Deborah Valenze's Milk: What a new history reveals about our ambivalent relationship with breasts and breast milk.

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
July 6 2011 6:05 PM

Breast Friends

A new history of milk explains how we became the most ambivalent of mammals.

The author mechanically milks a row of dairy goats on a farm in Coutras, France, in June 2010.
The author mechanically milks a row of dairy goats on a farm in Coutras, France, in June 2010

If you spend two weeks in close proximity to goat udders, it's inevitable that you'll think differently about your own breasts. Or at least that's what happened to me.

My husband and I had signed up to spend two weeks volunteering on a French farm where the farmer took one look at our soft hands and assigned us to what he considered his easiest job: milking the family's 27 dairy goats. And so once in the morning, once in the evening, Peter and I wheeled out the milking canisters and pumping gear (this was not a hand-extraction affair), lined up the goats at a feeding trough, and worked our way through the herd.

The monotony of the task was strangely satisfying, and I found myself looking forward to my time with the ladies, as I called them, skittish and ornery, with soft ears and narrow, Avatar-like pupils. Much like women's breasts, their udders came in all shapes and sizes. Some were huge and swollen, bumping into the goat's back knees as she waddled up to the milking station. Others would barely have qualified for a training bra. Some goats had lopsided udders, including one young animal whose left teat was so tiny that we didn't bother to milk it.

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Usually, there's a clear distinction in my mind between the pasteurized, cereal-friendly stuff I buy in the grocery store and the baby-nourishing liquid that may one day emanate from my chest. But as I worked my way up and down the goats' ranks, massaging their udders to help the flow, the difference between the two became less obvious. I found myself suddenly very curious about milk.

Barnard history professor Deborah Valenze shares this curiosity, judging from her comprehensive and scholarly new book Milk: A Global and Local History, which covers everything from milk's role in mythology to its effects on animal husbandry to its transformation into cheese. In her telling, a key element of milk's strange history involves the very tension I experienced in the goat pen, namely, humans' ultimately futile desire to separate ourselves from beasts. Sure, we have complex thoughts, and these convenient, opposable thumbs. Yet sooner or later our bosoms will betray us, because when it comes to how we nourish our offspring, humans and other mammals are the same. That's part of the reason human attitudes toward breast milk have always been so complicated: We can strap our breasts down in sports bras or dress them in sexy lingerie, but at the end of the day, we're still walking around with udders on our chests.

A full goat udder, with milking apparatus attached.
A full goat udder, with milking apparatus attached

Women have been portrayed as straddling the fence between man and beast far longer than Victoria's Secret has been making leopard print bras: As Valenze points out, to ancient Greeks and Romans, "the human connection to milk-giving drew women into a liminal universe, where their natures became especially vulnerable to the siren call of the wild." In Historia animalium, Aristotle included women along with whales, sheep, and horses in a list of animals that nursed their young, and several myths involved babies, both mortal and divine, being nourished directly by an animal's teat. (Think Romulus and Remus and their she-wolf, or Zeus, who supposedly nursed from a goat.)

The Greeks and Romans had many beliefs about women that thankfully did not last—for example, the idea that women's anatomy included one long open tube from their nostrils to their vaginas. (This led to a rather creative way of testing a woman's fertility: putting a clove of garlic at one end to see if it could be smelled at the other.) But some of the ancients' practices died later than you'd think, including their apparent nonchalance about feeding babies straight from animals—and vice versa. An 18th-century French authority once suggested that new mothers practice suckling newborn puppies, presumably as a gentle way to build up to nursing their own babies. Conversely, in various parts of Europe from the 16th through the 19th century, babies were sometimes nursed directly by animals. The intriguingly titled 1816 Germanbook The Goat as the Best and Most Agreeable Wet-Nurse speaks to this, as does an 18th-century account Valenze found of a hospital in Aix, France:

The cribs are arranged in a large room in 2 ranks. Each goat which comes to feed enters bleating and goes to hunt the infant which has been given it, pushes back the covering with its horns and straddles the crib to give suck to the infant. Since that time they have raised very large numbers in that hospital.

