Baptismal FontThe Chip In The Rim

This worn and chipped baptismal font, in a small parish church in Dorset, may be the single most moving object I saw in the course of our first trip to Britain.

One of the great pleasures we discovered on that visit was poking around in the little churches we passed along the way. Every one, of course, is several times older than the U.S., and their architecture reflects the eras of English history. Nearly every parish had a booklet for sale detailing what's known about the story of the building, and for a pound or so, we could spend a fascinated hour examining the church from narthex to apse.

"The nave is believed to date to Saxon times," we would read, "while the choir and aisles were rebuilt after a fire during the reign of Edward II. The carved misericords are particularly fine, and were given by Lady Margaret What's-Her-Name, in gratitude for her husband's safe return from Agincourt. The rose window is an unfortunate Victorian addition..."

...and so on.

The parish church of Fontmell Magna sits on a rise overlooking a small village of timbered cottages; about as picturesque a scene as you could wish. The village is old enough to show up in the Domesday Book, and the church is of similar antiquity.

There's a perpendicular-style tower, with enough bells to power a Dorothy Sayers novel, and upon entering, you're struck by the elaborate beamed ceiling. However, it was the baptismal font that stopped me in my tracks.

"The font is Norman, carved in high relief with foliate scrolls and birds," the booklet said. "The large chip at the rim resulted when leaden seals were removed upon the lifting of the Interdict."

"Holy Jesus!" I blasphemed. "Susan, do you know what that means?"

The Lutheran girl, of course, did not.

"Do you remember Bad King John? The king everyone loves to hate? With Robin Hood, the Magna Carta, and all that?"

Without waiting for an answer to the rhetorical question, I continued. "Well, one of the other stunts he pulled was he managed to piss off the Pope. Pretty bad. They were arguing about something, I don't remember exactly, but it probably was appointing bishops or something like that. Anyway, neither of them was going to back down, so the Pope decided to deploy his ultimate weapon: he placed all of England under interdict."

"That means he basically excommunicated the entire country. Nobody could go to Mass, you couldn't get married, go to confession. Your baby doesn't get baptized, and if he doesn't survive, he goes to limbo. You die in a state of sin, you're going straight to hell. "

"For the medieval world, it was like the Pope decided to press the big red button and drop the Bomb."

"That was it for King John. He stuck it out for a bit, but finally caved and told the Pope, 'You're the boss, and I'm your vassal.' Total humiliation. It's one of the things that got the barons hopped up enough to get the Magna Carta ball rolling."

"But for the villagers here? What did any of that matter to them? Life sucked in the middle ages, and heaven was what you were living for. Now they had a shot at salvation again!"

"Can you imagine the rejoicing when the news reached the village that the interdict was off? Can you imagine the emotion? Can you imagine the mothers hurrying to have their babies baptized?"

"Is it any wonder they didn't waste any time being gentle when they pulled the cover off the font?"

With reverence and awe, I put my hand on the font and marveled at its story. Still have the booklet; best pound I ever spent.



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