This paper examines the role of breastfeeding in the self-definition of Perpetua, author and protagonist of the Passion of St. Perpetua, as mother and martyr. Considered to be the only extant hagiographical text in the form of a diary, the Passion of St. Perpetua presents us with the first-person account of the imprisonment of Vibia Perpetua, a twenty-two year old Roman noblewoman who was put to death as part of a group of Christians on March 7th 203 in Carthage. Recent scholarship (Butler, Cobb) has revisited the Passio and Acta Perpetuae as canonical and non-canonical historical and literary texts. Despite the many questions surrounding its authorship, narrativity, and genre (Halporn, Robert), the Passion of St. Perpetua reveals philosophical (Buttler) and gender perspectives (Cobb, Lefkowitz, Vierow) that exemplify the mindset and self-perception of a woman Christian martyr.
As the imprisoned mother of a nursing infant (2.7), Perpetua suffers both physically and emotionally from their separation (3.17-18); after much pain and concern, she is greatly comforted when her baby son, parched, is brought to her in jail to breastfeed (3.22-24). Following a second period of separation, Perpetua requests that her baby stay with her in prison (3.25-27); her request granted, mother and child enjoy the benefits of resumed nursing: "the baby recovered, I was relieved from my distress and pain, and the prison became a kind of governor's mansion, and I did not wish to be anywhere else" (3.27-29). However, her father, with whom Perpetua has a complex and difficult relationship, refuses to let her keep the baby in prison following her refusal to recant her Christian faith by sacrificing to the Roman Emperor (6.9-12, 19-20). Perpetua accepts this final separation as providential intervention, stating that both herself and her baby were spared the potential agony of this experience: he lost interest in nursing and she did not develop an inflammation (6.20-24).
Perpetua's narrative includes key references to breastfeeding from a lactating woman's point of view. She acknowledges several symptoms of interrupted breastfeeding, including anxiety and inflammation, while emphasizing that the cessation of her lactation was, at first, completely unintentional. Interestingly, there is no mention of a wet-nurse, who would be expected to be available to a woman of her status; equally puzzling is the absence from the narrative of her husband, presumably a symbol of worldly connections incompatible with her new spiritual empowerment. Most importantly, in the absence of her husband Perpetua resists her father's absolute authority by rejecting his pleas to pity his old age and her helpless baby. As her son's well-being becomes a bargaining chip in her father's hands, Perpetua does not hesitate to sever that tie too; it happens, as she puts it, by divine economy, manifested in the miraculous cessation of need and desire for nursing by both mother and child (6.23-24).
The realities of breastfeeding in the Passion of St. Perpetua point to a discourse on personhood that transcends gender. While lactation is represented as the Saint's penultimate act of compliance with the patriarchal establishment, its cessation, partly imposed on Perpertua, signals her liberation from any sort of societal pressure and gender boundary. The binary essence of both wishing to nurse and giving up nursing encapsulates, I argue, the rebellious pursuit of personal fulfillment that culminates in her martyrdom.
Breastfeeding and Wet-Nursing in Antiquity