Given my own experience with dairy goats, I find it hard to believe that they would agreeably give suck to anything. (Or, for that matter, that any responsible nurse would leave an infant face-up under one.) But Valenze includes a 19th-century illustration of bonnet-wearing nurses gently holding infants beneath what appear to be donkeys. Almost stranger is the fact that, given the sanitation and infectious disease concerns of the time, this wasn't necessarily crazy: In 16th-century France, for example, a widespread outbreak of syphilis made non-nursing mothers apprehensive about handing their babies off to wet nurses, who could pass the disease through their milk. Since fresh animal milk spoiled quickly, some mothers decided to avoid both risks by taking the baby straight to an animal instead. (The distinctions between different animals' milk proteins weren't discovered until 1875; till then, all milk was considered basically interchangeable.)

An illustration published in 1895 of direct udder nursing at an infant hospital in France. From the 16th through 19th centuries, babies in various parts of Europe were sometimes nursed directly by animals.
An illustration published in 1895 of direct udder nursing at an infant hospital in France. From the 16th through 19th centuries, babies in various parts of Europe were sometimes nursed directly by animals

In general, human wet nurses were more common than hooved ones, partially because using them didn't require such an explicit blurring of the line between animals and humans, which Valenze claims Europeans found "profoundly upsetting." (By connecting humans to their animal natures, breast milk "tied them to a realm opposing civilization.") That's not to say that wet nurses were lavished with respect, though. Up until at least the 1860s, many Europeans and Americans believed that unwanted personal characteristics and social status could be transmitted through bodily fluids such as breast milk, which itself was thought to be a form of blood. As a result, many upper-class families skipped the goat teats and the risk of having a wet nurse corrupt their child by feeding their babies cow and goat milk with a pan and spoon instead.

In the days before modern baby bottles, some advocated even more creative ways of separating milk from its source: Pierre Brouzet, the physician to France's Louis XV, reported admiringly in the mid-1700s that in places like Muscovy and Iceland, wet nursing, breast-feeding and, for that matter, animal suckling, weren't used at all. "Soon after they are born," he wrote, "[infants] are left all day, by their mothers, lying on the ground, near a vessel filled with milk or whey, in which is placed a tube, the upper extremity of which the infant knows how to find, and putting his mouth to it, sucks whenever he is oppressed with hunger or thirst."

That particular method may not have caught on, but neither has one form of feeding definitively trumped all others. Instead, the pendulum of taste has continued to swing back and forth between breast milk and animal milk—or, more recently, formula, which has come a hell of a long way since the days when even seemingly sophisticated formulations were so nutritionally deficient that babies sometimes died. The irony today is that even though formula has never been better, women are subjected to more pressure than ever to nurse: Nature knows better than the food industry, we are told again and again, and "Breast is best."

Through it all, our ambivalence toward our own mammalian nature hasn't abated. A British ice cream parlor prompted near-universal revulsion earlier this year by launching "Baby Gaga," a vanilla-and-lemon-infused flavor made from human breast milk. And our discomfort with public breast-feeding has led to products whose names call attention to the very connection they're designed to hide—consider the Udder Cover nursing cover-up, or the Peek-a-Moo nursing tee (which can be gift-wrapped in a milk carton). At least Bag Balm, a salve for cows' udders invented in 1899 and more recently adopted by nursing mothers, doesn't try to be cute.

But no matter how much—how shall we say—cheesiness is employed, there's a limit to what a Moo Moo Mama nursing blanket can really hide. Women, even those of us who don't have kids, face a reminder that we're animals every time we look down—and this connection has arguably played a bigger role than sex in making breast-feeding so persistently contentious. Or at least that's what I found myself thinking in the goat pen, as I contemplated the row of udders in front of me—all hairier than the ones on my chest, I'm relieved to say, but still fundamentally the same.

Catherine Price is the author of 101 Places Not to See Before You Die. She writes about diabetes for A Sweet Life.

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