Salt and Spittle

Now reading ‘Salt and Spittle’ you may have thought I was going to post a ‘foodie’ review following a visit to a new, ironically named local pub, but no that’s not the case.

Fifteenth-century Stone font. St Margaret’s, Ipswich.

Of course, I am sure some folk will already know about pre-Reformation baptismal rites, but this was all knew to me despite my longstanding interest in medieval art, sculpture and architecture. Perhaps, that is because the ‘salt and spittle’ aspect did not easily lend itself to artistic interpretation.

The ‘sal et saliva’ (salt and spittle) was part of the sacrament of baptism where salt was placed in the infant’s mouth whilst the nose and ears were anointed with the priest’s saliva during the ceremony.

A defaced survivor.

Fascinatingly and somewhat serendipitously, there is a medieval font in Ipswich where it is still possible to read the ‘sal et saliva’ carved into stone. The eight sided, fifteenth-century font bowl of the church of St Margaret shows eight angels bearing scrolls. Originally, all eight angels had carved faces and text on their scrolls, but then the iconoclasts came to visit. It isn’t clear whether the angels were defaced sometime during the sixteenth century or later when William Dowsing made his destructive tour through East Anglia.

“Margarett’s, Jan. 30. There was 12 Apostles in stone taken down; and between 20 and 30 superstitious pictures to be taken down, which a godly man, a churchwarden promised to do.”

William Dowsing. Record – St Margaret’s Church, Ipswich. 30th January 1644

However, the survival of the text might simply have been that the font had been moved up against a pillar or the wall and had therefore restricted access for arm with chisel. Although, it does appear that the angel’s face was removed. I suppose it will remain an unresolved mystery as to why this text ‘sal et saliva’ has survived.

The Reformation in England had mixed outcomes but at least one benefit was that such a superstitious and unhygienic aspect of baptism fell out of practice. I can’t imagine many modern parents would want their baby anointed with spittle not least in these Covid 19 times.