By Lisa Smith (Regular Contributor)
What if men could breastfeed?
There have certainly been medical cases of lactating men, such as when an illness causes a hormonal imbalance. Men do, after all, have the necessary equipment and with the right hormones, it could happen. It’s possible, if difficult, to induce lactation in adoptive mothers, so in theory, a nurturing father might be turned into a nursing father. Stranger things have happened. Even today, we hear occasional tales about fathers nursing infants after the mother has died, usually in desperation to comfort the crying child.
A letter by the Bishop of Cork to the Earl of Egmont was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1739-41). In the letter, the Bishop described his recent strange encounter with a seventy-year-old man who claimed that he had breastfed his child.
The tale begins when the Bishop was approached on his doorstep in Inishannon by the elderly man, a French Protestant refugee (Huguenot). The Huguenot had worked industriously, “by all accounts”, as a gardener until age “deprived [him] of his Strength ”. After the Bishop gave him half a Crown, the man left and the Bishop returned into the house.
Soon after, he “heard a Noise at the Door”. Apparently “out of Gratitude”, the Huguenot had returned to show him a curiosity: his own breasts, which he had used to suckle his child. The Bishop was sceptical, thinking that this was a ploy to obtain more money, but the physical evidence intrigued him.
According to the man, hist wife had
died when the Child was about Two Months old: The Child crying exceedingly while it was in Bed with him, he gave it his Breast to suck, only with an Expectation to keep it quiet; but, behold, he found that the Child in time extracted Milk; and he affirmed, that he had Milk enough afterwards to rear the Child.
The Bishop examined the old man’s breasts, which were unusually large for a man. The nipples, even more impressively, “was as larger or larger than any Woman’s I ever saw.” Unfortunately, this is all we know, because
Some Ladies were then passing by; so I sent him off in Haste, and have not seen him since.
I picture, here, a rather flustered Bishop shooing away the elderly beggar, panicked at the thought of being caught out closely examining another man’s nude chest–even if there was even a long religious tradition that depicted Jesus as a nursing mother. Curiosity and respectability were not always happy companions.
But I could not help comparing the Bishop’s anxious reaction to other instances of extraordinary breastfeeders, including aged grandmothers. It was certainly acceptable for eighteenth-century women to expose their lactating breasts in public, even breastfeeding grandmothers. For example, one sixty-eight-year-old woman who breastfed her grandchildren had such a quantity of milk “that, to convince the Unbelieving, she would frequetly spout it above a Yard from her” (Philosophical Transactions, 1739).
Gloria Steinem once wondered what the world would be like “If men could menstruate”. Steinem argued that menstruation would suddenly become a mark of male superiority: “[w]hatever a ‘superior’ group has will be used to justify its superiority, and whatever the ‘inferior’ group has will be use to justify its plight.” This certainly holds true—at least a bit—for early modern men who were seen as having menstrual-like flows: haemorrhoids or other regular bleeding. Such a flow did not undermine male authority and, in fact, could be a cultural marker of positive qualities, such as wealth and learnedness.
Male lactation… well, that was a bit more problematic. Menstrual-like flows might happen to many men (particularly those who indulged too much in the good life), but male breastfeeding remained uncommon. The Huguenot used to be a good father and hard worker, but his masculine status was complicated by his old age, foreigness and dependency. All of these categories undermined his manhood. Only certain types of male bodies could take on feminine characteristics without undermining manliness—and the Huguenot’s was not one of them.
If (all) men could breastfeed, lactating would be a (slightly damp) badge of superiority. But when (only some) men could breastfeed, it remained a curiosity and unmanly.
For the Bishop, examining another man’s nipples–particularly when they were no longer even producing milk–must have been uncomfortably intimate. No wonder the Bishop’s instinct was to send the Huguenot away… probably, no doubt with some version of “cover up, love” or “put them away, dearie” upon his lips.
Lisa Smith is a Lecturer in Digital History at the University of Essex. She writes on gender, family, and health care in England and France (ca. 1600-1800). She also blogs on history of medicine and science at her Sloane Letters Blog and edits The Recipes Project. Follow her on Twitter, where she tweets as @historybeagle.