Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England

Article excerpt

Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England. By Will Coster. [St Andrews Studies in Reformation History.] (Brookfield, Vermont: The Ashgate Press. 2002. Pp. xviii, 323. $94.95.)

What social and religious changes occurred with the institution of sponsorship in baptism in England during the early modern era, and what do those changes tell us about the character of the English Reformation? Will Coster has sought to answer these questions by making a careful sample of the available evidence, principally parish registers, wills, and records from ecclesiastical courts. The result illustrates both the strengths and the limitations of a demographic approach to social and religious history.

He began with the assumptions of the "Revisionist School" of Reformation studies now in the ascendant. It holds that godparenthood, like many other traditional religious practices, held a strong place in the lives and affections of English people on the eve of the Reformation. The institution furnished "social and religious cement" with a "cohesive power" (pp. 7-8), linking families and people together with ties of spiritual fellowship. The arrival of Protestantism meant the diminution of those ties, and the weakening of that much-loved fellowship.

Coster set out to go beyond these romantic assumptions, and to test them by compiling statistics and examining several questions. Who served as godparents, where did they come from, what was their social status, what were their duties, how well did they perform them, and did they bequeath anything to their godchildren? He cast a wide net, taking statistics from wherever he could find them but devoting his greatest attention to three Yorkshire parishes, Bilton in Ainsty, Almondbury, and St. …

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