In the early Christian church, baptism was only intended for adults. Their "godparents" were witnesses and vouched for the person's commitment, as expressed by the Latin legal term sponsor. As early as the end of the second century, baptism for infants appeared in Christian communities; the practice was believed to chase away the evil spirits present in every newborn baby. At the end of the fourth century, Saint Augustine enforced the rule of child baptism. At the time, parents were their own children's godparents. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, as child baptism became more widespread in Europe, the idea spread that for a child to have a spiritual rebirth, it needed to have new parents. Godparenting by parents was abandoned and even forbidden by the Mayence Council of 819, a law that endures to this day. A spiritual relationship, quite distinct from a blood relationship, is therefore created. The Church gives a it very specific religious goal: to ensure the Christian education of the child.
The metaphor of baptism as a second birth was expressed concretely in the beliefs and customary practices that made up the godparenting ceremony. Godfathers and godmothers were supposed to re-create the child and pass along some of their own personal qualities. Spiritual heredity was passed on in the naming of the godchild, in observance of prescribed customs or prohibitions, and through the giving of ritual gifts. These might include coins, medals, or crosses, cups, or silverware, first shoes, and first underwear for boys or earrings for girls. It was the duty of the godparents to help their godchildren become accomplished men and women until the child's marriage, which marked the end and the crowning of their ritual role. This relationship was considered sacred and was exhibited in the respect the godchild showed the godparents. The godchild's obligations reflected those of the godparents, and they were considered to be linked into the afterlife. Through baptism, the godparent opened eternal life to the godchild, and in return the godchild found favor and approbation for the godparent's soul in heaven.
The sharing of a child's double-birth created ties of co-parenthood between parents and godparents, the Christian form of ritual fraternities. This friendship was considered sacred, "to the life, to the death," with obligations of solidarity. Parents and godparents called each other "co-mother" and "co-father," addressed each other formally with mutual respect, and were forbidden to have sexual contact with one another, at the risk of committing incest. Such sexual prohibitions transformed the relationship into a spiritual parenting, considered superior to biological parenting. A sexual prohibition concerning a godfather and his goddaughter was enacted by Justinian in 530, and did not disappear in the West until 1983. In 692, the Council of Byzantium extended this restriction to the goddaughter's mother, and this lasted until 1917.
In medieval Europe, godparenting relations therefore created a network of friends, whether the godparent was chosen from the same social circle or among more prominent people (clergymen, nobles, or bourgeois) whose reputations were measured by the number of godchildren they had. In this case, their relationships were similar to those of patronage. Among Joan of Arc's eight godmothers, one was the wife of the mayor of Domremy, another the wife of the court clerk, and one of her four godfathers was town prosecutor with her father. Co-parents among Florentine merchants during the fifteenth century were useful politically, and mostly appeared in groups of two or three. But the record is held by a child who was given twenty-two godfathers and three godmothers in 1445. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) limited the number of spiritual parents to two godfathers and one godmother for boys, and two godmothers and one godfather for girls. It also limited the sexual prohibitions that had proliferated throughout the Middle Ages.
Though the close relationship between godparents and parents endured in southern Europe and South America, where ethnologists have studied it exhaustively, it slowly disappeared in western Europe during the Renaissance. First among the aristocracy, and then in the other social groups, only one godfather and godmother were chosen from the immediate family, one belonging to the father's family and the other to the mother's. In France the custom was that the eldest child should have his or her paternal grandfather as a godfather, and his or her maternal grandmother as a godmother. For the second born it would be the opposite (maternal grandfather, paternal grandmother). For later children, or if one of the grandparents had already died, the parents' brothers and brothers-in-law, then their sisters and sisters-in-law would be chosen, keeping a balance between maternal and paternal lines. The youngest children's godparents were often their own older siblings. This tying of parental spirituality to biological parenting–characteristic of western Europe–is related, among other things, to an imperative shared by many societies: that of having one's offspring named after their ancestors. Homonymy between godfathers and godsons first appeared in western Europe, in contrast with the Balkans, where godfathers were most often chosen outside the family. There a godfather would not name his godson after himself: the family would choose a first name for the child.
