Carolyn Twomey, BC Ph.D candidate, reports on ACHA-funded research

Carolyn Twomey
Carolyn Twomey

Carolyn studies the history of religion in early medieval England. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in the Boston College History Department and a 2014-15 Mellon Junior Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research, University of London.

Medieval historians don’t often visit “traditional” archives.  Rather, because of the nature of our historical sources, we more frequently consult manuscripts and microfilm, and study images and objects that are curated in museums.  I am more likely to be found in an English parish church than among the papers of a modern archive, though I and other medievalists look upon such repositories with longing. This spring, however, I was able to approximate that research experience with a visit to the Baptisteria Sacra Index (BSI) at the University of Toronto thanks to the generous support of the ACHA.

My Ph.D. dissertation focuses on the history of baptism in England, from the Anglo-Saxon to the early Norman periods.  I am focusing my project on the different settings of the sacrament and examining how diverse materials and circumstances surrounding the ritual of baptism affected the long-term Christianization of England. Rather than exporting wholescale the continental tradition of the baptistery to England, missionaries were adopting local ritual contexts and everyday objects—such as rivers and portable vessels such as wooden barrels—for the baptism and conversion of adults and infants. By the end of my period of inquiry, baptism had become standardized in both liturgical and material practice with the proliferation of baptismal manuals and stone baptismal fonts in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. As a junior fellow at the Institute of Historical Research in London this year, I have been visiting English parish churches in northern England for the past year, traipsing through damp churchyards and documenting, photographing, and measuring surviving baptismal fonts. My visit to Toronto afforded me the chance to do a different kind of site research with, admittedly, a little less rain.

I traveled to Canada to consult the BSI, a digital database of medieval baptismal fonts operated by a small but dedicated academic team at the University of Toronto. Begun by Dr. Harriet Sonne de Torrens and Dr. Miguel Torrens, the BSI now contains over fifty thousand entries of baptismal fonts from medieval Europe defined, including font descriptions, dimensions, inscriptions, photographs, and bibliographic information for ornamented and unornamented baptismal fonts dated between the fourth and seventeenth centuries. The information comes from substantial site visits conducted by the husband and wife team across Europe as well as individual and collaborative research projects from historians and art historians working in different geographical fields. Though it is the long-term plan of the BSI to enable online searches of its vast, growing database, for now, the digital index is accessible only by personal visit to the University of Toronto.

With the help of the de Torrens, I was able to search the database for specific iconographic and dimensional (size and shape) patterns of medieval baptismal fonts, specifically early Norman fonts with architectural motifs like columns, arcading, as well as narrative iconographic scenes such as the baptism of Christ and episcopal figures. I was able to confirm three specific iconographic groups of fonts in Yorkshire, one of which included square fonts with geometric chip carving and columns from Marske-in-Cleveland, Upleatham, and Sneaton in the North Riding and Reighton in the East Riding. The BSI was able to tell me the original locations of fonts that were moved when churches were destroyed, disused, or renovated in the postmedieval period. The font now at St. Mark’s Church in Marske-in-Cleveland originally belonged to the medieval church of St. Germain further up on the cliffside, but became a cattle trough and flower pot in the nineteenth century after the church was torn down.

I am interested in Yorkshire baptismal fonts for what these large stones can tell us about the monumentalization of parish rights within the contexts of late eleventh and twelfth-century church building and elite patronage in early Norman England. Each of these four square fonts, for example, were part of churches donated to a monastery or priory around the first decades of the twelfth century, suggesting that the changing status of the church and the presence of new patrons encouraged the creation of a permanent baptismal place within the church. Despite an emphasis on the episcopal role in the provision of pastoral care at this time, it is increasingly apparent that baptismal fonts were not distributed top down from cathedral to parish church, but were products of local circumstances and a gradual process of parochialization. The movement to permanent stone fonts accompanied no corresponding liturgical change apparent in the textual sources; my study of the production of fonts around the historiographical divide of 1066 will provide a new interpretation of the solidification of pastoral care and baptismal material culture into the central Middle Ages.

The BSI allowed me to complete my case studies of baptismal fonts from Yorkshire and will allow me to compare my sample size with the wider corpus of medieval fonts from England and Europe as a whole. It is an invaluable resource for historians studying ecclesiastical history in the Middle Ages and I am grateful to the ACHA and both Harriet and Miguel de Torrens for their help and assistance in my visit. They were able to provide me with helpful advice for conducting my own site visits, points of comparison in other font groups from southern England and the continent pulled from their vast personal knowledge, as well as invaluable connections to a network of font enthusiasts—or, fonters—across Europe.

I am grateful to the ACHA for choosing to support medieval historians looking in untraditional places for their historical evidence. By using interdisciplinary methodology and evidence I will be able to reexamine an often-overlooked period of time of baptismal diversity between the late antique baptistery and later medieval font.