Monthly Archives: January 2015

Pinching babies to make them cry (yes really)….

Happy new year and thanks for reading the first ‘History Fox’ blog of 2015!  Over Christmas and New Year I have been thinking a lot about culturally embedded rituals and behaviours. This is partly because I have an extended family full of folk musicians which means I spend time at events such as this(  Modern Christmases are full of these quirks and trends that have the potential to vanish into obscurity.  Christmas jumpers spring to mind.  They didn’t exist when I was young (well, not in an ironic way), yet they are an indispensable part of our children’s understanding of Christmas.  Schools and workplaces hold ‘Christmas jumper days’ and I can only imagine the photographic archives of the future, filled with families in front of the tree on Christmas day displaying their deliberately terrible jumpers.  It is impossible to say if the Christmas jumper is going to be a longstanding custom, or whether it will vanish in a few years as another trend takes over.  I wonder how the historians of the future will access it though.  Even in the age of information, the evidence of this tradition will be mainly confined to store catalogues and personal photos.  It is unlikely that anyone will take the time to document the tradition, so how will it travel into the future?


Much of my thesis is spent trying to identify and examine the rarely documented customary practices of childbirth.[1]  Often, I find echoes of the traditional behaviours that I identify in modern practices.  Sometimes, they have been given different meanings, or the intentions that originally drove them have been forgotten by those that are not in the depths of a PhD but they remain in the folk memory as behaviours that must be fulfilled in order to ensure ‘luck’ or ‘prosperity’. One of the more surprising traditions was the pinching of babies at baptism to make them cry.


It was first recorded in Joseph Bingham’s Origines Ecclesiasticae or; the Antiquities of the Christian Church, published in the first quarter of the eighteenth century.  The aim of pinching the child was to ensure that it cried as it was being bathed in holy water as it was considered a good omen for the future.  Two potential explanations were offered for this: that it was the voice of the devil being driven from them, or that the sounds represented the pangs of a new birth into Christian society.  The former explanation retains elements of both Catholic and Puritan thought whereby exorcisms and charms were thought to be efficacious against malignant forces and where magic held a firm place in society.  The latter seems more forward looking, implying an awareness of the socio-religious changes that were taking place in England following the Act of Toleration in 1689.

A later compendium of traditional behaviours[2] suggested that the infant who did not cry at baptism was too good to live for long.  Whilst this initially seems to be a strange interpretation of the circumstances, many children who died in early infancy in this period pined away quietly.  Ralph Josselin’s account of the death of one of his children showed the sinister implications of the quiet infant:

‘The lord gave us time to bury it in our thoughts, wee lookt on it as a dying child, 3or 4 dayes: 3 it dyed quietly without schreekes, or sobs or sad groanes, it breathd out the soule with 9 gaspes and dyed.’[3]

So, where does this practice fit into my musings on folk memory? Well, I researched this particular custom as part of my MA thesis.  As submission approached, I asked my parents to proof-read my dissertation and it was returned to me by my dad with a note in the margin saying that my granddad (an Anglican vicar until the mid-1980s) was tipped to pinch babies as he baptised them to make them cry. It was considered lucky.  That he was asked to continue with the practice so long after it had been recorded as ‘endangered’ emphasises the tenacity of traditional behaviours and folk memory.  It also shows how difficult these behaviours are to access.  My granddad died many years ago and it is sheer coincidence that my dad remembered him talking about pinching babies.  Despite having come across the practice over five years ago, I have not read anything else about it in the intervening years.  Yet it was a custom so embedded in our culture that it was practiced for over three hundred years. It articulated fears of infant death and hopes of future prosperity and it gave parents a brief sense of agency over the prospects of their offspring.

From an academic perspective, the word ‘folk’ often has derogatory implications.  Folk beliefs and customs are associated with the uneducated, or the poor, yet for much of the past those people have made up the majority of those that lived the history that we write about.  It is important to try and write these culturally embedded practices into our research as it is through these that we gain a perspective on the hopes and fears of those that might otherwise be invisible to us.

[1] I have written before about the tradition of ‘going up in the world’ – ensuring that a newborn infant went up before it went down in order to symbolically secure it’s trajectory in life.

[2] William Henderson, Notes of the Folklore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders, (London: Longmans, 1866).

[3] Alan Macfarlane, The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616-1683, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).