Baptism and Political Culture: Fifteenth-Century Conventions revealed by the Proofs of Age
Posted by: mholford 8 years, 10 months ago
Inquisitions post mortem, proofs of age, assignments of dower, and partition offer insight into contemporary culture – the attitudes, perceptions, preconceptions,expectations, beliefs, principles, values, standards, biases, and prejudices, of late medieval people.[1. M.A. Hicks, English Political Culture in the Fifteenth Century (London, 2002), 6-8.] It is such habits of mind that make the past different from the present and give us access to contemporary world views. Given that these four sources relate to the landholding elite, they reveal aspects of contemporary aristocratic culture. The king's writs demanded of escheators certain fairly restricted information, but IPMs reveal how ingrained and universal were the procedures and the order of the information provided, e.g. regarding extents; also apparently how such conventions changed over time. Jurors presumed that the law of England operated – primogeniture – unless otherwise indicated. They supplied this data even when not applicable to the particular case.[2. The Fifteenth-Century Inquisitions post mortem: A Companion, ed.M.A. Hicks (Woodbridge, 2012), 23.] Conventions also applied to proofs of age: interestingly different from IPMs. Because men took control of their wives' property, they almost invariably initiated proofs of age for their heiress wives and are named in the proofs. We therefore know that these particular girls were already married and to whom. Early proofs often relate to the birth itself.[3. W.S. Deller, ‘The First Rite of Passage: Baptism in Medieval Memory', Journal of Family History 36.3 (2011), 1-2.] Fifteenth-century ones generally prefer the more public ceremony of baptism, usually on the day of birth or next day. Obvious exceptions are for those who became heirs subsequently, usually heiresses, for whom there was no pressing need to record dates of birth: obvious examples are Christine and Ellen Sumpter, whose brother John was still living when they were born. There had been no incentive – no profit – in marketing their marriages until too late – they were already of age. Generally male heirs must also have been married – it was a foolish custodian who had not married off his ward before he came of age and who thus failed to maximise his investment!– but since the male heirs took control of their inheritances in person, the fact of their marriage was immaterial to the crown and was therefore not reported in the proofs of age, to our loss. Moreover mothers are rarely mentioned – normally only when the inheritance at issue was via the mother as stated in the writ initiating the proof.
This brief study considers some of the conventions revealed by intensive study of proofs of age, particularly those relating to baptisms. An earlier study by John Bedell of proofs of age for 1272-1327 outlined the beginnings of a hybrid system that strangely married ecclesiastical procedures with the juries required by the common law.[4. J.Bedell, ‘Memory and Proofs of Age in England 1272-1327', Past and Present 162 (1999), 3-27] William Deller has published three articles from the origin of the procedures through to 1430 and promises a full-scale study.[5. W.S. Deller, ‘First Rite'; ‘Thirteenth-Century Proofs of Age: The Development of a Hybrid Legal Form', Journal of Legal History 31.3 (2010); ‘The Texture of Literacy in the Testimonies of Late-Medieval English Proof-of-Age Jurors, 1270 to 1430', Journal of Medieval History 38.2 (2012).] Matthew Holford has studied early fifteenth-century proofs and in particular their reliability.[6. M. Holford, ‘Testimony (to some extent fictitious): Proofs of Age in the First Half of the Fifteenth Century', Historical Research 82 (2008), 635-54.] Bronach Kane updates what happened in late medieval church courts.[7. B.Kane, Custom, Memory and Knowledge in the Medieval English Church Courts', Clergy, Church and Society in England and Wales c.1200-1800, ed. R.C.E. Hayes and W.J. Sheils, Borthwick Texts and Studies 41 (York, 2013), 61-79.] Evidently proofs of age and the accompanying conventions developed over the fourteenth century as this discussion indicates.
Medieval people were often uncertain of their ages, their dates of birth, and even their birthdays. There were no parish registers until 1538 and civil registration was introduced only in 1837. The timing of births was difficult to predict – babies still emerge at all times of the day or night, premature or overdue – but live births in the middle ages were always followed rapidly by baptism. Weak children could be baptised by the midwife or even a layman, but none such are recorded in the proofs of age, perhaps because such weak aristocratic infants did indeed perish. Of course mothers also could die in childbirth, but any such events also went unrecorded. Baptism normally occurred at the font in the parish church at a service conducted by a clergyman – the rector/ vicar, chaplain, bishop, abbot or prior, normally (but not always explicitly) a priest. Top people, the Church accepted, deserved to be christened by higher clergy, Richard Beauchamp for instance by Bishop Henry Wakefield.[8. CIPM xviii.855.] Baptism was a sacrament – one of the seven sacraments – and admitted the infant to the Church and made him/ her capable of salvation. In lay parlance, it made the baby into a Christian: explicitly stated in some cases,[9. E.g. CIPM xxii.223; xxiv.268-9; Deller, ‘First Rite', 4.] merely a matter for joy in many other proofs. It was this that the Church wanted to register– it was a formal message to God and St Peter - and the priest, godparents, and any records demonstrated what had happened.
