Fallacies

Peter Laslett

  • Sex in Middlesex: Popular Mores in a Massachusetts County 1649-1699 by Roger Thompson
    Massachusetts, 252 pp, £28.50, October 1986, ISBN 0 87023 516 8
  • Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding by Valerie Fildes
    Edinburgh, 462 pp, £19.75, August 1986, ISBN 0 85224 462 2

These two books are important commentaries on the preoccupations of our own day. We all have expectations about the relationship between puritanism and sex, and therefore about what is likely to be found when the records of a Massachusetts county court in colonial times are searched for evidence on this matter. We are also aware that the first few days and months of life mould the personality. If the claim that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world now seems a little simple-minded, we know well enough that it matters enormously who offers her breast to a baby – if indeed a baby is fortunate enough to be breast-fed at all. It also matters how and at what point after birth breast-feeding begins, and when and how weaning occurs. Since we cannot escape our inheritance from the past when we consider the nurture of children in our own time, it is important that we have access to the facts. Sober, conscientious studies offering evidence on these points from history, sensitively presented in relation to the myriad issues which they inevitably raise, must be of value.

It might well be said that the history of sex and of child nurture is novel in our day, part of that ‘new history’ in which the family has at last begun to take up a place in our view of former times which corresponds to its enduring position in the structure of society. The further familial historians proceed, however, the less persuasive the claim becomes, because they are continually coming across the footprints of forgotten forerunners. Nevertheless, post-Freudian, post-Marxian, phenomenological familial history, with its feminist slant, only started in the 1970s. Even so, this has been long enough to set up a framework in which to consider both the historical function of puritanism in relation to sex and procreation, and the significance of breast-feeding in the making of the modern family. If it is unfortunate for the future of historical inquiry that any orthodoxy at all should have established itself so soon, from the point of view of the user of the information – the anthropologist, the sociologist, the literary critic, the social worker, the conscientious parent and the conscientious child – it can only be called a disaster that some of the particular doctrines evolved since the 1970s should have been able to gain a following.

Puritan sexuality, so the stereotype goes, and so the orthodoxy of the 1970s hastened to confirm, was joyless, authoritarian, bound up with the doctrine of the calling and with the work imperative, and instinct with a repressive anxiety which social science of a certain sort associates with what is termed the American character. Sex in Middlesex is not an ambitious book, and is content to allow those who testified in the county court about marital and sexual offences to speak for themselves. Both man and woman are to be heard, boy and girl, the victim of rape and the exposer of his whim whams (testicles), the teller of dirty stories, the exhibitionist and the nymphomaniac. Not a proposition in the conventional litany about sexuality and puritanism, American sexuality and American puritanism, survives this artless evidential exposition. In his conclusion, Roger Thompson does well to quote the judgment of the man who knew the New England mind best of all, Perry Miller. ‘If we take puritan culture as a whole we shall find, let us say, that about 90 per cent of intellectual life, scientific knowledge, morality, manners and customs, notions and prejudices, was that of all Englishmen.’ Of the remaining 10 per cent, he effectively demonstrates, precious little had to do with sex. There is nothing left for a special relationship between American puritan doctrine, the puritan super-ego and the so-called specifics of the American character.

Thompson is by no means the only historian to reject the supposed identification between puritanism, prudery and repression. The stated object of his analysis, moreover, is rather different: it is to engage with Lawrence Stone’s unpersuasive thesis of the rise to predominance of a particular familial form in the 17th century, in England and in the colonies – the ‘restricted, patriarchal, nuclear family’. Never characteristic of colonial Massachusetts, Thompson shows, and, he might have added, one of the silliest propositions of the ‘new familial history’, to which Stone seemingly now owes little in the way of allegiance.

Similarly, the book by Valerie Fildes has many other purposes besides the falsification of a further proposition put forward in the 1970s: the proposition that, in the past, babies were neglected and mothers lacking in affection. Indeed, Breasts, Bottles and Babies is a valiant and valuable attempt at an extremely demanding task: the encyclopedic treatment of the whole elusive and difficult subject of infant feeding at all epochs and in several countries. Nevertheless, the quiet competence with which Mrs Fildes disposes of the alleged callousness with which the feeding of babies was handled until ‘modern’ society showed its first signs of life in the 18th century is, for most readers now, the most important feature of her long, complex and rather difficult book. Wet nurses were not the ogresses which they have been made out to be. Our ancestors in their early infancies, and, if they were women, during the times when they fed their own offspring, did not suffer from a want of warmth, affection and intimacy. Irremediable ignorance, entirely inappropriate customary behaviour, and, worst of all, the crass self-conceit of medical doctors, were the reasons for their misguided practices in the nurturing of their children.

