Twelve Days of Christmas: Eight Maids-a-Milking

Tales of Turning Milk into Wine and Festive Phlegm!
By Amie Bolissian McRae

main-image[Image credit: The Milkmaid, Lucas van Leyden (Netherlandish, Leiden, ca. 1493-1533 Leiden), 1510. Image from]

What would 17th century festivities have been without milk, cream, cheese, and butter? Milk and milk products were essential ingredients in English cooking during the early modern period, especially for sweets and desserts. Maids-a-milking, of any number, were vitally important to supply the kitchens of rich and poor alike. But during a time before we knew about calcium and bone-density, how healthy was milk thought to be? Particularly for those a little longer in the tooth? This blogpost will festively (not guaranteed) explore the relationships between milk and the health of ‘old folk’ in early modern England. It will feature not just cow’s milk, but also ‘women’s milk’, a common medicinal ingredient, and white wine – which was categorised by almost all medical authors as like ‘a wholesome milke’ for the aged.1

s3_V0020000_V0020363 (002)[Image credit: Old beggar woman with a gourd. Etching by Rembrandt van Rijn, 1629. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY]

My doctoral research, here at the University of Reading, looks at beliefs about the health of ageing people, and their experiences as patients, in the 16th to 18th centuries. I have recently been considering what sort of diet ‘old folke’ were encouraged to follow by the flourishing printed health literature of the time. Human bodies were believed to change substantially after the age of 45-50. They were thought to be colder, drier, with poor digestion, and clogged up with unhealthy liquid ‘humours’. Writers explained that these humours, such as ‘corrupted’ phlegm and black bile (melancholy) were why old people had wet rheumy eyes, and ‘doe nothing but cough and spet’.2  And okay, you may be wondering right about now where the ‘festiveness’ lies in all this, but for those of us who almost always come down with a cold ,the minute the winter holiday begins, there is nothing more reminiscent of Christmas than the production of phlegm.

Milk seller[Image credit: A female milk seller is offering two children milk from the metal pails she has unyoked and rested on the ground. Process print after L. Schiavonetti after F. Wheatley. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY]

What of the fresh, creamy milk that our korfball team (look it up) of milkmaids can provide for us? There is a popular and enduring myth in modern Western societies that milk produces mucus.3 If this idea stretched back to the early modern period, then surely old people, who were already on the phlegmy side, must have been encouraged to avoid milk? Well, as it happens, they largely were, and for that very reason. Most English health texts on this subject agreed that, while milk was wholesome for younger folk,  phlegmatic old people should stay away from it. One 17th century health text declared unequivocally that milk was ‘good for young and cholerick men, but bad for old’.4 John Floyer, writer of arguably the first English work on geriatric health, explained that ‘Milk breeds much Phlegm’.5 Milk was also cited as particularly bad for ‘cold stomachs’, which old people were thought prone to, and cold digestion meant foods like milk simply failed to ‘concoct’ properly, leaving undigested putrescent humours (Happy Christmas!).

s3_L0064000_L0064809[Image credit: ‘Tire-lait’ or breast reliever, Europe, 1701-1800. Credit: Science Museum, LondonCC BY]

The Cow’s milk from our second magic number (look it up) of milkmaids, was clearly not recommended for the elderly, but there was another source of milk that was thought very healthy for ‘the aged’. Breastmilk was believed to be particularly good for restoring the weakness or bad digestion of old people probably because of how successfully it nourished new-born babies. When it came to treatment advice, medical authors often drew parallels between infants and old people. It wasn’t just Shakespeare’s ‘Melancholy Jacques’ who believed that in the final stages of life, men and women reached a state of ‘second childishness’.6 Medical theory associated weakening older bodies with vulnerable infancy. ‘Woman’s milk’ was recommended both as a drink, and in remedies. It was also, incidentally, thought very good for wiping sore and infected eyes. If you didn’t have any ‘bloud of a dove’ handy, of course.7

s3_V0019000_V0019507[Image credit: An old man sits content with a glass in one hand and a tankard in the other. Engraving by F.A. David, 1774, after A. van Ostade. Credit: Wellcome CollectionCC BY.]

If breast milk is not topping your list of festive ingredients for this holiday season, then the most commonly recommended ‘milk’ for old folks, might be more to your taste – and that is white wine. Yes, wine was thought so beneficial to ageing bodies that the Latin phrase ‘lac senum’, to mean as milk to old men, was widely used to describe wine. Until tea, coffee, and water became regular safe substitutions for fermented or distilled beverages, wine and beer were commonly drunk at all times of the day in this period.8 Wine was considered very nutritious. Diplomat and scholar Thomas Elyot, in his hugely popular sixteenth century work, The Castell of Helth, wrote of wine that “God did ordaine it for mankind, as a remedie against the incommodities of age, that thereby they should seeme to returne unto youth and forget heavinesse.”9

Why, exactly, did early modern medicine believe that wine was so beneficial for the elderly? Primarily, it was thought to warm the system. The medical books also describe how wine is ‘very agreeable’, for old people, as it promotes healthy sleep, ‘expells sadness and induces mirth’.10 Writers specifically recommended ‘yellow’ wine such as sack and canary as they were perceived as diuretic and capable of drying up all the elderly’s excess putrid phlegm (Merry Yuletide!). This special type of ‘milk’, therefore, was classified as incredibly healthy for older people, not just because it was warming, soporific and cheering, but also, according to the undoubtedly popular medical authors, mucus-busting.

Exploring how ageing bodies were historically perceived by medicine, in this way, is important for many reasons. It helps us understand how attitudes to old people and their place in society may have been affected by assumptions about physiological weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Medical writings that infantilized the elderly were at odds with philosophical texts that praised their sober wisdom. This contradiction was illustrative of what I am increasingly finding to be the profoundly paradoxical nature of the experience of ageing in early modern England. On top of this, we also now know that health writers would not have recommended that our Carbon allotropes-worth (seriously, not many things come in eights) of milkmaids share their dairy wares with the village elders.

However, if they had any connections in the wine trade they would have been more than welcome.

1. Hart, James, Klinike, or the Diet of the Diseased, (London: 1633), 123
2. Laurens, Andre Du, A Discourse of the Preservation of the Sight: of Melancholike Diseases; of Rheumes, and of Old Age., (London: 1599), 174.
4. Durante, Castore, A Treasure of Health, (London: 1686), 173.
5. Floyer, John, The preternatural state of animal humours, (London, 1696), 49.
6. Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act II Scene VII, 64.
7. Boorde, Andrew, The brevarie of health, 1587, f.86.r
8. See: A. Lynn Martin, ‘Old people, alcohol, and identity in Europe, 1300-1700’, in P. Scholliers (ed.), Food, Drink and Identity: Cooking, Eating and Drinking in Europe Since the Middle Ages (Oxford, 2001), 119-37, 120-122.
9. Elyot, Thomas, The Castell of Helth, corrected, (London: 1595), 51.
10. Riviére, Lazare, The Universal Body of Physick in Five Books (London, 1657), 235.
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