Much of what we know about Saint Gertrude comes from the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis, her official Catholic biography written to justify her veneration as a Saint. Born around 626AD, she led an extraordinary life for a woman of her time.
At just ten years old, she was already under pressure to marry, but she didn’t want any of it. When the son of a duke proposed, there was no swooning from Gertrude. Instead, she lost her temper and declared that she would “have neither him nor any earthly spouse but Christ the Lord”.
From then on, her life took a different course than the one intended for her. She fended off multiple marriage proposals, and her mother Itta backed her all the way.
When Gertrude’s father died just four years later, she shaved Gertrude’s hair into the style worn by monks in a bid to put off any further potential suitors. And to be absolutely sure, they went and founded a double monastery at Nivelles together, where they lived out the rest of their lives as nuns.
At Nivelles, Gertrude soon became known for being gifted with visions, including one of a flaming sphere that was so bright it was described by others as a visitation of the ‘True Light’.
She is also said to have worked some pretty substantial miracles, including banishing a sea storm and a sea monster allowing religious men traveling on monastic business to complete their journey in safety.
Described as intelligent and caring, Gertrude has been attributed with an unusually long list of patronages. She is often invoked as a patron of travelers, not just because she banished that sea monster, but also because she was hospitable to all, regardless of whether or not they were religious.
She’s popular among gardeners too, with many saying that good weather on her feast day is a good sign that it’s time to grab your trowels and your kneelers and start planting for spring. She’s also called upon for the sick, the poor, the elderly, and to ward off fever, mental illness and… mice.
Indeed, early pictures frequently show her with mice running up her crosier, probably as an homage to her fervent prayer for holy souls. This was something which she is said to have taken particularly seriously, and at the time holy souls were often depicted as mice.
But there are many who take the mouse connection much more literally. Gertrude and her sister nuns are said to have kept lots of cats the monastery – both for companionship and to keep a very real mouse problem at bay. Gertrude was apparently renowned for being remarkably kind to them and sure enough, you only need to do a quick Google image search to find tonnes of pictures of Gertrude cradling cats in a lovely garden setting. While her patronage of cats seems to be a more recent addition to her saintly remit, it has exploded her popularity and is probably her most widely invoked attribute today.
Her life came to an end when, exhausted from a life of fervent prayer and intense visions, she asked one of her cherished pilgrims when she would die. Tomorrow, he said. Tomorrow was St Patrick’s day, and sadly, the pilgrim’s prophesy came true.
So if you’re out revelling for Saint Patrick’s Day, take a moment to cherish the cats in your life and remember the remarkable Saint Gertrude, an independent woman who refused to give in to the pressures and expectations of her time, and showed kindness and compassion to people from all walks of life. And who really loved cats.
DigVentures crowdfunds archaeological projects that everyone can be part of, in the UK and overseas. With help from people all over the world, we investigate the past and publish our discoveries online for free. Become a DigVentures Subscriber and be part of great archaeology - all year round!Subscribe