Before the second quarter of the twentieth century, formula that was safe to feed infants was not cheaply and widely available anywhere. Children who were not breastfed by their mothers could sometimes survive on animal milk or milk substitutes, but human milk was far and away the best food for babies. Medieval people knew, however, that women were less likely to get pregnant while breastfeeding and worried that nursing took a physical toll on a woman’s health and beauty. Wealthy families, therefore, often had wet nurses, women who were hired, or slaves who were purchased, to breastfeed and care for the master and mistress’s infants and toddlers; and who sometimes stayed on as caregivers for older children. Some medieval medical and moral authorities worried about the religious origins, ethnicities, and sexualities of these women. They urged parents to employ wet nurses who were as like the child’s birth mother as possible in appearance and preferred married women who were freeborn, cradle Christians. Parents and authorities were also concerned about continuity of care and neglect of children. Furthermore, it was commonly thought that one woman only had enough breastmilk to feed a single nursling and that her milk was healthier if she did not engage in sexual relations. The highest standard of childcare thus included having a wet nurse/ nanny who lived in the employers’ home, where she could be supervised, and her behavior monitored, for multiple years.

Freeborn wives, however, had families they were eager to return to once they were done serving as wet nurses, while the enslaved were not legally allowed to marry. As domestic slavery became more and more common in the last quarter of the fourteenth century in Barcelona purchasing lactating women became more affordable than hiring freeborn women. Relationships of patronage sometimes developed, when elite women and men intervened to improve the lives of faithful wet nurses, still enslaved wet nurses were also particularly vulnerable to abuse. Their enslaved bodies could be doubly exploited: first, as sexual chattel available to their masters and other men, and then, having been made pregnant, as nursing mothers whose own children could be put away in favor of their charges.

The two documents that follow describe two enslaved wet nurses in Barcelona who are manumitted conditionally. They are entries from the registers [analogous to the files or computer records] of two notaries that worked in Barcelona during the last quarter of the fourteenth century. In countries whose legal systems are based on Roman law, notaries are lawyers that manage civil legal matters. The first document is the last will and testament of a pious mother who lay dying and sought to make provision to extend throughout her childhood for the one- or two-year-old daughter she was leaving behind. The slave who nursed Blanca’s child, was this married woman’s personal property; perhaps Blanca brought Caterina with her into her married life as part of her dowry. The other three wet nurses who Blanca remembered in her will were freeborn women.

During this period Barcelona was declining from its economic primacy in the Catalan speaking realms ceding its place to the city of Valencia. The elites of Barcelona were moving towards using enslaved women as wet nurses over the freeborn servants in the 1375s, but both types of wet nurses worked in their homes. The second document is a manumission contract by an employer who seems to have been trying to motivate his slave to provide good long-term childcare for his family.

Document 1: Last Will and Testament of Blanca de Sarrià

Translated by Rebecca Lynn Winer from the Latin. Last will and testament from Arxiu Històric de Protocols de Barcelona, Spain, Guillem de Santilari, Secundus liber testamentorum [Second Book of Last Wills/ Testaments](8 May 1364–19 August 1383), 20/12, folios 58-62. Partially summarized in the digest Josep Hernando i Delgado, “L’Alimentació làctia dels nadons Durant el segle XIV, les nodrisses o dides a Barcelona, 1295-1400, segons els documents dels protocols notarials,” Estudis històrics i documents dels arxius de protocols 14 (1996): 39-157, entry 106 on page 93. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

2 July 1375

“In the name of the Lord, I Blanca, wife of the Honorable [“cuitadà honrat”] [1] Burguet de Sarrià citizen of Barcelona, aware that those things which have a visible essence tend visibly not to be and that none who are flesh [and blood] can escape bodily death,[2] equally, of sound mind and with my memory fully functioning, although my body is weak, I make and ordain my testament. And I choose the executors of this my testament or last will: my husband [Burguet de Sarrià], the merchant Francesc [Francis] Sa Closa, Lady Constança, widow of the Honorable [“cuitadà honrat”, ] Francesc Sa Bosc, of the royal household, and the merchant Pere [Peter]  Gregos, citizen of Barcelona….”

Blanca gives her executors full power to act in her name: “to distribute and order concerning my goods as they will find written and contained below….”

“…. First I want and I command that all my debts be paid and any injury I have done be restored/resolved from my goods….”

 “…I choose the place of burial for my body in the cemetery of the Friars Minor [Franciscans] of Barcelona….”

Blanca donates dark colored clothing [“de panno livido”] to the poor, presumably to wear in her funeral procession, and wants the enormous sum of 10,000 shillings [solidi] to be spent on various charitable causes for her soul’s salvation. She lists all these causes, which are a mix of bequests to individuals and donations to ecclesiastical and charitable institutions, as is common in medieval testaments. The extent of Blanca’s generosity, however, is notable, she seems to have wanted to donate to every worthy cause.

