Yolanda: an “Old Child” with a man’s heart and a woman’s body

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.



“Come Home with Me” “…who are you?”

In the musical Hadestown, when Orpheus first sees Eurydice, Hermes asks Orpheus if he wants to talk to her, warning him not to “come on too strong.” Orpheus, who as has already been introduced in the show as a boy “working on a song,” does not heed Hermes’ advice, but instead turns to Eurydice and says:

Come home with me
Who are you?
The man who’s gonna marry you
I’m Orpheus
Is he always like this?
I’m Eurydice
Your name is like a melody
A singer, is that what you are?
I also play the lyre
Oh a liar and a player too
I’ve met too many men like you
         The title of this song is “Come Home with Me”, and in many ways, it, as well as the following song “Wedding Song” fit the genre of (male-authored) Troubadour poetry. Orpheus, in this first introduction to his lady-love, inadvertently reveals his identity as a singer and lyre-player just by paying attention to the way her “name is like a melody,” but the first thing he says to her is a plea worded as a command: “Come home with me,” and when she asks who he is, his response is “the man who’s gonna marry you.” It is Eurydice who identifies him as a “singer…a liar and a player too,” something which she is able to do because she has “known too many men like you.”
          I begin with a discussion of Hadestown in a response about the “Songs of the Women Troubadours” in an effort to parse how the female Troubadours both participate in and question the troubadour genre. Similarly to Eurydice, whose first words to Orpheus’ plea to “come home with me” is the question “Who are you?”, so too the women Troubadours seem to perform their “come home with me” genre, and then interrogate that genre. Women Troubadours turn to the Troubadour genre and ask “Who are you?”
          One example of this can be seen in poem #23, which is a dialogue between Domna H. and Rofin (“Rofin, digatz m’ades de quors”). In this poem, two women have a conversation about whether or not men would-be-lovers should be made to swear that “before she lets them lie beside her / that they’ll embrace and kiss her / and do no more than that” (6-8). Of the two men, one swears readily because oaths mean nothing to him, and the other is so worried he won’t be able to keep his word that he doesn’t swear at all. Which man does better? is the question at the heart of the poem. The first woman, in defense of the man who cannot control himself, mounts an argument that might be a quote straight from a male Troubadour poem:

Rofin, a true lover does not let fear

prevent him from enjoying pleasure,

because desire and excessive ardor

presses him so that, despite the pleas

of his honored lady,

he can’t contain or rule himself.

For as he lies with her and gazes at her, heartfelt love becomes so hot

that he can neither hear, see

nor know if he does harm or good. (21-30)


This is a “come home with me” quote, but this time in the mouth of a woman speaking to another woman. Men cannot rule themselves, but rather lovesickness so sends them into a humoral imbalance that, medically speaking, makes them blind and deaf to the harm or good he does to his lady. Despite her pleas, a “true lover” cannot contain himself. This of course reeks of rapey-vibes to a modern audience, but in the context of this poem and the hypothetical scenario that one female speaker presents to another, these lines instead become a pseudo-performance of Troubadour poetry which a second female voice is then given the opportunity to answer. Domna H responds with the equivalent of Eurydice’s “Who are you?”:

Lady, it seems to me a lover

errs if, loving from the heart

he’s pleased by any joy

that does no honor to his lady. (31-4)


In this moment, the female response to Troubadour poetry is heard. “It seems to me a lover errs” is a critique of the genre these women troubadours are aware they are participating in. Echoes of this “who are you?” can be heard in many of the other poems, where women are given the opportunity to protest the pains of childbirth and the effects such an ordeal has on the female body (#27), or protest laws that strip them of their jewels (#29) among other things. #28 describes a “sermonizer” who speaks ill of unbelievers and women alike, spouting antifeminist literature, to which the female speaker responds she

“can’t help it: I must speak my mind

about the thing that is confounding my hear,

and it will give me pain and grief to write,

for I say those old-time troubadours,

who are dead now, gravely sinned,

putting the world in confusion,

when they openly spoke ill of women” (1-7)


So let’s return to Hadestown. While in the original myth, Eurydice ends up trapped in the underworld because she has died, in the musical by Anais Mitchell (a woman writer participating in an ongoing tradition of myth-adaptation and musical theater) Eurydice voluntarily goes to work in Hadestown in order to have enough money to eat and escape the storms that ravage the surface world. She calls out for Orpheus before she goes, but Orpheus doesn’t hear her, because so consumed with writing his song. While I don’t mean to imply that the women-authored troubadour poetry is as simple as “previously ignored women finally voice their opinion,” (especially since the question of authentic female authorship is so fraught), I do think it’s useful to think about these poems as a disruption of and intrusion upon the Troubadour genre with a single question “who are you?” as well as a somewhat cynical answer: “Oh, a liar and a player too. I’ve met too many men like you.”

