It’s all in the breasts: pregnancy aphorisms in the Hippocratic Corpus

The Perceptions of Pregnancy blog, like the Researchers’ Network, aims to reach beyond boundaries and borders, and to facilitate an international and interdisciplinary conversation on pregnancy and its associated bodily and emotional experiences from the medieval to the modern. Today’s post is contributed by Laurence Totelin who writes on breast milk and the Hippocratic aphorisms.

The first Hippocratic aphorism – “the art if long, life is short” – is perhaps the most famous passage of the entire Hippocratic Corpus, that heteroclite collection of texts written in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE and attributed to the physician of Cos. There were, however, many other aphorisms beside that most noted one. They are organized into seven books and cover numerous aspects of medical wisdom. Book five concerns us most as it contains pregnancy-related aphorisms. Today, I wish to examine pregnancy aphorisms that mention the breasts and milk, as they show us how the ancients understood the female body and its ability to carry a child to term.

There are seven breast-related aphorisms in book five, to be found among a much longer list of pregnancy aphorisms:

  1. A woman carries in her belly: if the breasts suddenly lose their fullness, she miscarries.
  2. A woman carries twins in her belly: if one of her breasts loses its fullness, she loses one of her twins. And if it the right breasts that becomes thin, it is the male [she loses]. But if it is the left, it is the female.
  3. If a woman who is not pregnant, nor has given birth before, has milk, her menses have failed.
  4. In women, blood gathered in the breasts indicates madness.

  1. If you want to stop a woman’s menses, apply a cupping instrument as large as possible to the breasts.

  1. A woman carries in her belly: if much milk flows from the breasts, it shows that the foetus is weak. But if the breasts are firm, it shows that the foetus is healthier.
  2. In women who are about to miscarry their foetuses, the breasts become thin, but then become hard again: there will be pain, either in the breasts, or in the hip-joints, or in the eyes, or in the knees, and they will not miscarry.[1]
An ancient breast ex-voto. Many such ex-votos dating to Greek and Roman times are preserved. Source: Wellcome Images

An ancient breast ex-voto. Many such ex-votos dating to Greek and Roman times are preserved. Source: Wellcome Images

While some of these aphorisms may appear to have very little to do with pregnancy, they are not out of place here, as they all relate to the economy of bodily fluids in the woman of childbearing age. The ancients believed that animals constantly produce blood from their food. That blood contributes to the good functioning of the organs. Adult women, however, have a tendency to accumulate blood in their spongy flesh. For women to remain healthy, they must evacuate their superfluous blood through menstruation, pregnancy (when the ‘concocted’ blood serves to form the foetus), or lactation (when the blood is concocted into milk).

In the aphorisms above, full breasts are not fat breasts: they are breasts filled with milk. A sudden deflation of the breasts in pregnancy can only indicate one thing: concoction of blood has failed, and the embryo(s) are in great danger. In the case of twins, loss of plumpness in the left breast – the left being negatively connoted in the ancient world – indicates the loss of a female embryo – baby girls were less valued than their brothers. While not as dangerous as sudden deflation, leaking breasts is not a good sign in pregnancy either: it too indicates poor concoction, and hence a weak foetus.

The Hippocratics could not conceive of two female bodily fluids flowing at the same time: if a non-pregnant woman produces milk (as indeed sometimes happens), this must be because she is not menstruating properly. By the same principle, applying cupping instruments to the breasts (an act which could bring out milk in women who had previously lactated, or which could bring blood to the surface of the breast), would stop the flow of the menses. No aphorism deals with that time in a woman’s life when blood and milk flow together – the first few days after childbirth – perhaps because it was too difficult to explain away. Other ancient texts, however, indicate that the first milk (which we call the colostrum) was considered too thick and bad for the baby.[1]

The breasts were the receptacles for milk, a form of concocted blood. They could not, however, fill with actual menstrual blood. If that occurred, according to aphorism 40, women became mad. Of all the spongy places in women’s body where blood could accumulate, the breasts were the most dangerous.

About the Author:

Laurence Totelin is a Senior Lecturer in Ancient History at Cardiff University. She specialises in the history of Greek and Roman science and medicine, with a special focus on gynaecology. She has recently published a book exploring Ancient Botany.


[1] See in particular Soranus, Gynaecology 2.18.

[1] Hippocratic Corpus, Aphorisms 5.37-53. My own translation.


One thought on “It’s all in the breasts: pregnancy aphorisms in the Hippocratic Corpus

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Year2, Vol. #19 | Whewell's Ghost

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