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Milk in Pyrenean and Corsican spas: discourses and practices from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century

Frédéric Duhart and Federica Tamarozzi


In the Pyrenees and Corsica, milk occupies a special place within the diet offered in spas since it is closely associated with uses of water in the course of treatment. These uses of milk are various but, in all cases, the symbolic richness of milk, its "turbid purity", is present. The place of she-ass, ewe, cow and other varieties of milk are considered within the medical discourse of the spas. Uses of these varieties produce a complex mosaic in the practices of the spas, between therapy and social distinction. A spa is not a spring in a human desert: the medical discourses about milk uses participate in the construction of images of the locals while the milk demand produces effects in the social and economic life of the countryside. Beyond the geographic and historic particularities of each area, analysing jointly the Corsican and Pyrenean situations reveals some of the main parameters within which were constituted relevant medical debates, patient practices, and the representation of dwellers; this joint analysis also underlines the fascinating originality of the universe of spa activity.

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1Balneology is a little examined topic within the study of popular traditions. Nevertheless, its diffusion throughout the whole European continent and the permanence of its use make it a very good subject by which to observe the links between scientific and popular medicines. In spa areas, the abundance of water and the proximity of a spring allowed low-priced treatments: this enabled locals to use water therapy for the treatment of various illnesses. For these reasons, the use of spas might involve a broad section of the population, from the sick peasant to the healthy rich person who came to pleasure in a sophisticated sociability.

2Corsican balneology developed separately, away from the main tourist streams. But, by the very fact of the island’s geographic position and history, Corsican medicine was influenced by Italian and French scientific theories. In the West Pyrenees, a few spas became early places of cosmopolitan and fashionable sojourns, but some spas in the area, sometimes in the same towns, were also used by the less well-to-do, especially invalids and soldiers (Briffaud, 1994: 235-273).

3Corsica and the Pyrenees share both a lofty beauty and a pastoral economy. Since diet plays a important part in the course of treatment, consuming milk and milky products was closely combined with taking the waters. Dairy production in these two areas was taken into account by local medical practitioners when they elaborated their theories about hygiene and recovery; moreover, discourses about dairy production played a part in the construction of representations of the locals. From the 18th to the early 20th century, various opinions were expressed about the use of milk in the course of treatment and about the effects of the importance of milk in local foodways. Some of these opinions can be linked to a precise historical context, but a lot of them simply travelled down the years. This article, born of the meeting of two researchers who hail from different backgrounds, uses mostly medical literature and archives; for the study of Corsica, fieldwork was also carried out in seven spas of the island (Tamarozzi, 1995-1996).

Milk consumption in the Spas

Treating with milk

4Rich food above all else, milk is associated with the maternal breast and paternal fertilizing power; like legendary ambrosia, it could be sufficient for human nourishment. Among animal products milk, together with honey, has the distinctive feature of being able to be eaten without being cooked (Espeitx Bernat, 1999: 451-471). Nevertheless, milk lends itself to numerous transformations. The whiteness of milk that calls to mind its purity was often linked to regenerative properties: many people considered that a milky bath can forestall the decline of skin beauty, many also recommended the use of linen drenched in fat milk to heal cuts and burns quickly. Milk shared with blood the same vital principle and, although they can appear opposite, various prohibitions about the handling and consumption of milk recalled this closeness. This heavily laden symbolic background influenced the alimentary and medical uses of milk: this food was often associated with precise ages or particular states, like certain illnesses.

5The richness of milk was utilized to stimulate growth and recovery: Mrs C. treated her one-year old daughter for a skin infection "that is eating her skull and her face" with ablutions of Caldanelle di Mozi’s water; during the course of treatment, she feed her baby alternately with bottles of goat milk and of water. In this liquid diet, where the mineral water helped the poor child to recover, the goat milk – whose digestibility was recognized – did not cause vomiting and provides the young girl with a good and fatty nourishment.

6Other virtues were attributed to milk and dairy products: notably, that they could purify, disinfect and restore the unwell organism. This meant that the use of milk did not lead to the complications associated with the use of some mineral waters; for example, a doctor of Cauterets recommended the consumption of whey to relieve constipation caused by using certain waters (Moinet, 1878: 344-345). Milk and diary products could also be employed to attack directly an illness and its symptoms: in Corsica, Loetscher (1842) fought the "umor salso" with repeated ingestions of sulphurous water of Puzzichello and of a equal quantity of whey (it lines the walls of the stomach and the intestine); in Bagnères-de-Bigorre, one doctor regarded the whey as one of the "accessory medicines of symptoms" in nervous pathologies (Gandy, 1893: 224).

