Lactation in History


Lactation in History: a crosscultural research on suckling practices, representations of breastfeeding and politics of maternity in a European context

This project aims to investigate lactation as a complex historical and bio-cultural reality, engendering social and symbolic constructions. It explores how suckling developed and evolved in discourses, representations and practices, from Antiquity to the present day. The positive and negative meanings, assigned to different connections between breastfeeding and different types of maternity, are to be found at the core of religious, artistic, educational, medical and political discourses in particular cultural contexts. A team of specialists from the fields of anthropology, archaeology, literature, history, medical history, history of religion and art history has been put into motion in order to reconsider, collectively, issues pertaining to the social and the cultural setting of lactation and breastfeeding through time. Four interconnected projects have been set up, each bringing together specific expertise and covering a particular field in history. Findings from archaeological surveys, iconography and the analysis of normative and mythical literary sources will enable V. Dasen and her team to reconsider the religious and nutritional practices to which babies were subjected in Greek and Roman Civilisations and in Roman Helvetia (Subproject A). Contextualising and analysing lexicographical data, medieval literary texts and the genesis of the iconographic motif of the Madonna lactans, Y. Foehr-Janssens and her team shall reconsider the gender related perceptions of the breasts as a body part and the aesthetic invention of what was to become an important cultural model of a nursing mother. Based on the analysis of religious, artistic, medical and political discourses, D. Solfaroli Camillocci and her team will combine a general appraisal of the cultural evolution of ideas about maternal breastfeeding over a long period (16-19th c.) with innovative research on social practices of suckling and feeding infants (Subproject C). Working on present day problems encountered by mothers confronted to the choice to, or not to, breastfeed, I. Maffi and her team will focus on hospital settings in Swiss French Switzerland, analysing medical actors’ practices and the experience of breastfeeding for mothers today (Subproject D). A number of innovative issues cross all four research projects. Among these figure long term cultural representations, a focus on practices, the recognition that mothers constantly express the need for help (to “learn” how to breastfeed), the importance of religious contexts and discourses on maternal duties, imagery related to the lactating body (power vs vulnerability) and the way breast-feeding questions gender roles. Our investigation shall contribute to present research on the body and intimacy, while taking into account the public dimension of privacy. This project shall offer a model based on the French speaking world. It is characterised by a strong axis focused on the Swiss French region, an essential cultural crossroad between the North and the South of Europe, a buffer separating cultural and confessional regions. Results shall enable comparisons with the existing anglo-saxon model.





Research project information

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Research labels:

Pregnancy – birth – breastfeeding
Family – parenthood – kinship
Representations – figurations
Health – medicine


History, Archeology, Ethnology, History of Art, Literature, Cultural Anthropology, Social Anthropology


Research project