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Close To Goodness, Close to Sin: Cultural Meanings of Milk in England between 1500 and 1650

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Featured image courtesy of Brooklyn Museum, object 34.493

Author Biography

Anya Maude is a recent graduate of the University of Nottingham. This article formed part of Anya’s undergraduate dissertation supervised within the Department of History.

Abstract

In early modern England, milk was a culturally potent substance, laden with meanings and symbolism. These meanings were varied among individuals and groups, and subject to change over time. The cultural changes that took place in England between 1500 and 1650 can be found reflected in the changing cultural conceptions of milk and breastfeeding. Historical study of the meanings of milk in this time can serve as a case study for the ways wider cultural changes played out in ordinary life. By examining representations of milk in different spheres, this paper draws together apparently disparate cultural associations, and suggests at ways the major religious changes of this period could have affected them.

Close To Goodness, Close to Sin: Cultural Meanings of Milk in England between 1500 and 1650

 

When a baby is born leaking milk from its breast, midwives are unconcerned.  Roughly one in twenty infants lactate soon after birth, and odd as it seems, it is not associated with negative health outcomes.[1] The only really remarkable thing is its quaint, old-fashioned name – ‘witch’s milk’. More than simply old-fashioned, in fact, the name dates back to the seventeenth century.[2] It is an echo of a time both like and unlike our own, a time when ‘witch’s milk’ was a deadly serious affliction, and milk held a potent set of cultural meanings. It is also the tip of an iceberg, the tiny visible part of a mostly hidden cultural inheritance. Milk and breastfeeding were much debated in early modern England, and although these debates took place in a completely different cultural landscape, they bear an eerie resemblance to present-day conversations. This is not an artefact of milk having some kind of universal Freudian significance; between 1500 and 1650 the cultural meanings of milk in England fundamentally changed. Rather, it is part of the first emergence of a set of broader cultural beliefs about the proper function of the body and what it means when bodies fall outside that, beliefs that still run through parts of English language and culture. Milk sat at an uneasy intersection in early modern England: both a vital foodstuff and, inescapably, a bodily fluid.[3] Although human milk and animal milks shared many of their cultural and medical significances, they were related to the body in different ways – this article focuses primarily on the former.[4] By its very nature, milk ran between categories, and overlapped boundaries. It was at once intimate, and commonplace, nutritious, and vulnerable to spoilage. It is the very in-betweenness of milk, its ambiguities and liminalities, which make it a powerful tool through which to approach wider cultural knowledge.

Milk has been the subject of a number of attempts at ‘global’ cultural history.[5] The best of these, like Deborah Valenze’s 2011 work Milk: A Local and Global History, are really a series of narrow historical case studies, and emphasise the heterogeneity of cultural meaning.[6] Attempts to fashion a global, pan-historical narrative for the cultural meaning of milk are problematised by the wealth of excellent, more narrowly focused, histories of milk in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[7] There is no reason to believe that the early modern world was any less imbued with complex and changing cultural associations than the modern one, and in homogenising the cultural significances of milk into one pan-European narrative, historians risk achieving simplicity at the expense of accuracy. For this reason, this article is focused on the cultural meanings of milk in a single country, between 1500 and 1650. By examining representations of milk in different cultural spheres, it is possible to draw together apparently disparate associations, and suggest the ways in which the major religious change of this period could have affected them.

 

Religious Context

In early modern Europe, culture and religion were interwoven.[8] Never simple or unequivocal, the religious significances of milk were thrown into contradiction and conflict by the English Reformation. This had a real impact on diet and practise. It is also a key piece of cultural context, central to understanding and reconciling the conflicted cultural significances of milk in the seventeenth century.

In England in 1500, the Catholic Church provided a set of religiously prescribed, albeit contradictory, meanings for milk. In culinary terms, it was a kind of white meat, subject to the strictures of fasting and abstinence.[9] Symbolically, it was strongly linked with nurture and purity, and was particularly associated with the Virgin Mary.[10] Although their influence had waned over the centuries, St. Bernard of Clairvaux’s interpretive sermons on the Song of Songs had done their work in establishing milk as a symbol of divine grace, prayerful communion and Christian nurture.[11] St. Bernard argued for Mary as Mediatrix, and emphasised her maternal capacity in an unsettlingly literal, and powerful, reflection on rebirth.[12] St. Bernard’s Marian sensibility had its impact, as did his focus on lactation and milk – although the way suckling was presented in Christian imagery shifted from the eleventh century to the thirteenth, it remained a core piece of religious imagery.[13] By the start of the thirteenth century, the cultural centrality of ‘milk and honey’ and of the Song of Songs had given way to a softened boundary between Christ’s blood and Mary’s milk which, perhaps because of its congruence with scholarly understandings of the origin of milk, persisted well into the sixteenth century.[14] More a sensibility than a strict piece of theological meaning, the symbolism of ‘giving suck’ persisted in Catholic religious iconography, most frequently in images of the nursing Madonna, but also in some depictions of the wound in Christ’s side.[15]

To the extent that milk was contaminated in Catholic imaginings, it was by its inseparability from female sexual anatomy. It was academic consensus that women ceased to menstruate when pregnant because their menstrual blood instead fed the growing baby. When the child was born, the blood travelled upwards, and was transformed by the heat of the breast into milk.[16] This presented quite a problem to theologians; in addition to being implicitly tied to original sin, menstruation should also have been physically impossible for Mary, based on the physical specifications of the Doctrine of Perpetual Virginity.[17] It was a microcosm of a greater contradiction between the milk and honey of Deuteronomy and the sin assigned to the lactating body. Although there were some attempts to suggest that Mary’s milk came directly from heaven, the conflict was for the most part resolved simply through avoidance.[18] Depictions of the Nursing Madonna positioned her breast unnaturally close to her neck, and although milk frequently appeared in religious iconography, it was abstracted from physical realities.[19] In Catholic religious symbolism, milk was at its purest and holiest when it appeared in abnormal places, flowing from the neck of the beheaded St. Catherine, or arcing from a statue of the Madonna to the mouth of St. Bernard.[20] Its Biblical significance and association with Marian devotions could then be enjoyed, unsullied by its base origin.

By 1650, however, this imagery had started to go off. Mary had fallen from her pedestal, and belief in minor miracles had become a Catholic shibboleth, invoked by Jesuits and seminary priests.[21] Protestants increasingly saw God as communicating his message through the ‘natural’ order and anything perceived to be outside that order became spiritually suspect.[22] Whether milk was to be permitted when fasting fell into insignificance next to the question of whether fasting was required, or even permissible.[23] The English Civil War was ongoing, religious tension and suspicion was rife, and the old cultural rules, rites, and protections had been largely discredited or condemned. Milk-imagery was still invoked regularly in religious writing, but through the imagery of the nursing mother, rather than the miraculous fluid. Phrases like ‘as milk to children’ were used to evoke nurture and sustenance, in spiritual form, but also to chastise. In 1619, for example, Thomas Adams (a Church of England clergyman and prolific writer of Calvinist theology) warned against seeking spiritual sustenance outside the true Christian Church by comparing it to a ‘strange’ nurse, as opposed to the ‘pure milke of your owne mother’.[24] These trends were not absolute – English-language Catholic treatises published abroad still referred to the Lactatio Bernardi and the Virgin’s holy milk – but they were broadly representative.[25] In Protestant England, milk was holy, but only in its proper, ‘natural’, place.

 

Breastfeeding

Words and categories can be manipulated in a way that bodies cannot, and no amount of cultural censure could make lactation and breastfeeding entirely the preserve of respectable married mothers, before or after the English Reformations. As well as a symbolic component of the ‘natural’ family order, woman’s milk was a vital physical commodity, both for the nourishment of infants and its purported curative powers. The contraceptive powers of breastfeeding were well-known in early modern England, and placed new mothers and wet-nurses under suspicion of immorality, regardless of what they did.[26] Breastfeeding one’s own child may have been the epitome of female virtue, but many women would or could not do so. As breastfeeding was a divinely assigned duty, women unable to breastfeed were spiritually suspect, and were offered such unhelpful advice as ‘fast and pray’.[27] The women who sent their babies to wet-nurses had always been the subject of scholarly critique, but as the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wore on, wet-nurses themselves became the targets of religious ire.[28] The construction of motherhood as the ideal state of womanhood was nothing new – it was almost inherent in the paradoxical Virgin Mother, who embodied motherhood without sexuality. Nor was the spiritually suspect nature of women who could not or would not fill this role.[29] Rather, the shift that can be observed is in the framework through which this was understood, justified, and enforced. Where wet-nursing had been understood as so ideally noble that the Virgin Mary was often represented in the role and garb of a wet-nurse, it was now the subject of a peculiarly Protestant genre of attack.[30] Women’s virtue, ability to breastfeed, and the quality of their milk was subject to scrutiny from Catholic and Protestant writers. In broadly Protestant countries, however, this scrutiny took on the language of the ‘natural order’, and the imagery of the saintly wet-nurse, the lactating Madonna and Christ giving suck to his followers gave way to a stricter idealisation of ‘natural’ maternal relations.[31] Woman’s milk was close to goodness, but also to sin. This dual proximity is clearest in the two figures most closely linked to it: the mother and the wet-nurse.

Valerie Fildes’ extensive analysis of breastfeeding and infant care in England in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries demonstrates that, in elite and educated circles, a woman choosing to breastfeed her own child was exceptional.[32] Elite medical advice was for the most part reflected in elite practice; the age of weaning advised in medical texts was very similar to the age in practice, and there was a large volume of medical writing advising on how to select a wet-nurse.[33] Practically speaking, wet-nurses were one of the facts of life, perfectly ordinary and widely employed. Despite this, wet-nurses and the mothers who employed them were the subject of a disproportionately large volume of writing by learned Protestant moralists, mostly in the form of instructions, admonitions and warnings.[34] These admonitions did not just come from theologians, or even male writers – Elizabeth Clinton, Countess of Lincoln published a pamphlet in 1622 advising women to nurse their own children.[35] The change that took place over the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not a shift from a culture in which women were granted relative freedom over their bodies to one in which they were not, but rather a shift in the theoretical and cultural underpinnings of misogynistic critique and control.

Newly-Protestant England did see a profusion of publications warning against the practice of wet-nursing but this was perhaps as much the result of an increase in published material as an increase in paranoia about the risks posed by wet nursing.[36] Anti-wet-nursing arguments in sixteenth and seventeenth century English published material can be usefully divided into two overlapping categories. The first is broadly medical, and included authors from a variety of denominations, including translations of the writings of physicians from Catholic countries, such as the work of the French physician Jacques Guillemeau (published in England in 1612).[37] Medical warnings against wet-nursing were often premised on the role of woman’s milk as a primary agent of heredity, as at least in elite medical writing, it was through breastfeeding that humoral balance could be shared.[38] The humoral balance of the mother or wet-nurse was, therefore, of utmost importance to the health, appearance, and character of the baby.[39] Some writers advised that nurses be selected based on the physical traits that indicated their humoral balance, whereas some, like Guillemeau, believed that the milk itself was sufficient to determine the humoral qualities; a blueish tinge indicating melancholy, yellow suggesting choler, and a reddish tinge either showing an excess of the sanguine humour or a failure of the heat of the breasts to fully transform uterine blood into milk.[40] Humoral balance was also understood as a sexed characteristic carried in milk, albeit one on a spectrum. A prospective wet-nurse needed to have a child of the right sex or risk making a male baby grow into effeminacy, or a female baby ‘a man-like Virago’ – the latter of these was sometimes treated as a potentially desirable outcome, whereas the former was despised.[41] Guillimeau, for example, advises choosing a nurse who has had a male child as the milk will be ‘hotter, better concocted; and not so excrementitious’.[42] The potential problems of an improper wet-nurse were not, however, merely physical, and it was the behavioural criteria for wet-nurses that drew the most hysterical, and telling, commentary.

