Gertrude of Nivelles : biography

626 - 659

The account of Gertrude's angry rejection of her Austrasian suitor in the Vita Sanctae Geretrudis is unique in the context of the seventh-century scholarly tradition. As Catherine Peyroux has pointed out, whether it is literal or “fabulous,” there is reason to believe that its inclusion in the text was deliberate.Peyroux 40-41

Catherine Peyroux’s interpretation of Gertrude’s anger comes from Gertrude’s claim that she is already betrothed to Christ, who would have been seen as superior to the son of the Austrasian Duke.Peyroux 52 In the context of her relationship with Christ, another marriage would have been seen as adultery.Peyroux 53 There is ample evidence for the seriousness of this crime at the time and the terrible punishments that came with it. Given the familiarity of all those present at the king’s feast with these customs, Peyroux argues that Gertrude’s anger would have been justified given the argument she presents for her previous betrothal.Peyroux 53-54

Due to well-studied changes in the cultural significance of anger, modern readings, such as seeing Gertrude’s behavior as a “tantrum,” would not have made sense at the time.Peyroux 42-43 In the context of the Vita, anger, or “furor” might also be translated as “raging madness, even insanity.” Similar language is used to describe demonic possession in contemporaneous texts.Peyroux 44-45

Among the many possible textual influences on the Vita, the ones written most closely to her time present anger as “socially destructive” or “demonic.” Older references to the divine fury of God or angels were less influential, and connections to the life of Saint Patrick are tenuous and out of context.Peyroux 45-49 These negative connotations may explain why Gertrude’s furor is qualified in the text as “quasi”- allowing Gertrude to appear full of rage, but retain her saintly qualities.Peyroux 50 By comparison, Gertrude’s rage is much greater than the irritation of her suitorPeyroux 51

Gertrude’s Relationship with her Mother

After the death Pippin, it was Gertrude’s mother Itta who became the dominant force in her life. It was Itta who tonsured Gertrude, founded Nivelles, and first made contact with the Irish monks led by Foillan. Gertrude’s relationship with her mother therefore, can be seen as the driving force behind Gertrude’s later accomplishments.

Suzanne Wemple identifies a theme of mothers dominating their daughters in Merovingian times in an effort to “safeguard [their] daughters' sexual purity and secure [their] future.”Wemple 60 Mothers, she says, were required to raise their daughters to be obedient and disciplined and the standard “maternal feelings” were “vigilance and worry.”Wemple 60-61

Wemple argues that Gertrude’s story is an example of her theme of domineering motherhood. “The biographer of St. Gertrude mentions that, after the death of Pippin the Elder in 640, his widow Itta pondered daily on what was to become of her and her daughter. Upon the advice of Saint Amand, she complied with her daughter’s request and ordered the construction of a monastery to which she and Gertrude could retire."

According to Wemple, “A mother’s importance was acknowledged in law insofar as she had the right to assume the guardianship for her fatherless children. In the propertied classes, this meant that a widow could exercise considerable power by managing the estates of her minor children and arranging for their marriages. Queens seized the opportunity to act as regents, wielding political power in the name of their sons.”Wemple 61 However, this right to power would not been available to Itta after the death of Pippin because her sons were already mature. She still had the option to find a suitable husband for Gertrude, and one can only speculate as to why she chose instead to enter the monastery. Perhaps, as some scholars have suggested, it was to protect herself and her daughter in the event that her sons fell out of favor with the ruling dynasty, as well as to safeguard the family lands from plunder or seizure through forced marriage.

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