Gertrude of Nivelles : biography
Saint Gertrude of Nivelles (also spelled Geretrude, Geretrudis, Gertrud) (ca. 621 – March 17, 659) was a seventh-century abbess who, with her mother Itta, founded the monastery of Nivelles in present-day Belgium. While never formally canonized, Pope Clement XII declared her universal feast day to be March 17 in 1677. She is the patron saint of travelers, gardeners and cats, and against rats and mental illness.
Gertrude is portrayed as leading a devout life until her death. It is possible that after taking the veil in ca. 640, she never left the monastery at Nivelles, thus escaping politics and local affairs.
Gertrude is described as “exhausted by a life of charity, fasting and prayer” at the end of her short life. The Cambridge Medieval History says that, “because of too much abstinence and keeping of vigils… her body was sorrily exhausted with serious illness.”
Gertrude’s Vita describes her after relinquishing her role as abbess, spending her time praying intensely and secretly wearing a hair shirt. According to her biographer, Gertrude felt the time of her death approaching, and asked a pilgrim from the Fosses monastery when she would die. This pilgrim is commonly believed to be Ultan, Foillan’s brother. Fouracre and Gerberding dispute that Ultan was abbot of Fosses, but there is some speculation. Ultan prophesied that Gertrude would die on March 17, the very next day, and also the feast day of Saint Patrick. Furthermore, Ultan prophesied that “she may pass joyously because blessed Bishop Patrick with the chosen angels of God… are prepared to receive her.” True to the prophecy, Gererude died the next day after praying all night and taking communion. Shortly after her death, the monk Rinchinus as well as the author of the Vita noticed a pleasant odor in cell with her body.
Just before her death in 659, Gertrude instructed the nuns at Nivelles to bury her in an old veil left behind by a travelling pilgrimess and Gertrude’s own hair shirt. Her vita praises this choice as an expression of Gertrude’s humility and ultimately her power as a saint. She died in poverty, 17 March 659, at the age, we are told, of thirty-three years.
Gertrude’s choice of enterrement clothing is a pattern in medieval hagiography as an expression of humility and piety. Her death and the image of her weak and humble figure is in fact a critical point in her biographer’s narrative. Her monastery also benefitted from this portrayal because the hair cloth and veil in which Gertrude was interred became relics. Bonnie Effros contends that seventh-century clerics had regular contact with holy tombs, and that contact with tombs like Gertrude’s signaled higher privilege and prestige within the church. Tombs covered with cloths often functioned as altars for those who had access to them. At Nivelles, the nuns had numerous opportunities for prolonged contact with the tomb of Gertrude. And by comparison, unordained members of the congregation had fewer chances to visit her remains because relics and tombs were only publicly displayed for feast days, Easter, and other holy days.Effros 146, 154
Relationship with Saint Arnulf of Metz
Gertrude’s relationship with Arnulf of Metz is a persistent source of confusion for scholars and students alike. Numerous sources point to a relationship between Gertrude and Arnulf,WempleSainted Women while other believe this relationship is invented.Wood In particular, the debate focuses on Arnulf’s relationship with Ansegisel, the husband of Begga, Gertrude’s sister. Sources that include Arnulf in the Pippinid family state that Arnulf is that father of Ansegisel. Sources making the opposite claim do not.
Ian Wood recommends focusing only on the four earliest sources for this information, as later sources are based on these few documents. He starts with the continuations of the chronicles of Fredegar, which do not mention this connection, and are based on an earlier work. He says that “since Childebrand himself was the half-brother of Charles Martel, it is not surprising that the Fredegar continuator add the information contained in the Liber Historiae Francorum material largely concerned with Austrasia and Frisia” in 751.Wood 257 However, he adds no information regarding Arnulf at this time. The Liber is one of the earliest works detailing the history of this period and makes no mention of the relationship between Arnulf and Ansegisel.