The second category can be described as arguments grounded in medicine and morality. The character and behaviour of the nurse were understood as intimately connected to the material quality of the milk, but were dangerously hidden – from the wrong nurse, even the sweetest, richest milk could be riddled with corruption.[43] Protestant moral polemicists gave the impression that a wet-nurse of good character and speech was a rare find among the ‘drowsie drunkards’, ‘sawsie sluttes’ and ‘gawde gossips’.[44] Good milk was, of course, good, but it was also rare, and milk concealed sin as easily as it did disease. The risks of a morally dubious wet-nurse were twofold; as Presbyterian non-conformist Robert Cleaver stated in his 1598 publication on household government, ‘the temperature of the minde followes the constitution of the bodie, needes must it be, that if the nurse be of a naughty nature, the child must take thereafter’.[45] Not only might the child become morally degraded by the humoral content of the milk, but they also were placed at risk of neglect or even deliberate injury. Where Catholic Guillemeau described wet-nurses who ‘deserve to be whipt’, for secretly feeding their charge water instead of milk, Protestant writers drew a more direct connection between the immorality of the nurse and the quality of the milk – Barthélemy Batt warned against not only the ‘corrupt maners’, ‘unseemly words’ and ‘fained & dissembled love’ of a wet-nurse, but also ‘pernicious contagion’, ‘odious errours’, and ‘detestable diseases’.[46] Milk could aspire to only one kind of goodness, but was at risk from all kinds of sin.

The major difference was not the extent of the suspicion and ire directed towards wet-nurses and women who did not breastfeed their children, but the way it was framed. In Protestant literature, mothers who chose to employ the services of wet-nurses were subject to the most vitriolic tirades because they had committed the ultimate betrayal of their natural role.[47] This is clearest in Elizabeth Clinton’s writing. Clinton described women choosing not to breastfeed as an ‘vnnaturall practise’, and asserted that the urge to breastfeed was ‘the worke that God worketh in the very nature of mother’.[48] The mother’s first duty was understood to be to her child, and a woman who was capable of nourishing an infant but chose not to flouted the first principles of Christian womanhood – to Clinton, these women were literally going ‘against nature’.[49] These women, memorably derided by Robert Cleaver as ‘daintie halfe-mothers’, were rejecting God’s intended use for their ‘two breasts’, and relegating them to the distinctly un-Godly purpose of ‘ostentation’.[50] It was not only milk that found itself precariously close to sin and virtue – the maternal body was caught in the same impossible position. For women, simply having breasts was potentially sinful, unless their bodies were sanctified by their ‘proper’ function of the nurturing of infants.

The demonisation of wet-nurses and women who did not breastfeed resists a simple narrative. It was not, for example, just men writing against the practice of wet-nursing. Similarly, although there is a clear change over time in the framing of fears about wet-nursing that coincides with the English Reformations and appears to be thematically linked to the cultural changes they wrought, by the seventeenth century Catholic and Protestant English writers were using the language of the ‘natural order’ to assert the importance of women nursing their own babies.[51] Attitudes to breastfeeding bore a relation to theological change, but it was not always linear or predictable. The same can, in fact, be said of the critiques’ relation to material reality. The same two centuries that saw an explosion of anti-wet nursing tracts saw an increase in the uptake of the services of wet-nurses by the aristocracy.[52] This did not necessarily mean that these ideas were not widely shared – the way sex workers have been related to culturally suggests that it is perfectly possible for someone to pay a woman for labour, and also believe that she is inherently immoral for performing that labour, especially when misogyny and unequal wealth informs the relationship. This does, however, raise the greatest contradiction in this body of writing – men, for the most part, had the power to choose whether or not to hire a wet-nurse, and yet the admonitions are primarily directed towards women.[53]

The position of breastfeeding in sixteenth and seventeenth century England is therefore best understood as part of a continuity of misogynistic control of women’s bodies, newly framed by a developing religious and cultural idea of ‘natural order’. Wider fears about the behaviour of mothers coalesced around the ways they did or did not use their milk, and the privacy and uncontrollability of breastfeeding made it a focus for misogynistic anxiety and censure. Woman’s milk was potent, and impossible to truly regulate. It was intimately connected to an unpredictable, and emotionally dangerous endeavour – the raising of infants. Tied by the logics of humoral medicine to menstruation, the original sin of the female body, milk straddled the holy and the sinful. Where it had once stood between the ideal of motherhood and the sin of female sexuality, it was now caught between the natural and the unnatural. How it was understood seems to have been powerfully situational; breastfeeding may have sanctified a mother’s body, but the private milky communion between a wet-nurse and her charge was deeply suspect. Valuable as a commodity, it was nonetheless troubling as a phenomenon. In a humoral understanding of the body, breastfeeding was a moment of vulnerability, where the boundary between two bodies briefly became permeable. In a formal wet-nursing relationship, one of those bodies was necessarily that of a poor woman. This was milk out of place. The abstract good of late-medieval milk had given way to a precarious virtue, no less powerful, but possibly more dangerous to the women touched by it.

 

Witchcraft

Although the historiography of the witch-trials themselves is remarkably well populated, the sources have been surprisingly underused by food historians.[54] Though limited in many respects, these records have great potential; many of them contain transcriptions of illiterate people’s accounts of the events, being one of the only situations in which the narrated experiences of labourers were deemed worthy of recording. They are, of course, profoundly distorted – due to the nature of English court recording, depositions being neither detailed nor routinely preserved, most of the detailed sources available are publications after the fact, by individuals who had no legal obligation to record accurately, and may have filtered what they heard through their own, usually learned, gaze.[55] A further problem is that some of the testimonies they contain were extracted under torture, or threat of it, and are often so fantastical that they clearly cannot be taken as literal truth.[56]

That said, there are few discernible reasons for writers to consistently alter the references to food in recording the events of witch-trials, or for individuals giving testimonies to thoroughly misrepresent their own attitudes to food. Furthermore, the more fantastical references to milk and breastfeeding, understood within the context of the types of imagery which occur repeatedly in the English witch-trials, can be useful in their own right, as a window into the symbolic and folkloric meanings of the substance. References to milk and other dairy products, and breastfeeding-type imagery, occurred disproportionately frequently in published records of English witch-trials. Historians of milk have generally considered it to be culturally and culinarily in decline in this period, losing its associations with piety and its status as healthy and nourishing, and yet to acquire its implications of purity and modernity.[57] The evidence of the witch-trials suggests that not only was milk central to the diets of rural families, but that it held a cultural significance that reflected that centrality.

Even if early modern milk was nourishing, it was also deeply culturally dangerous. Animal milks were vulnerable to all kinds of magical manipulation, and feature disproportionately frequently in the accounts of the English witch trials. Human milk was even more risky. While breastfeeding mothers might be fulfilling their role in a divinely ordained natural order, other instances of lactation in humans could be assigned no such purpose. In the uneasy religious climate of the seventeenth century, there were only two potential explanations for ‘unnatural’ happenings; divine or satanic. Across Europe, neonatal lactation was feared, called ‘witch’s milk’, ‘hexenmilch’ and ‘lait de sorcière’, and implicated in accusations of witchcraft.[58] The connection between witchcraft and milk was shared between a number of countries and regions. Michael Ostling argued that the importance of milk-magic to many of the Polish witch-trials was due to centrality of milk-yields in what Lyndal Roper described as ‘the economy of bodily fluids’.[59] The yield of a cow was at once a physical and symbolic indicator of a family’s prosperity, and the witch drained that prosperity.[60] Although the English witch-trials shared much with those of Poland, the abundance of milk-magic and milk-imagery in them seems to have had a slightly different symbolic significance, one as much connected to woman’s milk as it was to cow’s milk.

A feature common to many of the European witch-trials is the imagery of inversion. This is exemplified by the witches’ sabbath, an unholy gathering which perverted and inverted the rituals of the Christian sabbath. English witch-trials generally lacked the imagery of the witches’ sabbath, but were not lacking in inversion imagery. One of the key sites on which this imagery was focused was the lactating body. While breastfeeding mothers were fulfilling their role in a divinely ordained natural order, other instances of lactation in humans could be assigned no such purpose, and were highly suspect.

Although the English witch trials lacked much of the sexual imagery common to many of the European witchcraft traditions, they were still highly linked to the physicality of the sexed body, through the way the demonic familiars who fed on the blood of witches were described.[61] The descriptions of these familiars feeding use the same language as descriptions of breastfeeding; familiars ‘suck’ from witches, and witches ‘give suck’ to familiars, the same language used to describe babies feeding from nurses or mothers.[62] How exactly this took place varied quite significantly between witch trials. In some cases, such as the accounts of the testimonies of Anne Whittle in the Pendle Witch trials in 1612, and Elizabeth Francis at Chelmsford in 1566, the familiar merely sucked blood from an inconspicuous body part of an accused witch, leaving a mark like a mole, which could then be used to determine their guilt.[63] Many descriptions, however, verge much closer to the image of the nursing mother. In some cases, where the familiar sucked, a raised teat developed.[64] In others, an entirely new ‘dugge’ or ‘pappe’ (breast) was formed where the familiar was ‘given suck’.[65] The positioning on the body was also not always simply neutrally hidden. Some familiars sucked from the breasts as true babes, or from the flank or just under the breast. Many, however, took their nourishment from much more intimate places, such as inside the mouth, behind the ear, the buttocks, and the ‘secrets’.[66]

Belief in familiars, historically linked with popular belief in fairies, has been used as evidence of a reciprocal relationship between elite and popular culture in early modern England, a relationship this thesis advocates for in food history.[67] Intellectual belief in demonic familiars was contested and fraught, but they nonetheless occur in the vast majority of English witch-pamphlets from the period and became codified in Matthew Hopkins’s instructions for the determining of guilt of an accused witch, making them an ideal focal point through which to explore the relationship between popular and elite attitudes to breastfeeding, milk, and the maternal body.[68] One particularly interesting facet of the familiar beliefs is the way they seem to reflect and interact with humoral understandings of milk and breastfeeding. Whereas milk was blood, transformed through the heat of the breast into a digestible and nourishing state, witches fed their familiars with blood, and one of the identifying characteristics of the witches’ teat was that it was cold to the touch. This was one among many maternal inversions.[69] Women killed their children, struck their husbands lame and had them killed, and with the assistance of the devil aborted their foetuses with herbs and potions. The image of the woman suckling a demon in the form of an animal, with blood instead of milk, makes sense within the context of such inversion. The popular origin of belief in familiar spirits suggests that there may have been a popular association between milk and blood, that did not directly come from elite medical theory.

