- Faith, Fiction, and Force in Medieval Baptism Debates by Marcia L. Colish
Baptism is not only the initiatory sacrament; it is for Christians of all stripes the indispensable sacrament for salvation—and not only for themselves, but for all of human kind, to whom Jesus commanded his followers to bring the good news and to baptize them. There is, then, a peculiar urgency about baptism that further distinguishes it from the other sacraments. As Marcia Colish argues in this very rich and rewarding book, modern Christian churches, including the Roman Catholic, tend to ignore or downplay the complexity of the historical evolution of this sacrament and especially of the intricate theological issues surrounding it. She rightly seeks to correct such facile assumptions and succeeds brilliantly in doing so. Furthermore, although most of her previous work has been in traditional intellectual history, here she seeks to contextualize the arguments of theologians within the very practical issues in the administration of the sacrament in three large and distinct [End Page 904] areas, each with its own particular story. The achievement generally lives up to the ambition. The reading of the primary sources is close and accurate, and the coverage of the pertinent literature is thorough and up-to-date. Along the way one learns a great deal that is not necessarily expected, such as on the differing approaches of scholars to medieval Judaism (pp. 233–35).
Naturally, there are flaws. The alluring alliterative title is in fact somewhat misleading and confusing. “Faith” refers to what is ordinarily known as “baptism by desire” (as the dustjacket in fact states); “fiction” embraces not only those who pretend to come to the font for deceitful purposes, such as theatrical performances of any sort in which baptism is enacted; and “force” here applies to those persons and groups, Jewish and “pagan,” who are compelled to undergo baptism. “Medieval” is also a trifle eccentric, for the period treated ranges from the patristic (especially post-Nicene and Latin) up to the early-fourteenth century. This terminus ad quem is not explained, and one wonders whether Colish makes the habitual assumption of “high medievalists” that late-medieval theology had nothing new to say. Nor is any explanation given for two omissions: baptism by blood (usually equated with martyrdom), although references to it occur on some fifty pages; and the issue of the presumed indelibility of the mark left by baptism on the soul. One might infer this character from the nonrepeatable nature of the rite evidently assumed from the very beginning of Christianity, but then one encounters this curious sentence in the discussion of Charlemagne and the conversion of the Saxons in the last quarter of the eighth century: “The Carolingians may have regarded baptism as an irreversible, once-in-a-lifetime event, a ritual that could not be undone, unlike penance or monastic profession. This distinction was lost on the Saxons” (p. 253). The words “may have” are equivocal but crucial (see also conflicting phrases on pp. 6 and 51) and reflect a more general unease about Colish’s treatment of Charlemagne and her understanding of “force” in the spread of Christianity. Although Charlemagne as a turning point in the subsequent history of forced baptism is important, he embodied the next stage in the gradual adoption of force or pressure once Christianity was becoming the obligatory religion of the Roman Empire, a process in which bishops played a central role. Colish also is insufficiently appreciative of the polytheistic mind-set (whether of the Saxons, the “Normans” [another equivocal term], or the Baltic peoples), for all of whom repudiation of once accepted gods was perfectly logical and did not necessarily involve duplicity. In the end, however, these are disagreements over emphasis and interpretation of but one aspect of what is otherwise a most impressive achievement for which we should be most thankful.