This article will examine a late-thirteenth-century text, the Enfaunces de Jesu Crist [Childhood of Jesus Christ], in the context of the recently developed field of fan studies. The text was edited in 1985 by Maureen Boulton, and is written in the Anglo-Norman dialect of French spoken by the élite members of society in England following the Norman Conquest. It survives fully in one manuscript, MS Bodley Selden Supra 38, and partially in two others, and there are also related Continental French and Middle English versions (Boulton, Enfaunces 1, 9-10). The Enfaunces narrate episodes from Jesus’s early life, and it is one of a group of nine texts telling similar stories focusing either on Jesus’s childhood or that of his mother, which I would describe as “Jesus fan fiction.”
Jesus fan fiction: how can a fan studies approach help us to rethink the relationship between medieval manuscripts and their audiences?
Although this may seem at first to be an anachronistic concept, there are many analogies to be drawn between modern-day fandom and the behaviour of the authors and audiences of medieval literature. The concept of a fan community has existed for several centuries at least even if it has not been expressed in these terms (Keller). Maureen Boulton, in the introduction to her recent study of Continental French narratives of Christ and the Virgin, identified how the authors of those texts engaged with contemporary literary forms in order to communicate religious material to audiences more fond of secular narratives (Boulton, Sacred Fictions 9). She also highlighted how those texts responded to their audience’s need to explore and engage imaginatively with their faith (Boulton, Sacred Fictions 5). Emotional response and imaginative engagement are also key qualities of fan communities, as identified by Cornel Sandvoss, who describes fandom as “the regular, emotionally involved consumption of a given popular narrative of a text” (Sandvoss, 8). Both modern fandom and medieval texts acknowledge and reimagine canonical events in their narratives, but also expand upon them, operating outside of authorial jurisdiction and going beyond the limits of their source material. Furthermore, they both make use of recognisable characters, but also put ‘their’ unique spin on them, using them to explore their own concerns about contemporary social, political and sexual issues.
The desire to know or to imagine what could lie in the missing moments of the narrative leads to the production and consumption of fan fiction, as several scholars have identified (Dare, Hellekson, Jenkins, Musiani). So what kind of gap was the Enfaunces attempting to fill? I would like to suggest that it was twofold, both a chronological gap and also a thematic gap. Firstly, in terms of time, the canonical gospels do not give much information about Jesus’s childhood; there is some detail in the gospel of Luke, but much of the material in the Enfaunces comes from the apocryphal infancy gospel of Pseudo-Matthew (Boulton, Enfaunces 9-10). Secondly, thematically speaking, the stories in the Enfaunces focus mostly on Jesus’s relationship with his parents and also with his peers. The stories explore Jesus’s dual nature as God and man, and as a child to his parents as well as their redeemer.
Some statistics will reveal the preoccupations of the Enfaunces in more detail. Of the 34 stories collected in the Enfaunces, eleven feature Jesus helping his community in a variety of ways, including healing the lame, the mute, and the blind (vv. 957-72), assisting a dyer (vv. 1233-1364), and sowing barley in a field which then grows instantly and can be harvested by the villagers (vv. 1089-1100). The presence of these stories is perhaps unsurprising, given that they anticipate Jesus’s role as saviour of mankind. Seven stories focus on Jesus’s supernatural powers, which frequently result in the death of those who defy, irritate, or attempt to imitate him, whether they be teachers or playfellows. Some examples include Jesus striking a boy dead for destroying some pools he has been creating (vv. 397-480), boys being transformed into pigs when their parents attempt to conceal them from Jesus so that they cannot play with him (vv. 1101-56), and a teacher who strikes Jesus when antagonised by him dropping dead (vv. 1593-1652). These episodes usually, but do not always, end with Jesus resurrecting or healing those who have been harmed as a result of his actions, usually at the behest of his parents (often because they are threatened by the parents of the dead children). The violence of these episodes gives them a disturbing undertone, particularly when viewed in the light of their virulent anti-Semitism. This may not have been surprising to a medieval audience, as the Jews were held to be responsible for Jesus’s death and were persecuted in medieval England, but it is arresting for contemporary readers.
The Tring Tiles, made 1330, from Tring church in Hertfordshire. These illustrate many of the infancy miracles from the Enfaunces, and it is possible the tiles and the illustrations in the manuscript shared a common source
[Image ©Trustees of the British Museum, used with permission]
The depiction of Jesus both as the Messiah and as, to quote Monty’s Python’s Life of Brian, “a very naughty boy” illustrates his dual nature, and perhaps encourages contemplation of what life was like for his parents. This may have been deliberate, as the largest number of stories, thirteen in total, feature Jesus performing actions either at their behest or in order to take care of them or his wider family. These range from commanding a fruit tree give his exhausted parents food and water on their journey to Egypt (vv. 197-316), shortening their journey time by 30 days in response to Joseph suffering from heat exhaustion (vv. 317-32), rectifying a mistake made by Joseph’s apprentice to ensure that a plank of wood that he has mistakenly cut too short lengthens itself to the required size (vv. 1465-1536), and responding to numerous threats to his parents which come about as a result of injury to other children who are either influenced by Jesus’s hijinks or killed as a result of defying him (e.g. vv. 481-564, vv. 641-768). The narrative particularly highlights how Joseph, rather than Mary or Joseph and Mary together, is influenced by these events. The two stories to feature Jesus’s extended family, including an unnamed cousin with whom Jesus gathers cabbages for dinner in a particularly domestic scene (vv. 1717-60), further emphasise his position as a member of a family and increase the paradox of Jesus as human and Jesus as God that the Enfaunces explore.
