In a new publication of a Coptic letter from the 7th century CE, a wet nurse Maria expresses her grief and condolences over the death of a young girl (published by Alain Delattre et al., see bibliography below). “My heart grieved when I heard about my daughter, that she had died.” Maria then goes on to wish a long life to another girl, Anastasia. Rather than reading the text literally, the girl who died is most likely the daughter of the recipients of the letter, not Maria. What seems to be the clinching detail in understanding the relationships in this letter is that Maria identifies herself as a wet nurse in the letter’s address: “Give it to my sister Talau, from the wet nurse Maria.”
The letter is short and its contents incredibly sad. But – and here is where some scholarly distance comes in to play – one of the most notable features is the identification of Maria as a wet nurse. There are almost no Coptic documents that involve a wet nurse (the Coptic word is moone) – the title occurs in a list on a papyrus in the Vienna National Library, but we know nothing about the individual mentioned there. Why are wet nurses almost never mentioned, then, in Coptic texts?
In Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt (ca 3rd century BCE to 4th century CE) there isn’t the same absence. Wet nurse contracts are known from this period in which a woman is hired to nurse an infant. The earliest contract that we know of comes from the site Tebtunis in the Fayum and dates to 7 May 231 BCE. The bulk of the document is written in Demotic, with Greek lines noting its place and date of registration. In this case, the woman Sponnesis daughter of Horus and Taues is contracted by the man Phanesis son of Nechtyris to nurse his son Petesouchos for three years: “I am for you the wet nurse, my milk being good from both breasts.” She promises to care for, nurture, and protect the boy.*
Woman breastfeeding, 5th Dynasty (c) Metropolitan Museum of Art
In earlier periods of Egyptian history, breastfeeding is not an uncommon topic in art. One of my favourite statues (shown above) dates to Egypt’s Old Kingdom and is today on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. A woman kneels down with a child on her knee and she holds out her breast for the child to suckle, while another child takes matters into his own hand and pulls her other breast under her other arm in order to feed as well. Dating over a thousand years later, a sketch on a limestone ostracon from the village Deir el-Medina (on the west bank of the Nile opposite Karnak/Luxor) in the British Museum’s collection shows a woman sitting and breastfeeding (shown below).
Ostracon, Deir el-Medina, EA8506 (c) Trustees of the British Museum
And so why are wet nurses – or breastfeeding itself – so rare in Coptic documents? In Coptic literature concerning the holy family, passages state that Mary was breastfed until she was three years old, while she in turn breastfed the infant Jesus until he was the same age. At the same time, paintings of Mary suckling Jesus adorned churches across the Mediterranean world. There was no censor of the idea or the image.
This brings us to a wee problem in using written sources for the study of the ancient world. There is so much about which we may want to know that simply is never mentioned. Why would somebody need to write to somebody else about their breastfeeding plans? If they ever had to discuss the matter, they’d do so in person. For many periods and places, using a wet nurse may have been such a common event that it did not need to be written down in a formal contract. The Coptic letter from Maria reminds us, in case we were in any doubt, that wet nurses existed, even if we rarely hear about them.
*For those interested in the topic, see Parca’s article, noted below.
Object Details #1
Provenance: probably tomb of Nikauinpu, Giza, Egypt
Date: Dynasty 5, Old Kingdom (ca. 2420–2389 BCE).
Collection: Metropolitan Museum of Art: 26.7.1405 – on display in Gallery 103.
Object Details #2
Provenance: Deir el-Medina, Egypt
Date: Dynasty 19 or 20, New Kingdom (1295–1069 BCE).
Collection: British Museum, Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan: EA8506.
A. Delattre, P. Pilette and N. Vanthieghem. 2018. “Papyrus coptes de la Pierpont Morgan Library II: Lettre de condoléances d’une nourrice.” Journal of Coptic Studies 20: 1–10.
B. Kasparian. 2007. “La condition des nourrices sous le Moyen Empire.” Bulletin de l’Institut français d’archéologie Orientale 107: 109–126.
M. Parca. 2017. “The Wet Nurses of Ptolemaic and Roman Egypt.” Illinois Classical Studies 42: 203–226.