The birth of Jesus pretty much coincides with the end of Prehistory in Central Europe. The Roman Occupation 15 BC is generally taken as prehistory’s cut-off date in this region. From then on, written sources inform us about the course of history. Little, however, was ever written about child rearing practices.
This makes the birth of Jesus in Luke 2:6-7 a particularly interesting read. Today it seems unlikely that he was born in a stable. The sources seem to speak of the ground floor of an ordinary house. That Jesus was swaddled and placed in a manger might hold. Swaddling was indeed wide spread in the Roman Empire. Babies were swaddled after their first bath for about the first six weeks of their lives, then slowly unpacked, with the right hand first to ensure right-handedness. The manger always puzzled me a little bit. It was surly a safe and relatively warm place, but why, one could ask, was he not cuddling with Mary? Why wasn’t he held and kept warm by her body?
Depictions of Jesus’ birth through time reflect both the familiar story and how people adjusted it to their own cultural contexts. The key elements – swaddling, manger and ox and donkey, a very early addition reflecting on Isaiah 1:3 – are kept, but details change according to familiar child raising practices at the time. Swaddling cloths change, and so does the position Mary is depicted in – from lying to kneeling (after giving birth, really?) next to the new-born.
Numerous images depict Mary breastfeeding baby Jesus, albeit rarely in the manger scene. Mary breastfeeding Jesus and other images, in which Mary’s breast milk is spiritual sustenance to a whole range of other people warrants another blog post. We may assume Jesus was indeed breastfed.
Late medieval – early modern Central Europe depictions sometimes show Joseph cooking porridge for baby Jesus. Joseph taking on domestic roles such as cutting swaddling clothes and assisting in bathing baby Jesus are rather rare in the Christian tradition and therefore especially striking. The images simultaneously testify the very low breastfeeding rates and associated high childhood mortality at the time.
Suffice it to say that most likely, late prehistory – early history, i.e. the time Jesus was born, was not the place for attachment parenting. He might have had responsive parents, but he did not seem to have experienced all of the fundamental pillars of attachment parenting – breastfeeding, co-sleeping and baby carrying.
Graham, E.-J. 2013. The making of infants in Hellenistic and early Roman Italy: a votive perspective. World Archaeology 45(2): 215-231.
Wirth, H. 2010. Die linke Hand. Wahrnehmung und Bewertung in der griechischen und römischen Antike. Heidelberger Althistorische Beiträge und Epigraphische Studien 47. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.