Research Stream


Madeline Shanahan (2015, 2016)
Associate Investigator

Mother’s Milk: Breastfeeding, Infant Care and Domestic Medicine in Early Modern Ireland

This project will investigate approaches to and perspectives on breastfeeding and infant care in early modern Ireland, an area of healthcare which was conceptualized of in highly emotional terms. It will consider both how women circulated knowledge relating to the care of their bodies and babies, but more importantly, it will investigate the early modern understanding that breast milk had the power to convey emotions, morals and even religiosity to a nursing child.

Mother’s Milk: Breastfeeding, Infant Care and Domestic Medicine in Early Modern Ireland

Image:  'A poor woman in a dingy attic, surrounded by her children, one of whom she is breast-feeding.' Engraving by N. de Larmessin III after J. Pierre. Courtesy of Wellcome Library, London.

This project will investigate the subject of breastfeeding and infant care in early modern Ireland, as evidenced by the domestic manuscripts produced by women from the seventeenth century onwards, which contain a vast range of cures and advice on these areas of maternal and child health. Through this analysis, the project will contribute to some highly significant areas of research in medical and women’s history, but will also connect to the study of emotions in some central ways. In the past as today, infant care and the intimate nature of breastfeeding are highly emotive areas, bound up with feelings of maternal love, pride and, sometimes, guilt and shame. However, in the early modern world such emotions were complicated further by the figure of the wet nurse, who took on a mother’s most basic maternal responsibilities, and was consequently idealised and celebrated, but was also viewed with anxiety, suspicion and even resentment on occasion. Finally, emotions and morality were central to the early modern understanding of breastfeeding, in a way which they are not in contemporary society and medicine. It was believed that an immoderate temper, uncontrolled emotions, immorality, sexual immodesty and even religious and spiritual beliefs could be conveyed through breast milk to a child. Thus, a baby needed to be safeguarded against a mother or wet nurse’s emotionality, and breastfeeding ailments could potentially be connected to a perceived corruption in her morality and spiritual well-being. In short, this project will review both the way in which women circulated knowledge surrounding the care and nourishment of their infants, but it will also consider the complex contemporary understanding of the relationship between breast milk and a woman’s interior world.