Tuesday, April 24, 2007

'Without acrimony and mordacity': early modern milk

“The best is that which is tepid, of equall substance, not quickly running off the naile if put thereon, light, not viscous, but sweet, without smell, white, somewhat shining, and taken out of a sound beast of good feeding, that hath good dugs. The most usuall are the womans, which is the best; the cows is thicker, fatter, more nutritive, obstructive and hardly concocted; the sheeps, is worse and obstructeth more; the goats, is a little hotter, than the former, of a thinner substance, more nourishment, and sooner passeth away; the mares is very thin, hot, and detersive, the asses, is colder than the rest, thinner; and more serous, lesse nutritive and obstructing, and cleanseth without acrimony and mordacity … the camels is the best of those, that chew not the cudde, being sweetest and thinnest … that of women, asses, or mares, will never curdle into any hard substance, raw … it’s best for children, and old men, in the marasmus, atrophi, and phthisick, and the camels for the first, the womans for the second, and asses for the third, being of a middle age, kept cleane, fed with grinded malt and a little fennel seed, then drink the milk morning and evening with sugar of roses, also she is to be kept in fine leaze, or with good hay in winter”

This is the madly pell-mell prose of Robert Lovell, trying to classify the animals and their utility in his Panzooryktologia. Sive Panzoologicomineralogia. Or A compleat history of animals and minerals, containing the summe of all authors, both ancient and modern, Galenicall and chymicall, touching animals, viz. beasts, birds, fishes, serpents, insects, and man, as to their place, meat, name, temperature, vertues, use in meat and medicine, description, kinds, generation, sympathie, antipathie, diseases, cures, hurts, and remedies &c. (1661)

Whether and when you should administer to an infant camel’s milk, or that of an ass, in preference to that of its mother (or wet nurse) rather depended on how you read Lovell’s relentlessly hasty and accumulative prose. The care of the elderly is mixed up in this mad list of recommendations, or at least, that of atrophied elderly men, old women perhaps being less commonly in need of emergency nursing. I was amused by the way Lovell races off into prescribing the best way to keep the middle aged ass you intend to use for your medicinal drafts, while women are still muddled up in the floundering reader’s sense of the sentence.

I suppose breast milk of the human female was then far more of a commodity; and as early modern medicine, like early modern magic, advocated trying more or less anything, failing the ready availability of camel, the local wet nurse might express for the sick her variety of lactic goodness.

This made me think of the quite commonly favoured motif in 17th century art of ‘Roman Charity’, and I have used Rubens’ take on this exemplary narrative as my image for this posting – so repulsive to our eyes. Maybe that response shows that our culture has lost something, having over-sexualised the breast (but the transfixed male onlookers in the painting hardly convey noble innocence of other meanings).

I was then astonished to find that the hardy – or chronically lactophiliac – Arthur Murphy attempted a play on the theme, The Grecian Daughter, performed in 1772. So here’s an extract of this previously well forgotten oeuvre. The central scene takes place off stage (when the actress who played the daughter speaks the epilogue, she does deplore the possibility that the audience might leer at her). The captive Evander, condemned to starve to death, is being sustained by the pious action of his daughter, who has been forbidden to take him any solid food. The tyrannical Arcas here is told what his henchman has witnessed in the prison:

Arcas. Ha! what means, Philotas,
That sudden haste, that pale disorder'd look?
Enter Philotas.
Philotas. O! I can hold no more; at such a sight
Ev’n the hard heart of tyranny would melt
To infant softness. Arcas, go, behold
The pious fraud of charity and love;
Behold that unexampled goodness; see
Th’expedient sharp necessity has taught her;
Thy heart will burn, will melt, will yearn to view
A child like her.
Arcas. Ha!---Say what mystery
Wakes these emotions?
Philotas. Wonder-working virtue!
The father foster’d at his daughter’s breast!---
O! filial pity!---The milk design’d
For her own offspring, on the parent’s lip
Allays the parching fever.
Arcas. That device
Has she then form’d, eluding all our care,
To minister relief?
Philotas. On the bare earth
Evander lies; and as his languid pow’rs
Imbibe with eager thirst the kind refreshment,
And his looks speaks unutterable thanks,
Euphrasia views him with the tend’rest glance,
Ev’n as a mother doating on her child,
And, ever and anon, amidst the smiles
Of pure delight, of exquisite sensation,
A silent tear steals down; the tear of virtue,
That sweetens grief to rapture. All her laws
Inverted quite, great Nature triumphs still.
Arcas. The tale unmans my soul.

hus nourished, the father recovers enough to participate in what may be the strangest act-closing speech in the whole of English drama. This is beyond normal parameters of the weird: exiting to spend the interval thanking God whose presence fills ‘the dome’ for the virtue He has given the daughter and for the ‘wondrous goodness’ either God or Euphrasia has just been lavishing:

"Evander. Euphrasia, oh! my child! returning life
Glows her about my heart. Conduct me forward---
At the last gasp preserv’d! Ha! dawning light?
Let me behold; in faith I see thee now;
I do indeed: the father sees his child.
Euphrasia. I have reliev’d him---Oh! the joy’s too great;
'Tis speechless rapture!
Evander. Blessings, blessings on thee! …
… Come, my Euphrasia, in this interval
Together we will seek the sacred altar,
And thank the God, whose presence fills the dome,
For the best gift his bounty could bestow,
The virtue he has giv’n thee; there we’ll pour
Our hearts in praise, in tears of adoration,
For all the wond’rous goodness lavish’d on us.

End of Fourth Act."

Anyway, Euphrasia, a girl nothing can daunt, ends the play by personally stabbing the tyrant (when he is once again about to kill her father). I think this text is overdue a reassessment for its enthusiastic embrace of very female heroism. There had been a broadsheet ballad of Roman Charity in 1750.


reviews Marilyn Yalom on the history of breast. Mary L Bellhouse has an interesting piece the journal Signs (available via JSTOR) which partly addresses an authentic representation by the painter Etienne Barthelemey Garnier of the original Roman story, in which a nursing daughter breast feeds her imprisoned mother (as in Valerius Maximus). I'd forgotten - or never managed to reach - the ending of The Grapes of Wrath.

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