Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

Categories: Children | History

For a modern person, a wet nurse is a kind of domestic servant who was once responsible for breastfeeding a child from an aristocratic family for a long time. This does not correspond to reality at all — nurses in any society had a good status and many rights. Today we will destroy the stereotype of women in this profession, based on information from different eras, from the Ancient World to the present day.

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

No one knows exactly when the first professional nurses appeared. But the first mention of women hired to nurse infants is found on clay tablets of Akkad, Sumer and Babylon. Officially, the status of a wet nurse was approved in the code of laws of the Babylonian king Hammurabi (1728-1686 BC), where an example of a contract between an employer and a wet nurse was presented, which was concluded for 2-3 years.

King Hammurabi

In the states of the Near East, the nurse did not come to the house where the child was born, but took him to her. They could pay her both in money and in goods — who agreed on how, concluding a contract of employment. In the event that the payment was delayed, the nurse could apply to the court, which was almost always on her side the side. If the woman was still not paid, then she had every right to keep the child for herself.

In one of the ancient Sumerian sources, scientists found a description of a lawsuit between a wet nurse and the parents of a child who did not pay for 3 years. According to the contract, the payment was to be made with barley, oil and wool, but the employers did not have anything to pay with. The priest who dealt with this case decided: "Take the boy; let him be your son" and the child remained with the nurse.

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

Centuries later, the institution of wet nurses in the Middle East has only strengthened. The Prophet Muhammad himself lived in the house of a wet nurse until he was 4 years old. He treated his foster mother and brothers all his life as if they were his own people. Along with Islam, the Ottoman Empire inherited a respectful attitude to nurses.

The birth of a child in the Sultan's harem was an important and joyful event. Every baby in which the blood of the monarch flowed, immediately after birth, received a wet nurse, a nurse and several servants. The woman who is to breastfeed the Sultan's child — daye-khatun, had particularly high requirements. Often the search for a worthy person began 2-3 months before the baby was born.

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

Sometimes a noble lady was taken as a wet nurse, who also had a child, but most often the choice fell on a woman from the common people who had an impeccable reputation. The nurse moved to the Sultan's palace with her child. Much less often they entrusted the responsible business to slaves — history knows several such examples.

The Daye-khatun of the sultan's child should have had excellent health and attractive appearance. Preference was given to buxom ladies with large breasts. Exactly the same requirements were put forward by representatives of the nobility to nurses. In Ottoman society, the person of the wet nurse was highly respected, and there was no separation between blood and foster brothers and sisters.

In the Middle Ages, nurses were respected, but they did not enjoy special privileges. They were treated with respect, like people of any other important profession-bakers, blacksmiths and barbers. But everything changed in the 18th century with the advent of the Enlightenment. Noble women became more free, went out on a par with men in the world and even engaged in creativity and science. Well, the children were entrusted to the care of nurses, the demand for which has increased incredibly.

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

Often nurses were taken to live with the child in the mansion of the nobility, but it was also common practice when the baby was given to the foster mother in the countryside. By the middle of the 18th century, this was commonplace in England, France, Spain and Germany, and not only aristocrats, but also working women began to use the services of wet nurses.

The industrialization of Europe and the involvement of women in production has led to the fact that cities such as London, Paris, Hamburg, Lyon, Liverpool and Madrid have literally become "cities without children". Wet nurses began to be valued very highly and this period can rightly be called their "golden age".

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

But not everyone was enthusiastic about the transfer of children to wet nurses. The first scientific arguments against this custom were presented by doctors of the Enlightenment era. Dr. William Cadogan, the author of the "Essay on Breastfeeding Children" published in 1748, assured that there is not a single positive moment in the transfer of the baby to the mammy:

Cadogan was not alone and his opinion was shared by many luminaries of that time. It got to the point that whole women's movements appeared, the participants of which themselves fed their children and urged other ladies to follow this example. Stories about grieving mothers who gave their children to orphanages began to be made public, which somewhat shook the authority of the nurses.

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

In the second half of the 19th century, France and Britain adopted a number of laws protecting the rights of children and regulating the activities of women who are hired for breastfeeding. There were even nursing bureaus, where everyone could choose a worthy candidate for their child. Parents stopped letting things take their course and were keenly interested in the hygiene of mammies and their health. Often, the nurses remained the nannies of the children after the breastfeeding stopped.

Until the middle of the 18th century, nurses were present in the homes of the Russian nobility rather because it was so necessary. Even tsars and boyars preferred to feed their offspring without outside help. Mammy was connected only if the child's mother had health problems, if she was dying or was away.

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

Even the Empress Catherine I fed her children herself, and a whole army of nurses assigned to the royal person performed the functions of assistants in a variety of household issues. But with the flourishing of social life in big cities, everything has changed and wet nurses have become as popular as in Europe.

During the time of serfdom, there were no problems with recruitment - women were chosen from among serfs to breastfeed. After 1861, candidates were selected among the residents of the nearest villages, with whom they agreed on payment for services. Doctors of that time actively distributed advice on how to choose the right wet nurse, how to determine the quality of milk and how to monitor the hygiene of an employee.

Paying a debt with a child and a career at court: how did wet nurses live in different eras

The nurses were in a special position — they dressed cleanly and beautifully, ate well, received medical care and could freely move around the manor house and enter the mistress's bedchamber at any time of the day without warning. Royal mammies were a special category — they were selected with the participation of life doctors from hundreds of applicants and the salary of these women could reach up to 800 rubles a year. They wore a special uniform-a sundress, an apron and a low kokoshnik.

Emperors Nicholas I and Alexander III treated his foster mothers with great tenderness and were glad to see them many years after the women left the palace chambers. Often the mammy of tsarevichs arranged the life of their husbands and children — the royal personages were favorable to the relatives of the nurses and granted them positions, property, and also paid for the education of their children. The era of wet nurses, a privileged caste of female society, lasted until the beginning of the 20th century, until artificial feeding was invented.

Keywords: Aristocracy | Upbringing | Hygiene | Children | Feeding | Motherhood | Milk | Nanny | Sultan

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