Gertrude of Nivelles

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Entry by Noëlle Deflou-Leca,2006

Daughter of Pépin the 1st of Landen and Itte, Gertrude was born between March 18th, 625 and March 16th, 626. Her father, mayor of the palace of Austrasia until 629, was very close to Dagobert 1st. ‘Urged by a secular ambition and the desire to bind a friendship between both families’ (as stated in Vie de sainte Gertrude written around 670), he planned, with the support of the king, to marry his daughter to the son of the Duke of Austrasia. Consulted with her mother on the prospect of this alliance, the young lady categorically refused this match and expressed her intention to dedicate her life to Christ. Raised, as was the custom, by her mother, she followed her to her widow’s retreat after Pépin’s death in 640. Mother and daughter settled in Nivelles, one of the family estates located in Brabant, in order to conduct a pious life. Encouraged by the missionary bishop Amand, Itte decided, around 648-649, to establish a monastery on her estate and to take vows. Austrasian aristocrats tried to oppose the project by forcing Gertude to marry. She then received the habit with her companions, and her mother Itte entrusted her with abbatial duties in the monastery.

Until her death (652), Itte helped Gertrude in the management of the monastery. They built a network with Rome and England by sending emissaries to obtain relics and bring back works for monastic education. Not long after 650 two Irish monks, Feuillen and his brother Ultain (or Ultan) arrived at Nivelles. Likely at the monk’s request, Gertrude and Itte decided to welcome, next to the women’s abbey, a male community. Thus, they had established Nivelles as a joint monastery which was to be soon under the sole authority of the abbess. After the approval of her son Grimoald, Itte gave to both Irish men a land in Fosses, not far from Nivelles, to build another monastery managed by Ultain. The bonds between Fosses and Nivelles remained close: Feuillen regularly went to Nivelles to celebrate mass and meet both communities. Returning home on the road after one of his visits, he and his companions were murdered (October 31st, 655). Gertrude had a sample of his relics brought back before the return of his body to Fosses. This gesture showed her eagerness to promote the cult of saint Feuillen in Nivelles. Shortly after this ordeal, Gertrude resigned, leaving her post to her niece Vulfetrude and dedicating herself to prayers. According to her Vita, she died on March 17th, 659, St Patrick’s Day, in accordance with Ultain’s prediction. Stripped of her abbatial insignia, she had chosen to lay in a simple monastic dress in the Saint-Pierre church in Nivelles.

The cult of Gertrude, known as a saint from the beginning of her death, was performed throughout the whole area of Brabant. Two accounts, one written around 691 and another one around 783, reported miracles that allegedly took place through contact with her relics, such as healings, the revival of a drowned child, and the extinction of a fire, etc. During processions, her relics were carried in a silver shrine made after 1272; most of it was destroyed in May 1940. In the 11th century, Gertrude became a patron saint for travellers. The custom of drinking a glass of wine in honor of the saint to obtain her protection during the trip started then and remained in use until the fifteenth century in the Netherlands and in Germany. Celebrated at the very beginning of Spring (March 17th), Gertrude became, from the fifteenth century, more specifically the patron saint of gardeners who called upon her protection against the invasion of rodents. She is often displayed carrying a cross and surrounded by rats and mice.

As Burgondofara in Faremoutiers, Aldegonde in Maubeuge or Clotsende in Marchiennes, Gertrude bears witness to the infatuation of aristocratic Frank families with monastic foundations which from the sixth century onwards had been leading to the rooting of Christianity and to the development of religious power among the upper classes. Her abbey enjoyed a process of secularisation, perhaps starting in the ninth century, and at the latest during the twelfth century. Well into the eighteenth century, the noble chapter of the canonesses in Nivelles would celebrate with grandeur the memory of its famous creator and of her prestigious affiliation. Today, she is presented as a secular canoness.

(translated by Martine Sauret )

Selected bibliography of images

- 12**: anonymous, stained-glass window in Klosterneuburg abbey (Austria) - 13**: anonymous, wood sculpture, Köln, Schnügten Museum 1470: anonynous, alterpiece of Saint Gertrude, Lübeck Museum -15**: anomymous, Gertrude de Nivelles, Frontispiece of the Register of the Confraternity of Saint-Gertrude in Kuringen – Bibliotheca sanctorum, VI, Rome...

Gertrude of Nivelles
Title(s) Abbess of Nivelles
Also known as Saint Gertrude of Nivelles
Birth date About 625
Death 659
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