It was not only women suspected of witchcraft who were accused of suckling their familiars, however. There are several instances of men, accused of witchcraft, being described as doing similarly. The octogenarian vicar John Lowes, accused of witchcraft in the Matthew Hopkins-led witch trials in Suffolk in 1645, was described as having ‘a teat on the crown of his head and two under his tongue’.[70] Thomas Evered, a cooper, who was accused of witchcraft alongside his wife Mary Evered in the same 1645 set of trials, was described as giving suck to imps.[71] This is a particularly interesting example, despite meriting only two sentences in the account of the largest witch-hunt in English history, because the particular crime Evered was accused of was so distinctly gendered; in addition to having imp familiars, the couple were accused of having bewitched beer to smell so ‘odious’ that the stink and taste of it killed many people.[72] As Lara Apps and Andrew Gow observed in their book Male witches in early modern Europe, male witches were implicitly feminised, both through being accused of witchcraft, itself a profoundly gendered accusation, and through being associated with sensory domains typed as female in early modern constructions of gender, specifically smell and taste.[73] Evered was therefore doubly feminised, through the nature of his crime, and the sexed nature of the standard elements of an accusation of witchcraft.[74] This was not milk out of place, so much as everything out of place – milk inverted as blood, and woman as man.

The use of breastfeeding-type imagery in the English witch trials is further evidence of the fraught cultural meaning of the maternal body. Breastfeeding’s precarious holiness lent any kind of distortion of it a profound cultural potency. The sucking familiars resembled an unholy communion, a taking of blood meaning damnation, rather than a receiving of blood as salvation. It inverted religious and natural order, intertwined as they were. It demonstrates just how precarious, and how potent, milk really was.

One aspect of the witch-trial evidence which seriously challenges the historical consensus on early modern dairy consumption is simply the centrality and prevalence of milk, cheese, and butter, in so many of the depositions. In elite circles there was a decline in the unique cultural position milk had previously possessed as a culinary ingredient going into the early modern period.[75] The Pendle witch trials, in particular, provide a potential insight into the cultural significance of milk to people with very little immediate contact to the medical theorising that knocked milk off its medieval pedestal. Milk and dairy products were the subjects of many of the magical acts apparently witnessed. In the Examination of Edmund Robinson in 1633, an act of magic is described where ropes attached to the roof of a house are pulled, rather like church bells, and butter, milk, and smoking meat shower down into buckets.[76] Butter was made from milk without ever depleting the quantity of milk, the spilling of milk caused familiar spirits to disappear, and when a man kicked over a can of milk he had given in charity, his cow died the next day.[77] Boiling a can of milk brought forth a toad-like spirit (toads were themselves associated with the female body in medical writing due to their apparent resemblance to the shape of a uterus).[78] Milk begged and denied brought fear and sickness to the denier – the sheer prevalence of milk in the imagery of the English witch-trials is enough to suggest at its huge cultural power and danger.

As Michael Ostling argued about the Polish witch-trials, milk’s status as an indispensable yet vulnerable commodity may have contributed to its particular centrality to accusations of spell-casting. Milk spoils suddenly and repulsively, cows die without warning or explanation, and when cheese-making goes awry, it is often for reasons invisible to the naked eye. Milk-magic was not, however, solely responsible for the prevalence of milk in the English witch-trials. Witch’s milk, the witch’s teat, and the suckling demon all suggest at another dimension to the cultural significance of milk. Layered into narratives of the inverted ideals of Christian motherhood, they call to a substance which was uniquely close to virtue and vulnerable to sin. Milk in its proper place was a blessing, sanctifying and justifying the body of the mother, but outside of that was deeply spiritually troubling. When animal milks and woman’s milk are treated as culturally linked, their significance to the witch-trials can be understood multidimensionally. Milk was both physically and spiritually vulnerable, inhabiting a tenuous place of virtue but unable to escape its connections to menstruation, and consequently original sin. It is no surprise that it flowed through the language of the witch-trials – it was the body out of order, unruly, uncontrollable, and potentially unholy.

 

Conclusion

Milk has been the subject of a number of attempts at ‘global’ cultural history.[79] The best of these, like Deborah Valenze’s 2011 work Milk: A Local and Global History, are really a series of narrow historical case studies, and emphasise the heterogeneity of cultural meaning.[80] Attempts to fashion a global, pan-historical narrative for the cultural meaning of milk are problematised by the wealth of excellent, more narrowly focused, histories of milk in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[81] There is no reason to believe that the early modern world was any less imbued with complex and changing cultural associations than the modern one, and in homogenising the cultural significances of milk into one pan-European narrative, historians risk achieving simplicity at the expense of accuracy. For this reason, this article is focused on the cultural meanings of milk in a single country, between 1500 and 1650. By examining representations of milk in different cultural spheres, it is possible to draw together apparently disparate associations, and suggest the ways in which the major religious change of this period could have affected them.

Milk did not have one simple set of cultural associations in sixteenth and early seventeenth-century England, but rather had an array of meanings, governed by subculture, but also by situation. It invoked associations of nurture, purity, barbarity, charity, poverty, and motherhood. Although it was undoubtedly gendered as feminine, through the realities of average human biology and traditional gendered divisions of labour, it was not exclusively associated with women, and association with it was used to situate some men closer to womanhood. It was heavily used in Christian religious language and imagery, but in very different ways by writers in Catholic and Protestant regions. As the religious landscape of England shifted, the religious significance of milk also changed, as close as ever to goodness, but perilously close to sin. The religious meanings of milk became ever more contested and fraught during the later sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, and its significance became less about it as a substance, and more about whether it occurred without the bounds of the ‘natural’ function of a body.

The conflicted cultural meanings of milk were not merely an artefact of the variety of cultural, social, and material factors affecting individuals’ perspectives on it. Milk was a profoundly liminal fluid, and this liminality is reflected in certain major conflicts in its meaning. Straddling the intersection of the virtuous and the sinful, and the body and that which lay outside it, milk was steeped in contradiction and conflict. The well-populated genre of vitriolic Protestant tracts against mothers choosing not to breastfeed and the widespread presence of distorted breastfeeding-type imagery in the English witch-trials both highlight how crucial milk and breastfeeding was to the virtuous female body. Like milk, the maternal body was unpredictable, vulnerable to spiritual spoilage and hidden corruption. Milk, and the act of breastfeeding, had huge spiritual and cultural potency, and no exact prescribed religious meaning. Set at the table of blood and meat, and their eucharistic counterparts, wine and bread, milk was uniquely ambiguous, and therefore uniquely dangerous.

 

Notes

[1] D. J. Madlon-Kay, ‘Witch’s Milk: Galactorrhea in the Newborn’, American Journal of Diseases of Children, 140/3 (1986), p. 252.

[2] M. Potts and R. Short, Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Cambridge, 1999), p. 145.

[3] Human breastmilk was consumed by adults for its curative properties. Although the modern distinction between the culinary and the medical had started to emerge in 16th and 17th century England, it was still less clearly defined than it is now. Milk, and particularly human milk, straddled the two, moving from food to medicine as one aged out of infancy, and then sometimes back to the former in old age.
D. Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History (New Haven, 2011), p. 70; W. Wall, Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen (Philadelphia, 2016), p. 4.

[4] K. Albala, ‘Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy – Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), p. 26.

[5] Including Valenze’s Milk: A Local and Global History, there are five, although one – R. Schmid’s book – is an historically dubious argument for the consumption of raw milk.
M. Kurlansky, Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018); A. Mendelson, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (New York, 2008); R. Schmid, The Untold Story of Milk – Revised and Updated (Washington DC, 2009); H. Velten, Milk: A Global History (London, 2010).

[6] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 5.

[7] P. Atkins, Liquid Materialities: a history of milk, science, and the law (Farnham, 2010); K. Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford, 2014).

[8] K. Von Greyerz, Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2008), p. 2.

[9] C. Yeldham, ‘Use of Almonds in Late-medieval English Cookery’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), p. 352.

[10] Valenze, Milk, p. 18.

[11] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Commentary on ‘The Song of Songs’, ed. D. Wright, Sermon 9.

[12] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas, (Chicago 1909), Sermon 39.

[13] C. Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (London, 1987), p. 269.

[14] Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, p. 269.

[15] Quirizio da Murano’s late fifteenth century depiction of Christ showing his chest wound to a nun applied the stylistic conventions of the Madonna Lactans to the adult Christ, showing him tenderly proffering a wound where his nipple would be with two fingers, surrounded by inscriptions of the most cannibalistic passages of the Song of Songs.
Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, p. 271.

[16] Albala, ‘Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous’, p. 82.

[17] Valenze, Milk, p. 47.

[18] M. Fissell, ‘The Politics of Reproduction in the English Reformation’, Representations, 87 (2004), p. 56.

[19] Valenze, Milk, p. 47.

[20] Valenze, Milk, pp. 43, 48.

[21] A. Walsham, ‘Miracles and the Counter-Reformation Mission to England’, The Historical Journal, 46/4 (2003), p. 781.

[22] A. Walsham, ‘The Reformation and “the Disenchantment of the World” Reassessed’, The Historical Journal, 51/2 (2008), p. 509.

[23] George Abbot, The reasons which Doctour Hill hath brought, for the upholding of papistry, which is falselie termed the Catholike religion: unmasked and shewed to be very weake, and upon examination most insufficient for that purpose (Oxford, 1604), p. 380.
P. Kaufman, ‘Fasting in England in the 1560s: “A Thinge of Nought”?’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte. Ergänzungsband, 32 (2003), p. 178.

[24] Thomas Adams, The happines of the church (London, 1619), p. 56; J. S. McGee, ‘Adams, Thomas (1583-1652), <https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-131>, accessed 12.05.2019.

[25] Thomas Vincent and Arthur Anselm Crowther, Jesus, Maria, Joseph (Amsterdam, 1657), p. 31.

[26] V. Fildes, Breasts, Bottles and Babies (Edinburgh, 1986), p. 109.

[27] Robert Cleaver, A godlie forme of householde gouernment for the ordering of priuate families, according to the direction of Gods word. Whereunto is adioyned in a more particular manner, the seuerall duties of the husband towards his wife: and the wifes dutie towards her husband. The parents dutie towards their children: and the childrens towards their parents. The masters dutie towards his seruants: and also the seruants dutie towards their masters. Gathered by R.C (London, 1598), p. 238.

[28] St. Bernard of Clairvaux, for example, greatly chastised women who employed the services of wet-nurses, using the example of his mother who bore seven children and nursed them all.
B. Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse: regulating the dangerous maternal body’, Journal of Gender Studies, 24/5 (2005), p. 576.

[29] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 49.

[30] B. Williamson, The Madonna of Humility: Development, Dissemination & Reception (Suffolk, 2009), p. 132;  Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, p. 576.

