The ancient view of nursing a baby

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Aulus Gellius (c. 125 – after 180 AD) was a Latin author and grammarian

Attic Nights
Book 12, Chapter 1

A discourse of the philosopher Favorinus, in which he urged a lady of rank to feed with her own milk, and with that of other nurses, the children whom she had borne.

1 Word was once brought in my presence to the philosopher Favorinus that the wife of an auditor and disciple of his had been brought to bed a short time before, and that his pupil’s family had been increased by the birth of a son. 2  “Let us go,” said he, “both to see the child and to congratulate the father.”

3 The father was of senatorial rank and of a family of high nobility. We who were present at the time went with Favorinus, attended him to the house to which he was bound, and entered it with him. 4  Then the philosopher, having embraced and congratulated the father immediately upon entering, sat down. And when he had asked how long the labour had been and how difficult, and had learned that the young woman, overcome with fatigue and wakefulness, was sleeping, he began to talk at greater length and said: “I have no doubt she will suckle her son herself!” 5  But when the young woman’s mother said to him that she must spare her daughter and provide nurses for the child, in order that to the pains which she had suffered in childbirth they might not be added the wearisome and difficult task of nursing, he said: “I beg you, madam, let her be wholly and entirely the mother of her own child. 6  For what kind of unnatural, imperfect and half-motherhood is it to bear a child and at once send it away from her? to have nourished in her womb with her own blood something which she could not see, and not to feed with her own milk what she sees, now alive, now human, now calling for a mother’s care? 7  Or do you too perhaps think,” said he, “that nature gave women nipples as a kind of beauty-spot, not for the purpose of nourishing their children, but as an adornment of their breast?

8  For it is for that reason (though such a thing is of course far from your thoughts) that many of those unnatural women try to dry up and check that sacred fount of the body, the nourisher of mankind, regardless of the danger of diverting and spoiling the milk, because they think it disfigures the charms of their beauty. In so doing they show the same madness as those who strive by evil devices to cause abortion of the fetus itself which they have conceived, in order that their beauty may not be spoiled by the labour of parturition. 9  But since it is an act worthy of public detestation and general abhorrence to destroy a human being in its inception, while it is being fashioned and given life and is still in the hands of Dame Nature, how far does it differ from this to deprive a child, already perfect, of the nourishment of its own familiar and kindred blood

10 ‘But it makes no difference,’ for so they say, ‘provided it be nourished and live, by whose milk that is effected.’ 11  Why then does not he who affirms this, if he is so dull in comprehending natural feeling, think that it also makes no difference in whose body and from whose blood a human being is formed and fashioned? 12  Is the blood which is now in the breasts not the same that it was in the womb, merely because it has become white from abundant air and width? 13  Is not wisdom of nature evident also in this, that as soon as the blood, the artificer, has fashioned the whole human body within its secret precautions, when the time for birth comes, it rises into the upper parts, is ready to cherish the first beginnings of life and of light, and supplies the newborn children with the familiar and accustomed food?

14  Therefore it is believed not without reason that, just as the power and nature of the seed are able to form likenesses of body and mind, so the qualities and properties of the milk have the same effect. 15  And this is observed not only in human beings, but in beasts also; for if kids are fed on the milk of ewes, and lambs on that of goats, it is a fact that as a rule the wool is harsher in the former and the hair softer in the latter. 16  In trees too and grain the power and strength of the water and earth which nourish them have more effect in retarding or promoting their growth than have those of the seed itself which is sown; and you often see a strong and flourishing tree, with transplanted to another spot, die from the effect of an inferior soil. 17  What the mischief, then, is the reason for corrupting the nobility of body and mind of a newly born human being, formed from gifted seeds, by the alien and degenerate nourishment of another’s milk? Especially if she whom you employ to furnish the milk is either a slave or of servile origin and, as usually happens, of a foreign and barbarous nation, if she is dishonest, ugly, unchaste and a wine-bibber; for as a rule anyone who has milk at the time is employed and no distinction made.

18 Shall we then allow this child of ours to be infected with some dangerous contagion and to draw a spirit into its mind and body from a body and mind of the worst character? 19  This, by Heaven! is the very reason for what often excites our surprise, that some children of chaste women turn out to be like their parents neither in body nor in mind. 20  Wisely then and skillfully did our Maro make use of these lines of Homer:

The horseman Peleus never was thy sire,
Nor Thetis gave thee birth; but the gray sea
Begat thee, and the hard and flinty rocks;
So savage is thy mind.

For he bases his charge, not upon birth alone, as did his model, but on fierce and savage nurture, for his next verse reads:

And fierce Hyrcanian tigers gave thee suck.

And there is no doubt that in forming character the disposition of the nurse and the quality of the milk play a great part; for the milk, although imbued from the beginning with the material of the father’s seed, forms the infant offspring from the body and mind of the mother as well.

21 And in addition to all this, who can neglect or despise this consideration also, that those who desert their offspring, drive them from them, and give them to others to nurse, do sever, or at any rate loosen and relax, that bond and cementing of the mind and of affection with which nature attaches parents to their children? 22  For when the child is given to another and removed from its mother’s sight, the strength of maternal ardor is gradually and little by little extinguished, every call of impatient anxiety is silenced, and a child which has been given over to another to nurse is almost as completely forgotten as if it had been lost by death. 23  Moreover, the child’s own feelings of affection, fondness, and intimacy are centered wholly in the one by whom it is nursed, and therefore, just as happens in the case of those who are exposed at birth, it has no feeling for the mother who bore it and no regret for her loss. Therefore, when the foundations of natural affection have been destroyed and removed, however much children thus reared may seem to love their father and mother, that affection is in a great measure not natural but merely courteous and conventional.”

24 I heard Favorinus make this address in the Greek language. I have reproduced his sentiments, so far as I was able, for the sake of their general utility, but the elegance, copiousness and richness of his words hardly any power of Latin eloquence could equal, least of all my humble attainments.


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