As opposed to our own era, in the Middle Ages, religious nurture was a public concern. Many felt orthodox Christianity was properly learned and celebrated in the parish church, in full view of one’s neighbors—not in the privacy of one’s home. A faith nurtured solely in the home could produce heresy, for the home was shielded from the eyes of the church.

Therefore much of Christian nurture involved participation in public ceremonies. Still, the family had a role to play, and the church tried, with mixed success, to guide parents as they nurtured their children in the faith.

In the Beginning

Starting at birth, parents and church worked together to protect children’s souls. Parents had their child baptized in the church to wash away original sin.

Many babies died at birth, so the church allowed anyone to perform this sacrament, even the midwife. One manual for parish priests tells them to instruct midwives to have clean water ready should they have to baptize a dying infant: “And though the child but half be born, Head and neck and no more, Bid her hesitate no longer To christen it and cast on water.”

Normally, the father and godparents brought the child to the parish church for baptism. Outside the church, the priest blessed the child and put salt in its mouth to symbolize wisdom and to exorcise demons. The party moved inside where the child was immersed in water and anointed with oil, with the godparents making a profession of faith for the child. Afterward, the baptismal party returned home to celebrate the event.

The godparents usually named the child after themselves or a saint, whom they hoped would watch over the new Christian throughout his or her life.

Mothers generally did not attend the baptism; custom advised she wait six weeks before entering a holy place, at which point she might take part in a ceremony of thanksgiving and purification called “churching.”

Teaching Tactics

The parents and parish priest together also saw to children’s Christian education. The church taught through sermons, plays, and art work at the local church.

Parents, for their part, were expected to teach their children the Lord’s Prayer, the Ave Maria, the Nicene Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Seven Deadly Sins. The church wanted godparents and grandparents to aid in this process, but the relationship between godparents and godchild was often not especially close. Sometimes parents and godparents were not well-versed in the faith, so the priest would try to help as time and resources (e.g., a parish school) would allow.

It was primarily the mother’s duty to inculcate piety. Christine de Pisan, the 1300s French writer, in The Treasure of the City of Ladies, wrote, “The wise lady who loves her children … will ensure that they will learn first of all to serve God and to read and write, and that the teacher will be careful to make them learn their prayers well.” Some wealthy mothers commissioned prayer books or psalm books for their children to have.

Wealthy parents could afford tutors, books, and the time to oversee their children’s education. But lower-class children might be sent to a parish school—if one was available. Classroom education was rare, confined largely to the cities and open mostly to boys. At school, children learned not only how to read and write but also the rudiments of the faith—and to respect the saints and obey God and their elders.

Items in the home were also teaching aids. At the front door, there might be a holy-water strop so those entering could dip their fingers in it and cross themselves. Nobles often had private chapels in their homes or castles for daily services. In the middle-class homes of Florence, families decorated altars with images of the saints and of the infant Jesus.

Giovanni Dominici, a 1400s Dominican writer, advised mothers to incline their sons toward a religious life by having them mimic the priest’s behavior: “Sometimes they may be occupied in making garlands of flowers and greens with which to crown Jesus or to decorate the picture of the Blessed Virgin; they may light and extinguish little candles.”

The liturgical calendar was another means of Christian nurture. For example, Christians fasted during Lent and on Fridays in commemoration of Jesus’ temptation and crucifixion.

Confirmation, the rite by which children confirm the vows made for them at baptism, was rarely performed in the Middle Ages. A bishop had to perform confirmation, and many Christians, especially those in remote communities, went a lifetime without seeing their bishop.

Families of Their Own

Medieval marriage was not about romantic love but family lineage, and it was the parents’ responsibility to arrange for a good marriage for their children. Marriage involved the transfer of property, and among nobles, the creation of political alliances. The negotiations could take years to settle. Sometimes, in spite of parents’ best wishes, children refused to abide by the parents’ decisions.

The church, for its part, tried to assure that marriages were legitimate: the partners consented to the marriage, they were not related to each other, and neither was involved in a previous secret marriage. According to canon law, though, it was not a priest or witnesses who made marriage legitimate but the private agreement of a man and a woman. This made clandestine marriages a danger.

Parents feared that fortune hunters would lure young women (especially wealthy ones) into secret marriages, and court records show that such marriages were common. Four-fifths of all the marriage cases in fourteenth-century Ely, an English diocese, dealt with this issue—usually the woman claiming a marriage had taken place while the man denied it.

The church tried to prevent this by having the marriage publicly announced at a parish service one month in advance. The church was also concerned that both partners remain faithful to one another, so divorce was generally not allowed.

Some parents, as perhaps their last act of Christian nurture, gave an image of Jesus to their betrothed daughter. While on pilgrimage in Italy, Margery Kempe, the fourteenth-century English mystic, reported how some women used them: “The woman who had the image [of the infant Jesus] in the chest, when they came into fine cities, took the image out of her chest and set it in the laps of respectable wives. And they would dress it up in shirts and kiss it as though it had been God himself.”

For all this effort, there were still gaps in the system, and medieval religious reformers regularly denounced people’s superstition and ignorance of doctrine. Still, between family and church, most children became good public Christians, who, in turn, began raising their own families in the same traditions.

Katherine French is a professor of history at S.U.N.Y. in New Paltz, New York. She is co-editor of the forthcoming "The Parish in English Life: 1400–1600" (University of Manchester).