Children and Medieval Christianity

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Children and Medieval Christianity

The Innocence of Children.

The notion of the innocence and purity of children was a concept which became connected to a host of medieval religious images. Beginning in the ninth century, children were depicted nude in art to signify their purity. They were often depicted as cherub-like or cupid-like angelic figures. Quite commonly, children were also connected to the notion of the infant Son of God. Many medieval monks claimed to have seen an infant in the consecrated bread during the liturgy at the moment of its ritual elevation by the priest. Familiar scripture quotations that supported the sacred role of children are still often cited: from Psalms 8:2–3 and Matthew 21:16, "out of the mouths of babes;" Psalms 85:12, "truth will spring from the ground;" and Mark 10:15 and Luke 18:17, "whoever does not receive the Kingdom of God as a little child." These scriptural ideas supported the special place children occupied in the medieval religious consciousness. Very young children were often asked to open the Bible at any spot they would choose, and adults would interpret the verse that appeared as some sort of prophecy in a divinatory process called the sortes biblicae.

Infant Baptism.

In spite of the apparent purity of intention and deed in small children, the medieval church held that they were inherently tainted by the doctrine of Original Sin, a state of separation from God that all people were born into as a result of the disobedience of Adam and Eve. By the early Middle Ages, infant baptism was standard practice. In fact, during that period it was generally believed that children who died unbaptized went to hell. In 830 Jonas of Orléans wrote, regarding the children of Christian parents, that it was "necessary that they be presented without delay to receive the gift of baptism, even if they do not yet speak. We are right to do this as children are guilty of the sins of others (original sin)." Failure to baptize a child was a serious matter. Most unbaptized children were not even allowed Christian burials in the early medieval period. Parents who neglected to have infant children baptized before death could be required to do penance up to seven years. Cemetery records throughout France after the Carolingian baptismal legislation was enacted strongly support claims of adherence to the practice of early baptism. Hincmar of Reims expressed similar sentiments around 850 in a letter to Loup de Ferrières: "If they die after having receiving the gift of baptism, they are saved by the will of God; on the other hand, deprived by God's judgment of this very gift of baptism, they are damned by the fault of hereditary sin."

Changing Regulations.

Rules regarding baptism and confirmation of children changed gradually throughout the Middle Ages. The liturgist Amalarius of Metz commented in the ninth century that baptism should take place at the ninth hour of a child's life, as it was during the ninth hour that Christ breathed his last on the cross. During the ninth century in England, both civil and religious regulations required baptism for Christian infants before they reached one month of age. Following such guidelines would, however, be almost impossible in France after the ninth century, since most baptisms there were performed only at Easter and Pentecost. In the High Middle Ages (after 1200) there were more widespread canons that required children to be baptized before the age of three. Formal creedal confessions more appropriate to adult initiates gave way to rites of exorcism, signing of the cross, and prayers for the infant, to be followed by confirmation of the child's baptism (which consisted of the laying on of hands and the bishop's anointing of the child using blessed oils) once the child reached the age of reason (normally seven or older). This practice became more common between the tenth century and the twelfth, when the doctrine of limbo puerorum was promulgated, stating that children who died unbaptized went to a state in the afterlife that was slightly removed from the sight of God, but where they were outside the torments of hell. Thomas Aquinas in the thirteenth century went so far as to suggest that those in limbo actually enjoyed a type of natural happiness. The notion of limbo remained a matter of evolving theological opinion throughout much of the medieval period. In contrast to the debate over baptism, however, many medieval Christians were not particularly concerned with the sacrament of confirmation. In the early Middle Ages, the reception of communion and penance usually did not occur until adulthood or adolescence, and, in fact, the Council of Tours in 813 had discouraged communion for children unless there were special circumstances warranting it. It was not until the thirteenth century that the Fourth Lateran Council decreed that all children past the age of seven should confess their sins and receive communion at least once a year.


Danièle Alexandre-Bidon, et al., Children in the Middle Ages (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000).

Loup de Ferrières, Correspondences. Trans. L. Levillain. Vol. II (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1964): 42–43.

Jonas d'Orléans, "De Institutione Laicali," in Patrologia Latina, as quoted in Daniele Alexandre-Bidon and Didier Lett, Children in the Middle Ages. Trans. Jody Gladding (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2000): 27.

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Children and Medieval Christianity

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