Baptismal practice and theology in 13th-century Italy

The 2013 Aquinas Lecture at the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology, given by Augustine Thompson, O.P., is a fascinating presentation of the baptismal theology and practice in Northern Italy in the 13th century.

Particularly interesting to me were 1) the way in which the theology in their baptismal practice differed from the scholastic theology of writers like Aquinas, being much more “communal” in its focus, and 2) the way in which the Church in Italy preserved well into the 13th century many elements of what we normally think of as Patristic initiatory practice, including the unity of baptism, confirmation and first eucharist and immersion as the norm for all baptisms. He also raises questions I had not thought of, such as the problem of getting infants to observe the eucharistic fast.

The whole lecture is interesting, but at least watch the section describing the celebration of the Easter Vigil, which begins around the 40 min. mark.


  1. Augustine Thomson, O.P. Cities of God: The Religion of the Italian Communes 1125-1325 is a great book.

    He focuses upon the ordinary religious life of the people. The result is very complex and challenging for all who might want to project our present discussions back upon the past or selectively invent pasts that are convenient to their present interests.

    My own interest is spirituality (how Christian life is actually lived) rather than theology. I think everyone whose primary interest is in spirituality in all its complexity will find this book fascinating and a source of illustrations when talking about spirituality to contemporary Christians.

    Perhaps after viewing the lecture I will have additional comments.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #1:
      It’s been a few years since I looked at Cities of God, but as I recall a good bit of the lecture reproduces the book.

      He does have some interesting speculations in the question and answer period about why Aquinas would have had a seemingly more “individualist” account of baptism, including not only the scholastic way of framing sacramental questions in terms of Aristotle’s four causes but also the fact that Aquinas was from one of the southern Italian kingdoms rather than a northern Italian commune.

  2. I’ve long believed that the difficulty of getting babies to fast was the impetus behind moving the Easter Vigil earlier in the day. But that is speculation on my part.

    1. @Rita Ferrone – comment #3:

      I’ve long believed that the difficulty of getting babies to fast was the impetus behind moving the Easter Vigil earlier in the day.

      The older discipline didn’t require fasting of those under age seven.

      However, it’s true that priests and monks had this motivation, and that may have been part of the reason for the shift to earlier in the morning.

  3. It amazes me that anybody might think that an infant might “fast” in any meaningful way. What did people in those days think was going on in infants’ minds? Or, if they didn’t assume that the infants knew what was going on, why would they impose a fast on the babes? What gain was it supposed to effect?

    1. @Ann Olivier – comment #6:
      I suspect that the question of “what was going on in people’s minds” was less important to them than the idea of corporate belonging. The Eucharistic fast was part of what it meant to belong to the community of the baptized; the infants were new members of the community of the baptized; ergo…

      There is a certain logic to it.

  4. I transcribed two short passages that I found interesting. First, at about 27:20, he is discussing the baptistery as a symbol – perhaps the symbol – of a city. And then, he shifts from the 13th century to the 15th:

    This lasting identification of the baptistery with the city saved many of these massive free-standing baptisteries from being pulled down after the Council of Trent, when baptismal churches proliferated, and when quiet, private baptism became the Catholic norm, even in Italy.

    … but he says nothing about why this shift from communal to private baptism took place.

    Then, just before 57.00, he picks the theme up again, in response to a question. Here he focuses on two changes: first, from a focus on baptism as incorporation in the civic body to a focus on baptism as forgiveness of sin. Second, the transformation of the Italian cities from republican city-states to states ruled by dukes or princes. The new rulers assiduously removed symbols that they saw as republican, including many baptisteries.

    The central ritual of the Italian cities in the late middle ages is [no longer baptism but] Corpus Christi, where everybody stands and watches the host – and the prince, on his horse – go by. That is a very different ceremony than making citizens at Easter.

    The closing of the formal lecture (from around 49:00) is well worth hearing. He suggests that the emphasis communal and civic dimensions of baptism – baptism as a public and corporate event – links 13th century Italy with the understanding of the Church as the people of God; he identifies this understanding with the second Vatican Council.

    Much food for thought here. Thanks for calling attention to this, Fritz!

