A HISTORY OF THE BREASTS
"[S]trange things have come forth of the Breasts, and sometimes the menstrual Blood unchanged runs forth this way at certain Seasons. Hippocrates writes that when the Blood comes out of the Nipples, those Women are Mad."--Jane Sharp, late 17th century
The breasts have played an important role in defining the special functions of the female body and have enormous cultural significance as well. Both maternal and sexual in appearance, they appear at times in startling forms to modern viewers of medieval and Renaissance texts, such as the images of Christ as a "mother" giving nourishment to the faithful from the wounds in his chest -- an image that medieval and Renaissance Christians would have understood in physiological as well as religious terms since they strongly believed that milk was a kind of purified blood. Generally, however, most believed that few males could transcend their sex and take on the female gender. For this reason, the seventeenth-century physician Caspar Hoffman compared the male breasts to women's testes -- both, in his opinion, incomplete and virtually inert organs in the body.
Medical practitioners felt that they could see the signs of the body's activity and health in the female breasts. The seventeenth-century English midwife Jane Sharp wrote, "The Nipples are red after Copulation, red as a Strawberry, and that is their Natural colour: But Nurses Nipples, when they give Suck, are blue, and they grow black when they are old." More importantly, the quality of breast milk served as a litmus test for the state of the female body. Discussing why mothers should not breast feed after intercourse, the anonymous popular treatise, The Problems of Aristotle, attributed to Aristotle, observed: "Because in time of carnal copulation, the subtlest and best part of the milk goeth to the vessels of the seed, and to the womb, and the worst remains in the paps, which doth hurt the child." Intercourse brought the seed down to the womb whereas pregnancy transferred it upward into the breasts. The kiveris vein played a crucial role in making this system of constantly shifting fluids possible.
Breast-feeding was the subject of a lengthy literature because the upper classes generally did not breast feed their children in many premodern societies. Medical practitioners advocated breast-feeding as a matter of health: "[T]he mothers milk is more convenient and agreeable to the infant, than any other woman's, and more doth it nourish it, for because that in the mother's belly it was wont to the same, as that with the which it is best acquainted," wrote Thomas Raynalde in 1540. They warned of the perilous effects of the imagination on breast milk. "We may be assured, that the milk (wherewith the child is nourished two years together) hath as much power to make the children like the nurses, both in body and mind; as the seed of the parents hath to make the children like them," argued James Guillimeau in 1612. He further warned that imperfections of the body could be transmitted through the breasts of a wet-nurse. Given the high rate of infant mortality, it is not surprising that medical practitioners paid special attention to the virtues of breast-feeding.
The breast increasingly was viewed as a gland, or as John Moir put in 1620 "composed of many small glands," The idea of the gland was at least as old as Galen but it took on new meaning in an era newly obsessed with the fluids of the body in the middle of the seventeenth century. Thomas Wharton's Adenographia (1656), the first treatise devoted exclusively to the glands, came up with an interesting solution to the problem of the missing female vein that had, until then, transported blood, semen and milk between the breasts and the uterus. He divided milk into two kinds: chylous and spermatic. The former entered the breasts by way of the chyle-bearing duct which brought its fluids to the ventricles of the heart via the subclavius and then from their brought it to the breasts via the thoracic arteries. The latter entered the breasts via the thoracic nerves. This kind of ingenious -- and complicated solution -- to the physiology of lactation continued to make the breasts a difficult part of the body to understand.
QUESTIONS: HOW DID MEDIEVAL AND RENAISSANCE PRACTITIONERS EXPLAIN THE UNIQUENESS OF THE FEMALE BREAST? WHAT SPECIAL POWERS DID IT HAVE?
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