As opposed to our own era, in the Middle Ages, religious nurture was a public concern. Many felt orthodox Christianity was properly learned and celebrated in the parish church, in full view of one’s neighbors—not in the privacy of one’s home. A faith nurtured solely in the home could produce heresy, for the home was shielded from the eyes of the church.

Therefore much of Christian nurture involved participation in public ceremonies. Still, the family had a role to play, and the church tried, with mixed success, to guide parents as they nurtured their children in the faith.

In the Beginning

Starting at birth, parents and church worked together to protect children’s souls. Parents had their child baptized in the church to wash away original sin.

Many babies died at birth, so the church allowed anyone to perform this sacrament, even the midwife. One manual for parish priests tells them to instruct midwives to have clean water ready should they have to baptize a dying infant: “And though the child but half be born, Head and neck and no more, Bid her hesitate no longer To christen it and cast on water.”

Normally, the father and godparents brought the child to the parish church for baptism. Outside the church, the priest blessed the child and put salt in its mouth to symbolize wisdom and to exorcise demons. The party moved inside where the child was immersed in water and anointed with oil, with the godparents making a profession of faith for the child. Afterward, the baptismal party returned home to celebrate the event.

The godparents usually named the child after themselves or a saint, whom they hoped would watch over the new Christian throughout his or her life.

Mothers generally did not attend the baptism; custom advised she wait ...

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