The religious houses Blanca chose to support reflect where she lived. They include donations to the cathedral of Barcelona, the church of Santa Maria de Pi in Barcelona, which was her parish, each church in Barcelona, money for the poor people staying in “hospitals of the poor and the house of the sick” [“hospitalium pauperum et domui infirmorum”] in the town. She remembered the houses of the Franciscan, Dominican, Carmelite, and Augustinian friars (with a larger gift to the Franciscan house, her burial place), the monastery of Montserrat and the hermits connected with it. She also left funds for the redemption of Christian captives enslaved in Muslim lands; she donated forty shillings [solidi] to this last cause. Blanca makes contributions of wax for candles and commissions masses for her soul. Blanca equally remembers the convents of nuns: the Minorite [Franciscan] sisters, the Dominican sisters, the sisters of the Order of Santiago at Santa Maria de Jonqueres, canonesses of Montalegre, and the repentant women [former prostitutes], the Poor Clares of Pedralbes (founded by the widowed Queen Elisenda de Montcada around fifty years before)  among others. She also donates money to specific members of religious orders tied to her family and household. These include former servants [“Arnau Andreu who resided with my husband and now is a hermit of Montserrat”] and family members [her husband’s relatives: the Franciscan Ramon de Sarrià, Serena de Sarrià who was a nun at S. Maria de Jonqueres, and Francesca de Sarrià who was a nun at Pedralbes; and her own daughter Sibil·la de Sarrià who was also at Pedralbes]. Blanca also gives money to help several young women she knew personally to get married by accumulating a dowry; and to help indigent girls in general to become brides.

Here are Blanca’s donations that relate to free servants and slaves:

“….Also, I bequeath to each of my male and female servants [“cuilibet minorum et pedissetarum meorum”] who are residing in my husband’s house on the day that I die, twenty shillings [solidi] on top of their salary….”

 “…. Also, I bequeath to Anaboscha, daughter of Sicilia, who breastfed Sister Sibil·la, my daughter, twenty shillings [solidi].

Also, I bequeath to Caterina who provided [milk for] Constantia my late daughter, twenty shillings [solidi].

Also, I bequeath to Ana Comara who nourished/cared for Jacmet [little James] my son twenty shillings [solidi]….”

“Also, I wish, ordain and command that when Antigona, my daughter, attains the age of ten years, Caterina, my slave, who nourishes [breastfeeds and cares for] the said my daughter, be free and manumitted and thoroughly liberated [“francha, libera et alforre”] and fully released from my control and that of those people attached to me. And in the case that the said Antigona does not reach ten years of age, I wish that the said Caterina be free and liberated but with her still serving my heirs for ten years; the ten years are to be computed as beginning on the day of my death…” [The enslaved woman Caterina is given no monetary bequest.]

Blanca names her two young children, Jacmet [little James] and Antigona, as her universal heirs in equal parts. She was pregnant and so also hoped to include the baby [or babies] she was carrying, whether they were boys or girls, in the inheritance. She made a contingency plan if her children were to die before having gotten married and having legitimate children of their own. All of her estate was to go to the almshouse [“elemosina pauperum”] of the cathedral of Barcelona.

Blanca’s will was probated on July 6th, so, we know that she had died by that date; and, since there is no mention of another heir, her fetus passed on with her.   

[1] A “cuitadà honrat” was a member of the urban elite and governing body of the consell de cent in Barcelona.

[2] See Jaume Aurell i Cardona, “La impronta de los testamentos bajomedievales: Entre la pre cariedad de lo corporal y la durabilidad de lo espiritual” in Ante la muerte: actitudes, espacios y formas en la España medieval ed. Jaume Aurell i Cardona (Pamplona: Universidad de Navarra, Ediciones Universidad de Navarra, 2002), 77-93; The theological and scholastic bent of the formulae Blanca chose for her will are discussed relating to other fourteenth century testaments on page 88. The formulae in all last wills and testaments in this notarial register, which is devoted to this type of transaction, are not identical. That Blanca chose these formulae implies that she was a deeply pious person.

Document 2: Manumission Contract by Pere Vyturbi

Translated from the Latin by Rebecca Lynn Winer. Manumission contract from the Arxiu Històric de Protocols de Barcelona, Spain, Arnau Piquer, Manual (2 January-24 December 1399): 50/6, folios 98r-98v. Partially summarized in the digest Josep Hernando i Delgado, “L’Alimentació làctia dels nadons Durant el segle XIV, les nodrisses o dides a Barcelona, 1295-1400, segons els documents dels protocols notarials,” Estudis històrics i documents dels arxius de protocols 14 (1996): 39-157, entry 256 on page 98. This translation CC BY-NC-ND 4.0.

