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My dere sone, mine sweting

18 December 2020

The view of Christ’s birth changed radically in medieval times, says Timothy Larsen


Madonna with the infant Jesus among Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare, Pavia, c.1400

Madonna with the infant Jesus among Saint Francis of Assisi and Saint Clare, Pavia, c.1400

FOR medieval theologians, the joy of Christmas lay in its celebration of the incarnation: God’s taking human form for the salvation of humanity. In the seventh century, Isidore of Seville explained Christmas’s importance in terms of John 1.14, the Gospel reading for the Third Mass: “The Word became flesh even though, taking on flesh, he was not changed in the flesh. For he took on humanity; he did not lose divinity. The same one is God and the same one is human.”

For Isidore, as for other commentators, Christmas was also the culmination of the entire history of humanity, starting with the fall of Adam and Eve, through the subsequent growth of evil in the world, and ending with God’s sending his Son to set things right. The arrival of the Word as a baby unable to speak (verbum infans) was a widely acknowledged paradox.

We see this in a patristic sermon found in Alan of Farfa’s homiliary, where Jesus is described as “unspeakably wise . . . wisely speechless; filling the world, he lies in a manger; guiding the stars, he nurses at his mother’s bosom; he is both great in the nature of God, and small in the form of the servant.”

While such seeming incongruities played a part early on in the commemoration of Christmas, the 11th century saw a significant shift in emphasis from celebrating the all-powerful Christ to the man Jesus.

In Christmas sermons, this led to an increased focus on the human baby in the manger, building from the text of Isaiah 9.6, which served as the introit of the Third Mass: “For a child is born to us.” The 11th-century reformer Peter Damian wondered at “the little infant who is tightly bound in a child’s swaddling clothes by his mother . . . the immense one who, with his father, governs the rights of all things”.

Sermons by the Cistercian abbot Bernard of Clairvaux insist particularly on the fragility and helplessness of the babe, key elements of human nature in his view. Christ was born in the most difficult of settings: in winter, at night, from a mother so poor she could hardly clothe him, and in a manger for lack of a better crib.

[There is] a turning point in the celebration of Christmas, as imagined by modern scholars: Francis of Assisi’s invention of the crèche — a figural staging of the Christmas scene. In 1223, at the village of Greccio, Francis is said to have prepared a tableau complete with manger, hay, and animals, over which the Christmas mass was said.

Modern interpretations of this scene have varied, some arguing that Francis was inspired by the papal midnight mass celebrated at Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome at the “manger altar”, which stood over the relics of Christ’s crib.

Others maintain that the widespread use of cribs as props in liturgical dramas explains Francis’s act as part of a wider dramatic tradition. It remains unclear whether Francis’s re-enactment included an effigy of the baby Jesus, but a particularly devout man, John, is said to have seen a little baby lying asleep in the manger waken as Francis preached, and bleated the words “babe of Bethlehem”.

This account is thought to have influenced the spread of dolls of the baby Jesus together with elaborate cribs (jésueaux) for display and use during Christmas celebrations, starting in the 14th century and associated especially with female religious communities.

Francis’s special love of Christmas was described in his biographies, and seems to have been connected with the ideal of poverty he promoted by personal example. He allegedly spent Christmas sitting on the floor to honour Christ’s humble beginnings.

Similarly, his follower Clare of Assisi encouraged her fellow nuns to wear only shabby clothes “out of love of the most holy and beloved Child wrapped in poor swaddling clothes”. Christ’s taking on the form of the servant (Philippians 2.7) — a common trope in Christmas sermons — was therefore thought to provide not just hope for the poor, but glorification of poverty, a state actively chosen by reforming movements like the Franciscans and the Cistercians before them.


THE message became more universal in one 12th-century sermon delivered in Canterbury, where the nativity story was meant to inspire the congregation to take in weary pilgrims present for the celebration of Christmas in the cathedral.

Commemoration of the baby’s birth also often included forewarnings of his Passion, and Christmas devotional texts, sermons, hymns, and lyrics play with the paradox of the “child born to a crown of thorn” and “the cradle that is also a bier”.

