Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Question from Mairead - Use of wet nurses by the middle classes


Would middle class Tudor women have employed wet nurses to breastfeed their children (wives of gentlemen farmers/businessmen etc). I saw a thread about wet nurse use amongst upperclass women, but wondered how widespread the practice was amongst more ordinary folk. Reason I'm asking is because I'm writing a novel set in the period - in general, if an up and coming member of society could afford a wet-nurse, would he employ one?

Many thanks


Anonymous said...

I think a small number may have, especially in the upper part of that bracket. In As You Like It, Shakespeare describes the Seven Ages of Man, and the first age describes a baby wetting itself before being sent to his nurse. I think this might be taken in part from personal experience for the author: Will Shakespeare was a commoner of the class you speak of an as a boy in the 1570s probably did have a nurse or at least a housekeeper holding on to his leading strings.

William Shakespeare's father was a glover and sometime brogger of wool (illegally traded in it) and while Shakespeare was a boy his dad held a position equivalent to that of mayor of Stratford: they were nowhere near the top of the social pyramid, but neither were they paupers-William Shakespeare as an adult was absolutely obsessed with obtaining the title of "gentleman" to the point his rivals were hooting with laughter over it and writing about it in their plays. Part of the reason for that was because it was a step up in class in a rigidly defined society: his father was rich enough to afford servants, but not respectable enough to have arms. His mother Mary had babies on average every two years (the last one was born a tiny bit before Will married Anne,) and to be able to do that without going mad she must have had help. (Granted, lower class families often had children at the same rate without help, but this family in particular if you go over the records was very into social climbing and keeping up with the Joneses.)

Anonymous said...

Just as a response to "anonymous" above: older children, especially daughters, were expected to help care for younger siblings. So it really was possible to have 8 children without hired help. (Many of my ancestors did.) The Shakespeares may have been social climbers, but that doesn't mean they could necessarily afford help, or need it.

Anonymous said...

Not so fast, 00goddess. John Shakespeare sat on top of a tidy amount of money if you look closer at his finances. His wife was an heiress of quite a bit of land in and around the Avon from the time he wed her as a sixteen year old lass-that was money in his pockets, since the preferred method of getting money from lands in the area was tenant farming, getting rents. He also was a glover-this was a higher end item, since the most expensive types were rather ornate and made of deerskin: it would be the equivalent of having a successful car dealership today, selling minis and at the higher end Mercedes. Under the table he was making quite a bit of money-his son wrote quite a bit of insight into how he did it and the equivalent amount today would be in the thousands of dollars.

The image of the Shakespeare house as comfortable (at least until William was about thirteen) squares with the type of house they had: Henley Street was quite a bit above the cottager's home and had plenty of room for servants as well as John Shakespeare's apprentices. It was a grander affair and fitting for a man who was the equivalent of the town's mayor. We also know that Will's future wife Anne lived at an equivalent social rank: yeoman’s daughter, also land owning. People tended to marry within their class then, and heaven knows both the Hathaway house and Henley street would have needed hired help to run.