The illustrations in the one complete manuscript of the Enfaunces, further highlight this preoccupation. Boulton describes them as “extensive,” (Boulton, “Text and Illustration” 3) indicating that they would probably have been time-consuming to produce and therefore expensive to commission. However, illustrations did not only indicate the value and prestige of the manuscript in which they were contained. They were also a means of making texts more accessible to readers who were not necessarily able to read written text unassisted, but who could either ‘read’ the illustrations or have the book read to them by someone else. Furthermore, they were an important location of narrative in their own right; like a modern-day graphic novel, illustrations could serve a variety of purposes in a medieval text. They could mirror the information in the narrative, serving to emphasise it, and they could also complement it with additional information, guiding the reader to what the illustrator saw as the most important parts of the story. The epilogue in the complete manuscript of the text evidently considered the illustrations and the text as a composite narrative: he states “Mut est bele la medlure, De la lettre e la purtreiture,” [the mixture of words and illustrations is very fine, vv. 1979-80] and also states “A cel entendre est bon deliz, E ne mie tener a enviz” [to hear this text is a great delight, and should not be begrudged, vv. 1983-4]. This insistence on the importance of the illustrations and on hearing the narrative, combined with the choice of French over Latin as the language for the text, suggests that the author was aiming for an audience of mixed literatures, both visual and oral, perhaps including those who were unable to or learning to read and using the illustrations as a means of accessing the narrative; Wogan Browne et al. suggest that they could have been used for teaching purposes (Wogan-Browne, Fenster and Russell, 180). The size of the book also is an indicator of the way it was perhaps intended to be read: it is “small enough to be held easily in the hands” (Wogan-Browne et al., 179), which suggests either solo reading or reading in a small group, gathered around the book so that everyone present could see the images.
Illustrations of texts like the Enfaunces served a variety of purposes in a medieval text not dissimilar to modern-day graphic novels
[Image by 125o4 under a CC BY-NC-ND license]
As the illustrations were considered so important by the author of the text, it would be worth examining their subject matter as well. Of the 60 illustrations in the manuscript, 17 feature Jesus and at least one of his parents. A further seven illustrations depict at least one of Jesus’s parents without Jesus present, meaning that just under half of the illustrations are concerned with Jesus’s family. The distribution of illustrations throughout the narrative likewise seems disproportionately skewed towards the Holy Family: the episode in which Jesus commands a tree to provide his family with food and water is given five illustrations, which makes up 1/12 of the total illustrations in the text, even though the episode itself is only 100 lines long, in a text of just over 2000 lines. As in the written text, the illustrator’s preoccupation seems to be with Joseph: of the seven illustrations showing Jesus and either parent, Joseph appears in four as opposed to Mary’s three, and in the six illustrations of either parent without Jesus, five depict Joseph while only one depicts Mary. The text and the images appear to be determined to restore Joseph to the narrative and to encourage the audience to consider his relationship with his adoptive son. They are further pushed to consider this relationship at two separate points in the narrative in which the sole focus of the illustration is Joseph bidding Jesus farewell; once on folio f. 17v with a wave, and once on folio f. 25r in tears. The emotive quality of these illustrations may be an attempt to guide the reader’s attention to contemplation of Joseph’s emotions, and may also even be foreshadowing Jesus’s death. There are many examples of texts that encourage their readers to identify with Mary’s anguish in contemplation of her son’s death, but here it seems to be Joseph whose emotional attachment to his son is being contemplated. Throughout the Enfaunces, the text and the images work together to restore Joseph to the narrative, whether by simply highlighting his presence, or more actively by encouraging emotional identification with him. In this way, the author and illustrator of the Enfaunces fulfils the same role as a fan fiction author exploring a character who is underdeveloped in canon, and, at the same time, gives a model of parenthood for their audience to follow. Jesus is respectful to his parents, looking after them when they are vulnerable and obeying their wishes as a dutiful son, and they correct him when his behaviour is inappropriate. That Jesus uses his powers not only to heal the sick and resurrect the dead but also to assist in his father’s carpentry business and to fetch water for his mother gives his power a more intimate quality, emphasising his role in his family as well as mankind’s saviour-to-be.
This analysis is intended to explore the benefits of reading medieval texts through the lens of fan studies. Although the approach is new, it suggests that the motivations behind the composition and consumption of texts such as the Enfaunces may have been the same as those that prompt the writing and reading of fan fiction today. Adopting the mindset of a twenty-first century fan can offer new insight into the interests, needs, and behaviour of a thirteenth-century audience.
CITATION: Katharine Handel, “Medieval Jesus Fan Fiction”, Alluvium, Vol. 5, No. 1 (2016): n. pag. Web. 30 March 2016. http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v5.1.02
Dr Katharine Handel received her PhD in Medieval Studies form the University of York in 2015. She specialises in Anglo-Norman literature of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, particularly hagiography. She currently works as a researcher at the Oxford English Dictionary.
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