powerful female compradors and food entrepreneurs.[iv] Prescriptive ingredient lists or cooking instructions were neither useful nor necessary.

 

A diorama of a Macanese dining room and Catholic family feast in the Macao Museum. Photo credit: M. Das

 

Given the 11-year context of Candida and Albertina’s recipe writing, during which Macau was implicated in China’s civil war from 1927, the Sino-Japanese war from 1937 and the Asia-Pacific War from 1941, the imperative of compiling this corpus is clear. Still, Candida and Albertina’s 13 notebooks were written for such women who knew how to cook well, and whose creativity in the kitchen signalled their Portuguese-ness.

Cintia’s own cookbook based on these notebooks, Traditional Macanese Recipes From My Auntie Albertina (2013), is one of only a handful of published Macanese cookbooks. Modern cookbook publishing standards demand that Cíntia accompany lists of ingredients with cooking instructions. “The way we learn how to cook has changed” Cíntia concedes before dismissing her own instructional text by adding “food is more appetizing when it is cooked with… creativity. Believe this!… [Y]ou need some creativity.”[v]

 

 

[i] 1 catty (500g or 600g) of flour, ½ catty of rock sugar, 227g of glutinous rice flour, 3 catties (1.5kg or 1.8kg) of almonds, 5 catties (2.5kg or 3kg) of pine nuts, ½ catty (250g or 300g) of butter and 3 coconuts.

[ii] Alexander Mamak, ‘In Search of a Macanese Cookbook,’ in Sidney C. H. Cheung and C. B. Tan (eds), Food and Foodways in Asia: Resource, Tradition and Cooking (New York: Routledge, 2009),  159–70, 161.

[iii] Janet Floyd and L. Forster, The Recipe Reader: Narratives, Contexts, Traditions (Hants, and VT: Ashgate, 2003), 7.

[iv] Janet P. Boileau, A Culinary History of the Portuguese Eurasians: The Origins of Luso-Asian Cuisine in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries(University of Adelaide, 2010).

[v] Cíntia Conceição Serrano, Traditional Macanese Recipes from My Auntie Albertina (Macau: International Institute of Macau, 2013), 13.

 


About

Dr. Mukta Das received her doctorate in 2018 researching the social and historical dynamics of South Asian food and belonging in the Pearl River Delta region of China. She is interested in cooking and identify and co-presents a biweekly audio newsletter, XO Soused, with two Michelin-starred chef Andrew Wong on Chinese culinary cultures. 
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