The Canterbury sermon compares the new splendour of the solstice sun to Christ as the sun of justice, the red halo surrounding it (a meteorological phenomenon caused by ice crystals) pointing to the blood that Christ would shed. Such a collapse of time — where one moment in biblical history is superimposed on another in the liturgy — tied the major celebrations together, while ultimately presaging the Second Coming.


CENTRAL to the incarnation and to the interest in Christ’s humanity was his mother, Mary. Hence many Christmas sermons marvel at the miracle of Christ’s conception and birth from a virgin who crucially remained a virgin throughout her life.

Just as Mary was a virgin, so, too, was the Church, and many sermons make the comparison while also declaring Christmas to mark the very birth of the Church. While the Church was glorified on this day, the Synagogue was supposedly abandoned by Christ for his new bride.

A number of medieval sermons take this to mean that the Jews themselves were condemned, since contemporary Jews refused to accept that God was made flesh of a virgin, unlike the ox and ass in the manger, thought to represent those Jews and Gentiles who came to honour Christ.

Alongside liturgical praise as Mother of God, Mary increasingly received attention as the human, doting mother of the little baby in the manger. The Franciscan devotional manual, Meditationes Vitae Christi, highlighted the paradox of divine motherhood while encouraging Christians to picture the deep bond between mother and child in their mind’s eye:

“See with what reverence and care and with what fear she handled him whom she knew to be her God; and how with bended knee she took him and placed him in the cradle; with what joy and confidence and motherly authority she embraced him, kissed him, hugged him and delighted in him whom she knew to be her son.”

Such devotional materials are thought to have inspired female mystics, for example, Birgitta of Sweden, who experienced detailed visions of Mary’s careful ministerings of her shivering newborn son, or the 13th-century Marie of Oignies, who went so far as to imagine herself nursing the Christ-child in bed.

Christmas also provided the opportunity to meditate on the Gospel narrative. In one well-known homily, a lengthy dialogue between a sceptical Joseph and Gabriel addresses Mary’s mysterious pregnancy, no doubt answering questions many in the congregation would themselves have had.

Interest in the more mundane details of the Holy Family resulted also in a greater role for Joseph, who, starting in the 15th century, became increasingly active and present in depictions of the nativity, and less the glum, ageing man on the margins he had been.

Depictions of the Magi arriving at the manger also changed over the centuries, as they evolved from European-style kings (as in the tenth-century Anglo-Saxon Benedictional of Aethelwold) to ethnically diverse monarchs with exotic entourages (as in Hans Memling’s 15th-century Adoration panel).


CHRISTMAS was believed to be a time of miracles. Many wondrous signs marked the event, according to the well-known preaching tool, the Golden Legend. A sermon by the Franciscan theologian Bonaventure lists the 12 miracles that are thought to have taken place at the moment of Christ’s birth, including a spring of oil sprouting up in Rome and the spontaneous speaking of animals in Judaea.

The miracle of the talking animals was thought to be reproduced each year; a 12th-century sermon claims it was a popular understanding that brute animals would speak with human voices on this night.

Another English belief was that grain that had been placed outside on Christmas Eve would be sprinkled with heavenly dew (from the Vigil chant Rorate caeli). Bread made of this grain could cure illness.

Plants were thought to flower miraculously, and many churches in England were decorated with seasonal plants, such as holly and ivy, as we can see from parish accounts.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, visions of the Christ-child often occurred at Christmas. Late-medieval Dominican nuns recorded many visions: for example, Margreth Flastrerin, who saw the Christ-child descend from the altar at Christmas, dressed in silk robes, and come to her in the choir, where she held and played with him until the end of mass.

In another account, from the abbey of Adelhausen, a heavily pregnant Mary was seen entering the choir at compline, only to reappear the next morning carrying a baby in her arms, whom she presented to the Sisters.


©Timothy Larsen. This is an edited extract from The Oxford Handbook of Christmas published by Oxford University Press in October 2020, available in hardcover at £110 (Church Times Bookshop, £99) and in eBook formats, and reviewed here.

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