Kim M. Phillips, University of Auckland
We tend to associate breast modification with our own era. Pamela Anderson, Katie Price and the Kardashian sisters are among the first celebrities that spring to mind when we think of medical bust enhancement. Some tabloid papers and magazines never tire of showing ‘before and after’ pics of famous women, querying whether they’ve had ‘work’ done on their bodies.
Yet medical procedures to alter breast shape and size long preceded modern cosmetic surgery. Even in medieval times and earlier, young women were provided with advice on cosmetic treatments for their breasts.
The stand-out difference between modern and premodern concerns, though, is in their aesthetic preferences. These days the overwhelming preference is for larger breasts. Before 1600, at the earliest, the universal ideal was for tight, small breasts.
Literary texts and visual sources consistently celebrated the pert white bosoms of slim young women, which were compared to gems, apples, pomegranates – even walnuts. Religious authors could get in on the act too, as did the twelfth-century Cistercian author Gilbert of Hoyland, whose sermons on the Song of Songs dwelt at length on the feminine physical ideal and its metaphorical value:
‘Other breasts feed; these intoxicate’
‘Beautiful indeed are breasts which are slightly prominent and are moderately distended’.
Far more than an abstract ideal, though, such models of feminine beauty had an influence on women in daily life and medical handbooks and herbals offered plenty of advice on how to achieve them. Where modern women turn to surgery, medieval women sought remedies based on herbal and mineral ingredients.
The most commonly-cited methods involved the suppression of girls’ busts right from the time that they began to develop during puberty. Henbane seed, hemlock juice, vinegar, cumin, honey, cold water, medicinal clays, grindings from whetstones, even blood from bats or from the testicles of castrated piglets, are among some of the ingredients used to quell growth. Combinations of these ingredients were mixed to make up a poultice, applied to a maiden’s chest, and kept in place by tight bindings for days at a time, up to several times a month.
The aim was no doubt partly to achieve the beauty ideal of small, high, breasts, but also to maintain a virginal appearance. Changes in bust size and texture were thought to indicate sexual activity, and thus the loss of a young woman’s identity as a virgin. The use of bindings and even what we would now call ‘bras’, as has been supported by some archaeological findings at Lengberg castle in Austria, would have helped women to display the idealised figure and to protect their sexual reputations.
In a society that valued young women’s virginity for both religious and familial reasons, it was important that maidens’ appearance was seen to support their social and moral standing.
It seems that surveillance of young women’s bodies and consequential judgement of their character long pre-dates such phenomena as modern ‘women’s mags’ or the Daily Mail’s infamous ‘sidebar of shame’.
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About the author: Dr Kim Phillips is Associate Professor of History at the University of Auckland, New Zealand. Her work on medieval European societies focuses on the two themes of medieval women, gender and sexuality, and the representation of foreign lands and peoples. She is the author of Before Orientalism: Asian Peoples and Cultures in European Travel Writing, 1245-1510 (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).