Fifteenth-century baptisms were conducted with ceremony, especially the aristocratic ones recorded in the proofs of age. Then as now there were conventions about baptism, which evolved over time.[10. Deller, ‘First Rite', 1-12.] Both genders participated. Far from discriminating systematically against women, the Church actually accepted female midwives (obstetrixes), female testatrixes, executrixes, suitors, deponents, patronesses, and benefactresses. Messengers were despatched to the father, grandfather and proposed godparents, both male and female. Godparents were selected and summoned – neither the actual date and gender of the baby, which affected the choice of godparents, could be known in advance. The parish clerk was required to ring the bells and to hold the book for the priest.[11. CIPM xxiii.141, 307, 315, 413, 595; xxvi. 147, 251, ] The infant was borne into the church by the midwife or another female – the mother never attended, both because exhausted/ immobile and impure – and was preceded by unlit torches (up to six).[12. CIPM xxii.368, 829.] He or she was lifted to the font by the godmother[13. CIPM xxii.368, 829.] and often named by the godparents.[14. CIPM xxii. 368-9; xxiii.314; see also J.Garrett, ‘Spiritual Kinship, Godparenthood, and Proofs of Age of Heirs to Northumberland Estates, 1401-72', Northern History xlix (2012), 186] Others bore candles, the basin and ewer needed for the godparents to wash their hands, and the wine for all to drink. Leaving the church, the child was preceded by the torches, now lit,[15. CIPM xxii.368.] and select guests were entertained to dinner. The proofs record many gifts from godparents – most often silver goblets.[16. CIPM xxii.226, 227, 230, 358, 674; xxvi.155, 245, 251] Often, unprompted, the celebrant recorded the name, date and year of the baptism in a book: the parish bible, missal, martyrologium, or great breviary.[17. E.g. CIPM xviii.309, 311, 315, 530, 998; xxiii.602, 716; xxvi.335; see also Deller, ‘Texture of Literacy'.] Sometimes he was prompted. Sometimes others recorded these details in their books of hours. Indeed in two occasions, in both Herefordshire and Wiltshire, a godfather ordered three or more observers to record the christening in their own books, presumably primers.[18. CIPM xvi.778, 786.] Although such books are generally lost,[19. For exceptions, see e.g. Blackburn's “Worthy Citizen”: The Philanthropic Legacy of R.E. Hart, ed. C. Johnston and S.J. Biggs (Exhibition Catalogue, London, 2013), 21.] it is safe to presume that only the baptisms of the important were always recorded somewhere, not the universal registration expected from 1538, but not fully achieved till long after.
Quite why the baptism was recorded on such occasions is not at all sure. As we shall see the records themselves had no formal status. They were reminders reinforcing memory – the private ones registering birthdays and the inscriptions in service books potentially recording the year of birth for future proofs of age - but apparently they had no standing at law. Those testifying in church courts remembered their ages, not usually with reference to such notes, nor even parish registers, but with reference to other events that prompted their memories. [20. Kane, ‘Custom, Memory and Knowledge in the Medieval English Church Courts', Clergy, Church and Society in England and Wales c.1200-1800, ed. Rosemary C.E. Hayes and William J. Sheils, Borthwick Texts and Studies 41 (York, 2013), 61-79.] No use was made of them either in proofs of age. Proofs never referred directly to the record, which one might suppose was evidence enough, but to the testimony of somebody who recalled the priest (or another) making his notes in the service book.[21. E.g. CIPM xxiv.560; xxii.530.] No change here: ‘it seems clear from reading these documents', wrote Bedell, ‘that the judges did not regard documentary evidence as the best testimony'.[22. Bedell,'Memory', 24.] ‘The insistence of many jurors on narrating a story of the original writing of a missal entry – which they invariably witnessed with their own eyes – showed a continuing reluctance [after 1400] by jurors and recorders to allow written evidence to stand on its own'.[23. Deller, ‘Texture of Literacy', 212, 227.] In contrast to the earlier period, [24. Bedell, ‘Memory', 18.] no use was made of the testimony of priests and godparents. The promises that godparents made were of purely spiritual significance: their sponsorship of the baby was reported by others, virtually never by godparents in person.
What was written down was the date of baptism, never the birth, though often these were identical. Baptism was therefore the focus of the proof of age. Before soliciting the royal writ de etate probanda, the heir or his custodian needed to establish where the heir was born, so that the writ was sent to the right county and the escheator held his inquiry in the correct church. Sometimes they got it wrong.[25. CIPM xviii.309.] Proving the proof focused on the baptism at the church where it was conducted. The crown accepted the fact of baptism in church as proof of age. It also accepted testimony that the baby was the offspring of his parents without debate. The Sumpter case showed that the baptisms of the two girls at Colchester proved not just their ages but also their parentage and their legitimacy.[26. CIPM xxii.829-30; xxv.`132.] The crown accepted the Church's nullification of marriages and the bastardy of the offspring of such unions.
Birth was a male free zone, yet the proofs of age, unlike the actual baptism, relied purely on the testimony of men. Masculine witnesses admittedly sometimes referred to what they hold been told by the midwife, wives or other women attendant on the birth or the wetnurse.[27. CIPM xviii.315, 995; xxii.228, 231, 368;xxiv.400.] They could testify to any screams of labour or cries of the infant that reached their own ears.[28. CIPM xxii.829.] There are parallels here in the church courts, where women rarely testified, ‘cases concerning local custom relying on male deponents almost without exception ... Male witnesses acknowledged women as oral informants, but only as mothers or in old age'.[29. Kane, ‘Custom', 70.]
Most strikingly the inscriptions in missals, bibles, breviaries and primers were not consulted. Often enough witnesses reported seeing such records being made, between 1399 and 1447, but only very rarely was the book directly consulted for the purpose of the proof.[30. CIPM xviii.309, 530.] Much the same is true of the church courts. Whilst clerics often drew on church records, sometimes written by themselves, lay witnesses deny any knowledge beyond that they had seen or heard: the act of induction or appointment of a proctor, not the document itself. [31. Kane, ‘Custom', 76.]
Given that the proof was held in the church where the service book surely still survived, this is a remarkable convention. If culture was still oral in 1300, as Bedell opines,[32. Bedell, ‘Memory', 26.] it was decidedly literate by 1400. That memories of the record carried more weight than the records themselves seems anomalous. Often witnesses prompted their memories with reference to indentures of apprenticeship or title deeds, yet these too were rarely produced – whereas at inquisitions post mortem they increasingly were. The IPMs of Henry Duke of Warwick (d. 1446) frequently refer to documents that were shown to the jurors: they were not exceptional in recording at length past conveyances that had been explained to them.[33. CIPM xxvi.592.] Testimony was enough of onlookers and passers by, who often referred themselves to accidents, earthquakes, battles, floods and other events that can seldom be dated precisely. In almost every case there should have been an inquisition post mortem of the deceased tenant – or a clutch of IPMs – that certified the age and date of birth of the heir. These also were never admitted as evidence:[34. References to the IPMs were never common, Deller, ‘Thirteenth Century Proofs of Age', 250.] they may nevertheless have informed the heir, his guardian, and the escheator. Errors in such IPMs were often corrected silently at the proof of age.[35. E.g. CIPM xviii.666.]
Moreover the officiating priest never testified, nor did any other clergyman present – whom one might suppose were expert witnesses. Parish clerks quite frequently did testify:[36. CIPM xxii.527.] these parish dogsbodies held office for decades.[37. P. Heath, The English Parish Clergy on the Eve of the Reformation (London, 1969), 19-20.] Sometimes they were in post from the baptism until the proof.[38. E.g. CIPM xxiii.595.] Although tonsured, able to read, and eligible for benefit of clergy, parish clerks were allowed to marry – they had not yet crossed the line that made them celibate clergy. Perhaps the convention had become that witnesses must be laymen or, at least, not clergy.[39. Obviously many ecclesiastical participants had been churchmen.] Some witnesses had been in the church at the crucial time – at the christening itself, at least as often at other baptisms, marriages, and funerals that same day. Amongst laymen, neither the godparents (the names of whom were required by the writ and who are sometimes stated to be still living)[40. E.g. CIPM xxii.224, xxv.296. This was a change from 13th-century practice.], nor the parents, nor the grandparents normally testified. Nor did the midwife, nor did any other women present at the birth or christening, nor indeed the wetnurse, who were nevertheless cited frequently at one remove: male witnesses often quoted what their wives had said. If the memories in the proofs of age are often unconvincing, this may be because everybody likely to be well-informed was debarred from testifying. Moreover many such births were less than notable at the time, because the baby at birth was not the heir, demanding less record in consequence, and became heir only later on the death of senior siblings. Ellen and Christine Sumpter again are good examples.[41. CIPM xxii.829-30.]
