Skip to main content

IMC 2016: Sessions

Session 1619: Dangerous Femininity?: Motherhood, Maiden Breasts, and Poisonous Milk

Thursday 7 July 2016, 11.15-12.45

Moderator/Chair:Theresa Earenfight, Department of History, Seattle University
Paper 1619-aMonstrous Un-Making: Maternal Infanticide as Female Agency
(Language: English)
Dianne E. Berg, Department of English, Tufts University, Massachusetts
Index terms: Gender Studies, Women's Studies
Paper 1619-bThe Breasts of Virgins: Sexual Reputation and Female Bodies in Later Medieval Society
(Language: English)
Kim M. Phillips, Department of History, University of Auckland
Index terms: Gender Studies, Sexuality, Women's Studies
Paper 1619-cMother's Poison: Representations of Mothers and Breastfeeding in the High Middle Ages
(Language: English)
Kate E. McGrath, Deaprtment of History, Central Connecticut State University
Index terms: Gender Studies, Historiography - Medieval, Women's Studies

Paper -a:
The analogical framing of the domestic realm as a microcosm of the body politic (and, by extension, God’s divine plan) makes the late medieval and early modern household a place where wives and mothers hold positions of simultaneous authority and subjugation, with female power exercised privately in the interests of maintaining a masculine public order. As Catherine Belsey writes, "'Hearth and home,' 'the bosom of the family': the phrases evoke warmth and affection. They also have the effect of isolating women in a private realm of domesticity which is seen as outside politics and therefore outside the operations of power." According to this worldview, women are responsible for establishing and maintaining order in the home, but remain answerable to the 'real' authority of their husbands.

And yet it lies within women’s ostensibly limited agency to unravel this whole scenario. Mothers 'make' the household/family via the somatic materiality of childbirth and nursing, but this same power can be used to unmake it. A woman who kills her children subverts, rejects, and effectively forgets her 'natural' role in the production and nurture of a stable, godly society—a 'monstrous' unmaking in which her material power intrudes upon and violently disrupts prevailing notions of domestic and societal order.

Patriarchal authority is an abstract (albeit powerful) concept, but the unmaking of that authority is frighteningly physical, and infanticide exposes occluded aspects of mothering by demonstrating how women might desire and cause their children’s deaths. Are such urges a flaw in the maternal system, or the necessary inverse of the intense emotions and required affection involved in mothering? The (male) authors who chronicle such crimes seek to contain and neutralize female agency run amok, toggling between lurid sensationalism, cautionary didacticism, and a reinstantiation of masculinized order via the 'unnatural' woman’s repentance and punishment. But these narratives fail to defuse the specter they raise: whether a by-product, a waste product, or a fatal flaw in the ideology of motherhood, maternal infanticide lies outside the realm of masculine control, a perversion of the art/craft of childrearing with the potential to unmake the system.

Paper -b:
Scholarly literature on medieval cultural meanings and significance of women's breasts has concentrated on their maternal, sacred, and nutritive aspects, and has downplayed the youthful and erotic. My paper intends to turn our attention to the breasts of virgins. Many medieval medical treatises include advice to young unmarried women on breast enhancement, specifically the reduction and tightening of breasts. The paper will summarise the medical advice on repressing breast growth, trace its origins in ancient and early medieval medical texts, and argue that it reflects wider understanding of bust size and texture as signifiers of sexual experience. Maidens were enjoined to suppress their breasts not merely out of aesthetic concern, but also in order to protect their sexual reputations.

Paper -c:
Orderic Vitalis relates an episode involving his patron, Mabel. After abusing her right to hospitality, Orderic's abbot finally threatened Mabel with divine vengeance if she did not leave. During the night, Mabel was afflicted with a painful breast, and in order to alleviate it, she forced a peasant's baby to feed from her breast. While her pain ended, the baby was poisoned and died. While much of the new forms of Marian devotion in the High Middle Ages focused on the health and vitality of the Virgin's milk, this paper will look at the other side: breast milk as poison.