Today, even though practicing Christians are a minority in Europe, close to two-thirds of Christian children are christened in France before the age of two, and the proportions are higher in Spain and Italy. Often without going as far as baptizing the child, parents will designate a godfather and a godmother. A majority of children are thus still given godfathers and godmothers who are expected to stand in for the parents should they die. This commitment, which became widespread in the second half of the nineteenth century, was then and remains now largely unfulfilled, although starting in the eighteenth century, the law stipulated that orphans would be placed with a family member designated by the family. The tradition continues to favor choosing godfathers and godmothers from among close relatives or close friends, always considering the balance between maternal and paternal lines. The choice of a godparent generally creates emotion and gratitude in proportion to the importance ascribed to this symbolic gift of a child. It allows a family to transform a close friend into a relative, and relatives into friends. Often, privileged ties of complicity and affection develop between godparents and their godchildren. In the framework of the varying contemporary family configurations typical of Western societies, godparenting appears as a privileged, choice-based relationship created for the protection of the child. It could not enjoy such vitality in modern secular societies if it did not continue to convey values embedded in more than fifteen centuries of history.
See also: Catholicism; Parenting.
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Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. 1990. La maison et le nom. Paris: Ed. de l'EHESS.
Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. 1992. "Au péril des commères. L'alliance spirituelle par les femmes à Florence." Femmes, Mariages, lignages. XIIè–XIVè siècles. Mélanges offerts à Georges Duby. Brussels: De Boeck-Wesmaël.
Lynch, Joseph. 1986. Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Mintz, Sydney, and Eric Wolf. 1950. "An Analysis of Ritual Co-parenthood." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6: 341–368.
The assigning of godparents takes place when a couple selects another couple as sponsors for their child. The couple that accepts the invitation is then responsible for protecting the child and obliged to provide for the physical and spiritual needs of the infant, as well as religious instruction if the parents are absent. Thus, godparents are substitute parents and assume their responsibilities as needed, incorporating their new roles within the extended family (López 1999; Keefe, Padilla, and Carlos 1979).
The origin of godparenting is found in the religious institution of baptism. This ceremony, which usually takes place during the child's first year of life, is aimed at incorporating the child into the larger religious community and is commonly celebrated among Catholics. At the time of baptism, a priest, the child, the parents, and the godparents are present. Although parents customarily choose the godparents, if someone offers to be a godparent, the parents have a hard time not accepting. It is difficult to reject a godparenting request because the offer entails honor, security, social status, and economic well-being for the parties involved. To circumvent any offense derived from the selection process, the family sometimes unofficially has more than one pair of godparents.
Godparents and godchildren, as well as godparents and parents, are bound in a special spiritual kinship with well-established rights and obligations. In Mexico, for example, if the godchild gets sick, the godparents are supposed to take care of him or her, and if the child dies, the godparents prepare the grave (Rojas Gonzalez 1943). Also, frequent cooperation in moral and economic matters is expected. In addition, godparents should act as spiritual guides and authority in times of crisis or need (Pierson 1954). In the past, it was also customary for the children to kiss the hand of the godparents and accept their blessings.
The expectations of parents and godparents, based on the new kinship, have far-reaching consequences. The ground is set for the establishment of special relations as strong as any blood relationship (Rojas González 1943; Lewis 1951). The new relatives should not fight and should treat each other amiably and with respect. If the father dies, then the godfather should fix the corpse for burial, dig the grave (Magallón Junca 1966), and assume the responsibility of the godchild and its family, both spiritually and economically (Rojas González 1943).