Take Off Your Textiles pt. 2 – Yde et Olive, the remix

Approximately three years ago, in the Spring of 2016, I first encountered the text of Yde et Olive in the Middle English translation of the Book of Duke Huon de Bordeaux , about which I wrote a paper entitled “Take Off Your Textiles: Genre and Gender Fluidity in Yde et Olive.” I had known the text was originally in French, but there was no modern English translation directly from the French at the time, so my paper focused primarily on the Middle English text.  I primarily wrote about the ways in which Yde’s genderfluid body allows her to navigate multiple genres successfully, but how her female body also causes the breakdown of those genres because it is ultimately unable to perform the actions necessary to fulfill the narrative impulse of both genres:

The story of Yde et Olive complicates notions of gender and genre right from the beginning of the narrative. Existing as part of a larger genealogical epic, the text is disrupted immediately by the King of Florence’s declaration that, following the death of his wife, he will marry his daughter, Yde, who is so “beautyfull” that “he coud never be satysfyed with lokyng upon her” but rather “often tymes he kyssed her holdynge her in his armes” (692). In order to save Yde from the incestuous desires and “dyshordenate love of her father,” Yde’s assistant lady and one of the king’s lords decide that, “for the saluacyon of the damoyselles body,” they will dress Yde in “the aparaile of a man” (696-8). Yde accepts this plan as the only method of salvation, and that night, after she strips herself of her “mantell of scarlet,” she “arrayed her in the mannes aparayle” – including a “sworde” which she “gyrte…abought her” – and escapes through her window and out into the garden (699). It is at this moment that the trajectory of the text changes. Indeed, by stripping herself of her “mantell” and dressing in man’s clothes, Yde has not only taken on a new gender performance, but a new genre; that is, by stripping herself of her original textile and donning a new one, she has donned a new text as well: the knightly narrative of the chivalric romance or chanson de geste. (1)

Now having read the translation from the French, I still read the poem much the same way. However, a key difference I noticed was in this original moment of cross-dressing. In the French poem, it seems that Yde comes up with the cross-dressing idea all by herself, and dons men’s clothes, with the notable omission of the phallic sword:

“The young woman hurried out of the bath;

She quickly put on some men’s clothing,

And so disguised,

She went to the stables and made for a destrier” (340-43).

Perhaps in the Middle English mention of girting herself with the sword is meant to emphasize the phallic power that the destrier implies, and the sword is meant to carry with it the same knightly connotations as the warhorse Yde chooses as her steed in her escape. Why would the Middle English translation offset the cross-dressing idea on an assistant lady, rather than let it be Yde’s own idea? What consequences does this have on my understanding of genre acting on Yde’s body (in the Middle English version)? The other thing the French poem makes repeated mention of – Yde’s lack of breast development – is omitted from the Middle English poem as well, as are the detailed descriptions of Yde’s body. Throughout the French poem we are reminded of Yde’s beauty – she is called “fair Yde” and “beautiful Yde,” even while she is dressed in men’s clothing and performing masculinity successfully. Ultimately, the French poem seems to insist on her assigned gender a bit more incessantly than the Middle English. My lack of French literacy also leads me to wonder, is there much pronoun confusion in the French? Because in the Middle English, Yde is referred to by masculine pronouns when she performs masculine actions, and this doesn’t break down until Yde tells Olive the truth and the text calls her “she” again.

Despite these differences, I still see the conflict in Yde et Olive as one very much motivated by contrasting generic constraints, both of which rely on Yde’s “gender confirmation” in order to be resolved. Unlike other medieval trans narratives like Roman de Silence, where Silence himself is very insistent on his male identity, Yde’s genderfluid body seems comfortable inhabiting both roles, and chooses the masculine performance out of necessity rather than preference. I said it better in 2016, so I will conclude with a final quote from my previous essay:

“Thus, genre and gender are inscrutably linked in this narrative, and Yde’s proficient gender fluidity allows her to embody or “wear” several genres/narratives/textiles simultaneously. However, as the text continues, Yde’s gender fluidity, by allowing for the coexistence of these contradictory narratives (that of a princess in a genealogical epic and that of a knight in a romance), becomes problematic, creating such tension and instability in the text that it begins to fray at the edges. Indeed, the tension between these narratives grows as the text continues, until conflict is brought to a head through the inevitable same-sex relationship between Yde and Olive when the Olive, the daughter of the Emperor of Rome, falls in love with and marries Yde, as per the generic imperative of the romance. At this point, Yde’s gender fluidity (and the dual narratives made possible by it) has become so threatening and problematic that it cannot be sustained by the text, but rather has tied the text into such a knot that the generic imperatives of neither genre can be resolved or fulfilled, and the entire text threatens to collapse. Ultimately, the text cannot sustain both narratives and, in an effort to enforce stability and close the gaping holes in the text, the narrator solves the “problem” by having an angel appear and “chaunge” Yde “in nature” and make her “a parfeyght man as all other be with out any difference,” thus reinstituting both normativity and narrative continuity simultaneously (729). Thus, it is the layering of textile upon textile, narrative upon narrative, which ultimately causes Yde’s text to disintegrate, so that the only way to resolve the conflict between genres is by rejecting Yde’s gender fluidity, stripping him of his textiles, his “clothes,” so that his “naked” body is exposed and “shewed” to be consonant with that which it performs (727).

The first textile which Yde must wear is that of the original genealogical narrative which the text is based around – one might say, fittingly, it is the narrative she was “born with,” or, at least “born into.” The reproductive imperative is imbedded in the very genre in which the Yde’s narrative takes place, since Yde et Olive is “part of an epic cycle structured around genealogy” (Watt 267). Being a story of kings, the continuation of the royal line and the production of an heir are vital to the stability of the kingdom, and thus to the narrative…Thus, the gender fluidity and the consequential same sex relationship must be rejected –  i.e. made normative – because it threatens the very narrative and genre in and through which it resides. The least problematic sex for Yde to be is male since, by changing sex, Yde not only escapes the “dysordynate” desires of her father, but both the genealogical and chanson de geste narratives are able to be successfully completed. Thus, Yde’s gender fluidity, in the end, must be rejected, stripped of its textiles, and forced within the restrictions set up by the genre in which she resides.