Great scholars may have been debating the finest points of theology, reformers whacking heretics with the hammer, yet your common medieval man had a rich and earthy view of things divine. As the words of the disillusioned Joseph, distraught at finding that his young bride went away to Judea for three months and returned three months pregnant, show, the average man of the Middle Ages was not blind to the rich humour to be developed in relation to the stories of the scriptures.
Few were literate at the time, yet our medieval friends knew many a tale of Jesus and His family - far beyond what the sacred scriptures could have provided! These tales were passed down, either by word of mouth, through song, or in the art works that instructed the viewer in any church worth its while. Many were derived from the “forbidden” apocryphal books... our peasant wasn't concerned with approval from the Roman curia, if indeed he knew it existed. Others probably have their roots in folk tales, or were the fruit of vivid imaginations.
Of course, had the medieval man been able to read, he would have been disappointed in the lack of detail that the scriptures provide. Aside from a genealogy in Matthew and the infancy narratives of Luke, we know nothing of the young Jesus or his parents, save that he was a rather smart-alecky child of twelve who left his parents fretting for three days while he showed off his smarts to the doctors of the temple.
With his keen awareness of the divine, medieval man nonetheless was more inclined to identify with the tribulations of a poor family, whose lot was much like his own. As it ever would be among the simple folk, a tortured Christus or a vision of divine omnipotence was not the focus of devotion. Rather, the young mother nursing her firstborn, or the carpenter who (let's be honest!) had to face the confusion of a story about conception via Holy Ghost, were close to their hearts.
The man of the Middle Ages loved details of Jesus’s life and family, but also required explanations that Scripture would never provide. The beginning of Jesus’s life needed more detail, for example, and, while the faithful knew that divine power knows no bounds, there still was a puzzle to be solved. The medieval idea of conception assumed that the mother's blood provided the beginnings for the child's physical body, and that the father provided the seed for the soul. As medieval art makes clear, the path for God the Father's contribution needed to be defined... and it was eventually agreed that this spark made its entrance through the Virgin's ear.
To this day, the crèche scenes, with the ox's breath warming the new-born Jesus and shepherds on hand to offer him his first homage, remain, but a few characters well known to our medieval counterparts haven't appeared for a while! Maia, the midwife who the panicking Joseph summoned, found that the child had already been delivered when she arrived, and Mary, basking in pride, told Maia her Annunciation tale. Maia inspected the evidence and consequently acknowledged the divinity of the babe.
However, Maia’s friend, Salome, was sceptical of Maia’s story, and appeared at the stable, scoffing at the unlikelihood of the situation. When the bold Salome sought tactile proof of one point of Mary’s assertion... her attempts to find it caused her hand to wither. A humbled Salome then devoted herself to the child and his family - though we know not for long, since she is absent from later artistic depiction of Jesus’s youth.
Jesus’s circumcision was to provide the medieval world with one of its most cherished relics. It seems that, when the circumcision was performed, Salome had her brother, a perfumer, preserve the tiny bit of flesh in the jar of spikenard which, by remarkable coincidence, later turned up in the hands of Mary Magdalene, who used it to anoint the Master's feet. During the Middle Ages, the remnants of the jar, sans perfume, were to remarkably turn up in no less than four French abbeys and the Cathedral at Chartres.
There are delightful tales of the flight into Egypt and the Holy Family's life there, of the histories of the Magi, and so forth, but, to avoid this page's taking forever to load, I shall suggest you hunt the links for these. Let us have a peek at the less charming pictures that the medieval folk had of their young Son of God.
This quite extraordinary child could not have been expected to find any real peer group, and one would expect that playmates would have been rather boring and dull in his eyes. But the popular tales of the “malevolent acts” give the picture of a very powerful and vengeful young Lord with whom one would not care to trifle!
One that several artists immortalized shows us that Jesus’s prankster side caused him to climb up a sunbeam. His companions, who sought to imitate this feat, fell to their deaths. This, and other similar episodes, made the local parents panic at His magical powers, and led them to hide their children in ovens for shelter. Jesus, naturally well aware of their deed, inquired about the children's whereabouts... and was informed that only pigs were in the oven. When the parents opened the oven doors, they found (according to which version of the story one heard) either squealing piglets or roasted chops.
When another child plugged the channels that supplied water to pools which Jesus had fashioned from mud, he, too, departed this earth. But it was not only children who suffered from the divine child's wrath! Illuminated manuscripts show us the fate of Jesus’s Hebrew teacher. When his arrogant pupil told him to “show me the power of Alpha and I will tell you the power of Beta”, the exasperated teacher gave him a whack on the head... and it was curtains for the schoolmaster.
One would naturally question how medieval man could reconcile the image of a loving God with the actions of a vengeful and fearsome child. Perhaps our peasant's imagination, fostered on many a magical tale, religious or not, that contained many shadows and memories of the gods of ancient Rome, plus a concept of demons plaguing the damned, did not see so strong a contradiction.
This is sheer speculation on my part, but it occurs to me that, since these tales were not avoided, but rather were adopted to much religious art, medieval man did not shudder at their content. Their preachers and pardoners, as Chaucer would show, were trading on their fear of death and judgement, and, presumably, appealing to their worries about their own sinful natures. A God who punished was obtaining just revenge on those who offended him, much as the young Jesus did amongst his companions.
Punishment on this earth was a means to atone for one's sins, yet sudden death, so common in the medieval period, could send one to hell if sufficient atonement had not been made. Yet pain and sorrow, of which most medieval men had extensive knowledge, were a way of redemption, as Jesus’s had been in his crucifixion. A God, then, who had a fearful, even vengeful, side would not have been impossible to contemplate.
Of course, Jesus’s powers were not always used for fearsome ends. Even as an infant, his bath water was to heal a sick child. There were a number of stories of his restoring the sick to health, or of protecting his parents during their journey to and from Egypt.
That Jesus’s benevolent side existed from the beginning is shown in the delightful rhyme that, once again, has Joseph as the unwitting stooge. (Incidentally, I have yet to learn why those in the Middle Ages kept insisting that Joseph was an old man..): Joseph was an old man, and an old man was he, When he wedded Mary in the land of Galilee... Joseph and Mary walked through an orchard green, There were berries and cherries as thick as might be seen. O then bespoke Mary, so meek and so mild, ‘Pluck me one cherry, Joseph, for I am with child.’ O then bespoke Joseph, with words most unkind, ‘Let him pluck the cherry that brought thee with child.’ O then bespoke the babe within his mother's womb- ‘Bow down then the tallest tree for my mother to have some.’ Then bowed down the highest tree unto his mother's hand, Then she cried, ‘See, Joseph, I have cherries at command.’