Church of St Gertrude in Nivelles, Jean-Pol Grandmont via Wikimedia
Most people know 17th March as St Patrick's Day, but it is also the saint's day of the lesser known St Gertrude of Nivelles. As the patron saint of house cats and mental illness, she is a particular favourite here at Dragon Archaeology.
St Gertrude was a Frankish princess, born around 626 AD to Pepin of Landen and his wife Itta of Metz in what is now known as Belgium. As a noble woman she faced many proposals of marriage, but according to her hagiographers (biographers of saints) she refused all of her suitors.
After Pepin's death, Itta founded a monastery at Nivelles where she went to live with Gertrude. On Itta's death around 650 AD, Gertrude became abbess, taking charge of the monastic community much as a noblewoman would have taken charge of her husband's house and lands. In the early medieval period it was quite common for widows to found monastic communities as places to retire to, and for daughters of powerful families to become abbesses who could add religious prestige to their family name.
Nivelles, like many of the male monastic communities in Ireland, was a centre of culture and learning. Gertrude herself was a well educated young woman, who “knew by heart almost the whole library of divine Law” as well as being able to explain "obscure mysteries of allegory" clearly to others (Helvetius, 2011, 165). While many think of early medieval women as uneducated, this was certainly not the case for aristocratic abbesses.
When Gertrude died in 659 AD she, like many abbesses in the 7th century, was immediately canonised, and her burial place became a focus for other high status burials. Later on, the church and abbey also became a focus for secular settlement. The simple funerary church of St Gertrude has been rebuilt and improved many times over the centuries and now stands in the centre of Nivelles. This is bad for archaeologists as it difficult to find out about the 7th century monastery lying under the town, but it is excellent to know that Gertrude's small community has grown so much and her name is still remembered.