The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle AgesUniversity of Pennsylvania Press The Middle Ages Series
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.
List of Abbreviations
Chapter 1. Introduction: Recovering Christ-Child Images
Chapter 2. The Christ Child in Two Treatises of Aelred of Rievaulx and in Early Franciscan Sources
Chapter 3. Aquinas and the Apocryphal Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages
Chapter 4. A Maternal View of Christ's Childhood in the Writings of Birgitta of Sweden
Chapter 5. Conclusion: The Yearning of the Quest
Appendix: Summary of William Caxton's Infantia salvatoris (c. 1477)
"[A]n excellent monograph in a burgeoning area of study. No doubt it will appeal to readers interested religious devotion in later medieval Western Europe; at the same time, it offers much for scholars of early Christianity and the transmission of apocrypha more generally. Dzon presents a compelling study that will surely provide a firm foundation for future scholarship on the Christ Child in his myriad medieval manifestations."—Review of Biblical Literature
"In this fascinating study, Mary Dzon tackles the 'hidden years,' as she terms them, of Jesus’ childhood—particularly the time between his birth and the episode with the temple doctors in Jerusalem...This is truly a thought-provoking study, not only for anyone interested in the Christ Child, but also for readers who wish to deepen their understanding of the intricacies of medieval devotional culture."—Studies in the Age of Chaucer
In this ambitious and impeccably well-researched book, Mary Dzon explores the emergence and later influence of apocryphal treatments of Christ’s childhood...[A] thoroughly enjoyable and interesting book...This richly"—Religion & Literature
detailed study makes a serious contribution to medieval studies and will no doubt be an engine of creative and productive engagement in its own right.
"Quests are undertaken to be disappointed. Like the grail of the medieval romances, the Christ Child of medieval devotion remains elusive both in modern scholarship and in the medieval sources. How important was meditation on Jesus’ childhood in medieval devotion to his humanity? It is oddly difficult to say. Mary Dzon has admirably analysed [the] sources that we do have...Dzon is to be commended for allowing the theological arguments of her sources to outshine the prevailing desire in the scholarship to make Jesus’s humanity central at the expense of his Godhead."—The Journal of Theological Studies
"The Christ Child, like the Man of Sorrows, was a regular presence in later medieval religion, but a complex and seemingly contradictory figure. He could be the subject of tender affective piety, but he could also be the mischievous child of apocryphal infancy narratives, lowly and vulnerable or lordly and powerful, the subject of imaginative narratives or the focus of meditation and prayer. With deeply impressive learning and clarity, Mary Dzon unfolds the complexities of the Christ Child in medieval culture. She gives the subject the careful and captivating attention it has long needed."—Richard Kieckhefer, Northwestern University
"The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages fills a major lacuna in the history of affective piety: the importance of the Christ Child in lay and clerical devotion from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. This book is a timely and novel exploration of terra incognita, with methodological relevance to scholars outside the fields of medieval spirituality."—William MacLehose, University College London
- Winner of the Best First Book Award from the Southeastern Medieval Association