Posted by: kljolly | January 12, 2016

Liturgies of birth and death

I am writing an early chapter on Aldred’s birth and family, but am wrestling with recreating the rituals surrounding the events of birth and death.  In this case, I have timed Aldred’s birth with the death of his father Alfred, whom I linked to the Elfred son of Brihtwulf described in the Historia de Sancto Cuthberto as fleeing pirates over the Pennines into Northumbria and later dying at the Battle of Corbridge in 918.

So the “grim” scene I wanted to set was after his mother Tilred (that “good woman” of the Lindisfarne colophon) goes into labor on news of her husband Alfred’s death.  Then her brother Tilred, bishop of Chester-le-Street, brings the body to their estate at Easington, where he conducts a funeral, a baptism, and a blessing over his sister.  Getting a dead body, a newborn, and a post-partum woman into one scene in the church at Easington is dramatic but tricky.  Several problems arose as I looked for the appropriate rituals and prayers in Anglo-Saxon liturgies.

The blessing over Tilwif I knew would have to be cobbled together, since the churching of women, usually after a month of rest, was a later phenomenon. Similarly post-partum blessing of a woman in childbed on the eighth day, develops in the 12th century (Franz; Rivard).  However, I can imagine Tilred anticipating these developments by adapting benedictional language to the circumstance.

That she could come into a church, even in the early days after childbirth, is allowed and even commended by Pope Gregory I answering Augustine of Canterbury’s eighth question about pregnant, recently delivered women, and infants receiving baptism, or the newly delivered or menstruating women receiving communion (Bede, Ecclesiastical History 1:27).  I am prepared to have this strong willed woman limp into church for her husband’s funeral and newborn’s baptism.

Infant baptism adds complications, since there is no named rite in Anglo-Saxon liturgies.  The two baptismal ceremonies are for catechumens, presumably including infants, conducted either on the eve of Easter or of Pentecost, and the baptism for the infirm who are presumably so close to death as to not be able to wait for Easter or Pentecost.  Later Aquinas urges  infants to be baptized right away, since they are all in danger of death, but in this period the canons and liturgies seem to support waiting for Easter or Pentecost unless sick (Dudley). So for Aldred to be baptized at his father’s funeral, he would either have to be sickly or it has to be Easter or Pentecost when all this happens.

Add to this locational difficulties.  For the baptism to take place in the Easington manor church, it would need a font, and for the burial, a churchyard.  Not many manorial churches would have both (having a churchyard is a status symbol in Anglo-Saxon law and determines dues).  The usual practice for baptism would be to go on Easter to the larger church, in this case Chester-le-Street.  Plus we have a dead body to accommodate.

So.  I have two scenarios, one at Easington, the other at Chester-le-Street.

1:  The way it is written now, Bishop Tilred brings Alfred’s body from Chester-le-Street (where he arrived from the battle close to death) to Easington for burial, where Tilwif, who went into labor upon hearing the news of her husband’s fatal injuries, has delivered a pre-term Aldred.  This would allow Tilwif and infant Aldred to enter their close manorial church for these ceremonies, albeit against the midwife’s advice for both mother and child.  Tilred may have to use a portable “font” of holy water as a priest might do for the baptism of the infirm.  The dead body takes a day to get there, so the funeral might be on the third day after childbirth.

2.  Tilred, on hearing the news of her husband’s fatal injuries at the Battle of Corbridge, travels the day’s journey to Chester-le-Street, in the eighth month of pregnancy.  She arrives to have him die in her arms, goes into labor, and delivers at Chester-le-Street.  This means the funeral and burial occur in the Chester-le-Street church with all its episcopal furnishings, and the infant baptism and blessing of Tilwif are integrated, perhaps a day or two after Alfred’s death and Aldred’s birth.

In either case, I am trying to preserve my dramatic scene that intentionally stretches the liturgical roles Bishop Tilred must perform in one location:  he does a funeral mass, blesses the newly delivered widow seated there, baptizes a baby, then proceeds to the churchyard burial.

Have I missed any factors?  Any suggestions?


Martin R. Dudley, “Sacramental Liturgies in the Middle Ages,” in The Liturgy of the Medieval Church, ed. Thomas J. Heffernan and E. Ann Matter, pp. 215-43 at 220-27.

Adolph Franz, Die kirchlichen Benediktionem im Mittelalter, vol. 2, pp. 210-12 and pp. 224-28.

Derek A. Rivard, Blessing the World:  Ritual and Lay Piety in Medieval Religion, pp. 83, 212-14.




  1. I seem to remember that the Laws of Ine say that a child should be baptised within 30 days.

    • You are right: Laws of Ine 2, right up front!

