Anna Magdalena Bach had thirteen children. Two boys and a girl died within the first few days. So between 1723 and 1742 ten infants had to be cared for day and night over several months – a burden for one woman that is hard to imagine. But we must be cautious about transferring modern experience of the first months of childcare to those times. In the middle classes of the early modern period, it was not unusual that this was performed by domestic servants. Did Anna Magdalena Bach make use of this possibility? One indication is given by a journey she made with her husband over several weeks in 1732. Accounts from Kassel of September 1732 have an entry: “Zehrungs Costen dem Cappelmeister Hn. Bach et uxori alhier die Zeit über sie alhier logiret“ – “Expenses for Cappelmeister Mr. Bach and wife while lodging here” (Dok II, page 228). When the parents undertook this journey of several weeks their youngest son Johann Christoph Friedrich was only 2 months old. We can discount the possibility that they took him with them. There are no hints in the Kassel archives that there was a child present, and reports from that time show clearly that such a journey would have been life-threatening for a baby. Survival without breast feeding would have been a miracle. So who looked after the baby? A wet nurse could be employed for this, as defined in a 1732 lexicon as a woman „welche anderer Leute Kinder an ihrer Brust träncket“ – “who breast feeds other people’s children” (Zedler 1732, Vol. I, column 1745). This was not unusual. It has been estimated for Hamburg that at the end of the 18th century between 4000 and 5000 wet nurses were employed in middle class households (Wunder 1992, page 189). For the little Johann Christoph Friedrich the wet nurse would have started some time before the departure of his parents to Kassel. This would have enabled a bond to be developed so that the parents could leave with peace of mind. Anna Magdalena’s physical recovery from the birth would also have been completed by then.
There are very few sources that provide information on the life of Anna Magdalena Bach. The fact that she travelled to Kassel with her husband is only indicated by the two small words “et uxori” (and wife) in the accounts from Kassel. We can only speculate about the frequency of other journeys because it is unknown how many records that could have provided this information are lost. But the few records that are known show that the care of Johann Christoph Friedrich was not an exceptional case. Their son Gottfried Heinrich was not even 5 months old when Anna Magdalena Bach travelled to Köthen in 1724 to perform in a concert. When she appeared there in 1729 her daughter Regina Johanna was about 5 months old. For the distance between Leipzig and Köthen a carriage would have taken about 12 hours (see Spree 2021, page 83). Therefore, Anna Magdalena Bach was absent from Leipzig for several days on both occasions.
There are clues to the employment of wet nurses for other children as well. To start with, scientific studies show that the rate of pregnancy in mothers who breast feed as needed day and night during the first six months after birth is less than 2% (Bundeszentrale 2001, page 30, page 179). A connection between breast feeding and reduction in fertility was also known in Anna Magdalena Bach’s time (Wunder 1992, page 38), and feeding day and night was expected, as can be seen in a lexicon published in Leipzig in 1739 (see figure).
Amaranthes: Nutzbares, galantes und curioses Frauenzimmer – Lexicon,
Frankfurt und Leipzig 1739, colum 1539
If Anna Magdalena Bach fully breast fed her children for the first 6 months, one would expect gaps of at least 15 months until the next birth after the children that survived infancy. In four cases this is not so. But we cannot exclude the possibility that supplements were used from the fifth month and breast feeding was not continual (see also Spree 2019, page 184 ff.). Then gaps of less than 13 months would indicate that wet nurses had taken over the feeding. There were less than 12 months after the births of daughter Christiana Sophia Henrietta and son Christian Gottlieb (see also Spree 2021, page 81 ff.).
To summarise, there are indications that Anna Magdalena Bach had her first three, sixth and ninth child fed by wet nurses. No evidence is known that she acted differently with the other children. As we have already said, this form of childcare was not unusual at that time. It should also be noted that the lexicon entry from 1739 shown above gives the care of infants by wet nurses as a normal alternative to the mother.
If Anna Magdalena Bach did not breast feed her children but delegated this task to a paid employee, it is not evidence that she did not take care of her children. The pregnancies and births were also no less strenuous. But she did have help for the care of the infants. Could she rely on further help in the many household duties? That will be the subject of the next article.
Translation: Alan Shepherd