Gertrude of Nivelles


Gertrude of Nivelles : biography

626 – 659


Miraculous Vision

The first miracle attributed of Gertrude in the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis takes place at the altar of St. Sixtus the martyr as Gertrude was standing in prayer. “She saw descending above her a flaming pellucid sphere such that the whole basilica was illuminated by its brightness.” The vision persisted for about half an hour and later was revealed to some of the sisters at the monastery. The anonymous author of the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis believes that this vision represents a “visitation of the True Light.”

Salvation of the Sailors

The second miracle attributed to Gertrude in the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis took place as the anonymous author and his friend were "peacefully sailing over the sea on the monastery’s business.” This account is felt by some to indicate that the author was an Irish monk. In the account, an incredible storm appears as well as a sea monster, causing great despair as “the sailors… turned to their idols,” evidence of the persistence of paganism at the time. In desperation, the author’s friend cries out to Gertrude to save himself and his companions from the storm and a monster. Immediately the storm subsides and the monster dives back into the deep.

Appointment of Wulfetrud

Gertrude appointed her niece Wulfetrud as abbess of Nivelles shortly before her death. Wulfetrud’s position was precarious because her father, Grimoald I, king of the Lombards, had warred against the Merovingians. According to Ian Wood, “It was the Neustrian court that had ended Grimoald’s ursurpation of the Austrasian throne.” Evidence for this claim comes from the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis, which states that, “out of hatred of her father that kings, queens, and even priests… wished to drag her from her place” and steal Wulfetrude’s property. Wulfetrud was only 20 years old at the time.

Wilfetrud’s appointment was a testament to Gertrude’s power and influence within the monastery at Nivelles and the church itself. According to the Vita, Wulfetrud kept her position “through the grace of god.” At the same time however, Gertrude was unable to help “Grimoald or his daughter against Clovis II.”

Family and Childhood

The early history of Gertrude’s family is somewhat mysterious. The anonymous author of her Vita only hints at her origins, perhaps because of the family’s lack of power at the time of the Vita’s composition.Fouracre Instead, he writes “but it would be tedious to insert in this account in what line of earthly origin she was descended. For whom living in Europe does not know the loftiness, the names, and the localities of her lineage?”Vita Sanctae Geretrudis

Gertrude’s father, Pippin of Landen (Pippin the Elder), was a leader of the nobility in east Frankia. He was instrumental in persuading Clothar II to crown his son, Dagobert I, as king of Austrasia. When Dagobert succeeded his father and the court moved to Neustria, Pippin and his family, including the young Gertrude, moved with the king to serve as the mayor of the palace.

During her childhood in Dagobert’s court, Gertrude was introduced to the political role of sainthood. Arnulf of Metz, Pippin’s close ally, was one of several of the king’s counselors who was appointed to an ecclesiastical post after a secular career and later sanctified. In addition, Gertrude’s mother Ida was from Gascony, and was likely acquainted with Saint Amand. She and Gertrude were also likely aware of the accomplishments of saintly women who left royal circles to establish monasteries.

As reported in her Vita, Gertrude “grew dearer by day and night in word and wisdom.” Furthermore, “At the very beginning her choice was the service of Christ.”

Pippin remained in court until Dagobert’s death in 639. McNamara argues that Arnulf retired into religion on the death of Clothar at 628 but kept close ties to the family by marrying his son to Gertrude’s sister, Begga.McNamara et al. 221 However, later scholars have challenged the veracity of this story (see Gertrude’s relationship to saint Arnulf of Metz below).