Tag Archives: milk

Human Milk as Medicine in Imperial China: Practice or Fantasy?

By He Bian

What does milk have in common with blood? According to Kou Zongshi (fl. 1110-1117), author of Bencao yanyi (Extended Interpretations on Materia Medica), they are basically the same vital fluid produced by the female body at two critical moments in a woman’s life. While the first menstrual period signifies the maturation of reproductive power, motherhood is the consummation of that power–miraculously causing the vital fluid to flow upward as milk. After nursing ends, the flow of milk again reverses back to blood, as evident from the return of the menses.

“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.
“Human milk.” Anon. Buyi Leigong paozhi bianlan (n.p, 1591), Book 8.

For centuries, Kou’s comment was repeatedly quoted as the dominant theory over lactation in the realm of learned medicine. It also coincides with parallel attempts to speculate on the metaphysical foundation of sex differences in women, and the consolidation of women’s medicine (fuke) and pediatrics (erke) as medical specialties.[1]

However, Kou’s original aim was to make sense of medical recipes. In particular, he was trying to figure out why do so many recipes for eye medicine use human milk to mix up powdered mineral drugs: a practice that has parallels in different cultural contexts. Since blood is essential for the five senses to function and human milk is essentially blood, Kou reasoned, this makes it an excellent medicine for eye diseases. Another recipe that may have been on his mind is the recommendation to drink “three portions of human milk” to help with obstructed menses. It makes sense if they were considered of the same origin. Like cures like.

Let’s pause here to consider what this means. Working with Chinese materia medica texts often means untangling different strands of thought, modes of compilation and miscellaneous quotations. The entry on each substance (e.g. human milk, renru or ruzhi) often begins with a learned survey of previous literature, including passages from classical literature and histories, and ends with a large (and often unwieldy) body of recipes. The problem is that the prescribed uses of the substances in the first part do not always sit well with the recipes, which are messy, opaque, and often outright strange.

In fact, Kou Zongshi’s work could be understood as a scholar-physician’s attempt to impose order and coherence on the unruly recipes, which were becoming increasingly available in print. [2] The incongruities and tension between theory and recipes, however, allows us to follow the intricate dance between empiricism and rationalism in such texts: when did authors equate recipes with real-life experiences, and when did they treat them as exemplars of theory and formulaic principles? When did book culture begin to shape the ways in which medicines were prepared, consumed, and invented?

Back to Kou Zongshi’s ingenious, if somewhat contrived, speculation over the nature of lactation. It did not seem to have caught much attention immediately. The twelfth and thirteenth centuries witnessed a growing suspicion among medical experts to discipline and curb wet nurses’ sway over childcare, and pediatric treatises abound with warnings against drunken, naughty wet nurses whose milk turns unwholesome to the infant.[3] Again, the female body’s power to nourish but also intoxicate with her transformed milk resonates with similar discourses discussed elsewhere on this blog; notably, alcoholic drinks were seen to be a bad thing that excites her passions, in contrast to ancient Roman recommendations.

In addition, the conquest of Mongols brought about increased consumption of cow and goat’s milk.[4] A leading physician active in the fourteenth century advised consuming those over human milk, which is easily “tainted with poisonous passions.” It looks like the arrival of more abundant dairy products would transform the existing pharmacopeia once and for all.

But not so simple. By the sixteenth century in China, human milk had become a “super food” of sorts, especially among elite families. Kou Zongshi’s dusty theory became a dominant trope, fanning the imagination of the female body as a machine of alchemical wonders, and her milk a sort of elixir that revitalizes the frail and depleted bodies. In the sixteenth-century encyclopedia Systematic Materia Medica (Bencao gangmu), Li Shizhen, the erudite naturalist and capable physician, criticized the excessive fetishizing of human milk. The prudent Li nevertheless included twelve “new recipes” that involve human milk as medicine. Li’s encyclopedia was first printed in 1596; soon after the turn of the century, dietary manuals began to teach people how to prepare dried milk powder at home, after collecting fresh milk from “strong women who just gave birth to boys”. Presumably, women sold their milk not as wet nurses, but directly to pharmacists (as depicted in the picture above).

