Women and Ladies: A hint at a reading of the Life of the Countess Yolanda


Brother Hermann’s Life of the Countess Yolanda of Vianden [Bruder Hermanns Leben der Gräfin Iolande von Vianden] concerns the daughter of Henry I of Vianden and Margaret, Marchioness of Namur, struck with a desire, as she enters her teens, to become a Dominican nun at Marienthal, now in present-day Luxembourg. Her worldly family resists: her mother, particularly, who at one point intrudes on her daughter’s bed, strips her of her borrowed clerical habit, and leaves her naked, compelling her either to stay in bed in her parents’ castle, or to get dressed in the fancy, worldly garb her parents prefer she wear — she also leads a band of armed men who extract her from a nunnery by theatening to burn it down around her; her father, more distant, but also stricken by unending and, eventually, mortal grief when his favorite daughter abandons him, and the whole of her worldly family, for the cloister; and her brother, Henry, provost of the Cathedral of Cologne, who, at a family council to determine what to do about this meddlesome girl, strikes her full in the face.

There’s no sense, as in the Middle English “Why I Can’t Be a Nun,” that a nunnery is a place unfit for any girl: and no wonder, because Brother Hermann is sympathetic, writing something as close to a saint’s life as he can (indeed, he argues that Yolanda suffered more than classic virgin martyrs, like Catherine and Agnes, in that these martyrs had to suffer only for a day, and that they never felt betrayed by the people who shared their belief or whom they expected to protected them: what Yolanda suffers is a protracted sense of being let down). The work is closer to the Life of Christina of Markyate, who, about a century earlier, in England, likewise braved her family, and refused her lineal obligations, to become a religious woman.

For English readers, Yolanda’s life is most easily available in Richard H. Lawson’s 1995 translation for Camden House; for this, he relies on John Meier’s 1889 edition of a 17th-century Jesuit transcription of Hermann’s original German poem. The same Jesuit, Alexander von Wilheim, also translated the work into Latin, which he published in 1674. Any direct medieval witness to her life was presumed lost, until 1999, when Guy Berg rediscovered the manuscript, the Codex Mariendalensis, at Castle Ansemberg. The Codex matters, for among other reasons, because it’s the earliest witness, some claim, to the language of Luxembourg (for a skeptical treatment about this ideological hunt for the past, see here).

There’s not a great deal in English on Yolanda. See, for example, Elisabeth van Houts in Married Life in the Middle Ages, 900-1300, here, or Enrica de Domínguez, here. There’s much to do in this work: studies of consent and daughters (see Jennifer Alberghini’s 2018 CUNY dissertation for such a study in Middle English); fanciful links between Lacan’s reading of Antigone and Yolanda’s equally unrelenting splendor; attention to tears and other extra-rational means of persuasion; Yolanda’s encounter with famous churchmen like Albert the Great (whom she convinces to help ordain her); the history of religious institutions (Franciscans come in for scorn, for example) and quasi-institutional religion — beguines figure in this as one possible model for Yolanda; and especially, for my purposes, the final bit, where Hermann tries to navigate his way through the problem of clerical misogyny.

For the final section of the work tries to split the difference between “women” and “females.” From Larson’s translation (rendered, I’m afraid, nearly obsolete by Claudine Moulin’s 2009 edition from the Codex):

Yolanda could well be termed both woman and female (wîf unde vrôiwe beide). But there is sometimes a difference among women, and I had better write it down (dat soilde ich nôede schrîven). Among females are those undeserving of the name “women” (doch under vrôiwen sint unwîf) — women without women’s nature (wîf sint sy sunder wîves lîf). They are rare among women. A woman’s name and nature are very holy and agreeable: God called his Mother “Woman” (got sîne múder nante wîf). But females are to observe here how good the name of “woman” is, for all females are not women (alle vrôiwen sint nyt wîf). Yolanda can be called “woman” without any doubt. She had a pure and chaste heart” (69-70)

Vrôiwen corresponds to the modern German Frauen, and Wiven to Weib (neuter in modern German, so the plural nominative’s also Weib). Hermann makes no such distinction between men, and no wonder, first of all, because his work’s about a girl. His work, more importantly, participates in a European clerical culture that had become, by his day, suffused with misogyny. He’s compelled to split the difference between “female” and “women,” to preserve an outside to which he can compare Yolande — and so he’s not, simply, blaming the worldly desires of parents, which is to say, his patrons — and, finally, to mark another gender, one inaccessible to most, untainted and untouched by the abuse heaped upon “females.” If he’s writing to nuns, as he probably is, then he’s trying to get them to behave like “women.” We can, necessarily, draw a line, however wavering, to more recent formulations, like those that distinguish nastily between “females” and “ladies.”

But during our seminar, we discovered something odd: Hermann calls Yolanda’s parents “dy vrôiwe gut, der werde man” (The good woman, the worthy man: all trans Larson’s); she wants to go a convent “van vrôiwen ordene” (belonging to a female order); an older woman, at line 252, advises her about whether she should become a nun: the woman’s called a “vrôiwe.” Yolanda is called a “juncvrôiwe” more than once. That same “good woman” is a good “wîf” at 35.

It’s not that Brother Hermann has insulted every woman in his Life by calling them “females.” Rather, as I suggested in seminar, it’s that he’s discovered at the end of the Life that he needs a new categorical system, or to reimpose an old one, and invents, on the fly, a terminological hierarchy that he has used nowhere else. People who know this particular German will know more than me, but, for now, I think there’s much to be done with this odd linguistic, and sexist, tic.

[further reading:
an online multimedia project about Yolanda from 1999/2000. It is wonderfully of its era

Heinz Sieburg, from Luxembourg University, on the Yolanda Epic

Jean Portante, on the Codex (typical moment: “C’est par conséquent aussi l’un des rares textes décrivant les mœurs et le contexte historique, culturel et spirituel, à la fois dans les comtés et les châteaux impliqués, ceux de Vianden et de Luxembourg en l’occurrence, et dans les couvents de la région”)

Miranda Hajduk, CUNY Grad Student, who wrote this blog post for my class

A translation of Wiltheim’s 17th-century Latin translation, into modern German

And, via Wikipedia, there’s an 1832 English poem about Yolanda! Fascinating topic for a student of medievalism

Historical Sources of the German Middle Ages, on Yolanda]