Blessed be the Paps: Early Modern English Medical Representations of Women’s Breasts, Breast Milk, and Breastfeeding
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In this interdisciplinary study, I examine representations of women’s breasts in early modern English vernacular medical texts and posit that women’s breasts – as represented within these texts – are a visible and powerful site of contention in the debate about women and their bodies. Within the contexts of humoural theory, increased medical experimentation, and the transition from a theocentric to an androcentric worldview, women’s breasts – the singularly female body parts – serve as the constant reminder of multiple medical understandings of female corporeality, allowing writers to attribute both negative and positive characteristics to women. First, I demonstrate a tension resulting from writers’ difficulties in developing a new English scientific mode of discourse – terminology, symbols, descriptions, and illustrations – to present information to readers who were not university educated but required or wanted medical instruction. Second, I show that despite a lack of consensus on specifics, some writers delineate medical parameters dictating theoretical control over every aspect of women’s breasts and imply the possibility of an ideal – albeit indeterminate – female breast, which may allow preventative care. Third, I demonstrate how the humoural idea of breast milk being concocted uterine blood is challenged in the mid- to late-seventeenth century as anatomical and mechanical discoveries provided evidence repudiating the theory. Fourth, I confirm that the texts reveal medical debate over the value of breast milk, some authors claiming it is poorly made, can easily be corrupted or cause illness and disease, other writers arguing that breast milk is nature’s provision of infant nutrition that has medicinal properties. Finally, in analyzing the maternal/wet nursing debate, I show that medical writers stipulate variable guidelines to determine whether a woman is – or will be – a good or bad breastfeeder. The persistence of old texts intensified the lack of medical consensus at the very time that new medical and scientific ideas were being put forward. I conclude that writers of early modern English vernacular texts do not show a homogeneous understanding of women’s breasts and breast milk demonstrated through these many issues.