(This is the fourth installment in an ongoing blog series in which Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is employed for illustrative etchings of the history of fairy magic and folklore. Previous blog entries have introduced British fairies, surveyed operations and substances for seeing spirits, and précised links between the Fae and the dead.)
‘There was once a Christian named Julius Caesar–Forgive me…who landed in England and was met by three gentleman all named John Hollyshoes–Forgive me, that…that was not what I meant to say .The Master of the Castle of Pity Me had a magical ring that was stolen by his daughter and eaten by a Christian Goose at St. Matthews feast…’
It is evident from the above quote that neither Caesar nor a goose can rightly be called members of any Christian church, sect, or denomination. The Fair Folk in Susanna Clarke’s world of returning English magic use the term ‘Christian’ more broadly to refer to mortals, or perhaps the beings of this human world rather than of Faerie. Yet the tangled rosy words of Lady Pole provide an entrance – through their frantic stitch-work and thorny (mis)pronouncements – to discuss the history of magical folkways concerning baptism, animals, and spirits of the Fae.
Historically, the rite of baptism can be considered to have provided four central and interweaving functions: it protected the child from malevolent influences; it saved the child from an afterlife of Purgatory or worse; it blessed the child to grow strong, healthy, and pious; and it admitted the child into the body of the Church, granting them a Christian identity in both name and soul.
These first two functions, the protective and the eschatological/soteriological, can be observed in the understandings of what happened to those children who died without being blessed by the lustral waters of the holy font.
‘All over Europe from Ancient to modern times, one finds this belief that the spirits of the unbaptized were never at rest and could and did come back to haunt the living and especially their families. In variations of this idea, they could be folletti or feux follets – spirits waylaying travellers at nightfall, water-spirits, other kinds of fairy, shooting stars, supernatural hounds, werewolves, participants in the Wild Hunt, birds, moths or butterflies… They might also manifest themselves as half-animal, half-human creatures who returned to houses during the Twelve Days of Christmas, creating a minor nuisance, putting out the fire, spoiling food and so on, but also reproaching their parents for failing to baptize them and trying to steal any new-born babies who had superseded them.’ [Stephen Wilson, The Magical Universe: Everyday Ritual and Magic in Pre-Modern Europe (Hambledon and London: London, 2004), 216]
It is especially fascinating to note that such unbaptized children might become a sort of fairy themselves, offering yet another perspective on why fairies might be interested in children and the stealing thereof. Likewise, there is a hierarchy of being asserted in the bestial ‘half-animal’ forms of such wicked child-spirits – to be unbaptized was to be in some respects more animal than human. But perhaps the main point worth making is that preventing a child from becoming a wayward spirit also protected future children from being preyed upon. As late as 1811, ‘Highlanders regarded the rite of baptism as a means of disarming fairies and other sprites dangerous to newborn babies’. [Wilson, Magical Universe, 215 n 1]
A naming ceremony is a profound way to mark admittance into the congregation of the Church. Indeed there was a commonplace notion that ‘prior to baptism the child is thought to have no soul’. [Wilson, Magical Universe, 217] As such, there was a sense that personhood itself was bestowed in the act of baptism. This process of ‘person-ing’ the baptised can well be seen as a component in justifications of such blessings of beasts.
Animals were absolutely baptized – yet doing so certainly could be proof of wicked ways. In his autobiography, the famed seventeenth-century astrologer William Lilly mentions testifying against ‘one Isaac Antrobus, parson of Egremond, a most evil liver, bold, and very rich’: along with charges of ‘being a continual drunkard’, engaging in a threesome with a woman and her daughter, and never preaching, Lilly apparently solicited ‘that Antrobus baptized a cock, and called him Peter.’ [William Lilly, History of His Life and Times (London, 1715), 97-98] To bestow such a sacred Christian sacrament upon a mere cockerel was hardly the action of a sober, pious or responsible minister.
However, we would do well to bear in mind such rituals were not necessarily committed blasphemously or satirically, but sincerely and with real intention to imbue the beast with similar protections afforded a child. As Keith Thomas has pointed out:
‘Particularly common was the idea that animals might benefit from the ceremony. It is possible that some of the numerous cases recorded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries of attempts to baptize dogs, cats, sheep and horses may not have arisen from drunkenness or Puritan mockery of Anglican ceremonies, but have reflected the old superstition that the ritual had about it a physical efficacy which could be directed to any living creature.’ [Keith Thomas, Religion and the Decline of Magic (Penguin: London, 1973: 1991), 41]
I leave you with an especially diabolic magical example of animal baptism. Like the story of Mr Norrell, it concerns the conjuring of a spirit to perform a magical task who demands in exchange a steep ransom measured in human life. In a reversal of the story of Strange – being bested by an unfair (indeed, unknown) deal with the Gentleman – a troupe of treasure-hunters apparently beat their conjured spirit in a battle of wits by gaming the letter rather than spirit of a pact and its price:
‘Divinatory conjuration could, of course, be used for other purposes as well, such as finding buried treasure. A group of men were tried in Norfolk in 1465 for using necromancy to discover such a trove. Allegedly they invoked and made sacrifice to accursed spirits. When a spiritus aerialis appeared, at Bunwell, they promised it the body of a Christian man in exchange for its leading them to treasure; the spirit revealed in a crystal the location of a hill filled with treasure, whereupon the adventurers baptized a rooster with a Christian name and sacrificed it to the spirit.’ [Richard Kieckhefer, Forbidden Rites: A Necromancer’s Manual of the Fifteenth Century (Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, 1997), 102]