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‘…and all the troubles of nursing to which their station condemns them…’ Maternitas and social motherhood in the Roman world.

April Pudsey

Manchester Metropolitan University


Both biological and emotional aspects of breastfeeding are today considered equally important to infant and maternal health and wellbeing, as both a source of human and mammal life-giving, and a crucial means of bonding and socialization. Such issues lie at the heart of medical and social comment on whether biological mothers ought to breastfeed their infants (Horta et al., 2007). Across the Roman world, breastfeeding by both mothers and wet-nurses was ubiquitous (Bradley, 1986), and the focus of scholarship which deals with the practices is largely centred solely on the biological aspects. Medical writers were well acquainted with some of the physiological implications for infants, in particular in terms of duration of exclusive breast feeding and weaning onto animal milk and foods. Indeed, recent archaeological research has contributed to our understanding of weaning patterns and their impact on infant health and mortality, on the basis of stable nitrogen isotope analysis of infant skeletal remains (Pearson et al. 2010; Dupras et al. 2001; Prowse et al. 2004; Fuller et al. 2006; Bourbou and Garvie-Lok 2009).  But the emotional aspects of breastfeeding, and in particular wet-nursing others’ infants, are absent from the scholarship. This paper will examine the emotive aspects of nursing in the Roman world, from a perspective of wet-nurses and their nurslings – the fictive kinship and emotional bonds which add to growing evidence for maternitas as incorporating ‘social motherhood’ (Hrdy, 1999).

A large collection of wet-nursing contracts from the village of Tebtunis in Egypt illustrates that wet-nurses were hired primarily to nurse infants who had been exposed and destined for slavery, and some free children (Masciadri and Montevecchi, 1984). But also, a great deal of this material relates to free women engaging in a type of wage labour activity, similar in some ways to Islamic nursing contracts in Egypt from 11th-15th centuries where lactation was considered a service rendered by women, not a legal obligation of a mother (Shatzmiller,1997.). Many of these documents can reveal the emotive aspects of nursing within family life, for instance nurses were sometimes given the privilege of naming the child. In some legal documents from the city of Oxyrhynchos there are cases of dispute around the death of infants during their nursing, and provision being made for the emotional impact on those women. This paper will delve into an array of systematically collated contracts, letters, petitions and other documents to examine the emotive nature of the nursing relationship between nurse and infant, and indeed her own infant(s), both evidenced and apparently expected.

But what about this fictive kinship from the other perspective: that of the nursed infant? A wealth of epigraphic material from across the Roman world reveals the extent of young adults’ and their families’ emotional bonds with their wet-nurses, who appear to have been considered part of the family well beyond their nursing years. Nurses’ emotional investment in their nursed infants is matched by the genuine sentiment expressed on their funerary commemorations, by family members and by their infants once grown to adulthood. These cultural aspects of wet-nursing can be gleaned from a wide array of sources, which this paper will systematically collate and examine with a view to exploring emotional ties between nurses, their infants and the infants’ families. The paper will also ask how these emotional bonds were understood, nurtured, and provided for across families and communities more broadly.

Session/Panel Title

Childhood and Fictive Kinship in the Roman Empire

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