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.