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Woman’s Milk in Anglo-Saxon and Later Medieval Medical Texts

Abstract

Women’s early history provides a long tradition of attested textual evidence associating female bodily secretions with impurity, particularly in relation to menstruation, childbirth, and sexual intercourse. But we notice among early medical texts the mention of another female secretion, woman’s milk, and its use as a healing ingredient in medical recipes. This paper argues that textual sources of woman’s milk as a female secretion in this early tradition demonstrate a complex mixture of sometimes conflicting values, not all of which were unpleasant, nor irrational. The paper first describes how woman’s milk as a healing ingredient is presented in Anglo-Saxon medical texts and compares that presentation to the description and treatment of woman’s milk in a sampling of later English medieval medical texts. The texts themselves are rich in their demonstration of the use of women’s bodies for the preparation of medicinal products, and for this reason, the descriptive aspects of this paper are meant to offer one aspect of women’s history that is still widely unknown.

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Correspondence to R. A. Buck.

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Buck, R.A. Woman’s Milk in Anglo-Saxon and Later Medieval Medical Texts. Neophilologus 96, 467–485 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11061-011-9248-2

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Keywords

  • Charms
  • Medieval medicine
  • Anglo-Saxon
  • Woman’s milk
  • Women’s studies
  • Medical recipes