9

Not long into The Chimes: A Goblin Story, one of Dickens' lesser-known Christmas stories, there's this paragraph about bells:

They were old Chimes, trust me. Centuries ago, these Bells had been baptized by bishops: so many centuries ago, that the register of their baptism was lost long, long before the memory of man, and no one knew their names. They had had their Godfathers and Godmothers, these Bells (for my own part, by the way, I would rather incur the responsibility of being Godfather to a Bell than a Boy), and had their silver mugs no doubt, besides. But Time had mowed down their sponsors, and Henry the Eighth had melted down their mugs; and they now hung, nameless and mugless, in the church-tower.

Which struck me as very bizarre. Is there an old tradition of bells being given godparents and silver mugs when minted? If so, where did this tradition come from and what was its purpose?

4
  • 2
    It's certainly common to baptise bells when they are first installed. In that case, godparents and commemorative tankards would seem to go along with the process. Dec 14, 2022 at 10:15
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez It may be common to bless church bells, but I believe the sacrament of baptism can only be conferred on a human being.
    – user14111
    Dec 28, 2022 at 23:38
  • @user14111 That was Charlemagne's objection too. But whether theologically correct or not, it is what the ceremony is generally called. Dec 29, 2022 at 0:21
  • @ClaraDiazSanchez You/re right. I wasn't aware of this extended usage of the word "baptism" but I guess it's sort of like the "christening" of a ship. Now I'm wondering if anyone in sci-fi has broken a bottle of Champagne on the hull of a spaceship before its first flight.
    – user14111
    Dec 29, 2022 at 0:52

2 Answers 2

4

Within the Catholic church, it is common to "baptise" bells when they are installed, giving them names (usually the names of saints), and assigning them godparents. For example, the large bell in Notre-Dame cathedral, Emmanuel, was installed in 1681, and as noted in wikipedia:

The bell's baptism was held on 29 April 1682, officiated by archbishop François de Harlay de Champvallon. The chapter invited the king and queen, Louis XIV and Maria Theresa, to serve as the bell's godparents.

The practice goes back centuries - in 789 Charlemagne even issued an edict forbidding it, although this does not seem to have been greatly followed. The similarity between baptising the bells and the true sacrament of baptism was remarked on by Le Sueur:

"the imposition of the name, the godfathers and godmothers, the aspersion with holy-water, the unction, and the solemn consecration in the names of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, exceed in ceremonial splendour what is common at baptism, in order to make the blessing of bells more highly regarded by the people. Real baptism" he remarks, "may be administered by all kinds of persons, and the rite is simple; but in what is done to the bells there is much pomp. The service is long, the ceremonies are numerous, the sponsors are persons of quality, and the most considerable priest in the place, or even a bishop or archbishop officiates."

Before the Reformation the practice was common in England too. An interesting example comes from the parish accounts of St. Lawrence, Reading, in 1499:

"Itm. payed for haloweng of the grete bell namyd Harry. And mem. that Sir Willm. Symys, Richard Clech and maistres Smyth beyng godfaders and godmoder at the consecracyon of the same bell, and beryng all o'. costs to the sufrygan."

So the practice of baptising bells would have been well-known to Dickens. I have not found any account of "silver mugs" though. This may either be an extension of the metaphor by Dickens (as it is common to give silver tankards or goblets at people's baptisms), or may be a more obscure/local part of the tradition.

1

Dickens is being whimsical.

There is a common custom of blessing bells when they are first installed in a church. This is popularly known as "the baptism of bells" but the use of water is about the only commonality. There are no godparents, the formula is different, and there is no name given, even though bells have been given nicknames from time to time.

1
  • Are we sure that 'mugs' even means 'cups' in this context? Maybe it means 'faces'. Just guessing here, but I find it more likely to have images of important donors attached to the bell, than cups.
    – Pete
    Dec 15, 2022 at 10:34

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.