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Conferences

Emergency Baptisms in the Middle Ages

infant baptism - painting by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464)

With a very high infant mortality rate in the Middle Ages, the Christian community was eager to have newborn babies quickly baptized. At a paper given at the 49th International Congress on Medieval Studies, Thomas Izbicki details what to do if the priest might not make it in time to perform the rite.

infant baptism - painting by Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464)

Izbicki, a Humanities Librarian at Rutgers University, gave the paper ‘Infant Mortality and the Emergency Baptism of Infants’ during the Medieval Canon Law and Society session at the congress. He explained that this was an issue debated in the first few centuries of Christianity, with the 5th century Pope Leo the Great judging that emergency baptisms could be done by lay persons.

Although some medieval writers argued against the practice, by the time Gratian compiled his collection of canon law in the 12th century it was generally accepted in medieval Europe. One of the early questions that Christians had to ask related to infant baptisms was whether or not it was acceptable for a baby to go undergo this rite, since they could not consent to it. To counter this medieval theologians noted that babies did not consent to original sin either, which they inherited from their parents, so this could be seen an as exception to the rule of no forced baptisms.

Izbicki notes that the medieval church was very inclusive to who could perform an emergency baptism – any lay man or woman could do this, even a pagan or a Jew. The only prohibitions would be against heretics as it was assumed they would carry out the baptism incorrectly.

One of the biggest worries for the church was that if the laity was going to do perform a baptism they had to do it correctly. This meant the use of water, saying the right formulas and that the baptism had to be done in the name of the Trinity.

Local priests were encouraged to train their lay parishioners to use the right formulas, and they would also have to confirm if a baptism was performed correctly.

By the late Middle Ages there were fears that midwives were using witchcraft and performing “anti-baptisms” that would lead to death of the child, the mother or both.



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