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Images of motherhood in late antiquity

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posted on 15.12.2014, 10:42 by Mary Harlow
This thesis examines the nature and role of motherhood as an institution in the later Roman Empire in the west. Using a series of interlinked discourses it builds a composite image of the social ideals and expectations of mothers during a time when Christians were re-examining the cultural assumptions that underpinned family and gender relationships. Using 'medical' writings to examine the origin of assumptions about the female body, it then considers how this information was reinterpreted by patristic writers to suit their new image of the ideal body, and particularly to explain the Virgin Birth.;The image of the Virgin Mary and the development of interest in her as Virgin Mother is considered within the parameters of the ascetic debate. The patristic writers developed a discourse that denigrated maternity in favour of virginity and thus displaced mothers from their traditional place of high status in Roman society. The relationship between discourse and reality is a central underlying theme of this thesis and is discussed in close detail in a chapter that examines the effect of this ascetic discourse on mothers using well known case studies. Finally, to balance the patristic and medical writings, the law codes of the period are examined for their effect on mothers both in terms of status and inheritance.;The growing acknowledgement of the mother-child bond is recognised and mothers acquire certain legal rights they had not previously held, particularly with regard to the disposition of their own property and in the guardianship of their children. So, while the patristic discourse may undermine the status of a mother, the law makers are according her more privileges than ever before. These diverse sources produce a set of images that reflect the various thinking of the late antique world on one of the most fundamental of institutions.


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University of Leicester

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