  2. Interesting, especially when I try and take this back to the seventh century. Would baptisms then mainly have been at Easter and Pentecost? We know (from Bede, of course) of several mass baptisms in rivers, but would they have been at Easter or Pentecost? I am currently writing about the baptism of King Cynegils by Bishop Birinus in 635, presumable in the Thames, but would Birinus have chosen a propitious time?

    • Hi Sally. In addition to Bedingfield, you might find this article of use for your period:
      Foot, Sarah. “`By Water in the Spirit:’ The Administration of Baptism in early Anglo-Saxon England.” Pastoral Care before the Parish, ed. J. Blair and R. Sharpe. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1992. 171-92.
      Contact me if you need a scanned copy.

  3. Easter baptisms of catechumens goes back into the early church (Ritual of Hippolytus) and I think is assumed in the liturgical books as well as in some of the accounts of notable baptisms. But I am confused on the infant baptisms given the Laws of Ine cited above.

  4. Re: Laws of Ine. I don’t think West Saxon Law would apply to pre-Aethelstan Northumbria. The Northumbrian Priests’ Law may be more appropriate. Although not written down until the early 11th century, its do’s and don’ts are presumably based on previous experience of good and bad practice. Rule 10 stipulates that every child should be baptized within 9 days.

  5. Good point on Northumbrian Priests’ Law, so it seems safe to say that infant baptisms did not normally wait for Easter (although episcopal confirmations may have taken place then?).
    So the question is what are the prayers and rituals for infant baptism–are they in the surviving early medieval service books and am I just missing them because I don’t know the title?
    BTW, just got notice of Helen Gittos’ edited volume on Understanding Medieval Liturgy: Essays in Interpretation. Bit pricey, but perhaps there is an answer there.

  6. Ah, I just checked old friends on my shelf that I should have consulted as soon as I returned from holiday travels (where I did a lot of writing sans books!). I will write a new post with updates, but M. Bradford Bedingfield, The Dramatic Liturgy of Anglo-Saxon England, has a concise chapter on baptism laying out the problems and confusions with infant baptism in relation to Easter, with reference to the extant manuscripts (discussed in Sarah Keefer’s essay on Manuals in The LIturgical Books of Anglo-Saxon England, ed. Pfaff).
    Having said that, I am now partial to a Pentecost baptism for Aldred because of its conferring of tongues!

  7. Considering the community’s Irish-rooted Northumbrian heritage, the ‘ordo babtismi’ of the Stowe Missal (f46v-f58v) might be appropriate. Apart from the familiar water and ointments, the ritual involves salt (in the poor bairn’s mouth!) and, most fittingly for a scribe to be, the signing of the cross on the palm of the child’s right hand.

    • I did look at Stowe, but may end up using Leofric or Robert of Jumieges. I will post more on what I learned from Bedingfield and Keefer.
      Yes, saw the salt routine, but signing of the cross could be on forehead or head (depending on whether it is a bishop or not). That is another issue as well, is I have a bishop performing the baptism, so we get christening, baptism, and confirmation all rolled into one.

  8. I tried thinking back, at some point I had looked at baptism and alas I only remember that there was a complex attitude early one towards early Anglo-Saxon childhood baptism, specifically with a view to personal desires of mothers to have their children baptized in time, should they die in infancy and I’ll have to consult my notes, but the argument at the time seemed very convincing to me. But since my focus was on finding out as much as I could on communal baptisms at the start of the conversion.
    Also, I decided I am leaning towards the Anglo-Saxon laws serving as kings’ monuments, or at most guidelines to habitual practices,rather than practical documents.
    I realize this is not very helpful, but if I can find the time I’ll try to locate the source of my memory.

    • You’re right, there is tension and ambivalence between the older tradition of baptism at Easter (originally designed for adults) and infant baptism soon after birth, “if sickly.” My general sense is that the (extant) service books lag behind the laws, penitentials, and homilies: the fear of an infant dying unbaptized (thanks, Augustine of Hippo, for scaring every parent on the planet) falls on the priest, for whom there are serious consequences if he fails to baptize in a timely manner and a child dies. So the rules seem to shift toward err on the side of baptizing too soon rather than too late. But the service books seem to continue with a condensed series of ceremonies still based around Easter, although the position in the manuscript may indicate a shift away from Easter toward an any time of year ceremony. Bedingfield notes an interpretive shift away from baptism as resurrection toward baptism as exorcism via water (using writings of AElfric and Wulfstan).

  9. […] calendar, I would think after Easter and probably after Pentecost would be preferable, although as I noted before Pentecost makes for a nice baptism ritual.  If online calculations serve (or here), Easter in 918 […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.


%d bloggers like this: