Gertrude of Nivelles : biography
Taking the Veil
After Dagobert’s death in 640, Pippin returned to the east, taking Gertrude with him. Soon after, Pippin died, giving Gertrude the freedom to take a veil and enter the religious life. There is some debate on the date of the death of Pippin. Some sources date it as late as 650, although others date it much earlier.
Itta supported her daughter’s decision to enter the religious life. She herself began founding the monastery of Nivelles after her husband’s death, at the suggestion of Bishop Amandus, bishop of Maastricht from 647-53. Gertrude’s Vita describes how Bishop Amand came to Itta’s house, “preaching the word of God. At the Lord’s bidding, he asked whether she would build a monastery for herself and Christ’s handmaid, Gertrude.”McNamara et al. 224 However, after they entered the religious life, Gertrude and her mother suffered, “ no small opposition” from the royal family. During this period, trials for the family are mentioned involving the usurper Otto’s bid to replace the Pippinids at the side of the king. The Vita describes how Itta, in order to prevent “violent abductors from tearing her daughter away by force,” shaved her daughter’s hair, leaving only a crown shape. This action, known as tonsuring, marked Gertrude for a life of religious service. Furthermore, there were constant requests by “violators of souls” who wished to gain wealth and power by marrying Gertrude. As evidenced in the Vita, only the foundation of the Monastery of Nivelles stopped the constant flow of suitors interested in marrying into Gertrude’s wealthy family.
There is some precedent for Gertrude and Itta’s move to the monastery at Nivelles. According to Wemple, “during the second half of the seventh century, women in Neustrian-Burgundian families concentrated on the creation of a network of monasteries rather than on the conclusion of politically advantageous unions, while families whose holdings were in the northeastern parts of the kingdom, centering around the city of Metz, were more concerned with the acquisition of power through carefully arranged marriages.” Wemple firmly places the Pippinids in the latter category. Itta’s move to start a monastery was thus not completely out of the ordinary, and may have in fact been the norm for a widowed noblewoman.Wemple 54-55
After Itta founded the monastery at Nivelles, Gertrude was appointed head abbess, a rare honor for someone of her young age. She was described at the age of 26 as “mature beyond her years.” Indeed, her Vita describes that in her, “temperance of character, the sobriety of her heart and the moderation of her words she anticipated maturity.”
Christianity was not at all widespread in Gertrude’s place and time. It was only the development of cities and the initiative of bishops that led to a vast movement of evangelism, which led to the flowering of monasteries everywhere in the seventh and eighth centuries.Donnay-Rocmans in translation, 34
After Gertrude took the veil, she became abbess over a flock of nuns. In the Vita, there is no mention of Frankish monks living at the monastery at its foundation.
Upon becoming abbess, Gertrude “obtained through her envoys men of good reputation, relics of saints and holy books from Rome, and from regions across the sea, experienced men for the teaching of the divine law and to practice the chants for herself and her people.”
Fouracre and Gerberding assert that the men from across the sea are from Britain and Ireland and also highlight this as an example of the importance of Rome to the Franks long before Charlemagne ever has a relationship with the Pope. This assertion is supported by a wealth of sources, including the work of Catherine Peyroux, Suzanne Wemple,Wemple 176-7 and the ancient Chronicles of Fredegar.
According to Wemple, “The Irish monasteries, with the ancient tradition of oral learning, were at the time the most distinguished centers of scholarship,”MacNeill 39-48, 449-460
Upon Itta’s death at about the age of 60 in the year 650, 12 years after the death of her husband Pippin, Gertrude took over the monastery. At this time, Gertrude took the “whole burden of governing upon herself alone,” placing affairs of the family in the hand of “good and faithful administrators from the brothers.”
Some have argued that the line above implied that Gertrude ruled the monastery with an abbot. Frankish double monasteries were almost always led by an abbess, or jointly by an abbess and abbot.Wemple 162 However, when Suzanne Wemple used Nivelles as an example of the latter, claiming that Gertrude ruled Nivelles jointly with Saint Amand “around 640,” she casts doubt on her own theory by mistaking the date. Many later scholars date the foundation of Nivelles between 647 and 650.Fouracre 315