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Home arrow History arrow A Global History of Child Death: Mortality, Burial, and Parental Attitudes

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Medieval Ireland

Children in Europe have always had special arrangements applied to their deaths. During the Middle Ages children were sewn into shrouds and buried in common graves.23 Even in public cemeteries children were placed in special sections. For example, Jewish cemeteries in medieval Winchester and York had a separate plot for children. In Ireland, however, cillini, burial grounds for children (also discussed in the context of prehistoric Ireland in Chapter 2), were reserved primarily for unbaptized infants as well as other individuals deemed unsuitable for burial in consecrated ground, such as the mentally ill, criminals, strangers, and famine and suicide victims. Historians and archaeologists date the inception of the latter context of these burials grounds anywhere from the early medieval period to the nineteenth century. It is believed that their development was in connection to reinvigorated Catholicism in Ireland. Locations of the cillini were places such as deserted churches or graveyards, ancient monuments, or natural landmarks. Usually there was no fence and many were built near forts. Some of the children were found buried with grave goods such as several pebbles and a stone anthropogenic figurine; perhaps a doll for the child to take with him to the afterlife. Additionally, it was customary to leave a handful of quartz pebbles and one long stone pebble in each grave of a newborn. The pebbles had two functions: first, quartz has been used as a decorative item since prehistoric days, and second, it was believed to have had protective properties (and was a Christian practice), conferring a religious dimension to burials denied a consecrated burial.24 Some children were buried in Scots Pine coffins, while others, especially stillborn or newborn infants, were shrouded. These graves were often simply marked, albeit rudimentarily and without inscription as only the wealthy would be able to afford headstones made of anything better than wood or rocks.25

Cillini came to exist as the Church of England forbade unbaptized children to be buried within consecrated ground. In Hereford Cathedral, for example, walls were built to prohibit the burial of unbaptized infants as sometimes midwives would be paid to bury a stillborn child that they had delivered. Baptism of the newly born could often be problematic. In a time where infant death was common, baptisms were often performed within the first week of life. In medieval London midwives were given the authority to baptize dying newborns lest they die in a state of original sin. If a mother were to die in childbirth, a midwife was instructed to cut the child from the womb and baptize it —but only if a man were not immediately available.26 If the death of an infant appeared probable baptism could take place when the head emerged. If a hand or foot was delivered first, the limb could be baptized and the full sacrament could be administered after the birth, if the baby survived.27

Irish folklore exists in which dead children transformed into changelings or murderesses. These stories have associations with cillini, and other similar sites, and have contributed to the preservation of these sites due to the superstitions. Additionally, Finlay asserts that the marginal location, and “the character of these sites and the type of burial deposits does not encourage visitation as an active act of remembrance. Folklore evidence and testimony on the use of the sites confirms the discreet nature of the burial.”28 Murphy, on the other hand, argues that while the Church may have excluded these babies from commemoration, this did not preclude parents from grieving. The selection of these sites which were prominent, yet in disrepair and likely to be left undisturbed but not forgotten, indicates that the burials were not marginal. Additionally, these sites often had an earlier religious function making them an optimal alternative to consecrated burial in light of their former sanctity and physical protection. These discreet and liminal types of burials are often interpreted as depositories for victims of infanticide; however, unwanted babies would have been treated as refuse and not placed in a protected environment with symbolic religious meaning. Murphy also argues that the selection of poor land near marshes or bogs would have been a good choice to allow for dead family members to remain undisturbed. Since most peasants did not own their own land, it is unlikely that the landowners would allow usable agricultural land for cillini.29

Many parents were distressed at their inability to bury their children in consecrated ground. A woman by the name of Mrs. Salmon, on her eightieth birthday, received a lifelong wish when the Church blessed two of her dead children who had been refused a church burial. In a similar vein, a priest affected by the plight of grieving parents blessed a plot of land by the sea that held the remains of one hundred unbaptized neonates.30

With respect to burials in medieval Ireland, usually it was the father or other men in the family that would bury the child at night with little commemoration. For a funeral for a newborn baby the family might have viewed it from afar, while the father and a neighbor buried the infant. When infants died during or shortly after birth, medieval mothers often had a fairly extended laying in period (as much as two weeks), and often found themselves unable to attend the funeral.31

 
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