[31] Walsham, ‘The Reformation and “the Disenchantment of the World” Reassessed’, p. 509; Walker Bynum, Holy Feast and Holy Fast, pp. 270-272; Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse: regulating the dangerous maternal body’, p. 576.

[32] V. Fildes, ‘The age of weaning in Britain 1500-1800’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 14/2 (1982), p. 235.

[33] Although whether that is because the medical advice was followed or because it simply reflected established practise is not possible to determine from the information given.
Fildes, ‘The age of weaning’, p. 223.

[34] P. Crawford, ‘‘The sucking child’: Adult attitudes to child care in the first year of life in seventeenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 1/1 (1986), p. 31.

[35] Clinton was no less stern in her admonitions than her contemporaries, but perhaps a little kinder – she herself had not breastfed her own children (a choice, the text suggests, that was taken from her) and regretted it.
Elizabeth Clinton, The Countesse of Lincolnes nurserie (Oxford, 1622), p. 16.

[36] Crawford, ‘‘The sucking child’, p. 31.

[37] Jacques Guillemeau, Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of vvomen VVherein is set downe the gouernment of women (London, 1612), p.7.

[38] Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, p. 577.

[39] S. Prühlen, ‘What was Best for an Infant from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Times in Europe? The Discussion Concerning Wet Nurses’, Hygiea Internationalis: an Interdisciplinary Journal for the History of Public Health, 6/2 (2007), p. 205.

[40] Guillemeau, Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of vvomen, p.7.

[41] Virago was a culturally complex term- positive, for its associations with virtues constructed as male, but also always implying a subtle gendered transgression.
J. A. Schroeder, Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford, 2014), p. 107; Prühlen, ‘What was best for an Infant’, p. 205; Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, p. 578.

[42] Guillimeau, Child-birth, p. 8.

[43] Valenze, Milk, p. 156.

[44] Barthélemy Batt can be presumed to have belonged to some Protestant denomination, as his work contains references to ‘Papists’ alongside ‘Iewes, Turkes, Infidels’.
Barthélemy Batt, The Christian man’s closet Wherein is conteined a large discourse of the godly training up of children: as also of those duties that children owe unto their parents, made dialogue wise, very pleasant to reade, and most profitable to practise, collected in Latin by Bartholomew Batty of Alostensis, And now Englished by William Lowth, (London, 1591), pp. 16, 54.

[45] Robert Cleaver, A godlie forme of householde gouernment, p. 238.

[46] Batt, The Christian man’s closet, pp. 54 -55.

[47] Åström, ‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’, pp. 576, 578.

[48] Clinton’s pamphlet contained a foreword by a Catholic doctor (Thomas Lodge), but was steeped in the distinctly post-Reformation language of natural law pp. 1, 8.

[49] Clinton, The Countesse of Lincolnes nurserie, p. 8.

[50] Cleaver, A godlie forme of householde gouernment, p. 240.

[51] Thomas Lodge ended his foreword to Clinton’s pamphlet with a verse about ‘Gods and Natures lawes’, for example.

[52] Fildes, ‘The age of weaning in Britain 1500-1800’, p. 235.

[53] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 279.

[54] With the significant exception of Christopher Kissane, who has not only produced a focused study of food in the early modern witch trials, but has also argued that such analysis is necessary to understand early modern perception and experience of witchcraft.

Kissane, Food, Religion and Communities in Early Modern Europe (London, 2018), p. 130.

[55] M. Gaskill, ‘Witches and Witnesses in Old and New England’, in S. Clark (ed.), Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture (London, 2001), p. 55.

[56] Torture was generally prohibited in English law, allowed only extrajudicially against traitors in order to get information about their accomplices. Between 1645 and 1647, however, local authorities did torture witchcraft suspects; B. Levack, ‘Witchcraft Trials in England, Scotland, and New England’, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Abingdon, 2015), p. 241.

[57] M. Kurlansky, Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018), p. 28.

[58] M. Potts and R. Short, Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Cambridge, 1999), p. 145.

[59] M. Ostling, ‘Witchcraft in Poland: Milk and Malefice’ in B. P. Levack (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Witchcraft in Early Modern Europe and Colonial America (Oxford, 2013), p. 3.

[60] Ostling, ‘Witchcraft in Poland’, p. 3.

[61] J. M. Garrett, ‘Witchcraft and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13/1 (2013), p. 36.

[62] The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Joan Flower, near Beaver Castle, Executed at Lincoln, March 11, 1618, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), p. 258;
A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, 1645, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), p. 274;
A. M., Queen Elizabeths closset of physical secrets, with certain approved medicines taken out of a manuscript found at the dessolution of one of our English abbies and supplied with the child-bearers cabinet, and preservative against the plague and small pox. Collected by the elaborate paines of four famons [sic] physitians, and presented to Queen Elizabeths own hands. (London, 1656), p. 19.

[63] The Examination and Confession of Certain Witches at Chelmsford in the County of Essex before the Queen’s Majesty’s Judges, the XXVI Day of July Anno 1566, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), p. 244;
Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster VVith the arraignement and triall of nineteene notorious witches, at the assizes and general gaole deliuerie, holden at the castle of Lancaster, vpon Munday, the seuenteenth of August last, 1612. (London, 1613), p. C.

[64] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 276.

[65] The Confession of Margaret Johnson, in J. Crossley (ed.), Pott’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, Volume 6 (Manchester, 1845), p. lxxv.

[66] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 276.
The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, p. 259.

[67] G. Warburton, ‘Gender, Supernatural Power, Agency and the Metamorphoses of the Familiar in Early Modern Pamphlet Accounts of English Witchcraft’, Parergon, 20/2 (2003), p. 96.

[68] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 277.

[69] S. Clarke, ‘Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past & Present, 87 (1980), p. 86.

[70] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 274.

[71] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 274.

[72] A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, p. 274.

[73] L. Apps and A. Gow, Male witches in early modern Europe (Manchester, 2003), pp. 128-9.

[74] This particular account bears a sad resemblance to Quirizio da Murano’s bleeding messiah – set against an ideal of natural order, the once-holy image became damning.

[75] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History¸ p. 4, p. 59.

[76] Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, p. lxiii.

[77] Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, ‘The Examination of Allizon Device’, para. 4.

[78] Thomas Potts, The vvonderfull discouerie of witches in the countie of Lancaster, ‘The Examination of Iennet Booth’, para. 1; E. Gradvohl, ‘The Toad and the Uterus: the symbolics of inscribed frogs’, Sylloge epigraphica Barcinonensis, 10 (2012), p. 440.

[79] Including Valenze’s Milk: A Local and Global History, there are five, although one – R. Schmid’s book – is an historically dubious argument for the consumption of raw milk.
M. Kurlansky, Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018); A. Mendelson, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (New York, 2008); R. Schmid, The Untold Story of Milk – Revised and Updated (Washington DC, 2009); H. Velten, Milk: A Global History (London, 2010).

[80] Valenze, Milk: A Local and Global History, p. 5.

[81] P. Atkins, Liquid Materialities: a history of milk, science, and the law (Farnham, 2010); K. Smith-Howard, Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford, 2014).

 

Bibliography

Primary Sources

Abbot, George, The reasons which Doctour Hill hath brought, for the upholding of papistry, which is falselie termed the Catholike religion: unmasked and shewed to be very weake, and upon examination most insufficient for that purpose (Oxford, 1604).

Adams, Thomas, The Happiness of the Church; or a description of those Spiritual Prerogatives wherewith Christ hath endowed her considered in contemplations upon part of the twelfth chapter to the Hebrews; being the sum of divers sermons preached in St. Gregorie’s, London, by Thomas Adams, preacher there. (London, 1619).

Batt, Barthélemy, The Christian man’s closet Wherein is conteined a large discourse of the godly training up of children: as also of those duties that children owe unto their parents, made dialogue wise, very pleasant to reade, and most profitable to practise, collected in Latin by Bartholomew Batty of Alostensis, And now Englished by William Lowth, (London, 1591).

Bernard of Clairvaux, Commentary on ‘The Song of Songs’, ed. D. Wright (2008), Sermon 9.

Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermons of St. Bernard on Advent and Christmas, ed. J. C. Hedley (Chicago 1909), Sermon 39.

Cleaver, Robert, A godlie forme of householde gouernment for the ordering of priuate families, according to the direction of Gods word. Whereunto is adioyned in a more particular manner, the seuerall duties of the husband towards his wife: and the wifes dutie towards her husband. The parents dutie towards their children: and the childrens towards their parents. The masters dutie towards his seruants: and also the seruants dutie towards their masters. Gathered by R.C (London, 1598)
Clinton, Elizabeth, The Countesse of Lincolnes nurserie (Oxford, 1622).

Guillemeau, Jacques, Child-birth or, The happy deliuerie of vvomen (London, 1612).

M., A., Queen Elizabeths closset of physical secrets, with certain approved medicines taken out of a manuscript found at the dessolution of one of our English abbies and supplied with the child-bearers cabinet, and preservative against the plague and small pox. Collected by the elaborate paines of four famons [sic] physitians, and presented to Queen Elizabeths own hands. (London, 1656).

Potts, Thomas, The wonderfull discoverie of witches in the countie of Lancaster With the arraignement and triall of nineteene notorious witches, at the assizes and general gaole deliuerie, holden at the castle of Lancaster, upon Munday, the seventeenth of August last, 1612. (London, 1613).

Vincent, Thomas and Anselm Crowther, Arthur, Jesus, Maria, Joseph (Amsterdam, 1657), p. 31.

The Confession of Margaret Johnson, in J. Crossley (ed.), Pott’s Discovery of Witches in the County of Lancaster, Volume 6 (Manchester, 1845).

A True Relation of eighteene Witches that were arraigned, tried, and convicted at a Sessions holden at St. Edmunds-bury in Suffolk, 1645, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), pp. 273-278.

The Examination and Confession of Certain Witches at Chelmsford in the County of Essex before the Queen’s Majesty’s Judges, the XXVI Day of July Anno 1566, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), pp. 243-250.

The Wonderful Discouerie of the Witchcrafts of Margaret and Phillip Flower, daughters of Joan Flower, near Beaver Castle, Executed at Lincoln, March 11, 1618, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Oxford, 2015), pp. 254-261.

 

Secondary Sources

Albala, K., ‘Milk: Nutritious and Dangerous’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy – Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), pp. 19-31.

Apps, L., and Gow, A., Male witches in early modern Europe (Manchester, 2003).

Åström, B., ‘‘Sucking the Corrupte Mylke of an Infected Nurse’: regulating the dangerous maternal body’, Journal of Gender Studies, 24/5 (2005), pp. 574-586.

Atkins, P., Liquid Materialities: a history of milk, science, and the law (Farnham, 2010).

Bynum, W., Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (London, 1987).

Clarke, S. ‘Inversion, Misrule and the Meaning of Witchcraft’, Past & Present, 87 (1980), pp. 98-127.

Crawford, P., ‘‘The sucking child’: Adult attitudes to child care in the first year of life in seventeenth-century England’, Continuity and Change, 1/1 (1986), pp. 23-51.

Fildes, V., Breasts, Bottles and Babies (Edinburgh, 1986).