Dairy variety

7Rather than "about milk", we have to write "about milks", because in the Pyrenean and Corsican areas, a large dairy range exists. At the top is she-ass production; L’Encyclopédie... speaks highly of it: "this milk possesses, to a superior degree, all the virtues of milk, without any known drawbacks" (1751-1772: "Lait"). It was the most expensive milk in spas: in Eaux-Bonnes, in 1862, a glass of donkey milk cost between fifty centimes and one franc (if the animal was not put to labour, the price was higher), while the same quantity of ewe milk cost twenty-five centimes and one liter of cow milk, thirty centimes (de Pietra Santa, 1862: 312). Consequently, the use of she-ass milk was reserved for well-to-do customers who looked for a product praised since Antiquity, and also for the treatment of a few specific medical cases, for example lung diseases or asthenic persons (L’Encyclopédie..., 1751-1772: "Lait").

8In Corsica, where the breeding of cows was not much developed (Ravel, 1911: 366-368), goats and ewes provided the biggest part of dairy production. Ewe milk had a important role in the diet of visitors to Guagno-les-Bains; in this spa, whose hotels were famous, ewe milk and fresh ewe cheeses were served with berries, provided by neighbouring shepherds. This milk was recommended to all the unwell, particularly to parturient women, malaria victims and wounded men. Its fatty richness was seen as an asset to strengthen the weak. But those with "delicate stomachs" were forced to take precautions: they had to eat it curdled or in the form of brocchiu. Popular wisdom agreed with scientific medicine on this point: ewe milk should be only be drunk in the morning and never after the afternoon baths.

9In the two areas under consideration, both lands of extensive breeding, discourses closely linked the quality of milk to the feeding of the animals. Meighan, describing the countryside of Barèges in 1742, wrote that "the milk, cream and butter of this country are balsamic and of a excellent taste; nor can they be otherwise, since the perfection of these juices depends on the found constitution of the animals, and the good qualities of their nourishment" (Meighan, 1742: 13). In his study of the springs of Pietra Pola, Tamburini (1846) mentioned that the persons taking waters could find delicious dairy products in this spa and explained that their qualities were linked to the ability of local shepherds to drive their ewes to the best pastures; he then constructed a theory founded on an "incorporation principle" (Fischler, 1993: 66-70), where milk concentrated the virtues of grazed plants and permited consumers to assimilate them. Tamburini also insisted on the importance of freshness: dairy foods had always to be bought very fresh and to be quickly consumed if they were to produce all their virtual beneficial actions. In the works of Ramond de Carbonnières, the quest of freshness created a dichotomy; milk, cream and fresh cheese were praised whereas Pyrenean matured cheeses were highly deprecated and described as "putrid, vile and unhealthy concretions, worthy of the craft industry and the palate of the Tartars" (Ramond de Carbonnières, 1789: 200).

Milk and the countryside around the Spa

Milky ways of life

10Since milk played such an important role in the diet of their patients, balneology theoreticians paid particular attention to its uses in local foodways. Two ethic and aesthetic images were constructed from local alimentary practices. One image was positive; Meighan related the (supposed) longevity and the robustness of Barèges’ inhabitants to their food, which was mostly composed of "bread, butter, milk, cream, cheese, wild spinage and other herbs". He gave the example of a old man met during a walk: "[he] surprised me, by the spirit and vigour with which he lifted large stones to build a wall [...] He had never been blooded, taken any medicine [...] he never tasted wine nor ate flesh but once a year at the fair of Luz" (Meighan, 1742: 10-11). The doctor utilized this description to promote a milky diet, but there is also in this case the quest for an ideal way of life close to nature. Later, with the diffusion of Rousseau’s thought and the birth of Romanticism, this point of view remained common in the two areas: for example, the Corsican brocchiu (cheese made of milk and whey) is linked to a mythical and frugal way of life in numerous travelogues (Prost, de Sainte Marie and Delfosse, 2000: 108). The other image was disparaging; according to Bordeu (1842: 34), the stoutness of Pyrenean shepherds who eat only dairy products and farinaceous foods was an illusion: "even if they seem to have a sturdy constitution, they are weak, incapable of withstanding a bit of hard work [...] they don’t live much older than plain inhabitants do and they risk the same sickness". The doctor of Eaux-Bonnes repeats here an earlier style of discourse: in the 18th century, the Encyclopédie... contrasted "fat, heavy and lazy" milk-eaters of the mountains with wine-drinkers (1751-1772: "Lait").

11In these two images, food and body were linked: good foods build strong, clever and virtuous men; we are in the heart of an "incorporation principle". When the shepherd of Ramond de Carbonnières consumed the milk of his drove, he tasted Liberty (Ramond de Carbonnières, 1981: 13). But the observer’s point of view could be quite different: a certain Corsican ruggedness was often imputed to the frugalness of local food. However, the Corsican shepherd who appeared to some as an example of communion with nature, seemed like a "savage" to other travellers. In Corsica, matured cheese became an important element of the tough local image: in his report on the island springs, the inspector of waters Santini noted the efficacy of water from Vico and nearby places; he underlined their qualities explaining that they helped the digestion and assimilation of the spicy and rich food of the peasants – he laid stress upon matured cheese, venison and local wine (ms. undated, late 18th-early 19th century). When a "continental" friend of Mrs L.A. came to Guitera to visit her and take the waters, the local dairy products and the rusticity of buildings were the main reasons why she found it difficult to adapt (she was used to living in "modern comfort"): she rejected the local way of life before she got used to it; the jovial health of village girls had failed to reassure her.

