This book explores textual and visual representations of breast milk and breastfeeding across a range of literary and artistic genres, beginning with Classical mythology, moving through late-antique and medieval gynaecological texts on wet nursing, and ending with late-medieval hagiographical and mystical literature. It argues that, while the act of breastfeeding and the fluid of breast milk were often categorized as natural and nourishing, their meanings, uses and risks were also debated, problematized, and used to serve specific cultural, political and textual purposes.
This volume traces how representations of breast milk were shaped by the shifting projects specific to particular textual and artistic genres, historical and cultural movements, and opinions, fears and desires about the female body, the role of women, and infancy. In this sense, it focuses on the semantic flexibility of breast milk by illustrating the variety of messages it was used to articulate. More broadly, the author explores common metaphors and fantasies about breast milk that coalesce from this broad inquiry – in particular, the construction of the female body as the container of a vacillating economy of fluids of great significance. Although Greco-Roman and medieval representations of breast milk prove this significance to be complex and often contradictory, the notion that this female body fluid had the power to effect profound changes – both psychological and physical – among those who provided it, consumed it, or even witnessed its exchange attests to its enduring value as a material and symbolic medium.
This book will contribute significantly to women’s and gender studies and to the history of the body. It will also benefit students and scholars specializing in mythology, the history of medicine, the representation of women in classical and medieval art, early-Christian and medieval hagiography, medieval mysticism, and Marian studies.