Saving the babies: fountain goddesses and respite baptism
Another amazing aspect of the ancient sanctuary of Notre Dame de la Vie was as a compassionate place of refuge from harmful religious dogma. It became a sanctuaire de répit, or “respite sanctuary.”
Respite from what? –from the church doctrine of eternal damnation of those who died without being baptized. Notre Dame de la Vie was said to miraculously revive stillborn babies, or newborns who died before a priest could baptize them. People were bringing their dead infants for her intervention from at least the 1600s, as we know from records of hearings in 1664 and 1669.  Notre Dame de la Vie thus joined to a larger body — mostly local forms of the Virgin Mary — of female divinities who embodied compassion, mercy, and grace.
Church doctrine forbade the baptism of dead children, and held that they would go to hell. Toward the end of the middle ages, the idea of limbo was invented to soften the harshness of a dogma that caused so much suffering. Mothers already grieving their infant’s death could not stand the thought that it was doomed to be forever damned. Limbo meant the “edge” of hell, and the idea was that the babies would remain there, outside the torments of the damned, along with other good souls unsaved by baptism. But limbo has never enjoyed the status of church teaching. In any case, never being baptized meant the baby would never enjoy the beatitude of heaven, but would spend eternity as an outsider. Limbo or no limbo, the clergy would not allow stillborns to be baptized or buried in consecrated ground.
The common people refused to accept these cruel ideas. They sought divine intervention from another source, from Notre Dame de la Vie, or from the Blessed Virgin at other chapels that developed a reputation as respite sanctuaries. Parents would carry the dead child in all haste to the nearest shrine, lay it at the altar of the Virgin, light candles and ardently pray for its revival while a priest performed a rite.
All this depended on the participation of priests, because they had a total monopoly on baptism. Sometimes the vigil for revival would go on for days. Any sign of movement, breath, change of color, or even passing gas or fluid—all of which are common biological occurrences after death—was taken as a miraculous resusciation or “recovery.” The priest would quickly baptize the child, and in virtually all cases, the child would die “again.” It would either be buried in a special cemetery at the respite sanctuary, or be taken home for burial in the village.
The “respite” baptisms gave peace of mind to parents, and allowed children to be buried in consecrated ground. At St-Martin de Belleville, the record from 1664 says that an uncle brought a dead infant to Notre Dame de la Vie. The curé testified that the baby was seen to open its mouth and move its tongue around, and that its closed fist opened, extending its fingers. This allowed the vicar to baptize the baby, which lived several more hours. Then it was buried in a plot used for foreigners. [197-8] This indicates that the clergy involved still regarded the case as somewhat iffy. The priest performing the baptism would pronounce words to the effect of, “If you are alive, I baptise you.” The hierarchy were much more dubious about such cases, and put pressure from above to quash this practice.
The earliest evidence of respite baptisms comes from the late 13th century. Church condemnations of these grassroots miracles appear to begin in 1452 with the synod of Langres. Others followed, with denunciations by bishops at Sens (1524), Lyon (1577), Besançon (1592 et 1656), and Toul (1658). But the hierarchy was obliged to repeat its prohibitions over and over as the respite ceremonies spread. They were fighting a cultural movement fueled by love and compassion, that defied their directives.
People were flocking to respite sanctuaries from Belgium all the way down through eastern France and over into western Germany, Switzerland, Austria and north Italy. Most of these shrines of compassion were chapels of the Virgin Mary. Hundreds of cases are on record just for the 1500s and 1600s, just for the most popular chapels for these baptisms, such as Faverney, Avioth, and others in eastern France. By 1729 pope Benedict XIV was forced to rule on the issue, in response to a huge upsurge of respite ceremonies in Bavaria and Schwabia. He condemned the rites and backed up the Inquisition’s position that the “signs of life,” unless they were cries or moans, were not enough to allow baptism, no matter how many witnesses.
Emile Thevenot points to two Burgundian respite sanctuaries that “sprang up in places where there were traces of a defiant custom around a spring cult presided over by a mother goddess.” [197-8]
And that is exactly what had happened at St-Martin de Belleville. As we’ve seen, this sanctuary openly retained the original Goddess who predates even the Roman conquest and was centered around a healing fountain. The refuge its Lady offered to dead newborns connects to widespread folk traditions of pagan goddesses who were seen as welcoming and protecting unbaptized babies rejected by the Church. People linked these “pagan babies” — in Sicily they were actually called paganeddu, in Germany heiden, “heathens” — to the old goddesses, like Zlata Baba in Slovenia, or to faery women, like the Danish huldra. [Dashu, 2007. Read more about folk traditions of the “pagan babies”]
In the German Orla-gau, Perchta keeps little ones who died before baptism. She is ferried across the river with them, recalling Greek and Scandinavian myths of crossing the underworld river of death. Perchta is called queen of the heimchen (“crickets,” an affectionate term for the dead babies). One story says that she once lived in the fertile Saale valley. She fructified the land by plowing it underground, while her heimchen watered the fields. “At last the people fell out with her, and she determined to quit the country.”
So Perchta departed. Late on the eve of her holyday, the ferryman at Altar was confronted by a tall, stately lady surrounded by crying children. She demanded to be ferried to the other side of the river, and got into the barge. The heimchen loaded in a plough and tools, lamenting that they had to leave that lovely land. Perchta made the ferryman cross again to get the rest of the children. The whole time she was mending the plough. She gave the leftover chips as her fare. The ferryman only took three; by morning they had turned to gold. [Grimm, 932, 276]
Of course, these pagan loyalties, however stubbornly persistent, gave way to the Catholicized Goddess over time. But popular Marian devotion looked very different than the theologian’s concept of the Virign as intercessor. She acted much more like an alternative savior who repudiated the notion that infants who died in the womb or soon after birth were doomed, or at least outcasts. She embodied the compassion of the ancient Goddess whose successor she was.
© 2012 Max Dashu
Emile Thevenot, Divinités et Sanctuaires de la Gaulle, Paris: Fayard, 1968
Brigitte Rochelandet, “Sanctuaires à répit, limbes de l’éternité,” Extract from Pays Comtois, No. 63, Online: http://jeanmichel.guyon.free.fr/monsite/histoire/metiers/sanctuairerepit.htm
“Sanctuaire à répit.” http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctuaire_%C3%A0_r%C3%A9pit
Max Dashu, “The “Pagan Days.” Matrifocus Quarterly, Vol 6 – 2, 2007 http://www.matrifocus.com/IMB07/scholar.htm
Jacob Grimm, Teutonic Mythology, Vols I-IV, 4th edition translated by James S. Stallybrass. London: George Bell & Sons, 1883
More sources on Sanctuaires à répit:
Jacques Gélis, L’arbre et le fruit. La naissance dans l’Occident moderne, XVIe-XIXe siècle, Paris, Fayard, 1984.
Jacques Gélis, Les enfants des limbes. Mort-nés et parents dans l’Europe chrétienne, Paris, Audibert, 2006.
Fiorella Mattioli Carcano. Santuari à répit. Il rito del ritorno alla vita o ” doppia morte ” nei santuari alpini, Priuli & Verlucca -Ivrea 2009