Fildes, V., ‘The age of weaning in Britain 1500-1800’, Journal of Biosocial Science, 14/2 (1982), pp. 223-240.

Fissell, M., ‘The Politics of Reproduction in the English Reformation’, Representations, 87 (2004), pp. 43-81.

Garrett, J. M., ‘Witchcraft and Sexual Knowledge in Early Modern England’, Journal for Early Modern Cultural Studies, 13/1 (2013), pp. 32-72.

Gaskill, M., ‘Witches and Witnesses in Old and New England’, in S. Clark (ed.), Languages of Witchcraft: Narrative, Ideology and Meaning in Early Modern Culture (London, 2001), pp. 55-81.

Gradvohl, E., ‘The Toad and the Uterus: the symbolics of inscribed frogs’, Sylloge epigraphica Barcinonensis, 10 (2012), pp. 439-447.

Kaufman, P., ‘Fasting in England in the 1560s: “A Thinge of Nought”?’, Archiv für Reformationsgeschichte Ergänzungsband, 32 (2003), pp. 176-193.

Kissane, C., Food, Religion and Communities in Early Modern Europe (London, 2018).

Kurlansky, M., Milk!: A 10,000 Year Food Fracas (New York, 2018).

Levack, B., ‘Witchcraft Trials in England, Scotland, and New England’, in B. Levack (ed.), The Witchcraft Sourcebook (2nd ed.) (Abingdon, 2015), pp. 241-243.

Madlon-Kay, D. J., ‘Witch’s Milk: Galactorrhea in the Newborn’, American Journal of Diseases of Children, 140/3 (1986), pp. 252-253.

Mendelson, A., Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (New York, 2008).

Potts, M., and Short, R., Ever Since Adam and Eve: The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Cambridge, 1999).

Prühlen, S. ‘What was Best for an Infant from the Middle Ages to Early Modern Times in Europe? The Discussion Concerning Wet Nurses’, Hygiea Internationalis: an Interdisciplinary Journal for the History of Public Health, 6/2 (2007), pp. 195-210.

Schmid, R., The Untold Story of Milk – Revised and Updated (Washington DC, 2009).

Schroeder, J. A., Deborah’s Daughters: Gender Politics and Biblical Interpretation (Oxford, 2014).

Smith-Howard, K., Pure and Modern Milk: An Environmental History Since 1900 (Oxford, 2014).

Valenze, D., Milk: A Local and Global History (New Haven, 2011).

Velten, H., Milk: A Global History (London, 2010).

Von Greyerz, K., Religion and Culture in Early Modern Europe, 1500-1800 (Oxford, 2008).

Wall, W., Recipes for Thought: Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern Kitchen (Philadelphia, 2016).

Walsham, A., ‘The Reformation and ‘the Disenchantment of the World’ Reassessed’, The Historical Journal, 51/2 (2008), pp. 497-528.

Walsham, A. ‘Miracles and the Counter-Reformation Mission to England’, The Historical Journal, 46/4 (2003), pp. 779-815.

Warburton, G., ‘Gender, Supernatural Power, Agency and the Metamorphoses of the Familiar in Early Modern Pamphlet Accounts of English Witchcraft’, Parergon, 20/2 (2003), pp. 95-118.

Yeldham, C., ‘Use of Almonds in Late-medieval English Cookery’, in H. Walker (ed.), Milk: Beyond the Dairy, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery 1999 (London, 2000), pp. 352-361.

The Brave New World of Investment

Link to PDF

Featured image courtesy of Aviva Archives

Author Biography

Joshua Thorpe graduates this year from the University of Leicester with a History BA. He will now complete an MSc at the London School of Economics, exploring empires, colonialism and globalisation.

Abstract

The 1890s saw the yields on the Norwich Union’s traditional domestic investments begin to decline, forcing the firm’s capital abroad, in pursuit of the security and high yields required. The purpose of this paper is to consider how the firm’s perception of risk was shaped during this period. The study considers two factors: the information available to the firm and the influence of colonial status on investment decisions. By the end of the period, the firm was embedded in an expansive network of overseas branches. The senior officials within these branches were increasingly providing the directors in the head office with investment-related information. This study breaks new ground as it focuses on an aspect of the firm not covered previously in published work.

The Brave New World of Investment

Introduction

In December 1904, the life clerks at the Norwich Union crossed Surrey Street to their new head office. The interior of the building was fitted with a large quantity of marble that had been mined from Italian quarries and was initially intended for Westminster Cathedral.[1] The level of opulence was not abnormal for the life assurance industry. In the most basic terms, companies within this industry invested their accumulated funds at interest while they waited for their clients to die. By gaining a healthy rate of interest the companies could indulge in lavish offices. Indeed, the District Inspector for the Norwich, after a stroll in London, remarked that in terms of ‘imposing and magnificent establishments, insurance ranks an easy first’.[2] However, the new head office was a marked change for the firm which just a decade earlier had been managing a fund of £1,872,270, which had been decreasing year-on-year.

The manner in which the firm invested its capital had significantly changed during the preceding decade providing an unmatched opportunity to understand what influenced investment decisions within the life assurance industry. The close of the century saw opportunities for domestic investments diminish substantially; the network of British railway lines was all but complete and other infrastructure and industrial development in Britain was more advanced than elsewhere in the world.[3] The yields on other domestic investments such as land and mortgages, which had been so favoured by the firm, had also declined having been saturated by foreign capital, especially from the US.[4] Falling rates of interest in Britain forced the directors to look further afield to gain the security and returns which they required. Indeed, as early as 1891, it was openly acknowledged within the assurance industry that part of the proverbial ‘mine has [sic] been worked out’.[5] Thus, with the difficulty of finding suitable investments in Britain increasing, almost half of all British life assurance companies extended their limits of investment between 1880 and 1896, allowing them to invest in the relatively higher-yielding colonial and foreign securities.[6]

This raises the question: what influenced the Norwich’s perception of risk? Two factors are fundamental in exploring the investments of the firm as their capital flowed overseas. The first barrier is informational and the second can be grouped as ethnic, cultural, and linguistic. The development of information technology during this period was dismantling the first barrier to investment. The British Empire provided a field in which the perceived differences in ethnicity and culture were minimised, consequently stimulating a more substantial flow of information.

The research in this paper will explore how the firm perceived risk as it ventured into investments abroad. The first section will focus on the increasing flow of information during the period under analysis, how it allowed the firm to engage in investments unavailable to other investors, and the effect that this had on the flow of capital. The second section will focus on empirical data relating to the investments, how the perception of safe investments within the empire provided an opportunity for more broad investments. It will also explore how professionalisation and the view of investments as a portfolio as opposed to an individual basis allowed the firm to adopt diversification.

The importance of this research is its contribution to an ongoing historical debate over whether insurance companies conducted their investments in a manner which did not best benefit the British productive sector. The central allegation is that British financial institutions invested an undue portion of their funds abroad, forsaking the domestic business sector. Insurance companies had ever-increasing importance as institutional investors and as such the development of insurance companies’ investment policies is significant within a broad set of issues concerning British economic development. Furthermore, this research will be able to provide details regarding the evolution of institutional investors’ investment policies and address the importance of information and empire to their decisions and perceptions of risk. The narrow focus of this research will add to the limited existing literature focusing on the Norwich and more broadly the assurance industry, therefore enabling a richer understanding of the influences on investment decisions.

The archives of the Norwich Union, although filled with sources, have been relatively neglected by scholars. There are two exceptions, both of which, rather than being historically analytical, had a more commemorative purpose. Robert Blake’s Esto Perpetua provides an account of the firm’s management hierarchy and explores how mortality rates were calculated.[7] Although these details are important, Blake does not focus on how the firm chose investments or what influenced its decisions. Jonathan Mantle’s Norwich Union: The First 200 Years, on the other hand, provides a narrative of the directors appointed at the firm. It is an illustrative book with numerous photographs and details of the changes introduced by each director, for example, holidays, new business, and bonuses.[8] Taken together, these contributions provide useful background information about the Norwich, from its daily running to the appointment of directors. However, absent from these contributions is a rigorous analysis of the firm’s investments.

The assurance industry more generally has also suffered relative scholarly neglect. This neglect does not arise from the lack of primary source material as Cockrell and Green have produced an extensive guide to the archives of British insurance companies, listing the types of sources available.[9] Published material on the companies generally focuses on how mortality rates were calculated and the management practices.[10] In 2003, Mae Baker and Michael Collins emphasised the need for widespread archival research to further our understanding of the insurance industry.[11]

Information: Cables, Connections, and Capital

By the close of the nineteenth century, there was a global network of cables that connected all of the world’s major financial centres. These reduced the past delays in communication from days, weeks, or months to just minutes. The London Stock Exchange (LSE), where brokers bought and sold securities on the Norwich’s behalf, was the pre-eminent financial centre in the world. Indeed, governments, municipalities, and private enterprises across the globe turned to London for capital. The result was that by the eve of the First World War (WWI) 5000 securities were listed on the LSE, the vast majority of which were for overseas locations, either colonies or foreign states.[12] During the period under review, the firm steadily increased its holdings of securities, particularly foreign bonds. This trend mirrored that of the insurance industry as a whole, with holdings of this type of asset increasing from 7 percent in 1870 to over 40 percent by 1914.[13]

With each company possessing a unique set of connections and indeed, each financial centre being part of a particular network, the information available to different firms and locations was intrinsically unique. The access to information fundamentally influenced the Norwich’s perception of risk and thus the geographical locations in which it invested. The inequality of information, or informational asymmetries, meant that each company possessed a different assessment and management of risk. This section will track the transformation of the flow of information accessible to the Norwich, assessing the extent to which this influenced its investment decisions.

Although a number of  contemporaries such as Keynes recognised that there was an inclination among many companies to invest in countries with colonial status, the cause of this tendency is debated.[14] Magee and Thompson deny that imperial patriotism determined the destination of capital, remarking that British capital was not influenced by ‘imperial piety’; instead, at the heart of their concept is the notion that investors were rational and entirely self-interested.[15] They argue that capital was directed to these particular regions as a result of the information which flowed through networks across the ‘British world’. Similarly, deep interpersonal connections existed with Americans, which helped to promote the dissemination of knowledge and a feeling of trust.[16] In this sense, knowledge of the location, which was naturally increased by the empire, reduced the perception of risk. In other words, the British investor was better informed about developments within imperial territories and thus more likely to view investments within these regions as relatively low risk.

The information available to the Norwich as it initially ventured into the stock market came primarily from brokers. The finance committee received lists of securities from multiple brokers, frequently as many as five, arranged by the amount of interest that they yielded. Many of the brokerage companies would be used throughout the period by the Norwich, including Messrs Buchanan & Fergusson, Basil Montgomery, and Gurney. The investments needed to provide an interest rate of more than 3 percent to allow the Norwich to generate sufficient capital to pay upon the death of a customer, but the capital also needed to be secure. The lists of securities were first received in 1891 following the extension of the rules of investment, which allowed the firm to broaden its holdings from domestic to overseas.[17] A method used to decrease the risk of investing abroad was to limit the amount of capital invested in any one security to no more than £10,000. This amount would steadily increase during the period and eventually double, demonstrating increased investing confidence.

