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  • The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages by Mary Dzon
  • Nicholas D. Brodie
Dzon, Mary, The Quest for the Christ Child in the Later Middle Ages (Middle Ages), Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017; cloth; pp. 424; 24 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US $65.00, £56.00; ISBN 9780812248845.

The object of this study is 'the medieval reception of the apocryphal Christ Child and the relationship of the apocryphal legends to other roughly contemporary sources' (p. 21). Its objective, on the other hand, is 'to provide a broad conceptual and categorical map' which can serve as 'a wide-ranging yet focused picture that will help frame future studies' (p. 21). With 251 pages of discussion, and a good 137 pages devoted to endnotes and sources, it is literally a rather weighty guidebook into the territory Mary Dzon traverses. Fortunately, through a lengthy introduction, and three substantive chapters, Dzon covers a lot of relatively under-trodden ground, making this a useful exposition that will be of great interest to those interested in the same historical and theological terrain.

Most of Dzon's book is about textual relationships. After introducing her themes in the first chapter, and the historiographical positioning of her work, in the second chapter Dzon focuses on monastic and mendicant traditions. Opening this section by comparing Aelred of Rievaulx's De Jesu puero duodenni with the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Dzon argues that an antique tendency to focus on displays of impressive power in Jesus's childhood gave way to a medieval attraction to the everyday elements of Jesus's infancy. The Christ Child, she argues, became a contemplative focal device, particularly in the Cistercian tradition, geared towards encouraging a certain longing for Christ. Dzon touches on connections between the Christ Child and the Eucharist, the rhetorical and imaginative elements of Aelred's approach to the Christ Child, and various Christological issues. Later in the chapter, but picking up some of these same themes, Dzon considers the more performative approaches to the Christ Child in the early Franciscan tradition, including Francis's Nativity at Greccio. Arguing that Francis's search for Christ-like poverty and humility is expressed in the Nativity as well as the Passion, Dzon highlights Francis's focus on a 'continuum, which is accessible to Christians, in various times and places, in a special way through the Eucharist' (p. 77). In both traditions, the apocryphal stories seem to have had a diminished role in informing these writers, even while there are hints of their continued familiarity with the tradition within their writing.

In her third chapter Dzon tackles Thomas Aquinas's treatment of the Christ Child. Noting Aquinas's explicit rejection of the apocryphal stories, Dzon uses his thinking as a structure with which to explore a series of wider discussions about the apocryphal infancy narrative traditions, the paradoxicality of the Incarnate God, and representations of Christ's youth and expressions of anti-Judaism. A wide-ranging section with several [End Page 192] meanders, this part of the guidebook, for example, turns to discuss the role of phantasms in medieval culture and digresses on such cultural waypoints as Merlin's youth and the metaphysics of demonic insemination. Ultimately, Dzon suggests that Aquinas's insistence on the fullness of the humanity of Jesus was paramount in informing his rejection of the veracity and usefulness of the apocryphal infancy traditions, seeing them as a potentially heresy-encouraging distraction.

In the last substantive chapter Dzon looked to a feminine and maternal perspective of the Christ Child, through the lens of the Revelationes of Birgitta of Sweden. Continuing her approach of using devotional, theological, and spiritual literature to explore medieval receptions of apocryphal stories, Dzon argues 'that the Swedish saint was aware of apocryphal infancy legends about the birth and childhood of Christ, even though she never explicitly mentions them' (p. 192). As with the previous chapter, this section covers a range of cultural tangents that may interest readers, particularly the influence that Birgitta may have had on Margery Kempe's understandings of the Nativity. Dzon also points to Franciscan influences on Birgitta, and Birgitta's own spiritual musings that seem...


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