Miles, in A Complex Delight: The Secularization of the Breast, 1350-1750, studies the story of the breast in an historical context. Beginning as a religious symbol, it was eventually eroticized and medicalized. In a recurring theme, women were pitted against each other, depicted as extremes—seducers and witches versus Madonnas.
Catholic culture is the focus, as it remained image-bound throughout the four centuries of interest here. The question to be answered: " What were the cultural and religious circumstances within which a religious symbol came to be thoroughly "mastered" by erotic and medical meanings?" (pg. 9).
An analysis of Mary Magdalen follows, with the observation of her representations often depicting a "longing for the convergence of the erotic and the spiritual" (pg. 14). The invention of the printing press is credited with moving the religious connotation of the breast into the secular realm. Inevitably, pornography also got its start at that point.
The idea of power as trumpeted through artist reflections of the breast is creative and reasonable. This can provide us with historical insights unavailable through other avenues. After all, the naked breast can be controversial, even today. Tolerance of it and even admiration for it can speak volumes about those in a position to censure its public appearance. It could be argued that the more secure a society is, the less they feel compelled to exploit the womanly image—hence, feminine nakedness as art, but not pornography.
The nursing breast is seen as maternal, and as an aid in continuing to stereotype females as those who are caregivers. The woman not envisioned this way is perceived as lesser. Hence, Miles divines that the body's best show of power is its "capability to give birth, nourish, and sustain life" (pg. 43). It is the reviewer's note that women living in a man's world, no matter what the century, may maintain that this is simply what they have been relegated to.
In the 17th century, not a single image of this type was commissioned or painted by a woman (pg. 47). So, all that was seen was presented through the eyes of men.
An analysis of Mary Magdalen depicts her as signifying grief by means of her unbound hair and bared breasts. An alternative view cites these features as those of a seductress. The Council of Trent decree (1563) arises again and again, banning such "inappropriate" images in religious art. Later again in that century, breasts are again introduced, from "extremely bad" ones (the prostitute) to "extremely perfect" ones (the contemplative)—(pg. 67).
The "secular" breast is not well separated from the "religious" breast in these writings, though the nonreligious aspects are purported to occupy their own section of the book. The "anatomical" breast follows, which is associated with the professionalization of medicine. It then turns to social arrangements, through history, casting women in a secondary light at best, and often a souring light as a daily image. For instance, "a postmenopausal woman was thought to be able to poison an infant by gazing at it" (pg. 101). In the 18th century, male and female bodies were finally equated (mirror images of one another—the man outward and the woman inward, in terms of organs).
"The objectification of the breast in early modern Western Europe began with medical uthorities' supervision of wet-nurses, when the nursing breast became a commodity" (pg. 106). The pornographic breast is traced through witchcraft, and, more convincingly, to the advent of the printing press. Persecution was a result of vast reporting on the evil—ending in trials and executions of alleged "witches." Their breasts were central to their look—mostly youthful and enticing. Beyond this, pornographers in general are portrayed as using "sex as a vehicle for attacks on the church, the crown, and all sorts of social abuses" (pg. 123). An historical lesson follows, on what was chic at various times: sensual fat, high placement of breasts, etc. Whether this is erotic, pornographic, or imagined otherwise is up to the viewer. In later times, naked breasts only appeared on Eve and witches, evoking sin, sex, and death (pg. 129).
In the final account, Miles points out that this walk through history illustrates the secularization of the breast, which she equates with a loss of status for women. Ending on a subjective note, the author urges us to consider all breasts beautiful, even those tempered by time and trauma.
In sum, the book is historically significant, though the spin is somewhat subjective, which the author freely admits.