Written in Barcelona on 1 September 1399

The Honorable [“cuitadà honrat”], Pere [in English the name is Peter] Vytubri, merchant and citizen of Barcelona noting that Caterina, his slave, servant, and captive, of the race of the Tartars,[1] will have breastfed some of his sons and daughters and that now she has been breastfeeding a certain other son of his called Joan, and noting that she had always been faithful and legal [acted as she should according to the law] to him; on that account wanting to make a certain freely given agreement and promise to you [Caterina], and to the notary [whose name, Arnau Piquer, is] written below, likewise stipulating that if you serve me and mine and whomsoever I wish well and according to the law from now for eight years continuously and not less, [and] while you breastfeed the said my son Joan [John in English] you will live chastely and will not have done anything by which your milk was caused to deteriorate or harmed my same son in any way, I will make you free and manumitted [granted your liberty] and from now on through this promise I make and call you free and manumitted but you must breastfeed the said my son. [If] I shall be able to know for certain that you had sex with any man or allowed yourself to be interfered [mixed] with and/or perhaps you will have stolen or removed [something] from my house, or houses, I make that which I promised to you vanish and it is said thoroughly as if it was not done. And if you do well and fulfill that which I want you to fulfill and obey as said I want by that same cause from that time on you will be free and manumitted and thoroughly liberated from my service. Were you to take yourself away [flee], you would return to my authority and that of my relatives, both you and every child born from you, with certainty etc.

In addition, [the notary elaborates that] this was stated in the long way according to the flow of the discourse [presumably as it was explained to Caterina].

The witnesses are Arnau ça Camada, money changer, and Vidal Moxut, silversmith, citizens of Barcelona.

[document registered by the notary] for 6 pennies.

[1] Tartar here refers to a person from the Asian steppe, possibly ethnically Tartar, or possibly Mongol, the terms could be used interchangeably by Western Europeans. For more on issues of ethnicity and race and medieval Mediterranean slavery see Hannah Barker, That Most Precious Merchandise: The Mediterranean Trade in Black Sea Slaves, 1260-1500 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2020), 45-59.

Discussion Questions

  1. How would you describe the job that the two enslaved Caterinas did for Blanca de Sarrià and Pere Vyturbi and their families? Was their work considered important? Were either of these women respected for it? Can the conditions of their manumission give you any information about how these women were viewed in this society?
  2. How long did each of these women have to wait to be manumitted? Why? Compare and contrast what each Caterina had to do to be freed from slavery. If you had to choose would you rather have worked for the de Sarrià or the Vytubri families? What was different about the working conditions? What factors do you think contributed to the differences?
  3. Are there any indications in the text about what may have happened to the children of these enslaved women? What do you think was their fate? 
  4. Compare and contrast what you learn about the mistress and the master in these contracts, Blanca de Sarrià and Pere Vytubri. They were both from the same elite social rank; do you think it mattered that Blanca was a woman and Pere a man?  Do you get any sense of their personalities? How might their personalities have shaped their treatment of the enslaved wet nurses?
  5. Would the fact that the enslaved Caterinas had most likely not been born into Christian families, but instead had converted upon becoming enslaved, have influenced how they were treated? Do you think it was only a coincidence that both enslaved women were called Caterina?

Related Primary Sources

Related Secondary Sources

  • Winer, Rebecca Lynn. “Inside the Home: Christian Servants and Enslaved Muslim Women.” Chapter 6 in Women, Wealth, and Community in Perpignan c.1250-1300: Christians, Jews, and Enslaved Muslims in a Medieval Mediterranean Town. Aldershot: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2006. For the relationship between domestic servants and slaves in the elite household.
  • Winer, Rebecca Lynn. “Conscripting the Breast: Lactation, Slavery and Salvation in the Realms of Aragon and Kingdom of Majorca, c. 1250–1300.” Journal of Medieval History 34: 2 (2008): 164-184. An overview of slavery and wet nursing in Catalonia and the Catalan-speaking areas, especially in what is now southern France, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
  • Winer, Rebecca Lynn. “The Mother and the Dida [Nanny]: Female Employers and Wet Nurses in Fourteenth-Century Barcelona.” In Medieval and Renaissance Lactations: Images, Rhetorics, Practices, edited by Jutta Sperling, 55-78. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013. For more discussion of Document 1 and its context.
  • Winer, Rebecca Lynn. “The Enslaved Wet Nurse as Nanny: The Transition from Free to Slave Labor in Childcare in Barcelona after the Black Death (1348).” Slavery and Abolition vol. 38:2 (2017) 303-319. For more discussion of Document 2 and its context.


Children, Labor, Manumission, Medicine, Property, Sexual Slavery, Women