Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Breasts & the Beestings: Rethinking Breast-Feeding Practices, Maternity Rituals, & Maternal Attachment in Britain & Ireland

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

Breasts & the Beestings: Rethinking Breast-Feeding Practices, Maternity Rituals, & Maternal Attachment in Britain & Ireland

Article excerpt


Viewing the wider collective rituals of childbirth as liminal is helpful in understanding the highly contested nature of many cultural practices. With English & Irish historical examples, this essay will argue that it has been to the advantage of women that they maintain a wide range of post-partum taboos and rituals. The themes of postpartum pollution and female power are developed in the context of wet-nursing and the withholding of colostrum. 'Churching', evident in the medieval period in Britain, continues to this very day, though in a simplified form. The colostrum taboo and ideas about the transmission of personality via breast milk are very ancient ideas, now entirely discredited in a British context, though to breastfeed another's baby is now socially taboo. Ideas about how the passions of the nurse could spoil her milk and cause diseases in the child were still widespread in the nineteenth century, and there are resonances of these ideas evident today in beliefs about how pregnant women's emotions might damage her developing foetus.

Theoretically, this article illustrates how anthropological ideas can enrich our understanding of cultural history.

Keywords: liminality, taboos, motherhood, breast-feeding, deviancy, rituals


I shall discuss this in further depth, but mothers giving birth may be viewed as 'liminal' entities because they straddle the line between purity and pollution; self and other; and indeed life and death. The gossip feasting, which will be further described, had distinctly transgressive and therefore deviant aspects--again these can usefully be explored as 'liminal' events: events which challenge customary practises and add a disturbing element of indeterminacy. Or if I may put this more crudely, childbirth was, and remains, (perhaps because of its very liminality), a political, and ideological 'hotspot' and a contested site with regards to male/female power relations, and the application of rituals; consequently, every aspect of the management of the event was potentially highly inflammatory, and subject to rival proscriptions.

In this paper I will look at some historical ideas about rituals relating to childbirth and breast feeding, the latter often thought of as straightforward and unproblematic. Women had breast milk and fed their milk to their young didn't they? But actually, because childbirth is a particularly liminal area it is highly political, and also highly regulated, but the regulation is extremely contested. This is arguably an interesting way of approaching the subject matter.

Ideas about transmission of personality via breast milk will receive brief analysis in relation to the social regulation of women and with respect to deviant thinking. (1) Even what went on in women's minds-this supposedly private domain was represented as potentially dangerous and in need of regulation: their thoughts could damage a gestating foetus, or after birth, cut-off its milk.

Taboos about breast-feeding will be examined in relation to their links with purity rituals and potentially subversive (2) 'gossip feasts', (3) which, along with the lying-in period, served to undermine customary power relations and class divisions. (4) For example, women could not be 'churched' until their vaginal discharge (lochia) has stopped and 'unchurched' she could not re-join the community. (5) In this liminal state, it was also thought she should not breastfeed, though this latter prohibition was not always observed. The essay will argue that it was to the advantage of women that they maintain such taboos and rituals. Childbed rituals functioned to give women in the early modern period, and beyond, opportunities to transgress the bounds of normally accepted female behaviour, and as such were domains of potential deviance thought to require male regulation and suppression.

Finally, the role of wet-nurses (lactating women who fed babies other than their own) will be re-examined in the light of recent anthropological research. …

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