Shannon McHugh

Orpheus lactans: Nursing in Renaissance Italian Lyric Poetry

This paper traces breastfeeding imagery in early modern Italian poetry. Examples appear in lyric by men and women; in vernacular and Latin; in spiritual accounts of the Virgin Mary nursing the Christ child, as well as in personal narratives of children at the breast of a wetnurse, or of the poet herself. I am interested in what these poems reveal in terms of both creative expression and social history. How did male and female poets use nursing to reinforce, reject, or queer traditional gender paradigms? What does it mean to take a literary form such as the sonnet, invented to express amorous love, and use it to explore the corporeal mother-child bond? How do these poems compare with medical texts, conduct manuals, or historical chronicles of the period? The Italian Renaissance is a useful moment for a consideration of the history of  the representation of breastfeeding—a watershed moment in the evolution of Western gender roles, when men and women of a certain class found themselves at the epicenter of the transnational debate that would come to be known as the querelle des femmes, or the “woman debate.” The poems under study in this paper provide insight into how breastfeeding, and by extension motherhood, have been experienced, desired, and throughout history.