Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Duke and Duchess Must Give Up Their Miracle Child

By Kim Rendfeld

Waldelen and Flavia were desperate, even though he ruled a duchy most would envy. Based in Besançon, his territory ranged from the Jura to the Alps, but the couple had a major problem: no child to inherit the land.

In sixth century Burgundy, Waldelen could have set Flavia aside and freed himself to marry a fertile woman. Their union was a political arrangement between two noble families, not a sacrament. But a divorce carried risks, mainly angering Flavia’s noble family. The duke could have taken a concubine, but his extended family might not recognize a son born outside wedlock.

Waldelen did neither of these things. Maybe, he was bound by his Christian faith. Perhaps, he was truly fond of Flavia and thought her a good wife and duchess. Saint Columbanus's hagiographer, a monk named Jonas, described her as "noble both by her family and by her disposition."

The couple needed divine intervention and decided to travel to Luxeuil to speak to Columbanus, who had founded an abbey on the ruins of a castle called Luxovium. The Irish missionary already had a reputation for miracles. (Readers might remember Columbanus* from an earlier post as the guy who decided on forsaking all women included his mother. See link below)

Saint Columbanus window in the crypt
at the Abbey of Bobbio,
photo by Trebbia at English Wikipedia,
  CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Waldelen and Flavia’s trip would not be easy. It was about 55 miles, and there was no good road to get there. In a time when armies traveled 12 to 15 miles a day, the journey would have taken at least five days, assuming no cart wheel broke or horse got injured or person got sick. Waldelen and Flavia could afford plenty of guards to deter brigands, but in the early medieval mind, travelers might face otherworldly creatures like demons, ghosts, and kobolds.

When they arrived in Luxeuil, the couple begged Columbanus to pray for them. He said he would but under one condition: they must dedicate their first child to God, and if they kept that promise, they would have as many children as they wanted. Jonas said the couple agreed to this “joyfully.”

To decide that an unborn baby will go into the clergy might seem strange to a modern audience. But in medieval times, parents decided their children’s fates, everything from whom to marry to whether they took the cowl or the veil. Waldelen and Flavia’s marriage was arranged, and no one would frown on a betrothal of a little girl to a little boy to form an alliance for two aristocratic families. That the children might grow up hating each other was not a consideration. Having a child as an abbot, abbess, or bishop assured that control of the land that went with the abbey or bishopric stayed in the family.

How Christians dressed in the fourth through sixth centuries,
according to The History of Costume
by Braun & Schneider (c.1861-1880), public domain image

Before the couple arrived home, Flavia believed she had conceived. When their son was born, the couple took him to Columbanus, who baptized him and named him Donatus. The boy was given back to Flavia to be nursed. When he was older—7 was a typical age to send a noble child to a church school—he was taken back to Luxeuil.

Waldelen and Flavia must have believed they needed to keep their oath to God, out of gratitude, fear, a sense of honor, or mix of all three. They must have accepted that Donatus belonged to the Church. Still, I cannot help but think giving their little boy to the abbey was difficult, no matter how much they trusted Columbanus, no matter that they would have other children—a second son, Ramelen, to inherit the duchy, and two daughters. Donatus was a gift in the truest sense of the word.

How did Donatus take it? Was he sad or angry to be separated from his parents and his home, or having been told all along this was his destiny, did he welcome it?

Considering what happened later, he apparently embraced his calling and Columbanus's teaching. After Waldelen died, Flavia founded a convent for herself and her daughters in Besançon, where Donatus was bishop. This was an act of piety but also a strategic political move. Flavia had limited claimants to the duchy and ensured that it went in its entirety to Ramelen, who also revered Columbanus and founded a monastery in the Jura Mountains.

With Flavia's help, Donatus founded two abbeys. One of them was a double monastery over which his sister Sirude presided as abbess. (Donatus and Sirude would later be canonized.)

Donatus, who was still alive when Jonas wrote Columbanus’s hagiography, saw the Irish missionary as a spiritual father, but his relationship with his mother endured. The act of faith that separated them physically when he was a boy bound them to a cause in years later.

*Columbanus Forsakes All Women


Medieval Sourcebook: The Life of St. Columban by the Monk Jonas

The Monks of the West: From St. Benedict to St. Bernard by Charles Forbes, comte de Montalembert

A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume 2 by Agnes Baillie Cunninghame Dunbar

"Abbey of Luxeuil" by Richard Urban Butler, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two novels set in early medieval Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, and she is working on a third, Queen of the Darkest Hour. The Cross and the Dragon, in which a young noblewoman must contend with a vengeful jilted suitor and the anxiety her husband might die in battle, will be republished in August. You can preorder on Kobo and iTunes now; the novel will soon be available elsewhere.


  1. A really moving story, putting a magnifying glass right up to characters from the past and telling a very human story. Thanks for a great post.

  2. Kim,
    You do a lovely job of not imposing our notions on the past while respecting the humanity of past generations. Well done.

  3. Well, in some circles, parents still control their children's fates: "You're going to HARVARD law school ... Because I said so!"

    1. Well, some parents try to control the children's fate, with good intentions. Kids in these situations often manage to mess things up and drop out. Or if they get the degree their parents want, they eventually pursue the career they want.

  4. An incredible story to say the least, it does make you wonder how such an arrangement would affect personal and familial relations over time.

    1. That question is one that continues to intrigue me. It was a different culture, though, where arranged marriages and parents dedicating children to the clergy were the norms.


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