Baptism in Anglo-Saxon England

Baptism in Anglo-Saxon England: an Investigation of the Lexical Field

By Marianne Petra Ritsema van Eck

Master’s Thesis, Rijksuniversiteit Groningen, 2012

Drawing with coloured wash of the baptism of Balan in a tub by Pope Milon with 4 archbishops present, illustrating section 351 of the Chanson d'Aspremont.  - from British Library MS  Lansdowne 782   f. 18v

Drawing with coloured wash of the baptism of Balan in a tub by Pope Milon with 4 archbishops present, illustrating section 351 of the Chanson d’Aspremont. – from British Library MS Lansdowne 782 f. 18v

Abstract: This thesis examines the lexical field of baptism in Old English. The lexical development of the field and the semantic development of the individual lexemes were evaluated: the verbs fulwian, cristnian, depan, dyppan, and the vocabulary for baptismal water in Old English. At every stage of the project, the linguistic data was correlated to theological, liturgical and cultural backgrounds.

Introduction: Those words by Ratramnus of Corbi are indeed a fitting opening for a discussion of ‘the holy fount of baptism.’ The present discussion will not be about the nature of the sacrament primarily, as Ratramnus’, but wil have a rather more linguistic character. At the time of the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons during the 7th and 8th centuries, many new faithful were baptized. The nature of baptism as the intiatory sacrament made it one of the first elements of Christianity converts would come into contact with. As baptism was a completely new phenomenon to the Anglo-Saxons, the OE language had not previously possessed words for it.

The new words that eventually filled this lacuna shall be the focus of the present project. The objective of this study will be to discover and describe the origins, changes in contextual meaning and use (frequencies) of the these words, as well as examining their interrelationship within the diachronic lexical field of baptism in OE. This means that after having established the (diachronically articulated) structure of individual word-fields, it will become possible to answer questions such as: did fulwian and cristnian in fact designate the two distinct components of the baptismal liturgy, and which parts of the liturgy did they pertain to? The diachronic perspective on the lexical and semantic developments of the individual lexemes will be supplemented with extra linguistic evidence where relevant. Historical and archeological sources will provide the backdrop for this study. Even more importantly, liturgical and theological information will be used to interpret correctly the contextual meaning of individual words. Thus, it will become possible to draw conclusions about the functioning of these words, as well as the nature of baptismal practice in AngloSaxon England.

The OE vocabulary of baptism has not received more than a passing interest in previous scholarship. The relevant lexemes, fulwian, dyppan, and cristnian, were identified, and questions were raised about their origin and meaning, but not answered. As Christopher Jones states in the conclusion of his examination of a small part baptismal vocabulary: “A thorough study of Old English terminology in all periods would be most welcome.” Moveover, the exceptional status of OE, in comparison with the other Gmc languages, warrants attention. OE fulwian, and its derived noun fulwiht, are unique to OE; no cognates exist in the other Gmc languages of the time. What may have prompted the formation of this verb?

Click here to read this thesis from Rijksuniversiteit Groningen


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