At the finance committee meetings, the firm’s senior officials would decide which stocks would be selected as well as the amount of capital to be invested in each of these securities. If required, further information from the City of London was requested and obtained via telegraph, and after 1896 using the trunk telephone line. The information received from the City became part of the director’s input to the board of directors, which had the final say on all investments, and the finance committee.[18] The firm developed more confidence with its investing during this period and, as demonstrated later in this section, gathered information from its growing network of overseas branches, especially those within the ‘British World’.

The Institute of Actuaries occupied an essential role throughout the period by distributing information about investment practices via their journal. The Institute was also a place in which the leading figures of the insurance industry debated the best manner in which to calculate mortality rates, bonuses, and investment practices. A director of the Norwich, J. J. W. Deuchar, had been elected as a fellow of the Institute in 1883.[19] Damning testimonies about countries, and in some cases whole continents, provide an insight into the attitudes of individuals in the industry. For instance, A. G. Mackenzie, manager and actuary at the Credit Assurance and Guarantee Corporation, provided an assessment imbued with the language of a medical examiner of the situation of central and south American countries: their ‘family history is unsatisfactory, their constitutions uncertain’ he stated, ‘and their assurances are not to be accepted’.[20] From this, it is understood that uncertainty about this region was not only based on its history of civil unrest and revolutions, but also the fact that the region’s legal systems were considered insufficient to protect the firm’s capital. In addition, their guarantees were met with uncertainty as a result of past defaults. Following the Baring Crisis, a reassessment of the region was occurring en masse.[21] This assessment reveals a number of salient points: firstly, that those within the insurance industry could generalise countries, secondly, that the history of the country could influence them, and finally, that political events were particularly important in shaping investment decisions.

Information in terms of both quantity and quality was of crucial importance in the decision-making process. The nineteenth-century investor still lacked important information required to discriminate between rival investments.[22] Reports of political crises were a decisive factor in investment attitudes. On 26 November 1910, The Economist announced alarming dispatches about Mexico. The paper depicted it as ‘plunged into civil war’, referring to the political turmoil that engulfed the country which had been reported during the previous year.[23] A civil war was inevitably bad for investment, and as a result the Norwich was highly dismissive of Mexican stocks during and after this period, consistently rejecting various securities offering relatively high rates of interest.[24] In this sense the reputation of countries was not a fixed value; instead, investments within certain countries could become perceived as presenting more risk due to political events.[25]

Articles in the journal provide further insight into how an image of reputation about a country was formed. Speaking at the institute in 1912, G. E. May suggested that in situations where an office is not large enough to send out a senior official, external experts on the spot must be used in order to form an opinion on the safety of the investment.[26] Hayek has shown that due to the highly decentralised nature of information, practically every individual has some advantage over all others because they possess unique information due to their location.[27] Therefore, the ability to utilise so-called ‘men on the spot’ provided a distinct advantage with regard to the level of information to which a firm can have access.

These individuals were often expatriates residing in a particular locale. However, in some cases, particularly within the ‘British World’, a native English-speaking population with comparable cultural values offered up native partners who had intimate knowledge of their immediate surroundings. The method of using external on the spot experts was adopted by the Norwich due to its overseas contacts, for instance, A. S. Preston, a British expatriate based in Alexandria, who offered advice about taking up investments in Egypt.[28] The knowledge that these experts could provide would stimulate investment in these regions. However, G. E. May was also quick to insist that these opinions were only to be used for the purpose of confirmation.[29] The concern was that these external advisors could direct firms towards investments in which they were themselves involved; consequently, the safest method of obtaining information was through an internal expert.

The Norwich was also in an excellent position to be able to send out senior representatives to inspect investments on the spot; this became likely when the firm was offered significant stakes in the underwriting of building works. Only a certain level of information and thus a particular ability to calculate risk was available to the officials in Norwich, and therefore staff members were sometimes dispatched to gain further information on the spot. The dispatching of senior officials to investigate potential investments was a marked feature of the pre-1900 period when the Norwich had less than twenty overseas branches and agencies; as such, no global representatives were available for the firm to investigate investments overseas. For instance, when offered an opportunity to invest in mortgages of high-class properties in Minnesota, the firm sent out a delegation to examine the business. The investment was organised by the Minnesota Loan and Trust company, whose President, A. Merrill, had been interviewed in relation to the scheme. The risk of the investment would be mitigated by taking equal stakes with the Law Union and Hand in Hand companies.[30]

By 1906, the Norwich’s involvement in Canada, another part of the ‘British World’, was becoming more pronounced. The country had been transformed during the late nineteenth century from a relatively small and dispersed population into an industrialised nation. In the 1890s the rate of settlement in the west of Canada had significantly increased as technological changes had allowed wheat to be grown at more northern latitudes.[31] The period 1901-1911 was to become known as the ‘Wheat Boom’, during which per capita income increased by 20 percent.[32] The industrialisation and thus urbanisation of Europe provided a large market, and the decreasing transport costs from the wheat fields on the Canadian Pacific made produce more competitive. Consequently, farming on the prairies became more profitable.[33] The growing affluent population located in the new urban centres required utilities and to accommodate these requirements municipal and provincial governments borrowed capital to pay for waterworks and electricity grids. The opportunities for investors had thus significantly increased during this period.

Having operated its branch in Toronto since 1899, the Norwich was in a favourable position to be able to take advantage of these opportunities. In 1906, the firm directed a native Canadian senior official within the branch, W. Kirby, to take on the role of granting loans to farms. Kirby granted a significant number of loans throughout the period with relatively high interest rates of up to 8 percent.[34] The firm was willing to offer loans from $1,000 to $5,000, and by limiting the amount of capital it could ensure that the risks involved were kept relatively low.[35] Kirby was given the authority to accept loans of up to $2,500; for loans above this amount he would have to seek approval from the board in Norwich. He was paid a commission of 1 percent.[36] His role was crucial as he had access to much more information than the directors who were thousands of miles away in the boardroom. The native senior officials that the firm utilised for investments had a greater familiarity with and knowledge of the developments taking place within the country in question. The Norwich’s network of branches allowed it to participate in opportunities that would be unattainable for other British investors.

By this point the stock exchange in Toronto had risen to become one of the world’s principal exchanges, offering an assortment of domestic securities such as utilities and tramways. The popularity of Canadian municipal investments was likely influenced by a belief that the imperial government would not allow a public entity within a colony to default.[37] Canadian investors would inevitably have been in a better position to participate in investments compared to outsiders, due to their familiarity and knowledge regarding the developments taking place within the country.[38] By 1911, the Norwich held almost £100,000 worth of stock that had been purchased on the Toronto stock exchange.[39] The significant level of investment was made possible by the director of the Canadian branch at Toronto, J. B. Laidlaw. The firm began to purchase relatively significant amounts of Canadian bonds in February 1910, which were initially purchased on the LSE with advice via cable from Laidlaw.[40] Despite requesting a larger commission for his role relative to his counterpart in the US, Laidlaw received the same commission of 1/8 percent; his investing powers were kept to $10,000 per security, but he was given autonomy to select the investments.[41] This allowed the Norwich to gain safe stocks yielding relatively high interest of 4 and in some cases 5 percent.

By the eve of WWI, the Norwich was embedded in a network of men on the spot. These men actively advised the directors and in some cases purchased stocks on behalf of the firm. The information available to the firm during the period fundamentally altered and helped to shape the firm’s investments as well as its perception of risk. Information could flow quickly and with relative ease throughout the British world via sophisticated communications technology. The Norwich was significantly better informed about developments occurring in regions in which it had branches, but this was not the only important factor; while having men on the spot was vital to the Norwich’s ability to discriminate between investments, it is clear that the additional insight provided by native individuals was essential. The collaboration with native employees and men on the spot was only possible with the same language. English as the Lingua Franca allowed the firm to engage in extensive investments in Canada and South Africa, the nature of which would be impossible in countries where English was not the native language. The following section will explore to what extent the British Empire influenced the investment locations. It will seek to answer the following questions: What were the imagined benefits of investing within the colonies? What were the actual benefits? Was the ‘empire effect’ an enduring influence or did the outlook of the Norwich change during the period?

‘Empire Effect’: Enduring Influence or Passing Phase?

The British Empire, assembled over more than three hundred years, encompassed no less than one-quarter of today’s sovereign states.[42] By the close of the nineteenth century, it remained the largest of the European empires. The colonies within the empire absorbed a vast amount of British capital, with as many as 71.4 percent of all railway securities listed on the LSE for construction of lines in these regions.[43] There was, however, much more to the empire than the red-painted areas that appeared on the map, as Britain also had a so-called ‘informal empire’ with influence in Latin America, Asia, and Africa. [44] With such an extensive world-system as the background to the period under review, the extent to which the empire influenced the Norwich’s investment decisions is an issue which requires further exploration.

Empirical research by Ferguson and Schularick suggests that borrowing costs for the colonies were lower in London than for those countries outside of the empire.[45] This has led to them coining the phrase ‘empire effect’ to explain why British investors preferred investing within the empire. According to Ferguson, control from the metropole encouraged the investors to view these investments as more secure. Investments of this type were likely to be considered akin to domestic investments rather than foreign ones. However, some historians have questioned this conclusion, for example, Chavez and Flandreau argue that a so-called ‘empire effect’ is easily misidentified. If factors such as the colonies having a younger population were not controlled for in the data, then what would be called an empire effect may have had little to do with the institutions of empire.[46] Much of the existing material on the export of British capital does not consider imperial patriotism as a significant factor in influencing the location of investment. This section will argue that imperial patriotism influenced the firm in the initial phase of internationalisation, providing a channel for investment with similar cultural and ethnic elements to the domestic sphere. It will also argue that this influence lasted for just under a decade as the assurance industry in general gradually shifted towards professionalisation, calculated risks and diversification.

As early as 1885, the potential of the colonies as locations for investment was recognised within the assurance industry. Thomas Bond Sprague, in his opening address to the Institute of Actuaries, foresaw an extensive period when the vast ‘unoccupied’ land in the colonies would require a significant amount of British capital for infrastructure and utilities to make it profitable.[47] These areas were prosperous regions with growing populations under the same crown and with the same laws as in Britain; capital could thus be invested there without the ‘feeling of doubt that must always attach to investments in foreign countries’.[48] The vast European empires did make it possible for capital to flow abroad as easily as domestically because the same currency and laws often prevailed.

A crucial element within Ferguson’s argument is the belief that the British government would intervene to protect against default in the colonies. Ferguson argues that close supervision from Whitehall converted investments in distant lands from ‘foreign’ into safer investments in the eyes of the investors. The British governors did, at times, try to intervene to protect the interests of British capitalists in the empire.[49] However, as Andrew Dilley has shown, while the areas within the empire were subject to some theoretical controls, the powers were rarely used in practice, and then only for diplomatic or ‘imperial’ interests.[50] It is problematic to attribute the empire effect to British control over the colonies, which were largely autonomous after the grant of Responsible Government. Indeed, in 1901 The Economist remarked that ‘for internal affairs’ the colonies were ‘almost independent republics.’[51] The British government had very little control over the capital invested in the colonies and investors were aware of this fact. Therefore, it cannot easily be argued that the firm was influenced by an impression that the British government would intervene to protect its capital.