Mrs Fildes’s authoritativeness springs from the fact that she was herself a professional nurse of babies and children, and is also a mother. She quite decidedly knows what she is talking about. One of the many affecting things which she has to tell us in her unassuming way concerns the colostrum, the earliest secretion from the breasts after birth. This precious liquid contains precisely what might be expected, just those antigens which the newborn baby needs to combat the pathogens to be met with in the infected world outside the womb. In the dark, cramped, filth-strewn surroundings into which nearly all babies were once born, and are still being born in Asia and in Africa, colostrum was of infinitely greater importance than it is in the aseptic atmosphere of the maternity ward in which almost all of our babies first get fed. But colostrum was not white; it did not look like, smell like, taste like, mother’s milk. Custom, and medical lore, decreed therefore that a mother should not breastfeed her child till colostrum ceased to flow and was replaced by milk as milk should be. In its first few hours and days of life, then, the infant was fed pap or panada, and you have only to glance at what is said here about these earliest solid foods for babies to know what dangers they bring. For good measure the poor little thing was given a purge. The doctors insisted.

This is a story by now not unfamiliar to the historical sociologist with an interest in the family. But there are facts and circumstances set out in this work which it seems must surprise everybody except the dedicated expert. The best that a neonate could expect in the way of nourishment at the very dawn of life was to be suckled by a woman whose milk was of the approved constitution – this can be seen, for example, in pictures of the birth of Our Lady. But such an expedient was itself something of a dietetic insult to the system, since wet-nursing by a woman other than the mother violates the immunity mechanism, a system so remarkably adapted to circumstance that the fouling of the mother’s breast by the faeces of her own baby may actually be advantageous to survival. Some mothers in the past, especially those in the upper classes, were so constricted by tight-lacing that their nipples were driven inwards and became useless for suckling. Others gave their milk for so long that their nipples were chewed away by the infants’ teeth.

The relationship with animals in the matter of infant nourishment is also astonishing. Who could have believed that, in hospitals for babies right up to the 20th century, asses and goats were kept to offer their dugs to infants who suffered from communicable diseases, the commonest of which was syphilis, and who might therefore have contaminated any woman who breastfed them? Some of the advice books contained directions as to how to draw off surplus breast milk by giving suck to two puppies, one on each nipple. There is an illustration of this breast-pumping exercise taking place. Very, very difficult to credit is the apparently established fact that it is perfectly possible ‘for grandmothers and adoptive mothers who have never been pregnant to promote and continue lactation’.

Almost as incredible, in view of established expectations about the Puritans and sensuality, is Roger Thompson’s finding that the people of his covenanted county were deeply interested in sex and took great pleasure in it. His study of what went on during courtship and within marriage reads somewhat more like Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex than like R.H. Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism. Far from being ridden with anxiety, these often sincerely committed Puritan believers were able to treat sex with light-hearted humour. ‘Though he had a pen,’ said a disgruntled wife of her impotent old husband, ‘he had no ink.’

That there are ragged ends and unsolved problems to be found in both these expositions will come as no surprise. It is not at all clear to me, for example, why Thompson pronounces against the possibility of the existence of what has come to be called a bastardy-prone sub-society in the colonial area which he has in focus. This might account for what he finds: a nonconforming minority whose sexual and procreative behaviour was different from that of other people, a sub-society both kin-related and continuing over time. Such phenomena have been encountered in the history of several of the world’s societies, and there is no reason why Puritan New England should have been different, even though, like the Eastern area of England from which so many of the settlers came, it had a low level of illegitimacy.

Even more perplexing is the existence in localities on the European continent, quite small localities some of them, where breastfeeding never occurred at all, and was apparently regarded as disgusting. The evidence here looks reliable, though it is rather slight and scattered. If we accept it, we are required to believe once again, as in the matter of colostrum, that normative behaviour could persist in infant feeding even though it militated directly against survival. One wonders in what sense our peasant predecessors can be supposed to have been closer than we are to nature and to nature’s laws.