Over the last few weeks, I have been working on a new project, which is really exciting. Together with other members of staff at Cardiff University, we are planning an event for the National Eisteddfod of Wales, which is a festival celebrating all things Welsh. We will use historical artefacts relating to infant feeding as catalysts to stimulate discussion about modern feeding practices. Wales has rather low rates of breastfeeding, and it is important to get people to talk without feeling they have to become part of warring factions (breast vs bottle). We hope to communicate through blogging and I shall create a new blog soon, but I just wanted to share here something I came across today.
I was looking for historical pictures or paintings representing Welsh women breastfeeding. These are quite rare in the public domain (if you have private images, do get in touch, we’d love to see them). While trawling the web, I stumbled across the following picture. It is an illustration by Joseph Kuhn-Regnier, a Paris-based illustrator. It comes from a 1932 edition of the works attributed to Hippocrates (Paris, Javal & Bourdeaux). I have never consulted this edition, so I do not know where exactly this picture is to be found. This is actually quite puzzling to me, as there is very little on breastfeeding in the Hippocratic Corpus. I will investigate more – watch this space.
I love this illustration. The simple ‘Greek’ interior with the magnificent painted vase tells us more about 1930s classicism than fifth-century BCE domestic life. What is most striking, however, is the little girl nursing her dolly next to her mummy. I am not sure why she is naked, but I guess she might be a ‘Spartan’ girl. Historical representations of little girls ‘playing grown up’ like this are very rare, and this one is particularly interesting.
I wish I could say this is an entirely innocent picture, but Kuhn-Regnier had a certain taste for the erotic. In particular, he enjoyed representing Hippocratic doctors examining their beautiful fully-naked patients – which would never have happened in the classical Greek world. This illustration raises one of the serious issues that prevents mothers from feeding their babies in peace: the eroticization of the act of breastfeeding. Breastfeeding should be private because breasts are sexual – so the argument goes. I personally feel it does not help simply to state that this argument is completely absurd – one has to face it head on. How to do that in a meaningful manner, however, is difficult. Perhaps historical images like this one – with the distance that time offers – can help us.