Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Spiritual High Stakes for Newborns

by Kim Rendfeld

Childbirth was so risky in early medieval times the expectant mother confessed her sins as her time drew near. If her baby was in jeopardy, the fate of the infant’s soul was in the hands of the midwife.

Christians in this era believed the teaching of Saint Augustine (354-430): an unbaptized infant, even one who died in the womb, would spend eternity with the damned but receive the lightest of punishments. Saint Augustine admitted these children had done nothing wrong, but he contended they still bore Adam’s original sin, which only baptism could remove.

As if losing a baby was not tragic enough. Now the great hope of the parents’ faith—that they would see their loved ones in the afterlife—could be crushed. Contrary to a common misconception, medieval parents were attached to their infant children. Just read the epitaph for Charlemagne’s 40-day-old daughter: “Dear little maiden, you leave no little grief/Stabbing your father's heart with a dagger.”

A 16th century image of The Last Judgment,
depicting various forms of the afterlife.
Limbo is the second from the bottom
at the left (public domain
via Wikimedia Commons).
Apparently, theologians in later centuries thought Saint Augustine was too harsh. In the 12th century, they argued that infants wouldn’t feel physical pain but would mourn the loss of being outside God’s presence. In the 13th century, Church schools adopted Saint Thomas Aquinas’s argument for limbo, where unbaptized infants would be happy, unaware of their loss, but still wouldn’t go to heaven.

Thomas Aquinas’s ideas were close to those of early Church fathers, who believed that infants would not go to heaven or hell. They saw original sin more as an inclination toward evil rather than guilt for a specific wrongdoing.

Aquinas’s ideas were further refined in the 15th century, when writers added that infants in limbo would receive bodies during the Resurrection and happily spend eternity in the New Earth.

Still, I can imagine that if there was any sign of life, even a faint one, a midwife would splash water on the child and say the prayer, or something that passed for Latin, and hope the newborn would spend eternity in paradise.

Postscript: Roman Catholic teachings have moderated in recent years. Catechisms have not included references to limbo since 1992. In 2007, a theological commission went further: “The conclusion of this study is that there are theological and liturgical reasons to hope that infants who die without baptism may be saved and brought into eternal happiness, even if there is not an explicit teaching on this question found in Revelation.”


"Limbo" by Patrick Toner. The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 9, 1910.

Saint Augustine’s On Merit and the Forgiveness of Sins, and the Baptism of Infants (Book I)

Vatican revises limbo view, hope for unbaptized babies,” USA Today, April 22, 2007

The Hope of Salvation for Infants Who Die without Being Baptised,” International Theological Commission

Kim Rendfeld will serve on a panel about midwifery at the 2015 Historical Novel Society Conference, June 26-28, and talk specifically about the practice in early medieval times. She has written two novels set in eighth century Francia.The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a story of a noblewoman contending with a jilted suitor and the premonition she will lose her husband in battle, and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), a tale of a mother who will go to great lengths to protect her children after she has lost everything else.

To read the first chapters of  Kim's published novels or learn more about her, visit or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at You can also like her on Facebook at, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers.


  1. Fascinating post, Kim. I read with interest Augustine's views. I was surprised such a godly man (and the other theologians) got it so wrong. The Bible clearly teaches that infants, even miscarried unborn ones, go to be with God in Heaven. Hence David's remarks about his dead infant son that he would go to join the babe when he died. I would think they would have seen that it is inconsistent with God's character to condemn children. That's what the "age of accountability" is all about. Ah well, such were the times. One can hope parents today have a greater hope for the fate of their children who die.

    1. I understand Christianity as a religion of compassion, but early medieval folk saw God as a stern father. Most of them couldn't read and consult the Scriptures, so they relied on theologians for religious teaching.

  2. Thanks, Kim. Very useful information since, as you said, so many infants died!

  3. Of course these were only the views of early Christian theologians. These were never the views of the original writers of Genesis because they do not have the dogma of Original Sin and the need for vicarious atonement {also made up by Augustine}. Then, there were all the other societies around them who had other views of the afterlife and what it might consist of. After a while, Aquinas' additions have made Occam's Razor very dull indeed.


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