Milk, balneology and local development

12In many areas, the mineral spring progressively became the center of the local life; activity grew around it; the stimulating action of the water economy spread over the neighbouring countryside and could have considerable effects on local economics. The seasonal inhabitants of the spas generated a demand for particular foodstuffs: local game, various fresh fine foods (asparagus, berries, vegetables, mushrooms, trouts, eggs, etc.), and, of course, dairy products (Duhart, 2001: 113-139).

13From the 18th century, in the west Pyrenees, milk production was concentrated near to a few spas: in Barèges, "the plenty of good milk and cream is furnished by cows kept near the village" (Meighan, 1742: 17). The spa outlet could become essential to a village economy: in Sode, the sale of milk made in Bagnères-de-Luchon during the season produced "a large profit" (Arch. dép. Haute-Garonne, Br 4° 117, 1885). The rearing of donkeys, linked to the popular taste for mountain rides, consolidated the she-ass milk ‘offer’: in 1834, the four Bagnères-de-Bigorre hirers of ‘donkeys to ride’ also sold this product (Pambrun, 1834: 301). As the shepherds or their wives physically carried the dairy foods to the spa markets, this activity, as well as having effects on local economy, also became part of outsiders’ stereotypes of the region. When the shepherds came into Guitera selling fresh cheeses put on leaves of chestnut or when the women of Beost brought the brulh (curdled whey put in little bags) to Eaux-Bonnes (Capdevielle, 1990: 38), the patients found food for thought in the appearance and language of these locals.

14In Corsica, from the beginning of 20th century, the rise of new kinds of visitors to the spas (soldiers and North Africa settlers) had a particular influence upon the island economy. Many of these new patients took pride in their Corsican origin and wanted to take advantage of their course of treatment to eat products of their ancestral land. In consequence, the production of local foodstuffs was adapted to meet this seasonal demand. For example, efforts were made to develop milk production, even though it was quite difficult: some breeders tried to improve their cattle and their rearing methods "although the dry and hot climate is nowhere favourable to this production" (Ravel, 1911: 368). In the Pyrenean area, the demand from spas led to the amelioration of the pastoral economy by another way: the creation of fruitières (cooperative cheese dairies) in the late 19th century (Métaillié, 1986: 93-96). In 1879, the fruitière of Luchon sent every morning to its local spa "a quantity of good milk and plenty of fresh and well prepared whey". This new milky stream was integrated perfectly into the spa way of life: "these two products are disposed of in a pretty and graceful lodge [...] This elegant lodge, where a great cleanliness reigns, is wonderfully situated [...] Several come every morning to drink a cup of good milk, and many more, whether seasonal or permanent inhabitants, come to drink whey" (Pégot, 1879: 65-66).

15In their pursuit of health and welfare, patients and doctors placed their confidence in the great powers of water and milk. Although doctors’ reports and registers seem at first strictly scientific, baths, glasses of water and cups of milk were also linked a symbolic system founded on the turbid purity of these two liquids. Possessing perfect balance between natural principles, they were seen to have a great richness: they could restore harmony to the bodies of the sick.

16The important function of milk during the course of treatment generated a great demand which effected both social and economic dimensions of local life. Dairy products took part in an articulated phenomenon of conditioning and transformation which modelled simultaneously the local uses, scientific discourses and patient practices. Milk and other foods were fully integrated into the construction of outsiders’ images of the natives. The various images of milk are sometimes contradictory; consuming milk can appear a guarantee of long life or a cause of bad moral and physical constitution. In other words, it catalyses the contradictions and the complexity of the discourses about the environment and about morals. In the spas, sited between nature and culture, people drank milk to absorb the inexhaustible energies of life and to suck at civilisation’s breast.

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Electronic reference

Frédéric Duhart and Federica Tamarozzi, “Milk in Pyrenean and Corsican spas: discourses and practices from the eighteenth century to the early twentieth century”Anthropology of food [Online], 2 | September 2003, Online since 01 September 2003, connection on 29 November 2022. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Frédéric Duhart

Centre de Recherches Historiques EHESS/Paris, Doctorant

By this author

Federica Tamarozzi

Musée National des Arts et Traditions Populaires, Chargée de Recherches et de Collectes Université de Paris X Nanterre/Università degli Studi di Palermo, Doctorante

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