Have breasts, will travel.

Wet nurses at the Medici court

Lisa Kaborycha
November 13, 2008

There were the Grand Duke and Duchess with all their children, the youngest at his wet nurse's breast, happily suckling away.


A courtier, describing a ballet held at the Medici court to the Duchess of Mantua.  February 12, 1619


When Cosimo II and Maria Magdalena went to this performance, they brought the whole family: Ferdinando II, Giancarlo, Francesco, Mattias, Margherita, Anna, Maria Cristina, and baby Leopoldo. Visibly present with them-and, as this note describes, hard at work-was the wet nurse. Throughout the Renaissance and after, the wet nurse played an important role in the lives of upper-class families. Since the mid-fourteenth century women who were lactating, frequently because their own newborn had recently died, were hired to breastfeed the offspring of the well-to-do. The woman, often a peasant, would either live under the same roof with the rest of the family or take the baby to the country to live with her until the child was weaned.


It was considered undignified for a woman of status to breastfeed and was said to ruin her figure. More importantly, breastfeeding, which often suppresses ovulation, also temporarily reduces the mother's fertility. Hence, families anxious to produce as many heirs as possible discouraged women from nursing their own children. The fact that sexual relations with a lactating woman were discouraged on the grounds that it could harm the baby must have made many husbands' desire to find a wet nurse all the more urgent.


However, many noblewomen resisted giving over their children to the care of others, for reasons of either emotional or physical discomfort. In a letter written in January 1570, the Grand Duchess Giovanna d'Austria, for instance, apologizes to the Duke of Urbino for not receiving his envoy because she is in bed, fresh from childbirth and much afflicted with milk. Nevertheless, despite the advice of medical authorities who noted that children nursed by their own mothers were healthier and their infant mortality rates lower, the custom continued through the modern age.


The demand for their services was high and wet nurses were among the highest-paid domestic servants, as attested by the many documents in the Medici archives noting the remuneration given them. For instance, a secretary of Cosimo I in 1548 notes that 100 scudi are to be allocated to the wet nurse Cassandra in order to buy a house. Cosimo's daughter-in-law, Giovanna d'Austria, in 1578 asks for a house to be given to Emilia the wet nurse of Princess Anna...because this girl has nourished with such care, diligence, and kindness.


Moreover, wet nurses enjoyed a position of special honor within the household. Nowadays the idea of a woman baring her breasts for money might cause some to equate her with a sex worker, but this was not the case in the early modern world. Rather than carrying a social stigma, the work of the wet nurse was highly respected. Since it was believed that not only communicable diseases but also moral qualities could be transmitted through breast milk, wet nurses had to have impeccable hygiene as well as morals.


Of course, transgressions occurred. The Medici archives contain the case of a peeping Tom named Brigidone who in 1547 was apprehended for spying on a wet nurse from the Duke's dressing room, the door of which was ajar. A curious document in the archives, dated 1584, concerns the then nine-year-old Philip III of Spain, who has an abscess on his thigh that worries his physicians greatly, all this because he contracted the French disease from his wet nurse. How did the boy catch syphilis? Could it truly have been from his wet nurse? And if so, how? Or was this an excuse invented to cover up some sexual misdeed within the royal family?


Although we can only guess at the sexual fantasies and peccadilloes of a former age, one thing is certain: wet nurses once played a role in court and family life for which there is nothing comparable today. In a man's world, this was one job that could only be performed by a woman and which gave her honorable opportunity for social advancement.



more articles