WWP The Project Newsletter Archive Volume 2, Number 2 Online Nurserie

The Online Nurserie

Paul Caton

The Women Writers Project is continually exploring ways in which to make our texts "teacher-friendly," and to facilitate their use by instructors and students in the classroom. We wish to accompany each text in the textbase with materials that give information about the work and its author, say something about the critical issues involved and how previous scholars have approached them, and point towards other relevant materials (including related WWP texts). With these materials the teacher and/or student would have both a contextual resource and a way into the work itself.

A prototype of this educational "package" now exists online, and is based around a fascinating and unusual text from the early seventeenth century. The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie is a short treatise championing maternal breast-feeding over the use of wet nurses. The author of the pamphlet, Elizabeth Clinton, the Countess of Lincoln, belonged to the first rank of the English nobility. A wife and mother at a very early age, she breast-fed none of her own eighteen children. Regretting this, and admiring her daughter-in-law Briget's decision to breast-feed, she decided to make amends by setting down compelling arguments for maternal nursing. Writing at a time when women of "the better ranke" commonly placed their newborns with wet nurses, the Countess of Lincoln tries to persuade her peers to follow Lady Briget's example.

She announces her rhetorical strategy in advance: "I wil first shew, that every woman ought to nurse her owne childe; and secondly, I will endeavour to answere such objections, as are used to be cast out against this dutie to disgrace the same." On the first point, Clinton makes a spiritual rather than material case. Above and beyond any practical considerations, she sees breast-feeding by mothers as a religious duty. For the most part she relies on two very traditional modes of argumentation: by example, and by appeal to recognized authority; and draws both her examples and her authority from the bible. Stylistically, she eschews the linguistic exuberance favored by many Renaissance English writers: she constructs no elaborate comparisons, makes no jests, employs no puns, alliteration, or other kind of wordplay. Instead, she keeps to a sober, modest, and earnest style that fits well the pamphlet's tone of heartfelt plea by an author who would rather remain properly silent and who has only ventured into the domain of public discourse because of the importance of the matter.

At one point in the text Clinton speaks about her personal history, and at this emotionally powerful moment one senses behind her words a long-felt anguish.

Now if any reading these few lines returne against me, that it may bee I my selfe have given my own children suck: & therefore am bolder, and more busie to meddle in urging this point, to the end to insult over, & to make them to bee blamed that have not done it. I answer, that whether I have, or have not performed this my bounden duty, I will not deny to tell my own practise. I knowe & acknowledge that I should have done it, and having not done it, it was not for want of will in my selfe, but partly I was overruled by anothers authority, and partly deceived by somes ill counsell, & partly I had not so well considered of my duty in this motherly office, as since I did, when it was too late for me to put it in execution.

Clinton never names the other who exercised authority over her, but we should note that her husband was no longer alive when she wrote those words.

Although The Countesse of Lincolnes Nurserie is short (less than thirty pages in total), it raises important issues about women in early-modern England, including the social silencing of women's voices, and women's lack of control over their own bodies. It touches areas that extend over many disciplines: the historian of medicine, the literary critic, the feminist scholar, will all find something of interest in its pages. Furthermore, its subject matter has great contemporary relevance, as the debate continues over the marketing of infant feeding formulas to Third World countries by large corporations in the West. For these reasons (including its manageable length) it is an ideal choice for the prototype WWP teaching text.

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