Tag Archives: breast milk

You’ll thank me later

In my previous post, I presented a comic parody of an ancient eye-remedy. That recipe, created by the comedian Aristophanes, was too horrid to be true. Yet eye-remedies were far from pleasant in the ancient world. Witness the achariston, the ‘thankless’. There are various recipes for acharista (that’s the plural of achariston) preserved in ancient medical writings. The following one, transmitted by Galen, is representative of this lovely (not) type of medicament:

Oculist stamp  Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester  Herefordshire This stamps bears the inscription: 'Titus Vindacius Ariovistus',  Source: British Museum
Oculist stamp
Roman Britain, 1-4 century CE, Kenchester
This stamps bears the inscription: ‘Titus Vindacius Ariovistus’,
Source: British Museum

The so-called ‘thankless’ against persistent flows of tears. Physicians who used it, in Egypt only, were succefsul, especially when using it on rustics: cadmia, 16 drams; acacia, 8 drams; burnt, washed copper, 8 drams; opium, 4 drams; seed of tree heath, 4 drams; myrrh 4 drams; gum, 16 drams. Take up with water. Use with woman’s milk.  (Galen, Remedies according to Places 4, 12.749 Kühn).

It is fair to say that this remedy, before curing any flow of tears, would have made the eye cry some more. Each of the ingredients, taken separately, might have had a beneficial effect on the eye, but this remedy just goes for the rather brutal approach of accumulating as many unpleasant ingredients as possible. Thankfully, perhaps, the remedy had to be applied with woman’s milk,a very mild product, which midwives still recommend today for a baby’s sticky eyes.

These ingredients were crushed in a mortar, mixed with a small amount of water, then moulded into ‘lozenges’ and dried. These lozenges were light and easy to carry around. When a physician needed to apply the medicament, he (or the patient) crushed one of the lozenges and mixed it with a liquid – here woman’s milk. The remedy was then applied to the eyelids. Not that this particular recipe specifies any of this… One needs to have read quite a few ancient eye recipes to fill in the gaps left by Galen.

This recipe, on the other hand, gives some interesting and unusual details. The remedy was used ‘in Egypt only’. Eye-ailments seem to have been common in the land of the Nile, and eye-remedies are recorded in hieroglyphs on papyri from the Pharaonic period, going as far back as the second millennium BCE. By the time of Galen (second century CE), Egypt was a Roman province, whose elite spoke Greek (yes it’s all rather confusing). The ‘physicians’ mentioned in the recipe above were probably Greek-speaking, although it is not possible to exclude the possibility of Egyptian-speaking physicians.

Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.  Source: Wellcome images
Eye-shaped votive. Roman period.
Source: Wellcome images

The recipe also specifies that the remedy was particularly successful when used on ‘rustics’. The ancients believed that ‘rustics’ and members of the elite required different types of medicaments. Where peasants could cope with harsh, but very effective remedies, rich people, softened by their luxurious ways of life, needed milder concoctions.

Thankless eye-remedies did not just exist as texts in recipe books; they are also attested archaeologically. Ancient oculists used stamps to mark their medicines (the ‘lozenges’ I described above). Numerous stamps have been preserved. Some of these carry the inscription ‘acharistum’ (the Latin form of the Greek word achariston). One can just imagine a mother telling her reluctant child suffering from an eye disease: ‘You will thank me later’… or perhaps not!

Gender Testing in Antiquity

By Laurence Totelin

In my last post for this blog, I examined the role of rennet (in particular, seal’s rennet) in Greek and Roman medicine. As it often happens in research – or at least in mine – once I start looking into something, I can’t stop finding related texts. So over the last two months I have stumbled across quite a few recipes with rennet and/or with seal products. The following recipe caught my attention and gave me some ideas for today’s post. It comes from the Cesti, a collection of recipes and precepts, compiled by a certain Julius Africanus in the third century CE. This collection is not preserved in full, but fortunately there is an excellent recent edition with English translation of the extant fragments.[1] The fragment that interests us explains how to produce male and female horses:

A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus
A hare, from the 15th century Dialogus creaturarum, by Nicolaus, Pergamenus

But a male [horse] will be born according to technique if one smears the genitalia of the male horse with hare’s blood and rennet {which is curdled milk extracted from the stomach of a new-born hare}. But a female will be born if one smears the private parts of the female horse with goose fat together with terebinth resin for three days in succession, and positions it for impregnation by the male horse

(Cesti F28. Translation: William Adler).

In ancient theories of reproduction, male semen was thought to act as rennet in cheese making: it coagulated the blood in the female womb. It therefore made sense to choose that ingredient in order to produce a male horse. Using hare’s rennet added to the potency of the recipe, as hares are particularly fertile.

I don’t have such a good explanation for the use of oily and fatty ingredients to produce a female horse: maybe these were chosen because females were considered to be fatter, spongier than males. Gender selection was not, however, limited to horse breeding. In human reproduction too males were preferred. This is plainly clear from, among other things, gender determination tests preserved in one of the Hippocratic treatises, Barren Women (chapter 216):

Those pregnant women who have freckles on their face will give birth to a girl. Those who keep a beautiful complexion, more often than not, will give birth to a boy. If her nipples are turned upwards, she will give birth to a boy; if downwards, to a girl.

These tests simply reflect the stereotypes of the day, whereby a baby girl is less desirable, and will therefore make her pregnant mother look less desirable, with her freckles and drooping breasts. I had never paid much attention to the following tests, but they are probably even richer in meaning:

Take some of [the woman’s?] milk, knead it with flour and shape into a little loaf. Heat it up on a low heat. If it burns, she will give birth to a boy. If it opens up, she will give birth to a girl. Collect some of the same milk on leafs and expose it to the heat. If it coagulates, she will give birth to a boy; if it spreads, a girl.

