Friday 25 January 2013

Folklore snippets: The Childhood of Jesus

Jesus makes birds of clay: by Vitrearum, from his excellent blog Medieval Church Art - from a fifteenth century wallpainting at Shorthampton in Oxfordshire

Old stories of the childhood of Jesus certainly count as folklore: current in medieval times, they have found their way into old songs and carols and even on to the walls of churches. Charming as these tales are with their vibrant images of children’s play, of tell-tales and rivalry, they may also have a shocking impact. They show childhood’s ruthlessness as well as its innocence. 

They are to be found in the Apocryphal Gospels of Thomas, and the Gospel of the Pseudo Matthew: the translation is by MR James (Oxford University Press 1924). James comments:

The few Greek manuscripts are all late.  The earliest authorities are a much-abbreviated Syriac version of which the manuscript is of the sixth century; and a Latin palimpsest at Vienna of the fifth or sixth century.  The Latin version… is found in more manuscripts than the Greek; none of them, I think, is earlier than the thirteenth century.”

From the Greek Text B:

1 On a certain day when there had fallen a shower of rain he went forth of the house where his mother was and played upon the ground where the waters were running: and he made pools, and the waters flowed down, and the pools were filled with water. Then saith he: I will that ye become clean and wholesome. And straightway they did so.

2 But a certain son of Annas the scribe passed by bearing a branch of willow, and he overthrew the pools with the branch, and the waters were poured out. And Jesus turned about and said unto him: O ungodly and disobedient one, what have the pools done to thee that thou hast emptied them? Thou shalt… be withered up even as the branch which thou hast in hand. 

3 And he went on, and after a little he fell and gave up the ghost. And when the young children that played with him saw it, they marvelled and departed and told the father of him that he was dead. And he ran and found the child dead, and went and accused Joseph.

1 Now Jesus made of that clay twelve sparrows: and it was the Sabbath day.  And a child ran and told Joseph, saying: Behold, thy child playeth about the brook, and hath made sparrows of the clay, which is not lawful.

2 And he when he heard it went and said to the child: Wherefore doest thou so and profaneth the Sabbath?  But Jesus answered him not, but looked upon the sparrows and said: Go ye, take your flight, and remember me in your life.  And at the word they took flight and went up into the air.  And when Joseph saw it he was astonished.

The last part of the story was taken up (and embellished) by Hilaire Belloc who wrote this very sweet poem, published 1910:

When Jesus Christ was four years old
The angels brought Him toys of gold,
Which no man ever had bought or sold.

And yet with these He would not play,
He made Him small fowl out of clay
And blessed them till they flew away:
Tu creasti Domini

Jesus Christ, thou child so wise,
Bless mine hands and fill mine eyes,
And bring my soul to Paradise.

However, closer to the apocryphal gospels is the old ballad ‘The Bitter Withy’, collected by Vaughan Williams in Shropshire and Herefordshire in 1908/9.  It is based on tales from the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew and also from a 13th century poem on the childhood of Jesus known as the Vita Rhythmica.  In the ballad, Jesus asks his mother if he may go and play ball:

So up the hill and down the hill
Our sweet young Saviour ran
Until he met three rich young lords
All playing in the sun.

“Good morn, good morn, good morn,” said they,
“Good morning then,” cried he,
“And which of you three rich young lords
Will play at ball with me?”

But the rich young lords despise him:

“We are all lords’ and ladies’ sons
Born in a bower and hall,
And you are nothing but a poor maid’s child
Born in an ox’s stall.”

Alas, you don’t meddle with divinity.

“Well though you’re lords’ and ladies’ sons
All born in your bower and hall,
I’ll prove to you at your latter end
I’m an angel above you all.”

So he built him a bridge from the beams of the sun
And over the water ran he,
The rich young lords chased after him
And drowned they were all three.

So up the hill and down the hill
Three rich young mothers ran
Saying, “Mary mild, fetch home your child,
For ours he’s drowned each one.”

Then Mary mild, she took her child
And laid him across her knee,
And with a handful of withy twigs
She gave him slashes three.

“Oh bitter withy, oh bitter withy,
You’ve caus├Ęd me to smart,
And the withy shall be the very first tree
To perish at the heart.”

Far from being sorry for what he’s done, the little Christ Child curses the withy itself – the willow wands with which his mother has whipped him. There’s a wry, very conscious humour in this ballad.  It’s been made up and sung by people who were used to being the underdogs, who could only console themselves that, ultimately, God was on the side of the poor and the humble, not the lords and ladies.  They knew they would never find equality this side of heaven, however: so the ballad is a joke – a knowing, tender, deliberate joke – about children, and the way they play and quarrel, and the topsy-turvy chaos that is caused when the innocent but all-powerful Christ Child lashes out against those who jeer at him… and how even HE has to be taught a lesson when he goes too far. 

Here's Maddy Prior singing 'The Bitter Withy' at Cecil Sharp House, 23rd October 2008


  1. Fascinating! I find The Bitter Withy quite disturbing, but like your interpretation, Kath. I love the image of the clay birds coming to life and flying away - wonderful! Leslie


  2. I love these old legends too. I think part of what The Bitter Withy is saying is that Christ is both god and mortal. He has to learn from, and balance, both sides. So he lashes out with Divine Justice, as Zeus, for instance, often does - but his little mortal mother has to put him across her knee and teach him what befits his mortal side. (I like the very homely, capable woman Mary is portrayed as in these stories.)
    And yes, he blasts the willow in a sulk - but he's a child. He'll learn more patience.
    They are very sweet and human, these stories.

  3. That's a very good way of putting it, Sue!

  4. I do love that idea (as I understood the first story) of the Child Jesus making little pools with dams of clay, then falling into such a rage when Annas break up his the dams.

    Love those clay birds too: a lump of clay just right for squeezing and modelling in a small child's hand, and then a moment to pinch out each wing. Maybe Jesus could have been a potter instead of a carpenter?

    As for the energetic spanking!