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Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England (review)

From: Parergon
Volume 21, Number 1, January 2004
pp. 173-175 | 10.1353/pgn.2004.0094

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Reviews 173 Parergon 21.1 (2004) authors’ (p. 302). Ultimately, they find, the key gender-distinction was founded on a gap in social opportunity; a woman could be an ‘author’, but the ‘literary career’, a male prerogative, required ‘not only an individual calling but a right of literary inheritance and contemporary social position as a writer’ (p. 322). Although the vast national and historical range covered by its contributors may make the volume, taken as a whole, no easy read, it is well worth the effort; while specialist readers in the periods and national literatures represented in European Literary Careers should find individual essays to be well-researched and engagingly written. I strongly recommend this collection as an exemplary contribution to a the study of a fascinating aspect of literary culture, a collection which I predict will be the basis of extensive further research in years to come. Ivan Cañadas Department of English Hallym University Chunchon, South Korea Coster, Will, Baptism and Spiritual Kinship in Early Modern England, London, Ashgate, 2002; hardback; pp. xviii + 323; 1 b/w illustration; RRP £52.50; ISBN 0754605132. Godparenthood is a neglected aspect of pre-industrial society with the potential to illuminate much broader aspects of religious and social history. In a situation where kin links outside of the nuclear family are much less studied than those within it, an investigation of spiritual kin promises to be very fruitful and this book does not disappoint. Coster skillfully provides us with a developing argument about godparenthood in its religious context while educating us along the way with enormous amounts of information about this social institution. He exhibits deep learning – tracing the concept of spiritual kinship back to its roots in early Christianity. The result is a valuable and thorough account of a subject so far only covered in a limited few academic articles. Coster’s major theme is ‘the role of godparenthood as a mediating force between different social groups’ but it is, in fact, far more than a study of social relationships. As befits a book in a thriving series entitled ‘St Andrews Studies in Reformation History’, Coster has a lot to offer to the historian of religious change in the early modern era because godparenthood was associated with the more conservative elements of the church. Indeed, he shows that it was a practice eschewed by more radical Protestants. 174 Reviews Parergon 21.1 (2004) Godparenthood can also act as a marker of economic change. It seems to have been in the more urbanized and commercially progressive centres that the recording of godparents was more likely than in more isolated rural and upland parishes. An ecological analysis (now almost obligatory for works with a social and economic basis) considers three different Yorkshire parishes where godparenthood has been recorded. Bilton was a ‘close’ parish with mixed agriculture, Almondbury was an ‘open’ pastoral and cloth-working parish where there was a dense kinship linkage while St Margaret’s, York was a very mobile parish with the lowest kinship density of the three. This urban area had a poor population involved in small-scale industrial production that lived in cheap housing. Such detailed local analysis allows Coster to unveil some very specific findings about godparenthood. There are too many to reveal more than a sample here. One finding is the extent to which sponsors tended to be those of higher social status than the parents, rather than blood relatives. They often left bequests to their godchildren but there is little other evidence of material connection although the godparents of illegitimate or abandoned children were apt to have their duties spelled out to them when they were at the font. But generally, in the business of everyday life, spiritual kin did not replace relatives. Yet more intriguing details are revealed. For example, Coster’s data gives evidence of a gender divide emerging in the seventeenth century. Whereas godfathers did not seem to leave godchildren anything in their wills, godmothers were proving to be increasingly generous. As in any study where a phenomenon is related to several variables, contradictory trends emerge and Coster does not shy away from this. Indeed he accepts that some of his results may...