In his 1998 essay on “Brother Hermann’s Life of the Countess Yolanda of Vianden,” Joseph M Sullivan argues that young Yolanda “epitomizes what Weinstein and Bell term the “old child”” (168) which for medieval hagiographers is when mature religious impulses and desires are read backwards into the childhoods of their protagonists. Thus, in Brother Hermann’s text, the old child – Yolanda – distinguishes herself from her peers “by seriousness of speech and manner” and by refusing to take part in the games of her peers. This peculiar feature of her sainthood seems to be a transferal of Yolanda’s refusal of the world from a learned virtue to more of an inherent or natural virtue. As a common feature of hagiography, I couldn’t help but ask some questions about what this “old child” trope implies about medieval ideas concerning children, virtue, and ideas about governing conduct.
Because this text was written in the vernacular, it’s possible that rather than being an case for Yolanda’s canonization, it was instead written as a sort of conduct manual for Dominican nuns written using hagiographic tropes (Sullivan 164). But how could this text function as a conduct manual if the protagonist in question was an “old child,” one who was free of the folly and triviality that other children are subject to?
One of the moments that struck me when puzzling through this was the scene where Yolanda first runs from her mother in the convent and manages to incite the other nuns to dress her in the habit of the novitiate. She strips herself of her courtly clothes and “quickly she told them to dress her. Her hair touched the floor, curly, golden, and fine. Full of love, she told them all to cut off her hair. That was too hard for the sisters; they couldn’t cut it. Yolanda herself then took the scissors in her hand, the pure and blessed Yolanda. She cut, she turned it up, she sheared. The sisters then ran up and helped her finish the haircut” (1840-50). In this moment, Yolanda sets an example for the other nuns of the order by shearing her own head. The other nuns then join in, helping her to complete the task and replacing her “head-band, taffeta, ribbons, silk” with the “way of the cloister.” In this moment, it seems that Yolanda is only able to behave as an example for the nuns conduct because she is ALREADY capable of doing the thing that they are not yet capable of doing. Her hair – a symbol of her femininity, beauty, courtly-life, youth and virginity – is something that she has already abandoned; or, rather, it’s something she never wanted in the first place, and therefore never needed to abandon, only to escape. Meanwhile, it is “too hard” for the nuns to cut the hair from her head until she first shows them how.
However, at the same time that Yolanda seems predisposed to virtue, immediately after this episode she is shown as needing to bolster her courage and strength: “Ah, poor girl, alas! What good help she needs now! For she has stepped into the turning wheel and she must fight there as a matter of life and death. She needs much good hope. For the good young woman is in peril. She must borrow a man’s heart for a woman’s body. Yes, a woman’s strength is not enough for her tender body” (1851-62). In this moment immediately following her brave shearing of her own hair, Yolanda now requires some kind of help; here perhaps we see a moment of writer clairvoyance on Brother Hermann’s part – he of course knows that this decision is the beginning of years of conflict, pain, and struggle for Yolanda as she fights to follow her virtue and stay in the cloister against her mother’s wishes. However, rather than saying Yolanda prayed for grace or something of similar nature, instead Hermann says that Yolanda needed to “borrow a man’s heart for a woman’s body.” Suddenly, in this moment where Yolanda’s childhood predisposition to strength of virtue perhaps momentarily falters, it is not Christ or grace that are invoked, but rather ideas about gender. Yolanda is an old child, but she has a woman’s body, and therefore needs a man’s heart in order to have the hope and the strength the needs to confront the years of pain to come. How does this sudden invocation of gender complicate ideas about virtue and conduct exemplar that up to this point have seemed to follow fairly clear hagiographic tropes? Yolanda needs to be an “old child” in order to provide the example that the other nuns in the cloister needs. She must have already rejected the world and already abandoned her beautiful hair in order to show the nuns how to begin to shear it. However, now faced with the “turning wheel” (of Fortune?) she has stepped into, she needs a man’s heart…in order to continue to be an example? Is this a moment when our hagiographer doubts the relative fortitude of his protagonist?
What strikes me then, as this scene comes to a close, before it is interrupted by the anger of Yolanda’s mother, is that we land on an image of Yolanda, kneeling before the altar, listening to the choir sing “Veni, Creator Spiritus” (“Come, Holy Spirit, Creator Blest”). This song (if it’s the version that I’m thinking) is doing all the things that a hymn probably ought to do in this moment – it is invoking the Holy Spirit, asking to be comforted, pleading for virtue (“Accende lumen sensibus: infunde amorem cordibus: infirma nostri corporis virtute firmans perpeti.”; “Kindle our sense from above, and make our hearts o’erflow with love; with patience firm and virtue high the weakness of our flesh supply.”), asking for peace and grace. So while our narrator himself doesn’t overtly state that Yolanda asked for grace in this moment, the hymn which she prays to, and which plays as her mother walks in, is in many ways both fulfilling a prayer for grace, and providing prophetic sense of the dangers to come that Yolanda must fortify her woman’s body against with a man’s heart.