Midwives and emergency baptisms in a Salmantine parish (Spain, 1670-1730)

Midwives and emergency baptisms in a Salmantine parish (Spain, 1670-1730)
1510. A midwife administers emergency baptism to a newborn baby. Votive Image, 16th century; the image was reused for a similar vow at the end of the 18th century. Parish church Großgmain, Salzburg (Austria) Photo: Florian Bischof © Florian Bischof

Midwives and emergency baptisms in a Salmantine parish (Spain, 1670-1730)

VI Born to die and to be reborn


Between 1670 and 1730, parish priests of San Sebastián de Mieza, in the province of Salamanca, registered the names of 1,705 baptized newborns. Out of these, 226 received emergency baptism a short time after they were born. We can observe the highest rate of these baptisms under special circumstances between 1700 and 1710: of 276 baptisms, 48 were emergency baptisms; just over 17%.

Emergency baptism did not always precede an impending death. And when a child against all odds lived on, priests repeated the sacrament sub conditione or just completed it. The number of these baptisms which were confirmed a posteriori varied and related to the person who had originally administrated baptism. Clergymen were endowed with more confidence than midwives when it came to assessing the validity of a sacrament given in haste and in an agitated ambiance.

It is not possible to equate emergency baptisms with infant mortality rates in the very first period of life, but its proportions give us some insight into the number of difficult births and an idea of how many children were born with their life hanging in the balance.

Emergency baptism was either officiated by the midwife or by a priest who was brought to the scene of the birth. As for their religious authority at birth, midwives were on a fighting retreat. During the period we studied, the midwife-priest balance changed to midwives’ disadvantage: 20 midwife-baptisms between 1680 and 1690 (47%), versus seven (17%) in the second decade of the 18th century, and none between 1720 and 1730. These figures could well indicate a change in mentalities and a female disempowerment which took place during the 18th century. [Wolfram Aichinger and Karin Fuchs]


Emergency baptisms in Mieza, Salamanca (Spain), 1670-1730, according to parish registers digitalized from FamilySearch elaborated by Karin Fuchs