Normally medieval jurors were selected from those with special information and best placed to know. This applies to homage juries at manorial courts, to juries of presentment at quarter sessions and commissions of oyer and terminer, to trial juries at the central courts, to juries at coroners' inquests and at inquisitions post mortem. Such juries declared their view or judgement – their true bill (billa vera) or verdict – with a single voice. IPMs were formal records that were sealed and indented. Occasionally they might make partisan presentments or perverse judgements – IPMs might be formally traversed or jurors attainted– but their testimony was never systematically distorted, invented, concocted, or fictionalised as proofs of age apparently were.[42. Holford, ‘Testimony', 639-41; so too on occasion were church records, Kane, ‘Custom', 68.] Evidently juries at proofs of age were different. Originally jurors for proofs of age were also ‘the lawful men of the neighbourhood', [43. Bedell, ‘Memory', 6.] but they always testified not as a group but as individuals. Such practices also applied in the very different circumstances of bishops' visitations to monasteries and in the House of Lords. Jurors at proofs were not a defined category – not all the monks, Lords, or local elite – but of those incidentally in the church at the time. Therefore they included many servants, messengers, artisans and labourers decidedly lower in rank than the office-holding local elites (the middling sort) who sat on other juries. The barons, knights and priors of the earlier period have disappeared.[44. The cultural diversity had disappeared, Bedell, ‘Memory', 7.] Jurors also had to be still available – alive and still local – 14, 16 or 21 years after the event. Similarly rank did not qualify deponents in church courts, but rather seniority, enduring residence from youth to age, expertise in agricultural practices and on the locality.[45. Kane, ‘Custom', 72-4.] However proof jurors did not appear particularly well-informed. Starting perhaps under Edward II (but Deller suspects earlier examples),[46. Deller, ‘Thirteenth-Century Proofs of Age', 261.] the proofs increasingly draw on what Bedell called stock memories that have caused fifteenth-century historians to doubt their veracity.[47. Bedell, ‘Memory', 11; Holford, ‘Testimony', 640.] Perhaps the later jurors lacked the integrity of their social superiors – although the reproduction of earlier proofs suggests that any fictionalising was actually the work of the escheator or his clerk. By the fifteenth century such practices applied to every shire. How the conventions changed and how they became standardised everywhere has implications for contemporary culture that extend far beyond the proofs of age. It was obviously easier earlier when there were only two escheatries.
Quite why testimonies in IPMs differed from proofs is unclear. There was nothing in the writs de etate probanda that required them or any of the other conventions discussed here. Deller traces the development of the original conventions and explains them by the interaction of royal insistence and the search of the jurors for acceptable answers.[48. Deller, ‘Thirteenth Century Proofs of Age'. ] When and why the conventions evolved is not yet published. Backtracking through the calendars and original IPMs may reveal when this difference – and these conventions - became established and perhaps why. Deller may have already done this. The changes were not because the crown changed its instructions: changing procedures indicate changing attitudes – judgements of what was appropriate – and these changes, which started somewhere, spread nationwide. That such attitudes were widespread and extended beyond the particular circumstances of proof of age is indicated by the reliance of the church courts on memory of events rather than precisely dated records. Perhaps this was a reason why parish registers only gradually caught on after 1538.
English medieval culture can be better understood as historians identify further standards, values, assumptions, conventions and procedures from their researches. Changes in procedures that mark modification of conventions may well signal changes in the intellectual climate, of standards, values, and social attitudes. IPMs and proofs of age are rich sources for this kind of study and as further researches take place, so more such insights can be developed. Such commonplace events as baptisms, remarriages, and churchings are capable of yielding more secrets and allowing historians access not only to the application of feudal law but to such topics as family formation and familial relations.