The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages

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Mary Dzon
The Middle Ages Series
  • Philadelphia, PA: 
    University of Pennsylvania Press
    , February
     2017.
     $65.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9780812248845.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

While two gospels mention the birth of Jesus, the biblical canon contains sparse detail regarding his childhood. In her book, The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages, Mary Dzon demonstrates how medieval Christians “shed light on the hidden years of Jesus’ youth,” and thereby obtained “deeper spirituality and a greater knowledge of the God-man, Jesus Christ” (22). With diverse sources—apocryphal legend, sermons, liturgical drama, devotional literature, Arthuriana, philosophical compendia, English carols, the visual arts, etc.—Dzon argues for the “intertextuality—or, more specifically, a synergy among the sources” with which people reconstructed the Christ Child, c. 1150-1400 (21).

In chapter 1, Dzon reviews the principal materials and past scholarship on the Christ Child and medieval children. The later medieval period gave rise to a valorization on the humanity and suffering of Christ. Accordingly, Christians desired to know more about the baby Jesus, and to develop a special relationship with this wondrous being. Paradoxically, the Christ Child was mysterious in his divinity, yet approachable in becoming “a lowly infant and simple child” (6). Beyond miracles, devotees were interested in the mundane aspects of his life, including bathing, laughing, and playing. Occasionally, Dzon suggests how the Christ Child may have influenced conceptions of medieval childhood—associating it with asceticism, chastity, and conversion (7, 49, 68, 183).

Chapter 2 examines Cistercian and Franciscan sources that resituate the Christ Child within affective and performative piety, respectively. Here Dzon analyzes On Jesus at the Age of Twelve by abbot Aelred of Rievaulx (d. 1167). Intended for a male, monastic readership, Dzon suggests that the text guided readers to imagine ineffable encounters with God (43). Moreover, the abbot wanted his monks to envision themselves as the Christ Child’s playmates, thus imitating his poverty and labor. Ultimately, Dzon concludes that the treatise is “about the soul of its intended monastic reader” (54).

Next, Dzon recounts Saint Francis of Assisi’s obsession with the manger and the Christmas liturgy. Performing the Nativity, Francis interacted physically with an effigy [Christ Child doll], and even infantilized himself, spewing baby prattle. Dramatizing Christmas elicited “the participants’ experience of wonder, which Francis, like a child, seems to have possessed in great abundance” (95). For Saint Francis, as for Saint Clare, imitating the Christ Child helped them cultivate voluntary poverty, a hallmark of the Franciscan/Poor Clare movement.

Chapter 3 is perhaps the most intriguing, multi-dimensional chapter. Dzon begins by summarizing the content from, and transmission of, Christ Child apocrypha. These amusing anecdotes depicted the holy child as a superhero, prodigy, or gamer—out-playing his playmates by riding on sunbeams, enlivening clay birds, and taming dragons. Such colorful tales satisfied Christian curiosity about Christ’s childhood, yet, as Dzon explains, they also revealed a darker side to medieval devotion. Caricaturing Jews’ jealous and resentful reactions to the exceptional Child helped bolster medieval anti-Judaism.

Dzon then turns to Thomas Aquinas and his refutation of Christ Child apocrypha. For Aquinas, these portrayals threatened the integrity of the Incarnation, and, by extension, Christology. In other words, “by working miracles the Christ Child would have given his contemporaries the impression that he was a mere phantom” (162). Dzon addresses the Latin phantasma—fantasy, illusion, apparition, etc.—in philological detail. Thereafter, she transitions to phantasms in medieval folklore—fairies, demonic incubi, changelings, and Merlin. Juxtaposing the apocryphal Christ Child with folkloric entities, Dzon highlights the parallels, and therefore dangerous slippage, between them.

Chapter 4 explores the Christ Child through Mariology, mysticism, and female spirituality. Dzon focuses on Brigitta of Sweden (d. 1373), a noble widow, mother, and saint. Passages from Brigitta’s Revelationes “transmit a private female discourse in which Mary reveals intimate details about the Holy Family to another woman in whom she trusts” (187). Dzon also brings attention to the politics of piety, explaining how Brigitta’s renderings supported papal authority (226, 231). Envisioning Christ’s clothes and beauty, Brigitta constructed a Proleptic Passion motif, in which the baby Jesus signifies his future suffering.

For medievalists, this book enriches our understanding of personal devotion, sacred play, and Christian iconography, therefore building upon the work of Christiane Klapisch-Zuber, Caroline Bynum, Kathryn Smith, Elina Gertsman, and Sophie Oosterwijk. In a larger sense, Dzon responds to the social history of childhood put forth by Philippe Ariès decades earlier. While Ariès dismissed the middle ages’ unsentimental appreciation of children, Dzon and her interlocutors show how medieval Christianity invested childishness with value and virtue.

One important nuance in this study is that Dzon does not reduce the Christ Child to his connection to the Eucharist. And although she devotes one chapter to a female visionary, Dzon is not concerned with women’s devotion exclusively. Her quest is far-reaching and has broader implications for medieval culture and religiosity. Unlike historians David Herlihy, Nicholas Orme, and Barbara Hanawalt, Dzon did not intend for her book to shed much light on actual medieval children. However, recent studies such as Medieval Childhood: Archaeological Approaches (Hadley and Hemer, 2014) may have imbued her work with important insights.

Scholars of religion may appreciate Dzon’s theorization of duality. Put differently, her study on the Christ Child exemplifies how religious communities make sense of contradiction and ambivalence (e.g. humility and magnanimity; poverty and royalty; humanity and divinity). Moreover, through an integration of folkloric and theological positions, Dzon demonstrates the fluidity of lived religion, thus complicating a simplistic divide between elite and popular culture. Also to her credit, Dzon includes select Jewish and Islamic texts about the Christ Child, which may encourage cross-traditional approaches to childhood. I also wonder if Dzon’s insights may lead to musings on modern or secular culture. The phenomenology of beauty, Johan Huizinga-inspired theorizations on play, as well as connections to Robert Harrison’s 2014 study on contemporary youth culture, Juvenescence, come to mind. The Quest for the Christ Child testifies to how truly interdisciplinary medieval studies, and religious studies, can be.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Kathryn Dickason is adjunct lecturer at Santa Clara University.

Date of Review: 
August 14, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mary Dzon is associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee and coeditor of The Christ Child in Medieval Culture: Alpha es et O!.

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