Baptism in Cider

BAPTISING IN CIDER: The internet is a great place for mythology to arise. A lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth can get its boots on, or so Churchill is supposed to have said (but probably didn’t). And today I have seen CAMRA repeat another fable, that children in 14th century Sussex were often baptised in cider. It has inspired me to put my historian hat on and do a bit of myth-busting.

The suggestion is that cider was known to be cleaner than water, and so it was the liquid of choice for the Christian ritual of purification. The perfect solution for welcoming a new soul into the church. Beer is often said to have been preferred to water on hygiene grounds too, but this is demonstrably false. Clean, potable water has been abundantly (and usually freely) available throughout history. Springs and wells were sources of fresh, clean drinking water just the same as they are today. And, surprise surprise, the fact that you didn’t have to pay for it made it significantly more accessible than beer or cider. Towns and villages sprung up around accessible sources of drinking water, and not by mere coincidence. It’s a prerequisite for human habitation.

cider apples

Access to drinking water

In larger towns, where a range of trades took place, you’ll see that the dirtier occupations were relegated to a station downriver of the main settlement. Tanners and dyers and the like (brewers too) were legally required to operate downstream in clearly defined areas so that the water from the rivers and streams could be safely drawn for household use. There is a nice article about the management of common resources in medieval Europe by Ulf Christian Ewert which gives an interesting flavour of the issues that surround this.

The more populated an area, the more problematic the management of resources like freshwater became. As you see the issue coming up time and again in town ordinances and other sources you can imagine the difficulties of getting unscrupulous (or just straight lazy) artisans to dispose of their wastewater responsibly, particularly at a time when domestic waste was quite often just dumped in the street – creating health and fire hazards.

However, we can see that water management infrastructure was always built. Sewers, drains, cisterns, canals – all of these elements show that running water was being managed, and diverted to trades where needed – and the polluted water being taken away as safely as was possible.

Why do we think no one drank water in the past?

Drinking water was accessible and (usually, hopefully) clean. Why do we all think people drank beer instead of water?

Well, two reasons really. Firstly, people didn’t really mention drinking water a lot in the sources because it was free and it doesn’t really taste of anything. Beer and cider taste nice, and they make your head go funny. That was more likely to be written down. And people with funny heads occasionally do naughty things, so they got written about and laws got made to keep them in check.

Then there is the question of payment in beer. There are plenty of sources recording part payment to labourers in terms of litres of small beer (a low alcohol beer) or cider (in traditional cider producing areas where it would have been plentiful and relatively inexpensive) because that’s what happened. Beer and cider would provide significantly more in the way of nutritional value to manual workers than water, so it was a good choice to keep the workforce going. Hell, for anyone that could afford it ‘liquid bread’ would be a lot more desirable (and more interesting to imbibe) than pure ole H2O. Some people did drink several litres a day. Those that weren’t granted it in lieu of pay or couldn’t afford it from their wages survived on water.

Baptising infants in cider

We have the cornerstone for our baptism lie then. But like any good fiction, it is based on a great deal of truth. The fourteenth-century poet and vicar of Chart in Kent, William of Shoreham, is where the buck stops as far as I can tell. And it’s not his fault, to be fair. He wrote a poem about the Sacraments, and the important section goes as follows:

Now first I will tell you, What you may employ, To use in christening, That brings us with such joy, To highest rank. It must be done in natural water, And in liquid no other. So wine’s no use for christening, Nor is cider, nor is perry thick, Nor liquids that aren’t water. By christening we renounce Old Nick, Not in beer, For though these things were water first, That’s not how we see them here.

Translation lifted from William de Shoreham by Helen Wheeler, Kent Archaeological Society

It looks like a crap poem I grant you. But in the original Middle English, it has a much more pleasing metre and rhyme to it. And of course “Old Nick” refers to the devil, not Santa Claus.

The important thing is that he’s telling us not that Southern babes were routinely dunked in vats of scrumpy, but that one must not immerse newborns in alcoholic beverages. Obviously, the very fact that a vicar feels that this needs to be mentioned indicates that someone, somewhere, had to perform an emergency Christening and, not having any holy water to hand, decided to bless whatever half empty old bottle of XXX they had at the back of the fridge and use that for the rite. We’ve all been there.

I will not go so far as to say no one has ever been baptised in cider, but I will happily say that it was not common practice.

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