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Cold and hard and mean, that’s the Wall, and the men who walk it. Not like the stories your wet nurse told you. Well, piss on the stories and piss on your wet nurse.
Today’s topic is wet nursing. Jon had a wet nurse, because there was no mother to breastfeed him. But was Jon’s infancy the norm? Is there evidence of wet nursing being common practice in Westeros and what was the historical reality in Western Europe during the Middle Ages?
The list of those in Westeros we know were wet nursed is brief. There is Jon, orphaned and nursed by Wylla and then some unnamed woman in Winterfell. Wylla nursed Edric Dayne too, and he explains that his mother had no milk. Lady Glover’s milk dried up, which results in a search for a wet nurse. Tyrion’s mother died in childbirth, and therefore, is nursed by a wet nurse for whom Cersei had little respect. There is little Lady Ermesande Hayford, another orphan, who appears at Joffrey’s 13th name day celebrations with her wet nurse. Daenerys reports having a wet nurse, who Ser Willem Darry grabbed, when they took Dany and Viserys to the Braavosian coast. There is Old Nan, who was wet nurse to a Brandon Stark, whose mother died birthing him. And Gilly, who nurses Dalla’s babe until she is replaced by the Norrey woman and the Flint woman.
All of these infants have wet nurses out of necessity. Their mothers are dead or their mother’s milk has dried up. But are children in Westeros ever put out to nurse for reasons other than necessity?
There are some possible examples. The first is Ser Waymar Royce, who advises the company “not to believe anything you hear at a woman’s tit,” because he heard the same nonsense from his wet nurse. We know that Waymar is one of four, and a third son. It is possible that he is the youngest child and that his mother died in childbirth, but we know nothing about the circumstances of his birth. Dolorous Edd, about whom we know even less, also says he had a wet nurse (regrettably one with whiskers). Finally, Petyr Baelish tells Sansa that his housekeeper, Grisel, was his wet nurse, but beyond the fact that Petyr is the son of a minor lord, we know nothing about his birth.
Arianne Martell is perhaps our best example, since we know the most about her circumstances. She is the first of three, her mother is still living, and she had a wet nurse. Arianne presents Garin to Myrcella, and states, “His mother was my wet nurse.” Unless Mellario’s milk dried up, she was alive to bear two more children before her separation from Doran, and yet Arianne was put out to nurse. Perhaps unusual in Westeros, but it may not be so far off historically if Dornish culture is inspired by Mediterranean society—more on that in a moment.
We have four examples of wet nursing in the series that are not explicitly due to necessity, so one could argue that at least some nobles in Westeros availed themselves of wet nurses. Was this the case in medieval Europe?
Ancient Roman families used slave women as wet nurses, and it was unusual for upper class women in the period of the Empire to nurse their own children; and if we fast forward to the early modern period, wet nursing was practiced among several classes in society. What about the many centuries in between? The answer conflicts with the popular image of medieval noblewomen being separated from childrearing through the employment of nurses.
Medical and moral treatises in the Middle Ages all recommended maternal breastfeeding as the ideal, owing to being inspired by ancient treatises, which advised the same. It was believed that this strengthened bonds between mother and child, but it was also a way of preventing contamination. Medical theory of the day taught that milk was blood but whitened and that a woman’s milk passed along all her physical and moral characteristics. Therefore, using a lower class woman as a wet nurse would be detrimental to the development of the child. Interestingly, some studies indicate that wet nursing in the Middle Ages was most common amongst peasants in the form of casual, neighborly wet nursing, as a part of neighborly childcare, as opposed to hired wet nursing amongst the upper classes, who were influenced by these treatises and feared contamination.
Despite condemnation of the practice, wet-nursing became increasingly popular among the wealthiest classes after the 11th century in urban, central and northern Italy. By the later Middle Ages, the practice had spread downwards to the artisan classes. Babies were typically sent to the countryside, although wealthier families could afford to house the wet nurse. However, unlike the men of Westeros who recount stories told to them by their wet nurses, infants stayed with their wet nurse for under two years.
Italy was atypical in its early trend towards broad acceptance of wet nursing, however. In France, it was only accepted practice amongst royalty and the highest levels of nobility beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, and even this was comparatively unusual, since royal children elsewhere in Europe were still maternally fed throughout the medieval era. Looking beyond the Middle Ages, wet nursing did not spread beyond the nobility in France until the 17th century, and even then most children were nursed by their mothers.
In the British Isles, the practice was never as widespread as in France or Italy and it was not a medieval one. 16th century noblewomen may have used wet nurses, but the heyday for wet nursing in England was the 17th century. Germany was also not culturally friendly towards wet nursing. It never became a widespread practice there, and German moral and medical treatises published in the vernacular during the Renaissance were amongst some of the most influential throughout Europe in discouraging the practice.
Arguably, outside of Dorne, Westeros demonstrates Northern European cultural traits, and therefore, wet nursing is largely done out of necessity. Whereas Dorne reflects Mediterranean cultural practices, so, Arianne was nursed not by her mother, but by a nurse. That was the norm for noblewomen in Italy and royalty in Spain in the late medieval period. This is not unrelated to the topic of the age of adulthood, discussed previously, since wet nursing leads to higher fertility, and in the late medieval period Mediterranean society with its younger brides and higher fertility rates did not follow the Western European Marriage Pattern.
Wet nursing appears in ASOIAF fanfiction with more regularity than it does in the series, sometimes setting the symbolic standard for whether a mother is a good woman or not. For example, Catelyn is good and breastfeeds her own children, while Cersei is bad and relies on wet nurses. Sansa is good, so of course she wants to breastfeed, though it is common and base for her to do so. Setting aside the problematic nature of these assumptions, which would be right at home in Renaissance moral treatises, it simply does not fit with either the evidence from the series or historical patterns. Most children, including the children of Westerosi nobles, are maternally fed. Wet nurses are necessary, because artificial feeding methods were unsafe, and therefore, if a mother could not feed her child, a replacement had to be found. But using a wet nurse does not seem to be the measure of gentility in Westeros any more than it was throughout the majority of Europe until the early modern period, which means that Westerosi mothers, including ones some people might not like, were intimately involved in the care of their infants.
The unfortunate news is that Joffrey may not have been contaminated by foreign milk, but he turned out to be a vile human just the same.
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