Friday, September 15, 2006


I have more or less given up on the National Trust: a visit to one of their historical properties feels to me increasingly like a visit to a Departmental store. Everything is tasteful, quite beautifully presented, and an attentive staff will keep you from straying, and tell you everything you want to know. So I'm increasingly getting my jolts of less mediated history from local churches. You may not be able to get in, there's often no way of knowing what you will see there, and you never quite know whether to believe what the (quite frequently admirably learned) church guide says.

The font above is in Bramley Church: Norman, in that Purbeck marble that is full of fossils of the snail Viviparus. The wooden lid is very old, and seems to be a rare survival of a 12th century edict that fonts, with their contents of Holy Water, should be locked. Here, the hasp for the padlock survives, to retro-fit this, the Norman font was crudely hacked down to shape.

This was to prevent the theft of Holy Water. Obviously, the Holy Water was invested with a lot of mana. Prior to baptism, the child might go to hell, after it, the child could be among the blessed. So one can readily imagine that people would think that something that can deliver you from eternal death might be quite curative: 'I'll get some and pour it on my gammy leg...'

Magical medicine is one step to what could be construed as witchcraft. The church guide at Bramley alleges that the 12th century edict was to prevent witches stealing Holy Water to use in their spells. In terms of chronology, this looks to me like a later development, when a slippage from semi-religious healing to deliberate desecration could be imagined. Even so, the Medieval mind was determined to keep Holy Water where it should be.

The other, chalice-like object is at Crondall church. Again, something that I'd never heard of nor seen before: it is 1648, and the pendulum has swung to the other extreme. The object does not express fear that the Holy Water in the font might be contaminated, but rather fear of contamination by that Holy Water: this is a font to fit inside the font, a new Puritan font untainted by any residues left by Catholic ceremony: who knows, there might be specks of chrism blessed by a Catholic Bishop floating around in there!

The wikipedia entry on baptism looks good (and if you can find a citation on a baptism using antifreeze being accepted as valid, the author would clearly be pleased to have it)

As usual, the 1912 Catholic Encyclopaedia has the authoritative word on the minutiae on what is vaid and what is not: beer will just not do, it seems.

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