Gertrude of Nivelles : biography
The Vita was originally written for Abbot Agnes, who succeeded Wulfetrud upon her death.
As indicated by Charlemagne’s inclusion of the saintly Arnulf of Metz in his family tree (in a work by Paul the Deacon, a Lombard), there were incentives to being associated with saints in Carolingian times. Fouracre and Gerberding argue that there were large incentives to being associated with saints in the seventh century as well, casting doubt on the genealogy presented in many sources. However, these scholars argue that the close temporal relationship of the three Austrasian sources to the life of Gertrude as well as the monastic audience of the works make them more than likely credible.
According to Catherine Peyroux, who believes that because author is writing very near Gertrude’s lifetime, account must at least be “essentially plausible to Gertrude’s contemporaries.”
Life in the Monastery
Gertrude is described in her Vita as “an intelligent young woman, scholarly and charitable, devoting herself to the sick, elderly, and poor,” and as knowing much of the scripture by memory. During her time at Nivelles, she sent messengers to Rome and "beyond the seas" – that is to say Ireland – to bring back the sacred books and relics. She welcomed foreigners, lay or religious. She especially welcomed Irish monks who, since the sixth century, travelled to evangelize.Donnay-Rocmans in translation, 34-35
The Vita Sanctae Geretrudis has occasionally been misquoted in phrases like “Gertrude of Nivelles was renowned for having committed to memory the entire library of divine laws and for being able to lecture on the obscure mysteries of scriptural allegories.”Wemple 176-7 This is an exaggeration of the words the text. Gertrude was in fact quite knowledgeable when it came to the scriptures, but the original text does not state that she knew “the entire library.” Gertrude also memorized passages and books on divine law, and she "openly disclosed the hidden mysteries of allegory to her listeners.” Her Vita describes Gertrude as building churches, and taking care of orphans, widows, captives, and pilgrims.
The Death of Foillan
In the Additum Additamentum Nivialense de Fuilano, an addendum to the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis, there is a story about several events involving Irish monks led by Foillan that involve Gertrude and the Monastery of Nivelles.Additamentum
Before the foundation of Nivelles, Irish monks led by Foillan traveled to Francia, from Fursey’s monastery in Ireland to escape pagan raids. They were received by Erchinoald, mayor of the palace, but were later expelled by him and moved to live with Itta and Gertrude. Grimoald and the Pippinids were happy to accept them, and built the monastery of Berbrona for them with the help of Itta and Gertrude. In other works this monastery is referred to as Fosses. There is much praise of Gertrude in the text.
Some time later, Foillan went on journey, saying mass in Nivelles before leaving. Ian Wood says that the purpose of Foilan’s journey was to visit his benefactors, but he provides no evidence for this claim other than a citation of the Additamentum. After only a day of travelling, Foillan and his three companions were betrayed and murdered by an evil man who offered them shelter for the night in his house, and then sold their belongings. Upon learning that Foillan did not reach his destination, the brothers of his monastery began to search for him. However, it was Gertrude who succeeded in finding Foillan’s body 77 days after he was murdered, on the anniversary of Fursey’s death. The four bodies were immediately brought to Nivelles.
“Dido, Bishop of Poitiers, and the mayor of the palace, Grimoald, a man of illustrious standing,” arrived by chance, or, as the text hints, divine intervention at Nivelles shortly before the bodies and the two men carried Foillan into Nivelles “on their own shoulders.” Foillan’s body was then taken to his own monastery “and when noble men had flocked from all sides to meet him and carried him on their own shoulders” he was buried at Fosses.