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European network for a social and cultural history of baptism and godparenthood

Project Aims

The network PATRINUS groups scholars from such diverse disciplines as history, sociology, anthropology and demography sharing an interest for godparenthood, baptism, systems of social alliance, and history of the family. Founded in March 2006 and presented for the first time at the European Social Science History Conference (Amsterdam) in the same year, PATRINUS quickly obtained adhesions from all corners of Europe and beyond. With about 80 members and growing, it is today a consolidated scientific network whose activities include circulation of information among the members; organisation of sessions hosted by international conferences; organisation of periodic network meetings, conferences and workshops; publication of collective books. While keeping its focus on the, until recently, understudied topics of baptism and godparenthood, the network is currently diversifying its interests and aims to proposing new perspectives on the history of the family in its wider meaning.
Membership is entirely free and does not imply any specific commitment from members. See downloadable form.

Scientific project

The interest for the history of baptism and godparenthood is growing since 20 years. This is no surprise, considering that such studies are placed at the intersection point of many disciplines: history of religions and of the Churches, historical sociology of religions, historical anthropology of kinship, family history, historical demography, sociology and history of ritual practices, history of sociability, social and economic history, even political history.
For a long time, baptism and godparenthood have been examined exclusively from the point of view of the history of doctrine and liturgy. After the pioneering works of the abbot Corblet (XIXth century), they entered the research field of social sciences thanks to the specialists of rites of passage and to anthropologists of kinship studying contemporary South America and Balkan Europe. These researchers were soon joined by historical anthropologists interested into Western European family and by historians of mentalities. Another impulse came, after the researches led by John Bossy during the 1970s, from the social history of sacraments, an approach whose fecundity is far from being exhausted.
A few years ago, a third important research movement started to work on these problems, coming from social history and history of the family, more and more interested in analyzing social ties outside of the family and social networks of individuals. Baptism, being the ceremony of entrance in the human or religious community, is a moment that crystallizes family, social and religious identities. Requiring the selection of a more or less large number of godfathers and godmothers, or of witnesses, baptism also creates new social ties, between the baptized child and his spiritual parents, between his parents and the godparents. This relationship, less fundamental than alliance but for a long time having the force of a true tie of kinship generating impediments to marriage, can not be reduced to a simple social contact and does not necessarily replicate already existing ties, such as blood ties. Thanks to its intensity and its flexibility, spiritual kinship contribute in a coherent and persistent way to define models of sociability and to influence relational strategies of individuals or of families. Both in societies of the past and in those of the present day, where the model represented by godparenthood has stayed influential enough to inspire formal civil ceremonies (civil godparenthood in France, Spain, Belgium) or informal family customs, the ties created at baptism are used by people involved to reach many different objectives (political and social support, economic aid, regulation of social conflicts, social integration, transmission of identity, religious or politic achievement, etc.).
Composed of researchers working on areas diversified from the national and religious point of view and on periods going from the end of the Middle Ages to the present day, PATRINUS network intends to explore collectively all the research paths opened by the aforementioned approaches and to shed new light on the social, cultural, family, religious history of those societies sharing Christian roots. In doing so, it also aims to analyse from new perspectives the history of kinship systems and of the family in general. 


Guido Alfani (Bocconi University, Milan)
Vincent Gourdon (CNRS, Centre Roland Mousnier, Paris)

With the support of  Dondena Centre, Bocconi University, Milan
of Centre Roland Mousnier (UMR 8596), Paris-4-Sorbonne,
and of Institute of Economic History, Bocconi University, Milan.

Recent activities

London (June 2010): sessions "Spiritual Kinship and religious divides across Europe: Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox" at the conference The History of Families and Households: Comparative European Dimensions

Lisbon (February 2008): sessions Unnatural kinship, I and II, and Mobility, integration and formalisation of social relationships in urban context at ESSHC 

St Etienne (November 2007) conference Le baptême, entre usages sociaux et enjeux idéologiques (XVIe-XXe siècles).
Proceedings published as G. Alfani, P. Castagnetti and V. Gourdon (eds.), Baptiser: pratique sacramentelle, pratique sociale (XVIe-XXe s.), PUSE 2009

Milan (May 2006) conference The economic role of the family, organized by Dondena centre and Institute of Economic History at Bocconi University, with support from Patrinus.
Proceedings publishes as G. Alfani (ed.), Il ruolo economico della famiglia, special number of «Cheiron», 45-46, 2006

Amsterdam (March 2006): session Spiritual kinship in urban context XVI-XIXth century at ESSHC