Susan Hogan


Viewing the wider collective rituals of childbirth as liminal is helpful in understanding the highly contested nature of many cultural practices. With English & Irish historical examples, this essay will argue that it has been to the advantage of women that they maintain a wide range of post-partum taboos and rituals. The themes of postpartum pollution and female power are developed in the context of wet-nursing and the withholding of colostrum. ‘Churching’, evident in the medieval period in Britain, continues to this very day, though in a simplified form. The colostrum taboo and ideas about the transmission of personality via breast milk are very ancient ideas, now entirely discredited in a British context, though to breastfeed another’s baby is now socially taboo. Ideas about how the passions of the nurse could spoil her milk and cause diseases in the child were still widespread in the nineteenth century, and there are resonances of these ideas evident today in beliefs about how pregnant women’s emotions might damage her developing foetus. Theoretically, this article illustrates how anthropological ideas can enrich our understanding of cultural history.

Author Biography

Susan Hogan has research interests in the history of medicine. She has written extensively on the relationship between the arts & insanity, and the role of the arts in rehabilitation. Her monograph on this subject is Healing Arts: The History of Art Therapy (2001). Hogan’s other research interest is in the treatment of women within psychiatry and post-natal care both historically and now. Recent publications on this topic include The Tyranny of the Maternal Body: Maternity and Madness in Women’s History Magazine. No. 54. Autumn, 2006 pp. 21-30, and with a focus on contemporary popular culture, Conception Diary: Thinking About Pregnancy & Motherhood (2006).