So did people in imperial China consume human milk as medicine? Quite likely. But was it ubiquitous? Probably not. Recipes can be practical and fantastic, and theorists can explain and inspire. What matters is that human milk as medicine gradually came to be taken out of the context of nursing and acquired a more abstract quality as commodity.

[1] Charlotte Furth, A Flourishing Yin: Gender in China’s Medical History: 960–1665 (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1999).

[2] Asaf Goldschmidt, The Evolution of Chinese Medicine: Song Dynasty, 960-1200 (London ; New York: Routledge, 2009).

[3] Ping-Chen Hsiung, “To Nurse the Young: Breastfeeding and Infant Feeding in Late Imperial China,” Journal of Family History, 20, 3 (1995), pp. 217-38.

[4] Paul D. Buell, E.N. Anderson, and Charles Perry, A Soup for the Qan : Chinese Dietary Medicine of the Mongol Era as Seen in Hu Sihui’s Yinshan Zhengyao, 2nd Rev. and Expanded ed. (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

Say – horse – cheese

By Laurence Totelin

Last time I blogged for the Recipes Project, I talked about mares. I’d like today to return to mares, their milk and the cheese made with it.

Gold Scythian belt buckle with horse. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia
Gold Scythian belt buckle. Seventh century BCE. Source: Wikipedia.

These were not delicacies that the Greeks and Romans themselves enjoyed. Instead, they had observed their consumption among the Scythians, a series of tribes, often nomadic, inhabiting large expanses of Eurasian steppes in antiquity. The Scythians, and their taste for mare’s milk and cheese, were a topic of fascination among the classical Greek authors. The historian Herodotus devotes a long passage to the way in which the Scythians milked their mares: they used slaves they had blinded for that purpose. One slave blew into the mare’s vulva with a bone tube, while another milked the mare (Histories 4.2). This is a well-known and much discussed passage among ancient historians. Enough to state here that much appears to have been lost in translation between the Scythians and Herodotus’ source! The Greeks did not drink milk themselves on a regular basis (although they used it in medical context), and established a linked between ‘otherness’ or ‘barbarism’ and milk drinking.

What will retain me today is the use of the mare’s cheese recipe in a physiological analogy. The author of the Hippocratic treatise On Generation, On the Nature of the Child and Diseases IV (which dates to the end of the fifth century BCE or the beginning of the fourth) was very fond of analogies, some of which are rather wacky. In the passage that concerns me, he compares the physiological process whereby a bad humour is heated and agitated in the human body to the making of mare’s cheese:

If the man is not purged, as the humour is stirred, there is produced an amount that is excessive. This is similar to what the Scythians make with mare’s milk. For they pour the milk into wooden bowls and shake it. As it is stirred, it foams up and separates. The fatty part, which they call butter, as it is light rises to the surface; the heavy and thick portion sinks to the bottom; they separate it and dry it. When it has become firm and dry, they call it ‘hippakē’. The whey of the milk is in the middle. Similarly in the case of man: when all the humour in his body is stirred, all the humours are separated by the principles I have mentioned: the bile rises to the top, as it is lightest; then comes the blood; third the phlegm; and the water, as it is the heaviest of the humours. (Diseases 4.51, 7.584 Littré)

Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Source: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY
Milk curdling: butter at the top, whey, solids at the bottom. Image Credit: MARTYN F. CHILLMAID/SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY

This is a rich and surprising passage. It mentions four humours, but those are not the four humours we all know (bile, phlegm, blood and black bile). Instead, we find bile, blood, phlegm and water. It is relatively little known that there is only one text in the Hippocratic Corpus that mentions the four humours that would become, under the influence of Galen, canonical: Nature of Man. The number and name of humours varies from one Hippocratic treatise to the next. Our author has a predilection for his ‘water’, the heaviest of all his humours, which he compares to the heavy portion to the Scythian milk. One wonders why this Greek author has chosen a Scythian process as a comparing point. The Greeks did make cheese, but their cheese was of the soft type, kept in brine. They did not make butter and hard cheeses. They did not churn (shake) their milk. The recipe the author provide is reasonably clear, although I would personally find it difficult to make cheese by following it. Looking forward to my feta-based dinner now!

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.