Another possible explanation for the preference relates to the British government because its policies provided a tangible benefit for investing within the empire. Its policies may have encouraged the Norwich to favour investments in the colonies. The Colonial Stock Act of 1877 allowed colonies to issue inscribed stock, which was a type of security listed on a register; this would protect against loss, destruction, or theft.[52] This ensured a much more secure form of investment than had previously been available in the form of the ‘bonds to bearer.’[53] The colonies wanted their obligations treated at a level comparable to the British Consolidated Stock (consols). The subsequent 1900 Act allowed trustees who were not explicitly empowered by their deeds to invest in stocks of this kind, to invest in inscribed stock. As demonstrated by Bernard Attard, the confidence of the investor would be further increased by the Bank of England, the registrar of British national debt, and London and Westminster acting as the registrars of the inscribed stocks.[54]

Some borrowers clearly hoped to improve the marketability of their debt by associating themselves with the Bank of England.[55] The Canadian finance minister W. S. Fielding, for instance, thought that admission of Canadian stocks to the trustee list would be a ‘great advantage to Canada’ as it would enhance ‘the value of, its securities’.[56] The Act involved the colonial governments accepting that they could be superseded in legal terms by the imperial government if any legal provisions were altered in a manner that would be injurious to British stockholders.[57] Although the 1900 Act did open up more fields of capital for the self-governing colonies to utilise, the resulting flow of investment depressed the relevant interest rates even lower.[58] The Norwich held a significant amount of inscribed stock during the Victorian period but shifted away from this approach after 1900.

As Table 1 shows, overseas investments constituted a significant proportion of the firm’s portfolio towards the end of the period. The general trends are: a decline in domestic investments due to declining yields; rising investments in the colonies during this period due to the perceived security and higher yields; and increased foreign investments to a level on par with the colonies in 1905 and notably higher in the years subsequent. The firm responded to the declining returns for colonial government securities, which by the early 1890s were offering 3.5 percent or less.[59] The firm’s holdings of colonial government securities in 1891 was 12.1 percent, decreasing to 4.4 percent by 1901, while the Norwich increased its holding of municipal securities which it did not hold at all in 1891 to 19.7 percent by 1901.[60] The firm seems to have mitigated the decreased rate by taking on more municipal holdings in imperial territories.

 

Table 1: Norwich Union Investment Distribution by Type, 1891-1916, percent[61]

1891 1896 1901 1905 1911 1916
Domestic 66.9 21 1.4 1.5 1.6 21.1
Colonial 12.1 21.2 24.1 14 11.2 14.2
Foreign 5.2 11.6 15.6 14 30.4 21.6
Railway 15.8 42.6 38 24.9 56.7 43.2
Waterworks 0 3.5 20.8 45.6 0 0

 

The table also demonstrates that a sizeable amount of the firm’s capital was invested in railways. Railways were being built throughout the colonies as well as in the US, Latin America, and elsewhere. Indeed, together North and South America absorbed 80 percent of British overseas railway capital.[62] The US, for instance, was exploiting its interior and as a result expanding its domestic and foreign markets; furthermore, it was experiencing years of large-scale net immigration. While investments in infrastructural developments in the colonies may appear not to make sense, more understanding can be gained when the erroneous contemporary belief that the population of Great Britain would equal that of the US by the mid-twentieth century is taken into account.[63] The flow of capital allowed for the development of the colonies, which would be able to support the predicted overflow of Britain’s population.

The degrees of perceived foreignness and cultural distance may help to explain the firm’s initial preference for investments in the colonies after it reduced its holdings of domestic securities. In the 1970s, academics at the University of Uppsala proposed that the internationalisation of companies’ investments progressed in stages. The first countries which companies invested in outside of their own were countries which were the most similar to its own as they are perceived to offer more safety, companies then moved onto other more exotic markets. Uppsala theorists identified ‘psychic distance’ as a critical factor influencing investment locations.[64] Importantly, this concept may not correspond to an actual measurable difference in values, culture or institutions. Instead, it is the perception of the economic actor or actors and thus may have led to exaggerating or underestimating the degree of cultural distance involved. The investments of the Norwich flowed initially to the colonies which presented low psychic distance before it progressed towards higher-yielding foreign investments.

The psychic distance may have been lower for countries within the empire for a range of factors. The money invested in the colonies, whether a de jure British colony such as India or a colony all but in name like Egypt, was arguably more secure than capital invested in sovereign states. The gold standard was insufficient to decrease the psychic distance; members of the gold standard could suspend gold convertibility and could also default on their debts. To varying degrees and at different times, Argentina, Mexico, and Japan all did precisely that.[65]

The colonies did indeed offer promising fields of investment with the need for utilities and infrastructure to support their growing populations. To a large extent, the increase in the flow of British capital to the white settler colonies was related to their inherent development potential; these societies had few sources of capital of their own, meaning that they turned to Britain for investment. There were also racial notions that informed the trust in settler colonies. Indeed, in 1901 The Times informed its readers that the colonists had inherited the best traditions from Britain and they may be trusted to work out their own destiny in a ‘manly spirit’ and with the ‘practical sagacity that marks the British race’.[66] The authors of investment prospectuses often played on this sense of imperial solidarity and notions of race when trying to encourage investment.[67] The notion of shared identity minimised the perceived distance towards the colonies.

Towards the close of the nineteenth century, the assurance industry became much more professionalised. During the examination to become a fellow at the Institute of Actuaries, the applicant had to expound their views on the merits and demerits of a list of investments including colonial municipal securities, railway ordinary stock, and freehold ground rents.[68] The trend continued into the Edwardian period with the applicants being asked about British and American railway stocks and which country they would advise investment in at the present time and the reason for this.[69] Given this level of professionalisation, the notion of a significant patriotic bias becomes somewhat untenable.

Figure 1: Geographic Distribution of the Norwich Union’s Investments, 1911, percent[70]

 

 

 

 

 

In the Edwardian period the investment decisions of the directors within the life assurance industry, in general, were being imbued with actuarial thinking; with investments increasingly being viewed together rather than individually. As Graph 1 suggests, by 1900 the new watchword for most directors was ‘diversification’.[71] This was a marked change from the preceding period. G. E. May, addressing the Institute of Actuaries, acknowledged that ‘the last fourteen years had completely changed actuaries’ views concerning the investment of funds’.[72] He recognised that the investments of British assurance companies were diverse in their geographical distribution, a trend which he commended, and insisted that they should ensure that they did not overload ‘any particular country’.[73] Furthermore, he stated:

Since all of our assurance business is based on the law of averages, one would naturally have thought that this principle would have been given full weight when considering the question of the investment of funds. I am afraid, however, that in the past very little attention was paid to this point; the ruling consideration appears to have been to endeavour to satisfy oneself as to the safety of the capital in each investment considered by itself.[74]

This indicates that investments were viewed on an individual basis, suggesting that from the early twentieth century there was a gradual shift away from this tactic and towards viewing the spread of investments as mitigating risk. The old approach would have kept the Norwich out of risky markets and in the colonies where investment was considered to be safer. The foreign market offered relatively higher yields, but was inherently riskier. Thus, the Norwich and many other life assurance companies had to use strategies to try to mitigate the risk.[75] The main strategy that the Norwich used was to diversify its portfolio; by investing different amounts in disparate locations, it could be sure that should one default on payments, it would have little bearing on the firm’s investments as a whole. The method was reliant on the low correlation between different states, markets, and types of security and was a reaction to declining domestic yields, rather than a long-term plan.

As Graph 1 shows, by 1911 the Norwich’s capital had reached every continent of the globe. Argentina consumed a significant proportion of the Norwich’s capital (4.6 percent). Argentina was a distant country, without colonial status and without a shared language. However, as Philip Newman acknowledged while addressing the Institute of Actuaries in 1908, when attempting to categorise the investments into home, colonial, and foreign, Argentina should be substituted from the ‘foreign railways’ column as they are ‘largely financed from Great Britain’.[76] Indeed, the Anglo-Argentine relationship was tightly bound.

Developments in transportation in the nineteenth century had seen the fertile Argentine wilderness transformed into profitable agricultural areas.[77] It was British capital that helped to fund the expansive railway network in Argentina, and it was British-owned railways that contributed to the prosperity of the country.[78] This would have reduced the perceived risk as the people engaged in the building and running of the Argentinian system were British. It would have side-stepped the issue of cultural or perceived differences between the countries. Furthermore, British-owned companies ran these railway lines in Argentina. Even the features of the train lines were distinctly English, with stations designed to look like English cottages and signals to stop and go all written in English. Visitors to Argentina could therefore be forgiven for thinking that they had arrived at a British colony.[79] British-owned companies also augmented the level of investment in different regions. The British-owned China Clay Corporation, for instance, would have allowed the firm to invest £60,000 in debentures.[80] The debentures were offered to the firm through C. E. Cottier.[81] This was important because it was not dealing with natives directly; its investment was with fellow Britons.

During the Edwardian period, the Norwich held a far more comprehensive range of securities compared to the preceding decades. Rather than the traditional outlets of colonial securities, the directors had turned to those offering higher yields and mitigated the risk by scattering their capital far and wide. The period was marked by a gradual shift, first from domestic to colonial investments as yields on traditional investments declined, and then towards foreign investments as companies adopted diversification. The empire was a crucial first step into a world of opportunities. The cultural and perceived distance was small enough to mitigate the risk while the returns offered were better than those in domestic investments. However, the Norwich may be an anomaly with much broader research needed to discover if its pattern was unique or if it reflected the assurance industry in general. The firm’s pattern was by no means the only route a company could take: the Liverpool, London and Globe, for instance, had a relatively conservative outlook and kept its investments in low-yielding domestic railway securities.[82]

Conclusion

As Hayek suggested in 1945, information was fundamentally decentralised; thus, the Norwich’s network of branches served to ensure the directors were better informed.[83] Each financial centre possessed its own network of information but so too it seems did multinational companies like the Norwich, which had established a network of branches in order to gather information. The flow of information to the Norwich fundamentally changed during the period with new branches opening up in distant places around the world. The firm was able to gather information more quickly and with better quality than other investors in Britain. The rhythm and pace of the Norwich’s internationalisation was guided by the number of branches the firm opened during the period. Each branch was added to an expanding network in which the firm was embedded. These nodes took a more active role in the Edwardian period due to the possibility of entering into opportunities in the West of Canada or on the Transvaal, with the nodes functioning as lenders on the spot or utilising the New York or Toronto stock exchanges. The risk of investing in these opportunities was mitigated by the flow of information gained by the firm through internal employees such as Laidlaw and Kirby in Canada or external collaborators such as Preston in Egypt. The defining feature affecting the efficiency of the network was whether these nodes were natives, which was possible in countries with shared language such as the US, Canada or South Africa.

