In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Godparents and Godparenting

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Primary Source Material

Atlantic History Godparents and Godparenting
Vincent Cousseau
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 November 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 April 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199730414-0259


Godparenting is a rite associated with baptism, which constitutes the integration ceremony within the religious community in Christian societies. On this occasion, godparents are chosen, though the number of godparents can vary depending on the modalities that evolved in different countries and over different periods. The practice has occurred throughout Europe during the modern era, in the Catholic, Protestants, and Orthodox worlds, and in the Americas. Admittedly, there are forms of ritual kinship that developed in other societies (Greco-Roman world) and elsewhere in the modern world (West Africa), but these are not then godparenthood in a strict sense. Furthermore, Christian godparentage is only one form of ritual kinship. Other widespread rituals include marriage and adoption, with the latter more common among Amerindians. In the American colonial framework, Africans and Amerindians were sometimes able to maintain spiritual or mythical forms of fictive kinship, which could coexist with Christian godparentage, and could even have been reinvested through it. Indeed, the violence of conquest, forced or voluntary migrations, and high levels of mortality often led to the destruction of family and social ties. In this context, godparenthood is a way to reinforce or reconstitute social networks. The relationships built through godparentage, which is usually local, can sometimes exist for the social elites across the Atlantic world, and wide networks can be established through the practice. Through godparenthood, Christian baptism establishes a close relationship between the baptized and the godparents, as well as between the child’s parents and the godparents (known as the compater and comater). These ties, albeit less essential than the alliance by marriage, for a long time had the strength of a true kinship (the spiritual kinship among Catholics), creating strong prohibitions for the marriage between the godchild and the godparents or their children, and also between the parents of the godchild and the godparents. Thus, sexual relations are prohibited for persons bound to spiritual kin, and the Catholic Church therefore denies marriage because of consanguinity. Conversely, from the 16th century, the Protestant churches do not share the existence of a spiritual kinship. For all Christians, the bonds are not limited to a simple social contact, but instead reveal the relational strategies of individuals and families. As a result, they contribute to determining rules of sociability. In colonial societies characterized by disparities of status, race, and gender, do the relations built by godparenting contribute to a division or an opening up among groups and individuals? Are these relationships a means to strengthen the relations of domination or to overcome it? The subject of godparenthood in the Americas was first studied by North American anthropologists for Hispanic America, then by historians of the slave societies, in particular for Brazil. In the rest of the continent, the subject is significantly less discussed, except in short passages of general works. In fact, most historians seem to consider that godparenthood is a weak tie in North America, with limited impact and significance.

General Overviews

Godparenthood is closely linked Christian baptism as an object of study. It lies at the crossroads of several disciplinary fields, including the history of religion, historical anthropology, historical demography, history of the family, history of ritual practices, history of sociability, social history, and even political history. Godparenthood was approached at first from the perspective of the history of Christian doctrine and liturgy, and then by field of social sciences, thanks to the anthropologists working on the South American continent and in southeastern Europe. Subsequently, these approaches have been supplemented by the fields of historical anthropology and the history of mentalities (mainly for western Europe), as well as studies in the social history of the sacraments. More recently, studies on godparenthood have been renewed from the perspectives of social history and the history of the family, focusing on social relations and social networks. Except a few general works, case studies dominate and tend to focus on a locality or a small country, or on a social or religious group. Also, the unique work of synthesis presented in Fine 1994 is part of an approach from the perspective of historical anthropology, and focuses on Europe. If there is no other book of this type, a historical overview is available in the introduction of Alfani and Gourdon 2012. As a follow-up, a symposium organized by the “Patrinus” network met in Parison 6–7 December 2012, under the title “Le parrainage en Europe et en Amérique. Pratiques de longue durée XVIe s.-XXIe s.” The publication of the proceedings from this conference is scheduled for 2015, edited by Peter Lang. Another general overview is provided by Couriol 2010, using a historical approach, while Gudeman 1975 takes a more theoretical approach. Changes over the long term about the choice of godparents are examined in Alfani 2008, and Klapisch-Zuber 1985 provides a brief synthesis comparing a few European countries.

  • Alfani, Guido. “I padrini: Patroni o parenti ? Tendenze di fondo nella selezione dei parenti spirituali in Europa (XV–XX secolo).” Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos (24 March 2008).

    DOI: 10.4000/nuevomundo.30172

    The author proposes a general interpretation about the evolution of godparenthood, suggesting a movement from medieval models, to the early modern “vertical” model, to the contemporary model characterized by the generalized selection of relatives as godparents.

  • Alfani, Guido, and Vincent Gourdon, eds. Spiritual Kinship in Europe, 1500–1900. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1057/9780230362703

    Includes articles ranging across Europe from the 16th through the 19th century, providing broad geographical coverage and a complete bibliography. The introduction, “Spiritual Kinship and Godparenthood,” (pp. 1–41) provides a complete panorama of the subject, beginning with the origins of godparenthood, taking a historiographical approach.

  • Couriol, Etienne. “Parrainage.” In Dictionnaire des concepts nomades des sciences sociales. Edited by Olivier Christin, 383–395. Paris: Editions Métailié, 2010.

    This dictionary entry analyzes the concept of godparenthood in its religious meaning and in its secular meaning.

  • Fine, Agnès. Parrains, Marraines: La parenté spirituelle en Europe. Paris: Fayard, 1994.

    A complete study on a continental scale, taking a historical-anthropological approach over the long term. The author uses varied documentation, including canonical and synodal texts as well as studies of anthropologists and folklorists.

  • Gudeman, Stephen. “Spiritual Relationships and Selecting a Godparent.” Man 10.2 (1975): 221–237.

    DOI: 10.2307/2800496

    In a theoretical and synthetic approach (Balkan Europe, America), the author examines the rules of the choice of godparents in order to better understand the social and religious dimension of compaternitas (see Godparentage and the Creation of Social Bonds).

  • Klapisch-Zuber, Christiane. “Parrains et filleuls: Une approche comparée de la France, l’Angleterre et l’Italie médiévales.” Medieval Prosopography 6.2 (1985): 51–77.

    One of the few studies to compare existing situations before the early modern period. Because of the high level of infant mortality, the link of compaternitas was more important than that of godparenthood.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.