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European Antecedents

From the Catholic point of view, baptism is a rite of initiation that signifies spiritual rebirth (Rojas González 1943). The biological father plays an important role in the process of conception, and the sponsor (godfather) is introduced as a spiritual father. This notion of sponsorship is not in the New Testament, and Canon Law refers to "custom" as the judicial basis upon which the precept rests (Mintz et al. 1950). Because it is a relic of the Old Testament, sponsorship may derive from the Jewish practice of circumcision, where a witness is required to hold the child undergoing the ritual. The term sponsor itself represents an adaptation of a term current in Roman legal terminology, where sponsio signified a contract enforced by religious rather than by legal sanctions (Mintz et al. 1950).

During the era of St. Augustine (354–430 C.E.), parents usually acted as sponsors for their own children. In special cases, like slaves' children or orphans, the sponsor could be a third person (Mintz et al. 1950). Roughly one hundred years later, the Byzantine emperor Justinian, who ruled from 527 to 565 C.E., first issued an edict prohibiting marriages between spiritual relatives. The terms compater and commuter appeared in 585 and 595 C.E. within the confines of the Western church. Thus, a separate set of sponsors tended to be a later development from a stage in which parents and sponsors were the same people, and this separation must have must have been effected within both Eastern and Western empires roughly between the first quarter of the fifth century C.E. and the end of the sixth century. Nevertheless, full acceptance of this separation and consequent exogamy took place only gradually. From the evidence noted by the Byzantine historian Procopius, we may judge that at the beginning of this period, godparents still actually adopted their children. But the Council of Munich, held in 813 C.E., prohibited parents from acting as sponsors for their own children altogether, and in the books of the Council of Metz of the same year, parents and sponsors are clearly separate terms. In fact, the Western church extended spiritual relationships to cover the officiating priest, the sponsors, the child, and the child's parents. As a result, the number of sponsors permitted was increased to the point of admitting between one and thirty baptismal sponsors (Mintz et al. 1950).

With the start of the feudal period, new rules governed the godparent relationship. The sponsorship of a feudal lord of their serfs included a great deal of manipulation of the labor force and its resources. Ownership of land was vested in the feudal lord. He also owned a share of the labor of the serfs who lived on his land. In return he granted the worker rights to use the land, ownership of certain tools, and the right to consume some goods that he produced. The compadre mechanism and its ritual kin correlates were a functioning part of the class system implicit in this basic relationship. To avoid abuse, Saxons restricted the number of baptismal sponsors to between seven and nine for nobles (i.e., people who belonged to the aristocracy), and to three for burghers (i.e., poor people from the town). Subsequently, the ritual was restricted only to blood relatives, to the baptizing priest, the child, the child's parents, and the child's sponsors.

In Europe, godparenting has generally been retained in its traditional form in areas of Spain, Italy, and the Balkan countries, where the development of industrial capitalism, the rise of a middle class, and the disintegration of the feudal order was slower. In fact, Robert Redfield (1930; in Lynch 1986) refers to godparenthood as a custom of southern rural Europe. These were the areas of Europe involved in the colonization of Latin America; as a result, these customs were transmitted, along with requiring the baptism of indigenous people to bring them into the fold of the Christian community as an addition to the faith and to insure a loyal work force for the Spanish conquerors.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaRelatives & Extended FamilyGodparents - European Antecedents, Latin America Background