These recipes draw upon the association between the womb and an oven – the ‘bun in the oven’ metaphor. When exposed to the oven/womb heat, everything that is male (and by nature hotter and more compact) will coagulate and heat up further; everything that is female (and by nature cooler and more liquid) will liquefy further. The ‘female loaf’ will also gape like a mouth (the literal translation of the verb ‘diachanēi), probably evoking the female sexual organs.

Would a family have taken action when such test indicated they were expecting a girl? It is impossible to tell. It is worth noting, however, that a pregnant woman usually only starts producing milk that can be expressed towards the end of her pregnancy, unless she is feeding an older child already. If it is indeed the milk of the pregnant woman that is needed in these recipes, the tests could only have been carried out late in the pregnancy. Any intervention at that stage would have been extremely risky.

[1] M. Wallraff, C. Scardino, L. Mecella, C. Gillar and W. Adler (2012), Iulius Africanus: Cesti. The Extant Fragments, Berlin: De Gruyter.

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.

Curdled Milk in the Breast

By Jennifer Park

In one of the most visceral images of corruption within the body, the ghost of Hamlet’s father describes his murder by poison at the hands of Claudius:

Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebenon in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood: so did it mine. [emphasis mine] (1.3.61-70)

The power of the image comes from comparing the curdling effects of poison on the blood to the daily and material reality of milk going bad. As we and our early modern counterparts were familiar, the process of milk putrefying involved the separation of the solids and the liquids of the milk, as Shakespeare so eloquently put it, “like eager droppings into milk.” If the thickening of blood could be described in terms of the curdling of milk, I wondered: could the danger of curdled blood be applied quite literally to breast milk, which was thought to be a form of blood?

My investigation of this as a potential phenomenon began by considering Old Hamlet’s speech alongside the transformation Lady Macbeth calls for, to “make thick my blood…Come to my woman’s breasts, / And take my milk for gall” (1.5.43, 47-8). Her references to her milk have been explored as one of Shakespeare’s many references to breastfeeding, and central to discussions of early modern breastfeeding was the status of human breast milk. Since antiquity, as Laurence Totelin has written, breast milk was held to be an especially nutritive substance with healing qualities. It was a powerful substance capable of changing or altering the children who ingested it because it was thought to be “white blood” or “‘twice-concocted’ blood manufactured in the mammary glands from blood itself.”[1] But as I am interested in the darker underbelly of milk as an easily corruptible substance, I wanted to find out more about milk curdling and to what extent it was a physiological as much as a culinary phenomenon.

There were a variety of early modern remedies directed towards breastfeeding women, treating everything from “for a milk sore in the breast,” to “A Medecine to to drye vpp a woemans Milke troubling her in Childbedd,” to remedies “To Increase A Womans Milk” or “For a woman that hath lost her milke.”[2] Among these, sure enough, I found remedies that specifically mentioned the curdling of milk in the breast, providing some clues about the physical pain and hardness associated with the problem. Lady Frances Catchmay provided a remedy “for a Womans brest that is curdeled | wth milke” in her manuscript receipt book.[3] So too, Philip Stanhope recorded two receipts, one from “L[ady]. Hu.” for a remedy “Against the sorenesse of any breasts by reason of the Curdling of milke in womens Breasts,” and another for “A Cattaplasme for Breasts that are hardned with congealed milke.”[4]

Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Philip Stanhope, MS 761, f. 197v, c. 1635.

Lady Ayscough’s receipt book provided a remedy for “Brest curdled with Milk to help,” but also one “For a Breast wherein | the Milk is wharled & knotted”–what an image!–which required a massage to “breake the wharles | easily with your finger morneing and euening.”[5]

Wellcome MS 1026, 1692
Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Lady Ayscough, MS 1026, f. 83r, 1692.

Clearly, curdled milk in the breasts was a common problem, and a painful one at that, even, as one recipe notes, causing “rednes inflamation | swelling paine and torment.”[6] In light of evidence that milk could in fact curdle in the breasts, Lady Macbeth’s desire to “make thick my blood…And take my milk for gall” (1.5.43, 48) can be read as need for physiological hardening to accompany her emotional stoicism. Regardless of whether we think that Lady Macbeth’s spirits could enact such a transformation upon her body, or if she means it purely for the sake of metaphor, her desire for such a painful state is in stark contrast to the solace that most women were seeking for their breast pain. For such a well-documented problem among early modern women, how much more unnatural that Lady Macbeth should wish it! Perhaps we can’t help but admire her intention to practice what she preaches to her husband: no pain, no gain.


[1] Ken Albala, “Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous,” in Milk: Beyond the Dairy: Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery, 1999, (Devon, UK: Prospect Books, 2000), 21. See also Victoria Sparey’s discussion of blood and milk in “Identity-Formation and the Breastfeeding Mother in Renaissance Generative Discourses and Shakespeare’s Coriolanus,” Social History of Medicine 25.4 (2012), pp. 781-87.

[2] Anne Brumwich (and others), Wellcome MS 160, f. 89v, c. 1625-1700; Mrs. Corlyon, Wellcome MS 213, f. 38v, 1606; Elizabeth Jacob (and others), Wellcome MS 3009, f. 78r, 1654-c. 1685; Jane Jackson, Wellcome MS 373, f. 111r, 1642.

[3] Lady Frances Catchmay, Wellcome MS 184A, f. 35v, c. 1625.

[4] Philip Stanhope, Wellcome MS 761, ff. 182v, 197v, c. 1635.

[5] Lady Ayscough, Wellcome MS 1026, ff. 112v, 83r, 1692.

[6] Townshend Family, Wellcome MS 774, f. 21v, 1636-1647.