The Language of Baptism in Early Anglo-Saxon England: The Case for Old English
Abstract: This essay explores the possibility that the vernacular (Old English) may have been used in the baptismal rite in Anglo-Saxon England before the middle of the eighth century. Statements made by Bede (d.735) and Boniface (d. 754), provisions in the Canons of the Council of Clofesho (747) and the probable existence of a lost Old English exemplar for the ‘Old Saxon’ or ‘Utrecht’ baptismal promise (Palatinus latinus 755, fols 6v–7r), all suggest that it was. The use of the vernacular was most attractive in a context of ongoing Christianization, where the faith commitment of the baptizand was foregrounded and his or her understanding of the rite correspondingly highly valued. Later, the shift of focus towards the correct pronunciation of the Trinitarian formula and the increase of general knowledge about the baptismal rite reduced the impetus for translation, and Latin became the standard language of baptism. The translation and non-translation of the baptismal rite reflect broader concerns about the place of the Church of the English and its ethnic and cultural particularity within the universal Church, and particularly its relationship with Rome.