  5. Fascinating stuff.

    In our parish, we celebrate infant baptisms on Sunday afternoons, after the schedule of Sunday morning masses. While the liturgies are public affairs, typically with 100 or so people attending (these comprising the “parties” of the 3-6 infants we baptize on a typical Sunday), we are considering making certain Sunday morning mass “slots” available for infant baptism – i.e. we would, semi-regularly, incorporate infant baptism into Sunday morning masses. We’d do this to supplement the existing practice, as the latter (separate baptism ceremony) is in line with the Church’s wishes.

    The initiative to baptize during Sunday mass arose from a desire to make the fullness of parish sacramental life more visible to the parish. This discussion of the public-initiation aspects of baptism seems to dovetail with our initiative.

  6. The lecture is good summary of what I would call the “particular baptismal spirituality” of these churches. However, there is a lot more to the book about Mass, the Divine Office, saints, the inquisition, etc. So don’t assume you have read the book after viewing the lecture.

    There have been many different “baptismal spiritualities” in Catholicism and Christianity. Thompson alludes to two. The spirituality of “delaying baptism until near death.” He says men were more likely to do this since they considered themselves unlikely to avoid serious evils like murder. Another was religious life as a “second baptism.” Thompson says those who were baptized close to death but recovered often decided to enter religious life.

    My own view of spiritualities has much in common with the idea of “organic lifeform” which Sandra Schneiders used to describe the varieties of religious life. Namely many spiritualities can be seen developing out of prior spiritualities, spiritual practices etc. to fill a particular niche in a particular society or age or a particular personality type. This particular “evolutionary” model does not assume that everything gets better in a absolute sense, only that things develop to fit their niches. When a niche disappears so may the spirituality, or at least it may decline.

    These cities are a very good example of a particular spirituality suited to a particular niche. While it all makes sense for them, this particular baptismal spirituality would not work very well in many places either before or after in history.

    Thompsons raises the question of how to place this particular spirituality into a larger context. He alludes to “Christendom” in the beginning and the “People of God” at the end, and when asked what about a universal church simply says that these cities were very city focused and often in conflict with other “cities of God” including Rome.

  7. My interpretation is much influenced by Brown’s new book Through the Eye of the Needle: Wealth, the Fall of Rome, and the Making of Christianity in the West, 350-550 AD . The Roman Empire delegated to local groups almost every task of government except the control of high justice and the army.

    Most of this delegation was done through cities as tax collectors for the empire. (Brown’s map of cities in the West is basically built upon a medieval map of the bishoprics which were their successors). Brown remarks that North Africa (similar to Thompson’s remark about Italy) were full of small cities and therefore bishops. In the case of Africa it was usually two completing bishops, one Catholic the other Donatist. These cities took remarkable pride in their churches and other public buildings. They considered themselves as self governing city states even as they competed with other cities through their citizens becoming part of the larger imperial bureaucracy.

    So I think we should see these cities as a particular development of a widespread city culture at the beginning of Christianity, rather than viewing it in terms of later conceptions of Christendom which I think are too influenced by modern notions of the nation state, and transnational corporations and Catholicism as a transnational quasi nation corporate state.

    1. @Jack Rakosky – comment #11:

      Brown shows how biblical notions of wealth and Roman notions of wealth influenced one another.

      I suspect a similar analysis could be done about the Roman notion of “plebs” and the biblical notion of “laos” as well as the city state notion of “ecclesia” and the biblical notion of “synagogue.”

      Although this is all political language, the Roman Greek language is all city state focused whereas the Hebrews had the idea of a people who could be gathered in various places (the diaspora) as well as being gathered in Jerusalem (tribes even all nations go up to Jerusalem).

    2. @Jack Rakosky – comment #11:

      “Brown remarks that North Africa (similar to Thompson’s remark about Italy) were full of small cities and therefore bishops.”

      Thank goodness, or where would modern-day auxiliary bishops and Curial officials get their titles from? 🙂

  8. I was only just alerted to this post. I thank the commentators for your useful and interesting comments. It might interest some that I am a student of P. Brown: he was one of my PhD orals examiners. I am truly flattered to be mentioned along with the great man.

    –AT op

    1. @Fr. Augustine Thompson, O.P. – comment #14:

      As a retired social scientist with an interdisciplinary doctorate in psychology and sociology I am only an amateur when it comes to history, although I recently did complete a master’s degree in spirituality at Notre Dame.

      I was completely unaware of your relationship to Peter Brown. But having read your book and many of his, it certainly makes sense.

      If I were making a list of the top one hundred books relevant to Catholic spiritualities from a social science perspective, I would list your book among the hundred along with several by Peter Brown.

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