In the early Christian church, BAPTISM was only intended for adults. Their "godparents" were witnesses and vouched for the person's commitment, as expressed by the Latin legal term sponsor. As early as the end of the second century, baptism for infants appeared in Christian communities; the practice was believed to chase away the evil spirits present in every newborn baby. At the end of the fourth century, Saint Augustine enforced the rule of child baptism. At the time, parents were their own children's godparents. Between the sixth and eighth centuries, as child baptism became more widespread in Europe, the idea spread that for a child to have a spiritual rebirth, it needed to have new parents. Godparenting by parents was abandoned and even forbidden by the Mayence Council of 819, a law that endures to this day. A spiritual relationship, quite distinct from a blood relationship, is therefore created. The Church gives a it very specific religious goal: to ensure the Christian education of the child.

The metaphor of baptism as a second birth was expressed concretely in the beliefs and customary practices that made up the godparenting ceremony. Godfathers and godmothers were supposed to re-create the child and pass along some of their own personal qualities. Spiritual heredity was passed on in the NAMING of the godchild, in observance of prescribed customs or prohibitions, and through the giving of ritual gifts. These might include coins, medals, or crosses, cups, or silverware, first shoes, and first underwear for boys or earrings for girls. It was the duty of the godparents to help their godchildren become accomplished men and women until the child's marriage, which marked the end and the crowning of their ritual role. This relationship was considered sacred and was exhibited in the respect the godchild showed the godparents. The godchild's obligations reflected those of the godparents, and they were considered to be linked into the afterlife. Through baptism, the godparent opened eternal life to the godchild, and in return the godchild found favor and approbation for the godparent's soul in heaven.

The sharing of a child's double-birth created ties of co-parenthood between parents and godparents, the Christian form of ritual fraternities. This friendship was considered sacred, "to the life, to the death," with obligations of solidarity. Parents and godparents called each other "co-mother" and "co-father," addressed each other formally with mutual respect, and were forbidden to have sexual contact with one another, at the risk of committing INCEST. Such sexual prohibitions transformed the relationship into a spiritual parenting, considered superior to biological parenting. A sexual prohibition concerning a godfather and his goddaughter was enacted by Justinian in 530, and did not disappear in the West until 1983. In 692, the Council of Byzantium extended this restriction to the goddaughter's mother, and this lasted until 1917.

In medieval Europe, godparenting relations therefore created a network of friends, whether the godparent was chosen from the same social circle or among more prominent people (clergymen, nobles, or bourgeois) whose reputations were measured by the number of godchildren they had. In this case, their relationships were similar to those of patronage. Among Joan of Arc's eight godmothers, one was the wife of the mayor of Domremy, another the wife of the court clerk, and one of her four godfathers was town prosecutor with her father. Co-parents among Florentine merchants during the fifteenth century were useful politically, and mostly appeared in groups of two or three. But the record is held by a child who was given twenty-two godfathers and three godmothers in 1445. The Council of Trent (1545–1563) limited the number of spiritual parents to two godfathers and one godmother for boys, and two godmothers and one godfather for girls. It also limited the sexual prohibitions that had proliferated throughout the Middle Ages.

Though the close relationship between godparents and parents endured in southern Europe and South America, where ethnologists have studied it exhaustively, it slowly disappeared in western Europe during the Renaissance. First among the aristocracy, and then in the other social groups, only one godfather and godmother were chosen from the immediate family, one belonging to the father's family and the other to the mother's. In France the custom was that the eldest child should have his or her paternal grandfather as a godfather, and his or her maternal grandmother as a godmother. For the second born it would be the opposite (maternal grandfather, paternal grandmother). For later children, or if one of the grandparents had already died, the parents' brothers and brothers-in-law, then their sisters and sisters-in-law would be chosen, keeping a balance between maternal and paternal lines. The youngest children's godparents were often their own older siblings. This tying of parental spirituality to biological parenting–characteristic of western Europe–is related, among other things, to an imperative shared by many societies: that of having one's offspring named after their ancestors. Homonymy between godfathers and godsons first appeared in western Europe, in contrast with the Balkans, where godfathers were most often chosen outside the family. There a godfather would not name his godson after himself: the family would choose a first name for the child.

Today, even though practicing Christians are a minority in Europe, close to two-thirds of Christian children are christened in France before the age of two, and the proportions are higher in Spain and Italy. Often without going as far as baptizing the child, parents will designate a godfather and a godmother. A majority of children are thus still given godfathers and godmothers who are expected to stand in for the parents should they die. This commitment, which became widespread in the second half of the nineteenth century, was then and remains now largely unfulfilled, although starting in the eighteenth century, the law stipulated that orphans would be placed with a family member designated by the family. The tradition continues to favor choosing godfathers and godmothers from among close relatives or close friends, always considering the balance between maternal and paternal lines. The choice of a godparent generally creates emotion and gratitude in proportion to the importance ascribed to this symbolic gift of a child. It allows a family to transform a close friend into a relative, and relatives into friends. Often, privileged ties of complicity and affection develop between godparents and their godchildren. In the framework of the varying contemporary family configurations typical of Western societies, godparenting appears as a privileged, choice-based relationship created for the protection of the child. It could not enjoy such vitality in modern secular societies if it did not continue to convey values embedded in more than fifteen centuries of history.

See also: Catholicism; Parenting.


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