Skip to main content
The Collation

Picturing Children’s Food in Early Modern Europe

While I started my Folger fellowship intending to research children’s foodways in the manuscript recipe book collection, I was surprised by how many hungry, eating, or even eaten children could be found in the Folger’s collections of visual culture. (A big shoutout to Rachel Dankert for pointing out the prevalence of children throughout these collections!) These images illuminate many of the contexts and controversies—from the dangers of violence and disease, to debates over breastfeeding—that shaped the feeding of infants and children in early modern Europe.

Abraham Bosse’s seventeenth-century scenes of middle- and upper-class French life often have children at their margins. In Les femmes à table en l’absense de leurs maris [Women Dining in the Absence of Their Husbands], while the crowd of sumptuously-dressed women around the table use their own knives and even forks—a relative rarity at the print’s composition in ca. 1636—the other eaters in the image dine more rustically. A cat and a lap dog compete for a plate of scraps in the bottom right corner, while, mirroring the pets, two small children at bottom left sit together in a child-sized chair, sharing a plate and eating with their hands.

Seated away from the adults’ table, children eat with their hands.

Bosse also depicted older children eating slices of bread and fruit from lunch baskets in La maistresse d’escole [The Schoolmistress].

School children eat lunch from lunch baskets.

The opulent desserts under construction in the kitchen of The Pastry Chef are punctuated by the lady of the house (as evidenced by the keys to the larder dangling from a cord at her waist) holding a plump, well-fed baby in her arms.

A plump baby is part of a bustling kitchen scene in a wealthy household.

Where Bosse’s children live in worlds of plenty and peace, their counterparts in other images are vulnerable to all kinds of tragedy. Phillip Vincent’s The Lamentations of Germany features, among many other horrors, tearful mothers resorting to cannibalizing “there owne Children.”

Driven to starvation cannibalism, a mother holds a knife over her own child.

Wenceslaus Hollar’s print depicts a mother and older sibling reacting with horror as the skeletal Death leads a toddler out of the door of their house.

Death leads a small child out of a house while the mother cooks over an open fire.

The mother cooks over an open fire to which the toddler gestures. It is unclear whether the scene references the dangers of small children falling into open flames. Or, the image might refer to the possibility of starvation in a clearly impoverished household; or the many risks that digestive ailments posed to infants and young children in the early modern period. Digestive distress was a major cause of infant and child mortality in an era lacking modern sanitation, refrigeration, and medical care. Infants who did not breastfeed, spoon-fed with food that was likely to be contaminated with pathogens, were particularly at risk.1 While the threat of warfare, accident, or illness imperiled many children in early modern Europe, other tragedies seem less likely, such as a boa constrictor, already swollen from its last meal, seizing a baby in its jaws on the title page of Edward Topsell’s The historie of serpents.

A boa constrictor attacks an infant.

Images of infancy are particularly prevalent at the Folger, many reflecting the politicization of infant feeding in the early modern period and beyond. One common representation of infancy is a series of images based on Jaque’s Act II, scene 7 monologue in As You Like It, which begins the “seven ages of man” with “the infant / Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.” Many of these images, such as John Augustus Atkinson’s, show a nurse in the act of spoon-feeding an infant—in Atkinson’s rendering, blowing on a spoonful of pap scooped from a pap boat, to ensure it is not too hot.

A nurse spoon-feeds a baby.

Other popular images of infants from the period are emblems of Charity, such as Georgette de Montenay’s, which feature a woman nursing a whole pack of children without complaint. In addition to idealizing a mother’s love (and overstating any nursing person’s capacity to produce milk!), these emblems represented the act of nursing in an era when it was becoming increasingly politicized.

A lone woman offers the breast to four children in an emblem of the concept of Charity.

As scholars have shown, the imperial invasion of the Americas and Africa set off a series of debates back in Europe over the practice of wet nursing, reflecting fears about how ingesting colonized peoples’ milk might transform colonists’ bodies, and authorities’ desire for tighter imperial control over reproduction both in Europe and the colonies.2 Robert Smirke’s painting of “the infant” depicts a stylishly-dressed mother gazing at a baby in a nurse’s lap.

A stylishly-dressed mother has given her baby to a wet nurse.

This image, and others like it, critiqued mothers who employed wet nurses as vain and selfish, the opposite of the ever-giving Charity. Yet as in our own time, a variety of factors, including health and finances, impacted whether women could breastfeed their children.3 While the majority of children would have been breastfed, whether by their own parents or other caregivers, visual culture commonly represented the practice of spoon- and bottle-feeding infants.

I’ve only scratched the surface of what these images can tell viewers about the feeding of children in the early modern era, but it’s clear that, then as now, the question of “what should children eat?” remains deeply charged. I look forward to further analyzing these images of children and food in the Folger’s visual culture collections as my research continues.

  1. Janet Golden, A Social History of Wet Nursing in America: From Breast to Bottle (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 17.
  2. There is a large body of literature on this moment: Lisa Forman Cody, Birthing the Nation: Sex, Science, and the Conception of Eighteenth-Century Britons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005); Felicity A. Nussbaum, Torrid Zones: Maternity, Sexuality, and Empire in Eighteenth-Century English Narratives (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995); Ruth Perry, “Colonizing the Breast: Sexuality and Maternity in Eighteenth-Century England,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 2, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: The State, Society, and the Regulation of Sexuality in Modern Europe (Oct., 1991): 204-234; Londa Schiebinger, “Why Mammals are Called Mammals: Gender Politics in Eighteenth-Century Natural History,” The American Historical Review 98, No. 2 (April, 1993): 382-411; Mary E. Fissell, Vernacular Bodies: The Politics of Reproduction in Early Modern England (New York: Oxford, 2006), 143-56; Paula A. Treckel, “Breastfeeding and Maternal Sexuality in Colonial America,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 20, No. 1 (Summer, 1989), 32-33. On Europeans’ anxieties about race and breastfeeding, see Shannon Lee Dawdy, “Proper Caresses and Prudent Distance: A How-To Manual from Colonial Louisiana,” in Haunted By Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History, ed. Ann Laura Stoler (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), esp. 149-150; Rebecca Earle, The Body of the Conquistador: Food, Race and the Colonial Experience in Spanish America, 1492-1700 (Cambridge University Press, 2012), Chapter 6; Carla Cevasco, “‘Look’d Like Milk’: Infant Feeding and Colonialism in the English Atlantic World,” Journal of Early American History 10, No. 2-3 (2020), 147-178.
  3. Golden, A Social History of Wet Nursing in America; Valerie Fildes, Wet Nursing: A History from Antiquity to Present (New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988); Valerie A. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies: A History of Infant Feeding (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1986).