The internationalisation of the Norwich’s investment funds appears to follow that proposed by the Uppsala theorists, who suggest that internationalisation progressed with companies first investing in countries that they perceived to be similar to their own before progressing to more distant locations. Less tangible effects such as crown loyalty, the willingness of the British government to intervene, and cultural similarities, combined with more concrete benefits of investing in the empire such as inscribed stock, encouraged the firm to perceive these investments as significantly safer. The growing professionalisation of the industry and the high yields on foreign investments forced the firm to adopt a more actuarial outlook, using diversification to access high yields while keeping the risks relatively low. Anglo-Argentine railways and British-owned companies in foreign countries such as China also served to ease the flow of investment to these regions.

This paper has provided new research and brought this together with long-standing debates about the economics of imperialism, drawing links between the ways in which the Norwich received information and how this stimulated investment in the colonies. It has utilised numerous quinquennial reports in order to demonstrate how the firm mirrored the Uppsala internationalisation model, venturing first into countries which were perceived as most similar to the firm’s home nation. Records of over 400 securities have also been employed to demonstrate the geographic distribution reached in 1911, thus providing a clearer understanding of how life assurance companies functioned during this time of significant change and why their capital flowed overseas instead of being invested domestically. The study has also unveiled rich details about how assurance companies weighed up investments during this period of immense change. Finally, this paper has established the ways in which the firm and the industry in general responded to a period of fundamental change in which the yields on traditional domestic investments fell and information technology significantly changed.

[1] P. Rogers, Westminster Cathedral: From Darkness to Light (London, 2003), p. 8.

[2] F. A. McKeand, The Palatial Halls of Insurance (Norwich, 1897), p. 21.

[3] E. Hutson, ‘The Early Managed Fund Industry: Investment Trusts in 19th Century Britain’, International Review of Financial Analysis, 14 (2005), p. 442.

[4] H. Cockburn, ‘Opening Address by the President’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 39 (1905), p. 5.

[5] A. G. Mackenzie, ‘On the Practice and Powers of Assurance Companies in regard to the Investment of their Life Assurance Funds’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 29 (1891), p. 213.

[6] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 1, NU3938, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 28/10/1890; D. Paulin, ‘Life Office Investments Retrospect and Outlook’, Transactions of the Actuarial Society of Edinburgh, 3 (1896), p. 239.

[7] R. Blake, Esto Perpetua: Norwich Union Life Insurance Society, 1808-1958 (London, 1958), p. 62.

[8] J. Mantle, Norwich Union: The First 200 Years (London, 1997), pp. 44-45.

[9] H. A. L. Cockrell and E. Green, The British Insurance Business, 1547-1970 (London, 1976).

[10] G. Clayton, British Insurance (London, 1971); P. J. Franklin and C. Woodhead, The UK Life Assurance Industry (London, 1980); H. E. Raynes, A History of British Insurance (London, 1964); O. Westall, The Historian and the Business of Insurance (Manchester, 1984).

[11] M. Baker and M. Collins, ‘The Asset Portfolio Composition of British Insurance Firms, 1900-1965’, Financial History Review, 10 (2003), p. 138.

[12] J. Rutterford, M. Upton, and D. Kodwani (eds), Financial Strategy: Adding Stakeholder Value (Chichester, 2006), p. 8.

[13] P. Scott, The Property Masters: A History of the British Commercial Property Sector (Oxford, 1996), p. 27.

[14] N. Ferguson and M. Schularick, ‘The Empire Effect: The Determinants of Country Risk in the First Age of Globalisation, 1880-1913’, The Journal of Economic History, 66 (2006), p. 283.

[15] G. B. Magee and A. S. Thompson, Empire and Globalisation: Networks of People, Goods and Capital in the British World, c. 1850-1914 (Cambridge, 2010), p.170.

[16] A. Smith, ‘Patriotism, Self-Interest and the “Empire Effect”: Britishness and British Decisions to Invest in Canada, 1867-1914’, The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 41 (2013), p. 66.

[17] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 1, NU3938, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 18/02/1891; Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 2, NU3939, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 02/09/1896.

[18] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 6, NU3943, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 03/07/1908, No. 11/06/1909, No. 09/07/1909.

[19]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 24, no. 4 (1884), p. i.

[20] Mackenzie, ‘On the Practice and Powers of Assurance Companies’, p. 203.

[21] K. J. Mitchener and M. D. Weidenmier, ‘The Baring Crisis and the Great Latin American Meltdown of the 1890s’, The Journal of Economic History, 68 (2008), p. 476.

[22] N. Ferguson, ‘Political Risk and the International Bond Market between the 1848 Revolution and the Outbreak of the First World War’, The Economic History Review, 59 (2006), p. 78.

[23] The Economist, 14 August 1909, p. 323; 26 November 1910, p. 1072.

[24] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 119, p. 132, p. 218, p. 235.

[25] M. Tomz, Reputation and International Cooperation: Sovereign Debt Across Three Centuries (Princeton, 2007), p. 25.

[26] G. E. May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 46 (1912), p. 140.

[27] F. A. Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, The American Economic Review, 35 (1945), p. 521.

[28] L. Mak, The British in Egypt: Community, Crime and Crises, 1882-1922 (London, 2011), p. 131; Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 6, NU3943, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 01/05/1908, No. 16/10/1908.

[29] May, ‘Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 141.

[30] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 2, NU3939, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 22/09/1897.

[31] R. Pomfret, The Economic Development of Canada (London, 2006), p. 147.

[32] G. W. Bertram, ‘The Relevance of the Wheat Boom in Canadian Economic Growth’, The Canadian Journal of Economics, 6 (1973), p. 545.

[33] A. G. Green, ‘Twentieth-Century Canadian Economic History’, in S. Engerman and R. Gallman (eds), The Cambridge Economic History of the United States (Cambridge, 2000), p. 202.

[34] Board Minute Book, NU1402, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 22/04/1910, No. 17/06/1910; Board Minute Book, NU1403, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 30/09/1910, No. 07/10/1910, No. 25/11/1910, No. 09/12/1910, No. 12/05/1911.

[35] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 5, NU3942, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 25/05/1906.

[36] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 5, NU3942, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 25/05/1906.

[37] A. Smith, British Businessmen and Canadian Confederation (Montreal, 2008), p. 34.

[38] R. C. Michie, ‘The Canadian Securities Market, 1850-1914’, The Business History Review, 62 (1988), p. 48.

[39] Stock Exchange Securities: Valuations, NU4298, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 7.

[40] Financial Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 125.

[41] Financial Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), pp. 128, 139, 164, 166, 202.

[42] J. Darwin, Unfinished Empire: The Global Expansion of Britain (London, 2012), p. 1.

[43] I. Stone, The Global Export of Capital from Great Britain, 1865-1914 (London, 1999), p. 414.

[44] J. Darwin, The Empire Project: The Rise and Fall of the British World-System, 1830-1970 (Cambridge, 2009), p. 1.

[45] N. Ferguson and M. Schularick, ‘The Empire Effect’, p. 297.

[46] M. Chavez and M. Flandreau, ‘High and Dry: The Liquidity and Credit of Colonial and Foreign Government Debt in the London Stock Exchange, 1880-1910’, The Journal of Economic History, 77 (2017), p. 9.

[47] T. B. Sprague, ‘Opening Address by the President’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 25 (1885), p. 82.

[48]Sprague, ‘Opening Address by the President’, p. 82; The Insurance Gazette and Provident Societies Chronicle, 1 July 1886, p. 4078.

[49] M. Umerura and R. Fujioka (eds), The Palgrave Macmillan Comparative Responses to Globalisation: Experiences of British and Japanese Enterprises (London, 2013), p. 84.

[50] A. Dilley, Finance, Politics, and Imperialism: Australia, Canada, and the City of London, c.1896-1914 (Basingstoke, 2012), p. 92.

[51] The Economist, 6 July 1901, p. 1007.

[52] A. Dilley, Finance, Politics and Imperialism, p. 95.

[53] B. Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks? The Bank of England, London & Westminster Bank, and the British Empire before 1914’, in O. Feiertag and M. Margairaz (eds), Les Banques Centrales et L’État-Nation (Paris, 2016), p. 198.

[54] Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks?’, p. 203.

[55] Attard, ‘Imperial Central Banks?’, p. 193.

[56] The Economist, 30 August 1902, pp. 1351-2.

[57] O. Accominotti, M. Flandreau, R. Rezzik, and F. Zumber, ‘Black Man’s Burden, White Man’s Welfare: Control, Devolution and Development in the British Empire, 1880-1914’, European Review of Economic History, 14 (2010), p. 55.

[58] B. Supple, The Royal Exchange Assurance, p. 335.

[59] J. J. W. Deuchar’s Letter Book, NU657, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 171.

[60] Quinquennial Valuation Statements, Vol. 1, NU727, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 3, p. 15.

[61] Quinquennial Valuation Statements Volume 1, NU727, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 1891, 1896; Quinquennial Valuation Statements Volume 2, NU728, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), No. 1901, 1905, 1911, 1916.

[62] Stone, The Global Export of Capital from Great Britain, p. 13.

[63] P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism, 1688-2015 (Oxford, 2016), p. 19.

[64] J. Johanson and J. Vahlne, ‘The Uppsala Internationalisation Process Model Revisited: From Liability of Foreignness to Liability of Outsidership’, Journal of International Business Studies, 40 (2009), p. 1412.

[65] Y. Cassis and É. Bussière (eds), London and Paris as International Financial Centres in the Twentieth Century (Oxford, 2005), p. 73.

[66] The Times, 10 October 1901, p. 7.

[67] Umerura and Fujioka, The Palgrave Macmillan Comparative Responses to Globalisation, p. 74.

[68]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 33 (1897), p. 438.

[69]Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 41 (1907), p. 598.

[70] Valuation of Stock Exchange Securities as on 30 June 1911, NU4298, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA).

[71] J. H. Treble, ‘The Pattern of Investment of the Standard Life Company, 1875-1914’, Business History, 22 (1980), p. 184; T. Alborn, Regulated Lives: Life Insurance and British Society, 1800-1914 (Toronto, 2009), p. 174.

[72] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 166.

[73] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, pp. 159-160.

[74] May, ‘The Investment of Life Assurance Funds’, p. 136.

[75] Y. Cassis, Capitals of Capital: A History of International Finance Centres, 1780-2005 (Cambridge, 2006), p. 96.

[76] P. L. Newman, ‘A Review of the Investments of Offices in Recent Years’, Journal of the Institute of Actuaries, 42 (1908), p. 304.

[77] A. G. Ford, The Gold Standard, 1880-1914: Britain and Argentina (Oxford, 1962), p. 81.

[78] W. R. Wright, British-Owned Railways in Argentina: Their Effect on Economic Nationalism, 1854-1948 (Austin, 1974), p. 5.

[79] D. Rock, The British in Argentina: Commerce, Settlers & Power, 1800-2000 (Cham, 2019), p. 182.

[80] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 63.

[81] Finance Committee Minute Book, No. 7, NU3944, Aviva Archives, Norwich (AA), p. 63.

[82] Investment Ledger, CLC/B/192/MS11677/006, London Metropolitan Archives, London (LMA).

[83] Hayek, ‘The Use of Knowledge in Society’, p. 521.