The actual functions of godparenting have varied widely from its original purpose. The religious character has weakened and in many cases is confined to the initial baptism ceremony. However, as the religious significance declined, an important social link with many protective characteristics emerged. It has become important to choose godparents whose economic and social status enables them to fulfill their moral and spiritual responsibility to guide the children. Several functional concerns became stronger, creating different types of relationships. When families want to ensure their social position or expand their family network, they search for specific godparents who are more powerful than they are and will allow social climbing (vertical godparenting) (López 1999). At the same time, godparents may be selected from the same social class, a practice termed horizontal godparenting, which gives stability to the family (Foster 1969; Mintz and Wolf 1950). Another form of functional accommodation has been the creation of generational pairings when younger couples select older godparents to help them cope with the stress that accompanies the birth of a first child. Older, experienced godparents guide and reliably support the parents through this process.
From the Catholic point of view, baptism is a rite of initiation that signifies spiritual rebirth (Rojas González 1943). The biological father plays an important role in the process of conception, and the sponsor (godfather) is introduced as a spiritual father. This notion of sponsorship is not in the New Testament, and Canon Law refers to "custom" as the judicial basis upon which the precept rests (Mintz et al. 1950). Because it is a relic of the Old Testament, sponsorship may derive from the Jewish practice of circumcision, where a witness is required to hold the child undergoing the ritual. The term sponsor itself represents an adaptation of a term current in Roman legal terminology, where sponsio signified a contract enforced by religious rather than by legal sanctions (Mintz et al. 1950).
During the era of St. Augustine (354–430 C.E.), parents usually acted as sponsors for their own children. In special cases, like slaves' children or orphans, the sponsor could be a third person (Mintz et al. 1950). Roughly one hundred years later, the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527 to 565 C.E., first issued an edict prohibiting marriages between spiritual relatives. The terms compater and commuter appeared in 585 and 595 C.E. within the confines of the Western church. Thus, a separate set of sponsors tended to be a later development from a stage in which parents and sponsors were the same people, and this separation must have must have been effected within both Eastern and Western empires roughly between the first quarter of the fifth century C.E. and the end of the sixth century. Nevertheless, full acceptance of this separation and consequent exogamy took place only gradually. From the evidence noted by the Byzantine historian Procopius, we may judge that at the beginning of this period, godparents still actually adopted their children. But the Council of Munich, held in 813 C.E., prohibited parents from acting as sponsors for their own children altogether, and in the books of the Council of Metz of the same year, parents and sponsors are clearly separate terms. In fact, the Western church extended spiritual relationships to cover the officiating priest, the sponsors, the child, and the child's parents. As a result, the number of sponsors permitted was increased to the point of admitting between one and thirty baptismal sponsors (Mintz et al. 1950).
With the start of the feudal period, new rules governed the godparent relationship. The sponsorship of a feudal lord of their serfs included a great deal of manipulation of the labor force and its resources. Ownership of land was vested in the feudal lord. He also owned a share of the labor of the serfs who lived on his land. In return he granted the worker rights to use the land, ownership of certain tools, and the right to consume some goods that he produced. The compadre mechanism and its ritual kin correlates were a functioning part of the class system implicit in this basic relationship. To avoid abuse, Saxons restricted the number of baptismal sponsors to between seven and nine for nobles (i.e., people who belonged to the aristocracy), and to three for burghers (i.e., poor people from the town). Subsequently, the ritual was restricted only to blood relatives, to the baptizing priest, the child, the child's parents, and the child's sponsors.
In Europe, godparenting has generally been retained in its traditional form in areas of Spain, Italy, and the Balkan countries, where the development of industrial capitalism, the rise of a middle class, and the disintegration of the feudal order was slower. In fact, Robert Redfield (1930; in Lynch 1986) refers to godparenthood as a custom of southern rural Europe. These were the areas of Europe involved in the colonization of Latin America; as a result, these customs were transmitted, along with requiring the baptism of indigenous people to bring them into the fold of the Christian community as an addition to the faith and to insure a loyal work force for the Spanish conquerors.
