excess

What could be the source of one three year old girl’s problems?

She was healthy and of good constitution at birth. Her mother is delicate and had a rough pregnancy, but is, nonetheless attentive.

Nevertheless, the poor child has suffered considerably in her three short years of life. Pneumonia, smallpox, bowel problems, and a distended stomach that appears the cause of several seasonal ailments. Most recently she experienced such extensive vomiting that she was unable to keep anything down, not even cool water (which she normally loved). Even her teething has been slow and painful.

In addition to this, she continues to have [presumable between bouts of illness] what the correspondent refers to as an “extreme appetite”.

According to the anonymous letter writer, all of these problems stem, perhaps unsurprisingly, from the wetnurse. What is surprising, however, are the problems identified in this wet nurse’s constitution. This wetnurse is healthy. She does not appear to feed poor soups to the infants in her care. Her milk does not appear to be sour. Nor is there any mention of moral or mental disarray. Rather, the problem is one of excess: “il y a eu lieu de croire que le lait trop substantiel, ait pu produire tous les maux qui ont travaillé les trois premieres années de cette petite fille, sans lui laisser un seul instant de santé” (Fonds Tissot, IS3784/II/144.05.04.32).

It’s not clear how the correspondent arrived at this conclusion, except, perhaps for the fact that the child has an enormous stomach and appetite. Even if this were the case, it’s hard for this twenty-first century reader to align these two symptoms with the other ailments outlined in the letter: how does an excessive appetite link to pneumonia and smallpox? And why isn’t the mother’s delicate health (an issue raised in other letters) not at issue here? Is it because she’s an obviously attentive mother (as noted by the correspondent)? Or is it simply because it’s just more convenient to lay the blame at the foot of this child’s wetnurse? After all, she’s the one whose body and character would have been carefully scrutinized before taking on her position…. But even she appears to pass muster, at least initially: she is a woman in good health.

She just has too much milk.

If nothing else, this letter seems to demonstrate just how much suspicion was placed on wetnurses. The odds are stacked against them: Too little milk. Poor quality milk. Sour milk. … and now, too much milk. They just couldn’t win.

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