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The Story of Christmas: Medieval Extended Edition

The story of the birth of Jesus is told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. However, these accounts are not particularly long, and Christians interested in Jesus’ life would be curious to know more details about this important event. To do so, they could turn to Ludolph of Saxony and his work The Life of Christ for an extended edition of the Nativity.

Ludolph of Saxony (c. 1295 – 1378) was a Carthusian monk living mostly in the city of Strasbourg. Ludolph wrote several works, but his most popular was Vita Christi, which he completed in 1374. It can be described as a biography of Jesus, based on the gospels, but Ludolph has added in various details that he could find from other early Christian writings, as well as interpretations and moral lessons that he wanted to include. The Vita Christi proved to be very popular, with numerous manuscript copies, and printed editions as early as the fifteenth-century.

The indepth nature of Ludolph of Saxony’s work can be clearly seen in the account of Jesus’ birth. A portion is based on the account found in the Gospel of Luke – Chapter 2:1-20. That Gospel version runs about 400 words, while the Vita Christi is over two dozen pages in its English translation. It begins by noting that Joseph and Mary were travelling to Bethlehem to take part in the census. From here Ludolph explains who the Roman Emperor was at the time, why he was trying to find out the population of his realm, and further details about the city of Bethlehem. Although the “arduous” trip to the city from Nazareth was about 40 miles it did not bother the pregnant Mary, as she was feeling “buoyant and energetic” because of the baby she was carrying inside her.

Ludolph next describes their arrival in Bethlehem:

Mary and Joseph could not find any lodging when they reached Bethlehem; they were poor, and the town was thronged with people who had come for the census. Pause here and share in our Lady’s difficulties: she was a young woman around fifteen years, tired out from a long journey, trying to make her way modestly through the crowded streets, looking without success for a place to rent. Everyone dismissed them and their companions and sent them on their way. They were finally received into a public accommodation in a communal passageway; this was inside the city, near one of the gates, under a conclave cliff. There was no roof above it other than the overhanging rock, as can still be seen today.

16th century folios from the Mayer van den Bergh Breviary

More details are added about this place, and why animals were placed there, beforeteh  Vita Christi continues:

Joseph was a carpenter, so perhaps he made a manger there for the ox and the ass they had brought with them: his pregnant wife rode on the ass, and he may have bought the ox to sell in order to the pay the tax for himself and the Virgin and live off the remainder. Or perhaps someone else had led the ox there, which then began to feed from the manger with their donkey; or both animals may have belonged to someone else.

The Nativity in British Library MS Additional 18720 f. 246v

Ludolph soon comes to the moment of Jesus’ birth:

The hour came for Mary to give birth, at midnight on the Lord’s Day. This was the day on which God said, “Be light made.” And light was made; when the night was in the midst of her course, the Orient from on high has visited us: the Virgin brought forth her firstborn son… He was born secretly under the cover of darkness to lead back into the light of truth those who were living in the night of error. As soon as her son was born, his mother immediately adorned him as God and then wrapped him up herself in swaddling clothes, that is, in strips and pieces of cheap cloth, and laid him, not in a gilded crib, but in a manger, between the aforementioned ox and ass, because there was no other room for them in the inn.

All of these details have broader spiritual meanings and lessons according to Ludolph. Several paragraphs are devoted to why Jesus was born where he was, including this one:

He was on the road, not in the family home, to show that he was a sojourner whose kingdom was not of this world. He also said, I am the way, by which we journey to our homeland. He was received at a humble in to teach us not to seek palaces in this world, but modest dwellings. He chose to be born in a stable to condemn worldly glory and sumptuous buildings. He became a small child to make us great and perfect human beings, and so that we would avoid self-aggrandizement. He became weak to make us strong and powerful in doing good. He became poor to enrich us by his poverty, and so that none of us would boast of our earthly riches.

Full-page miniature of the Nativity of Christ, with the Virgin Mary and Joseph above and the infant Christ, watched over by an ox and ass, below, preceding the benediction for Christmas. The female figure standing near Mary’s bed is probably the midwife who, according to the Protoevangelium of James, convinced Joseph of the miraculous nature of Mary’s conception. She is not mentioned in Ludolph of Saxony’s account. British Library MS Additional 49598 f. 15v

Next, the scene is shifted to the shepherds who are outside of Bethlehem (about a mile away from the city according to Ludolph). They are visited by an angel, followed by many more, who proclaim and sing about the arrival of Jesus Christ before returning to Heaven. The shepherds then say to one another they should go to the city and see this child. “And they came with haste,” Ludolph notes, “principally because of their joy and intense desire to see the newborn babe, but also so that they could return quickly to their flocks and not leave them unprotected.”

The author continues:

And they found Mary and Joseph, and the infant lying in the manger. Because of the abundant peace that people then enjoyed and because large numbers of visitors were coming to the inn, the doors were not closed and the shepherds could come to the child at night. They found him in the manger with Mary the Virgin and Joseph the just man nearby, from which we learn that if want to find Christ we should have justice in our relations with out neighbours, signified by Joseph; and humility and reverence in our relationship with God, signified by the humble manger. Christ is found between Mary and Joseph, that is contemplation and action.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds, depicted in a Book of Hours from France, created between 1425 and 1475.

Ludolph adds various moral lessons on what the shepherds did and that we should follow in their footsteps. The section end with praise for Mary, with Ludolph calling her a teacher of the other disciples who understood the religious significance of Jesus. Ludolph ends by writing:

O, how great a cause for joy it must have been for her to know that she was the Mother of God! Anselm says, “Only of holy Mary the Virgin can it be said that she is the Mother of God, and this surpasses any dignity that can be spoken or even thought, saving that of God alone.”

Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi has recently been translated by Milton T. Walsh in The Life of Jesus Christ, published by Cistercian Publications. You can learn more about the book by visiting the publisher’s website or on Amazon.com.

Top Image: A medieval manuscript illustration of the Nativity – Erzbisch. Diözesan- und Dombibliothek Codex 1117 fol. 21v



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