Wet-nursing: A significant female occupation in the early modern bodily marketplace

Wet-nursing: A significant female occupation in the early modern bodily marketplace

Charlotte Rhian Jones

In recent years the multibillion-dollar trans-national surrogacy industry was brought to global attention when an Australian couple abandoned their child with his Thai surrogate mother after discovering he had Down’s syndrome – but took home his healthy twin. This industry’s dependence on the bodies of impoverished women a symptom of what Lori Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin have termed, the ‘Body Bazaar’, a marketplace of bodily transactions in which the physical human body has assumed aspects of value beyond its labour potential.(1) While the Body Bazaar is a product of the biotechnological age, such a marketplace was thriving centuries before modern-day technological advances, and is exhibited in the wet-nursing phenomenon of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England.

Despite wet-nurses’ evident contribution to social and economic life in early modern England, Valerie Fildes is the only historian to have asserted the significance of wet-nursing as a female occupation.(2) My research goes further, applying this notion of ‘significance’ from a social, economic and medical perspective, to more adequately account for the working activities of women in the past. I examine three categories of wet-nurse: the privately-employed wet-nurse, servicing the private families of London, the London Foundling Hospital wet-nurse, and those who nursed infants under the care of parish authorities. This article focuses on wet-nursing’s significance within the medical marketplace, particularly what it can tell historians of the body and medicine about how healthcare was conducted in the past, and how bodies were perceived and experienced.

While research on formal or professional medicine has contributed to our understanding of theoretical medicine in the early modern period, it does not account for the everyday experience of sickness, health and healing. By unpicking current conceptions of ‘medicine’ to include acts of healing and general caregiving of the body, female domestic acts such as caring for the sick, wet-nursing or creating medicines using local plants, can be explored in relation to early modern medicine. Incorporating informal caregiving into our definition of medicine and recognising women’s domestically-based contributions as vital components of the medical marketplace means we must re-examine the history of the medical encounter and client-patient relationships.

Wet-nursing demonstrates that informal caregiving actions could involve a duo-directional intimacy between client and practitioner. A wet-nurse must do the bodywork necessary to ensure the health, comfort and survival of her nursling, which involved touching, manipulating and intervening in her nursling’s body. However, her nursling was also intimate with her body by feeding on her milk, allowing a stranger to consume bodily material destined for another child. The encounters between wet-nurse and nursling suggest that monetary motivations could encourage the transgression of normal bodily boundaries. For example, many of the Foundling wet-nurses were aware that they could become sick from nursing a foundling baby, as these babies often harboured diseases such as syphilis, but were willing to take the risk. As well as physical ramifications, these medical encounters could evoke emotional responses. Foundling nurse Elizabeth Grout wrote of her foundling James Creed: ‘he is to me as tho’ he had been my own natural born son…to part with him will be as to part with my life’, to do so would ‘bereave me of my sences’.(3) If we agree that interactions of general caregiving of the body between lay people was part of early modern medicine, the occupation of wet-nursing significantly complicates our understanding of medical encounters and requires us to consider the bodily experiences and emotional responses of healthcare practitioners.

As well as being the best infant feeding substance, breast milk was used to help the sick sleep,  mixed with flora or eggs to make eye and ear drops, infused in powders to cure ulcers; it was a veritable panacea in early modern medicine. Yet historians have failed to seriously consider breast milk as a valuable and valued commodity in that medical marketplace, despite its evident monetary worth being reflected in wet-nurse wages, and have ignored the potential for comparison with milk-sharing practices today. The stigma experienced by modern-day wet-nurses is comparable with that of early modern wet-nurses. Early modern wet-nurses were targeted by moralists and medical professionals who saw the potential for the transfer of undesirable traits from lower-class women to infants, and questioned the morality of a woman who would feed another woman’s child in exchange for money. Today the sale of breast milk remains an uncomfortable topic, as it is often seen as morally reprehensible to profit from the products of childbirth. Studies in the US on women using milk banks, which rely on donations of breast-milk generally from middle-class mothers, reveal an assumption that milk-sharing should be done without financial incentive, or risk encouraging the ‘wrong type’ of mother to give milk. An evident contradiction exists which has rung true for centuries: women can provide a highly sought after product, but are stigmatised when they seek payment, despite only seeking rightful remuneration as the provider of a raw product.

The major difference between today’s Body Bazaar and the early modern bodily marketplace is self-agency: having control over what is done to one’s body or its parts. Early modern wet-nurses retained a measure of control over how their milk was used and remained active agents, not only in the process of giving milk, but in the life of the infant who was consuming it. In contrast, the paid wet-nurses of today sell their milk online, never meeting the mother buying it or the child consuming it; they relinquish control over their bodily boundaries. The sale of body fluids and tissues in the twenty-first century, including breast milk, means giving up the right to have knowledge of how a product of your body is being consumed. That practices such as wet-nursing were so widespread in the early modern period suggests that while early modern people felt ownership over their bodies, they did not  conceive of their body’s products in the same way, with the same possessiveness or continued right of ownership, as we do today.

A question remains: were these women active in the sale of their milk and their participation in the early modern bodily marketplace, or was wet-nursing a symptom of a society which offered limited occupational opportunities for mothers? We must be careful not to tar all these women’s experiences with the same brush, as different types of wet-nurses had varying levels of autonomy within the bodily marketplace. It would seem that although prescriptive literature described these women in such terms as to render their bodies as objects, they did not see them in this way. Their experiences were highly context dependent, related to the reasons for taking up this occupation. Privately employed wet-nurses may have experienced their bodies in much the same way as they had when breast-feeding their own children: as performing a maternal service. For parish wet-nurses, breast milk was a purely commercially viable product that could be sold or traded to ensure survival. While some women used wet-nursing as a top up employment, engaging in it when their bodies allowed or when the need was dire, others made it a more permanent occupation, repeatedly taking in nursling children for a number of years. What is clear is that women were aware of the marketable aspects of their bodies and were prepared to exploit them should the need or desire arise.

(1) Lori Andrews and Dorothy Nelkin, Body Bazaar: The Market for Human Tissue in the Biotechnology Age (New York, 2001), p. 28.
(2) Valerie Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies (Edinburgh University Press, 1986).
(3) A/FH/A/6/1/16/7/5, London Metropolitan Archive, Apr 22, 1763, Elizabeth Grout, Wokingham Berks.

Further reading:
Cavallo, Sandra, Artisans of the Body in Early Modern Italy: Identities, families and masculinities (Manchester, 2007).
Fissell, Mary ‘Introduction: Women, Health, and Healing in Early Modern Europe’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 82:1 (2008).
Green, Monica ‘Bodies, Gender, Health, Disease: Recent Work on Medieval Women’s Medicine’, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History: Sexuality and Culture in Medieval and Renaissance Europe, 3:1 (2004).
Leong, Elaine ‘Making Medicines in the Early Modern Household’, Bulletin of the History of Medicine, 82:1 (Spring, 2008), p. 167.
Pineau, Marisa, ‘Liquid Gold: Breast Milk Banking in the United States’ PhD. Sociology, UCLA (2012).


Charlotte Rhian Jones graduated from the University of York with a BA in History in 2014. Whilst studying for a Masters in Early Modern History she worked for Durham University’s Centre for Sex, Gender and Sexualities as a Postgraduate Assistant. This article is based on her MA dissertation research which focuses on the experiences of wet-nurses from the Home Counties and London City in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She is now pursuing a career in law and is studying the GDL at Cambridge BPP School.

Photo credit: Marten van Cleve, ‘A visit to the wet nurse’ (Antwerp c. 1527 – before 1581)