This is a scene from a fifteenth-century stained-glass window at Doddiscombsleigh: a country church in Devon, in the south-west of England. It shows what would have been a familiar event. A baby is brought to church to be baptized. The ceremony takes place at a font: a stone column supporting a basin, large enough for the baby to be totally immersed in water. Thousands of such fonts still stand in English churches. A priest, on the right, lifts the baby from the water after the baptism, and gives it into the hands of its senior godparent. His clerk behind him holds the book containing the service.
The role of godparents at a baptism was to promise on the baby’s behalf that, in return for it becoming a member of the Church, it would follow the Church’s rules and teachings. Every baby was required to have three godparents: two of its own sex and one of the other. This baby, with two men and a woman, is therefore a boy. Images of this kind usually featured men, reflecting the belief that the human race was first created by God in the form of a man. Woman was made later, out of man.
A baptism was also a naming ceremony. You were baptized using your name. Nowadays children who are baptized have already been named, and the name has been shared among family and friends long beforehand. It is also usual today for parents to choose their children’s names. This sometimes happened in the Middle Ages, and certain families kept to particular names. But the most common practice was for the senior godparent of the baby’s own sex to give his or her own name to the baby. This set up a close relationship between that godparent and the baby. It could mean that you might have a brother or sister with the same name as yourself.
Godparents were expected to make gifts on the day of baptism, and to take a close interest in the baby thereafter. Parents often chose godparents with status and wealth, in the hope of getting good gifts and patronage for the child in years to come. Godparents were also expected to help the parents look after the child, and see that it was brought up to be a good member of the Church. In an age of high mortality by modern standards, they provided an extra group of carers in the absence of the parents. But as in all human arrangements, some godparents took their duties more seriously than others. It was sometimes remarked disapprovingly that people of the latter kind did nothing for their godchildren after leaving the church.
Images of people and events are often selective, and this image omits a good deal that we know about from other sources. Where were the baby’s parents? The father was probably present in church, but the mother was not. That was because it was the day of the birth, and she was in bed. Medieval children were brought to church soon after they were born. The Church taught that baptism was essential for salvation and eternal life, which meant that a child who died unbaptized would not enjoy heaven. Accordingly if a baby was born in danger of dying, it had to be baptized immediately at home by the midwife, saying simple words in English and sprinkling on some water.
Baptism then redeemed a child from sin and gave it eternal life. If it died thereafter, it would go to heaven. But baptism also made it a member of the Church, like it or not. From early times until the Toleration Act of 1689, everyone in England was required to be a member of the one Church, first Catholic then Protestant. Membership began at birth, without any kind of consent. As you grew up, you had to obey all the Church’s rules about attending church, fasting in certain periods such as Lent, paying dues to the Church, and observing the Church’s moral code.
Not that the Church took much interest in children after their baptisms. It told their godparents to have their baptisms confirmed by the local bishop, which could be done at any date after baptism. But it did not require them to come to church or observe fasting days or go to confession until they reached puberty. Until that age was it believed that they lacked the knowledge and capacity to sin. Nevertheless children were often taken to church, especially if they were small and could not be left at home, or went of their accord because it was an interesting place where their adults went.
Only when children reached their early teens did they become closely involved in a church’s everyday life. Then indeed they were required to attend church regularly, go to confession in Lent, receive communion at Easter, and take part in all church activities. Girls in a parish formed their own group of “maidens,” youths one of “young men.” They held social activities and raised money for the parish church. So a baptism was not a ceremony without any consequences. On the contrary it was very important. It brought you into a Church that you would have to belong to, like it or not, for the whole of your adult life.
Nicholas Orme is Emeritus Professor of History at Exeter University. He has written more than thirty books on the religious and social history of England, including Medieval Children, Medieval Schools, Medieval Pilgrimage, and The History of England’s Cathedrals.