The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages

The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages

The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages

The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages


Beginning in the twelfth century, clergy and laity alike started wondering with intensity about the historical and developmental details of Jesus' early life. Was the Christ Child like other children, whose characteristics and capabilities depended on their age? Was he sweet and tender, or formidable and powerful? Not finding sufficient information in the Gospels, which are almost completely silent about Jesus' childhood, medieval Christians turned to centuries-old apocryphal texts for answers.

In The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages, Mary Dzon demonstrates how these apocryphal legends fostered a vibrant and creative medieval piety. Popular tales about the Christ Child entertained the laity and at the same time were reviled by some members of the intellectual elite of the church. In either case, such legends, so persistent, left their mark on theological, devotional, and literary texts. The Cistercian abbot Aelred of Rievaulx urged his monastic readers to imitate the Christ Child's development through spiritual growth; Francis of Assisi encouraged his followers to emulate the Christ Child's poverty and rusticity; Thomas Aquinas, for his part, believed that apocryphal stories about the Christ Child would encourage youths to be presumptuous, while Birgitta of Sweden provided pious alternatives in her many Marian revelations. Through close readings of such writings, Dzon explores the continued transmission and appeal of apocryphal legends throughout the Middle Ages and demonstrates the significant impact that the Christ Child had in shaping the medieval religious imagination.


I will rise, and will go about the city: in the streets and the broad
ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, and I
found him not. (Song of Songs 3:2)

Medieval Christians’ Desire to Know About Jesus’ Childhood

In The Book of Margery Kempe, the story of a fifteenth-century English woman who, desiring a more spiritual way of life, parted from her husband to go on pilgrimages, we learn about how she wandered along the streets of Rome in hopes of stumbling upon Jesus, come to earth again, as a handsome man or as a darling baby boy. Margery would apparently have been pleased just to find a male who resembled and thus reminded her of her divine beloved. While her rather frantic and unconventional search for Jesus attracted attention and in many cases scorn from her fellow Christians in England and abroad, she was nevertheless a product of the religiosity of her times, not least in her devotion to the baby Jesus.

As many scholars have observed, in the high Middle Ages (basically, the period stretching from the eleventh century and into the thirteenth) a new emphasis was placed upon the humanity of Christ, particularly the sufferings he endured in his Passion. Men and women living under religious vows, as well as the laity, began to concentrate more closely on the historical life of Jesus, especially his dramatic death—a trend that intensified toward the end of the medieval period. Through meditation on the events of Christ’s human . . .

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