We would probably place the wet nanny profession in the context of today’s nursing profession. They were single women engaged as nannies under contracts concluded by the Jewish and Christian communities of Barcelona. These women worked hard and for minimum wage. What was their job?
Wet mothers, or nursing mothers, were women who were supposed to temporarily replace young children with their real mother. The traditional role of the mother was conceived as the role of the first teacher of virtues and religion, and her first contribution to every child was nursing. That is why institutions have tried to regulate it in one way or another, regardless of religion.
Medical thought and popular religious teaching at the time prohibited women from breastfeeding more than one child at a time. Therefore, all those wet mothers who weren’t mothers always had to wean their own children to keep their jobs in order to save some money for the family. Or they were women who had lost their own children but still had milk to help them earn a living where no one breastfed other children.
Who were the wet mothers?
Wet mothers had a very responsible role, as infants often had to replace both parents, even though their main role was to breastfeed. Parents were bound not only by civil regulations, but also by pastoral instructions to fathers on how to provide security for their children and all that they need. That is why the profession of temporary mothers was created.
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At the time, it was common for women, if they worked, to have a ridiculous salary. And nanny work had low social status and low rewards. Following the outbreak of the Black Death, after which labor wages rose due to labor shortages, Christian families in the Iberian Peninsula and Italy increasingly employee of slaves. The Jewish and Christian communities of Barcelona thus began to use nannies. They mostly moved into their employer’s house, so that their parents could also see how he was doing his job and that it would not endanger the moral upbringing of their child. Even the church has warned parents to check their surrogates so they don’t negatively affect their children.
Sex life was the cause of sour milk
Archaeological finds show that medieval children were gradually weaned between the ages of six months and two. However, wet mother contracts were for a much shorter period, approximately one to nine months. However, medieval parents well knew that it was not good to change nurses too often, but it was very difficult to find a responsible person for a long time.
The contract that the family concluded with the “nurse” provided for example that he would abstain from any sexual activity during the period of service. The role of wet nurses was “to teach children manners through breast milk”. Curiously, academic and popular medical thought at the time claimed that sex would sour the milk and physically harm the baby. And it went even further, because in later medieval Castellanism, sexually active wet sisters in charge of dead children were blamed for their murder.
Louis XIV as a baby with his nanny Longuet de la Giraudière
Work on the verge of slavery – a nurse could be sold
Some women who chose this profession hoped to better themselves in relation to their poor life. Working for a well-to-do urban family could provide a rural woman with the opportunity to make social contacts that would allow her to marry later.
But few women were so lucky, with most working in middle-class families, the less fortunate ending up in orphanages and abandoned children’s homes. Their work was often comparable to slavery.
The nannies did not just serve a family they already knew and in which they felt comfortable. Owners could rent or even sell these women if they were offered a good price.
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Preferences of women with white skin
It was not until 1179 that canon law prohibited Christians from hiring Jews and Muslims for the profession, although many families still shared a few such wives, even in neighborly relations. Despite the law, however, these – mostly Muslim women – ended up in families as nurses until the early modern era. They had to accept the Christian faith. Muslim nurses were baptized, which led to signs of racism in society as people began to recognize each other by the color of their skin.
Breastfeeding was used much later, but in a different way.
Additionally, medical reports of the time considered darker-skinned women and their “mood and heat imbalance as proof that they were bad mothers”. Later, the employment of nurses was slowly abandoned.