restricted access “God did play the child”: Robert Southwell’s “Christes childhoode”
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“God did play the child”
Robert Southwell’s “Christes childhoode”

What kind of wisdom and knowledge did the Christ Child have?1 Robert Southwell’s poem “Christes childhood,” from the Maeoniae, offers a carefully constructed reply that provides evidence about Counter-Reformation attitudes toward this ancient question and, more important for our purposes, evidence about Southwell’s own understanding of the Christ Child’s nature as fully human and fully divine. Pierre Janelle once remarked that the lyric presents the Christ Child as an ideal Jesuit hero—“the attitude of the boy Jesus seems to be modeled after the pattern of classical—and Jesuit—moderation” (162). This description, while it responds to the poem’s careful searching for balance and integration, ignores its argumentative edge. The lyric is celebratory of Jesus’s virtues but it is also instructive: in its own subtle way it takes a stand against very common folkloric depictions of the Christ Child as wonder working and even disruptive to reintroduce the simplicity and mystery of the Gospels’ depiction of Jesus the boy and reaffirm his divine knowledge and power, while retaining one aspect of extrabiblical depictions that Southwell, unexpectedly, seems to consider important: the Christ Child at play. This poem differs from his other more [End Page 174] famous poems on the Christ Child in that it presents the Child in a hieratic stance, an image of power and judgment rather than that of an active lover, eager sacrifice, or Warrior Babe. On the other hand, true to Southwell’s love of paradox, while the poem presents us with a Child who is Judge of the World, it also represents him as a God who plays and perhaps experiences mirth. Though Southwell verges on declaring the humanity of Christ an act performed by a divinity, he achieves a balance that demonstrates that he also wishes to affirm the humanity of Christ. Southwell does not explicitly deny the folk tradition of a wonder-working Christ Child any more than he denies that the Christ Child grew and learned: he merely asserts that even the Gospel writers are unworthy to write of the miraculous acts springing from his divinity and humanity in this period of Christ’s life. The claim is surprising in the end, for it implies that the wonders, teaching, and redeeming acts of Jesus depicted in the Gospels can be written of by men, but the wonder of his childhood is too great for human pens.

The Counter-Reformation, like the Reformation itself, was concerned to remove extraneous pious legend from the truth of the Gospel, and in particular to safeguard the honor of Christ and his saints from a folk imagination that mythologized and embroidered with a very strong basis in the generally accepted apocryphal stories that had been handed down from very early centuries of the Church, some so old that they were known to Mohammed and included in the Koran, such as the tale of the boy Jesus breathing life into clay birds. The Catholic thinker Molanus, or Jan van der Meulen, even had called The Golden Legend the Legend of Lead because it was so filled with lies (De Picturis et Imaginibus Sacris, pro vero earum usu contra abusus [“Treatise on Sacred Images”] of 1570). Even before the decree of the Council, tales about the boy Jesus had been omitted from some versions of the collection, a sign of sensitivity about their inappropriateness or even their potential to subvert orthodox doctrine about Christ.2

Southwell’s assertion that only angels might write of what Christ did during those childhood years seems to have no other reason for [End Page 175] being in the poem other than to imply that what the legends passed on in popular religious culture was untrue. This odd caveat aligns itself with the decrees of the Council of Trent on sacred art, which made it clear that extrabiblical fables about the life of Christ were not to be represented:

And if any abuses have crept in amongst these holy and salutary observances, the holy Synod ardently desires that they be utterly abolished; in such wise that no images, (suggestive) of false doctrine, and...