Latin America Background
Godparenthood was imported to the Americas from Europe in the fifteenth century by the Hispanic colonizers as part of the process of domination and conquest. Actually, the Catholic baptism ceremony, mixed with the practical pagan rite of initiation, convinced the conquered, in almost all the towns established by Spain in the New World, of the importance of obedience, and evolved to become a basic institution of social support. In part, the success of the baptism rites grew out of their similarity to some pre-Colombian ceremonies, in which a specific character, sometimes human, some times animal, took charge of the protection of the newborn (Rojas González 1943).
Given the significance that godparenting had for the Europeans and for the New World Indians, and added to the social impact that the bond has in modern Latin America, the present institution is clearly a product of the mixture of Hispanic traditions and indigenous American ideas and practices, as well as their interpretation of Christian precepts. This interactive process made the institution of godparenting strong. It is retained today in many countries, including Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Panama, Peru, Honduras, and Mexico.
The custom, in the case of Mexico, extended to distinguish many people as potential godparents. The possibilities included the woman who cared for the child, a friend, or anyone willing to create a spiritual bond and social relations that would join them together. Also, as an added feature, at the end of the rite, the godfathers comply with the tradition of throwing coins to the children who attend. If this custom is not fulfilled, the belief is that the child will grow unhealthy, and he or she will turn out to be a miserable adult with a bad temper.
To be a godparent in Mexico traditionally included an eight-day ceremony, called compadretlacuas (banquet of the godfathers), invoking God, so that the child would be healthy and strong. The ceremony was sponsored by the midwife (godmother of lifting), the priest, and the guests (normally in couples), who were invited by the parents. All guests were to wash their hands and put flowers over the child's body and then present some clothes for the godchild. All clothes are then used to dress the child, even if this means putting one garment over many others, as a way of showing gratitude and acceptance of all spiritual relatives. The following act includes a domestic fire (a rustic metal stove, called anafre in Spanish) where the mother and godmothers prepare some tortillas filled with meat of which the priest offers four to the fire. While making the offering, the priest prays in totonaca (indigenous language), asking for health, well-being, obedience, good luck, and a long life for the infant. The set of rituals is said to achieve the goal of presenting the child to society and obtaining the acceptance of the group. In the days after the ceremony, the family of the godchild feeds all who come to the house (Castro 1986).
Although its basic values and other elements have been sustained, the vitality of the ceremony has diminished because it became prohibitively expensive to hold the banquet of the godparents. Additionally, contact with other customs and cultural groups and the encroachment of modern life explain why, in part, godparents, especially in modern, large, urban areas, no longer adhere to the religious objective of their role. However, the tradition persists as a part of the cultural inheritance that guarantees the protection and care of children.
Castro, C. A. (1986). Enero y Febrero: Ahijadero, el banquete de los compadres en la Sierra Norte de Puebla. University of Veracruz Library, Mexico.
Foster, G. M. (1969). "Godparents and Social Networks in Tzintzuntzan." Southwest Journal of Anthropology 25:261–278.
Keefe, S. E.; Padilla, A. M.; and Carlos, M. L. (1979). "The Mexican-American Extended Family as an Emotional Support System." Human Organization 38(2):144–152.
Lewis, O. (1951). Life in a Mexican Village. TepoztlánRestudied. Urbana-Champaign: University of Illinois Press.
López, R. A. (1999). "Las Comadres as a Social Support System." Journal of Women and Social Work 14(1):24–41.
Lynch, J. H. (1986). Godparents and Kinship in Early Medieval Europe. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Magallón Junca, C. (1966). El compadrazgo: su función en dos sectores de la población panameña. Unpublished thesis. National Autonomas University of Mexico.
Mintz, S. W., and Wolf, E. R. (1950). "An Analysis of Ritual Co-parenthood (compadrazgo)." Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 6:341–367.
Pierson, D. (1954). "Familia e compadrio numa comunidade rural paulista." Sociología 16(4):368–389.
Rojas González, F. (1943). "La institución del compadrazgo entre los indios de México." Revista Mexicana de Sociología 5(2):201–213.
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