‘A Crysome child’

On 22nd August 1702 the child of one of my kinsmen was buried. The entry in the parish register reads ‘A Crysome child of George Lucas of Woodhouse Carr’. I imagined George going to the church and speaking to the vicar: ‘What is the child’s name, Mr Lucas?’ With a long sigh and a weary shake of the head, I could hear George replying: ‘Ayyy… it were a crysome child, ‘ardly drew breath before it were tekken…’ I took the entry on the register to mean that the baby had died even before George and his wife, Ann, had named him or her, and thought it a rather quirky find, that the vicar had recorded those words: a crysome child. I added the baby to my tree with the name A Crysome Child Lucas.

Well, I was partly right. And mostly wrong. It didn’t help that the entry was spelled ‘crysome’, which – look it up in any dictionary – means ‘characterised by crying or weeping; tearful; lamentful’. This was surely a frail, weak baby who was clearly in discomfort.

But it turns out that what the vicar should have written was ‘chrysom’ or maybe ‘chrisome’. The precise spelling varies, but the ‘h’ was important.

A chrysom (or chrisom) cloth was a white cloth or mantle. Symbolising purity, it was thrown over a child during baptism or christening. The cloth was annointed with ‘chrism’ – consecrated oil – and its practical purpose was to protect the oil from being accidentally rubbed off.

Part of a memorial monument showing three chrisom swaddled babies.

The image shows part of a monument to Thomas Selwyn 1546-1613, and his wife Elizabeth (Goring) of Friston Place. The full monument shows the two of them kneeling at a prayer desk, beneath which are three chrisom swaddled babies, all boys. Source: Wikipedia: Chrisom.

The baby’s family retained the chrisom cloth for one month after the baptism. This coincided with the mother’s return to society after giving birth. Today, the ‘churching’ of women is viewed as a thanksgiving and blessing for the delivery of the child and the mother’s survival, but until 1552 there was a purification element to this. Helen Osborne (Our Village Ancestors, p.30) writes that the baptised child would continue to be covered by the cloth until the mother was churched. For any baby dying during this period the chrisome cloth would be used as a shroud, and the baby would be termed ‘a Chrisome child’.

It follows from all of the above that a baptism was not the planned, family event into which it has since developed. Almost certainly, the mother would not have been present, since she would be temporarily away from society. Where the vicar also recorded the birthdate, it is clear that until the eighteenth century, babies were baptised as soon as possible. According to FamilySearch: Birth-Baptism Intervals, studies have shown that in the sixteenth century baptism was normally no more than a week after birth. However, from the mid-seventeenth-century onwards the interval gradually increased, one study for the period 1650-1700 indicating 14 days before 75% of children in the register were baptised. That said, I have several records from my own research clearly showing early 19th century babies being baptised on the day they were born. It was important, since tiny babies often died; and only a baptised child could enter the Kingdom of Heaven.

But back to 1702, and to George Lucas and his ‘crysome child’. Whilst preparing this post I googled the term with that exact spelling. One of the items returned was a Thoresby Society transcript of the Leeds Parish Registers, opened at page 180. That’s the parish where George buried his baby. On that page alone five ‘Crysome’ children were buried. Four more on page 179, five on page 178, and so on, all the way back to page 169 where the entry for George and his baby are to be found. That’s a lot of fathers to have the exact same conversation with the vicar about their own recently born, sickly, deceased child…

In fact the term ‘Chrisome’ (various spellings, but remember the ‘h’!) had come to be used for any baby dying before baptism. This puts a different spin on all those entries in the Leeds Parish Register. (None of this is restricted to Leeds, by the way; it’s just that this seems to be the only place where the ‘h’ is omitted in the records, resulting in ‘crysome’.) It made me think about the term ‘Christian name’, which was historically a religious personal name given on the occasion of a Christian baptism. Bearing in mind the church’s dual role in this respect – to baptise the child into the church and also to record the existence of an individual in accordance with the requirements of the state – there is the possibility of a punitive aspect to the recording of a child who has not been baptised, and therefore officially and religiously has no name, as merely ‘a Chrysome child’. We might assume any child so recorded is unbaptised, since a baptised child – even if a Chrysome child in the sense of dying within a month of baptism – would be recorded with his or her own Christian name. It seems comparable to the recording of a child born out of wedlock as ‘baseborn’ (or related terms). How much more difficult for the parents of this period to know that not only would their dead child never be allowed to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven, but also he or she would forever remain nameless in the eyes of God.

In the midst of all this pondering I watched the Season 11 finale of Call the Midwife, in which it was revealed that even in 1967 it was common for premature babies to be buried with another deceased person, this being the only way to make sure they had a proper Christian burial and resting place. There is no doubt that George’s unbaptised ‘Crysome child’ was buried, but I wonder if, as an extra pain for the parents to bear, it had to be in an unconsecrated part of the burial ground.

By way of conclusion I’d like to make a few points. First, it’s important that we keep an open mind about our interpretation of records. Something new may come along to make us think ‘hold on… I wonder if….’; and if it does we should explore it. Second, we need to learn about the society in which our ancestors lived and worked. The vital importance of the baptism, as revealed above, just doesn’t translate to our own modern society, but in former centuries it was the equivalence of a birth certificate, a proof for inheritance, settlement rights, and the only way to the Kingdom of Heaven. And finally – if we think laterally, we will find information to help us progress our family research in the strangest of sources. Thank you, Call the Midwife! 🙂

*****

I’ll be taking a break for the rest of April. I’ll be back with my next post on 1st May.

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