Plus ça change…

Women who choose never to breastfeed sometimes do so for aesthetic reasons: breastfeeding, they argue, will damage their beautiful bosom. Does breastfeeding damage boobs? The jury is out on this one. Breastfeeding advocates maintain that this is one of the myths that surround breastfeeding. On the other hand, the web is awash with advice on how to avoid droopy breasts after feeding a baby, and a breast lift is part of a surgical ‘mommy job’( breast lift, tummy tuck, and a bit of liposuction thrown in for good measure). Of course, I would be lying if I said that I have never been concerned by such bodily issues, but clearly by focusing on the pertness of my mammaries, I forget a simple – but very important – fact: my breasts have for primary function to feed babies. Humans are mammals!*

Here is not the place to write a feminist essay deploring modern obsessions with breasts as sexual objects. Rather, I want to point out that concerns over the appearance of breasts are nothing new. Metrodora’s treatise (dates uncertain – I am becoming slightly obsessed with this fascinating little text) has, following recipes against pains in the breast, recipes to make the milk come (which I have discussed last week), and recipes to stop milk production, several prescriptions to keep breasts in tip top shape:

To keep the breasts small: Crush the herb from Miletus and apply as a poultice on one breast and not on the entire breast. Or apply as a poultice hemlock for three days, or poppy seed in spring water – boil and crush and apply as a poultice for three days, binding with bandages.
To straighten drooping breasts: take one part of the clay which carders use for their business; crush with a little honey and anoint. Or mix white lead with the juice of henbane; add a sufficient amount of camel-hay oil; anoint the breast.
To keep the breasts small and pert: Take the root of flea-wort, when the moon is waning, and use it to bind the breasts. If you want to try this remedy, attach the root under the horns of a ram or a bull. If the horns grow, the breasts will remain the same and will not become bigger. If the horns do not grow, the breasts will not disappear [translation uncertain here]. The Milesian herb has the same effect.
Another: crush hemlock and apply as a poultice. Split alum, 2 drams; unripe grapes, 2 drams; crush well, mix with bitter black wine and make a thick salve; anoint the entire breast, and apply as a poultice Samian and Cimolian clay or white lead.
To make the breasts shiny and beautiful: mix vetches with sweet wine and apply as a poultice. Or boil fenugreek together with wine; pound fine and apply as a poultice. Or crush linseed in the same way or the juice of barley gruel. [Metrodora 48-51].

These recipes are not particularly interesting from the point of view of their ingredients (all very common in ancient pharmacology), but they are unique in that – to my knowledge – no other ancient cosmetic recipes for the breasts are preserved. Others were probably written but have been lost. Thus chapter 26 of a lost treatise on the cow by a certain Tiberius contained recipes ‘to make the breasts pert’. Tiberius seems to be digressing from his cows here and to be talking about human women – indeed the next chapter of the lost treatise gave advice so that the breasts of a woman not become utterly swollen. (The Table of contents to this lost treatise is preserved in a London manuscript that contains Hippiatric texts). And Galen (second century CE), in his treatise on Simple Remedies (that is, remedies made of a single ingredient) indicates that a plant called epimedion, applied as a poultice, is able to maintain the breasts pert (incidentally the same plant is said to be abortifacient).

What I find particularly interesting in Metrodora’s recipes is their insistence on keeping the breasts small. Soranus in his Gynaecology also paid attention to the size of breasts when giving advice on how to find the perfect wetnurse.

She should have medium-sized breasts. For small breasts have little milk, while exceedingly large ones have more than needed, so that, if after the feed the surplus remains in the breast, it will be drunk by the nursling when it is no longer fresh, and in a way ruined. If, on the other hand, it is all sucked by other children or other animals, the wet nurse will be absolutely exhausted. In addition, bigger breasts fall heavily upon the nursling. Some authorities even maintain that bigger breasts often have less milk because the food that is carried to them is used up for the growth of their flesh rather than for the production of milk. [Soranus, Gynaecology 2.19.7]

Needless to say Soranus, and the ‘authorities’ he mentions, are absolutely wrong here: there is no link whatsoever between the size of a woman’s breast and the amount of milk she can produce. Nevertheless, there seems to be something of a prejudice against big boobs in the ancient world. More research needs to be done on this fascinating topic (even if I say so myself), but I can add one more source in favour of my argument. My colleague from Nottingham, Mark Bradley, recently came to Cardiff to give an extremely interesting talk on body fat in antiquity. Among other things, he discussed the following statue: the crouching Aphrodite.**

Crouching Aphrodite. Le Louvre (Ma2240). Roman copy (first of second century CE). Based on the Cnidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles

Crouching Aphrodite. Le Louvre (Ma2240). Roman copy (first of second century CE). Based on the Cnidian Aphrodite by Praxiteles.

I could not help but think that this beautiful woman would not be considered to have the ideal hourglass body today: she is pear-shaped. She has a round bottom and a belly, but relatively small boobs.

I decided to give one of Metrodora’s recipes for beautiful breasts a try. The recipe with fenugreek appealed to me because this plant is known to be a galactagogue. However, I was faced with a common problem when interpreting ancient recipes: what part of the plant is meant here? The entire herb? Or its seeds? I had to settle for the seeds, because that is what I had. I used a tablespoon of fenugreek seeds, which I boiled in half a cup of white wine. Again, the colour of the wine is not mentioned in the recipe, and I had to settle for what I had at hand.

Fenugreek and white wine

Fenugreek and white wine

Perhaps the indeterminacy of the recipe was intentional to allow people in different regions and at different times of the year to prepare the remedy. I boiled the seeds in the wine; let the preparation cool down; pounded it in the mortar. I did not manage to get a poultice consistency; the preparation was rather slippery. So, I decided to apply this right before going into the bath. Once the remedy had fallen into the bath, it felt like having an oats bath – just a bit more fragrant. The poultice had an exfoliating effect and my skin did feel slightly softer.

The preparation in the mortar

The preparation in the mortar

* On the history of the word and category ‘mammal’, I can highly recommend the work of Londa Schoebinger

** There are many crouching Aphrodite. See here for more examples.

This entry was posted in Children's History, Cosmetics, History of gynaecology, History of medicine, History of veterinary medicine and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Plus ça change…

  1. Pingback: Crying over spilt milk | concoctinghistory

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