Patrick (and snakes) … and Gertrude (and cats) on 17 March

We have all heard of Patrick, a fifth century missionary and patron saint of Ireland, who is touted as being the cause for the lack of snakes on the island of Ireland. The legend is that the snakes that were on the island had all been banished by Patrick, chasing them into the sea after they attacked him during a 40-day fast he was undertaking on top of a hill. 😫 Shades of Jesus, the Gerasene demoniac, and the poor pigs, who took the legion of demons into the sea (Mark 5).

But what about Gertrude? She shares the same day—17 March—with Patrick; it is the feast day for both of them in the calendar of the Roman Catholic Church, for 17 March was the day that both Gertrude, as well as Patrick, was said to have died.

So, while all of Ireland and all of the Irish diaspora vigorously celebrates Patrick today (wearing green clothes, drinking lots of Guinness, with hair dyed green, walking in street parades and telling predictable jokes with incomprehensible accents), spare a thought for Gertrude of Nivelles, who shares her patronal festival with Patrick the Confessor.

Gertrude lived in the seventh century in the nation we now call Belgium. Her father was a powerful Frankish nobleman in the court of the king, Dagobert I. It is said that, at the age of ten, Gertrude refused a marriage proposal from the son of a duke, “saying that she would have neither him nor any earthly spouse but Christ the Lord.”

When her father died a few years later, her mother Itta shaved her head into a monkish tonsure to deter would-be suitors from marrying into her wealthy family by force. Itta and Gertrude established a monastery at Nivelles and retired to a religious life. So here’s the first reason to admire Gertrude (and her other Itta): a monastery for females was one of the few options for females in antiquity to preserve their intellectual, economic and sexual autonomy.

It is said that Gertrude kept cats in the monastery to keep rats and mice under control — a wise and sensible move, so a second reason to like Gertrude.

There are some illuminated manuscripts, church fresco paintings and stained glass windows which depict Gertrude in a garden setting, surrounded by cats, rats and mice (often with a mouse running up her staff). However, there is no ancient written claim that is explicit about Gertrude and cats; it seems that this connection is a late 20th century invention! Nevertheless, we can roll with the newish evolution of the tradition, and honour Gertrude for her care of cats, can’t we?

Gertrude, and her feline friends, are important in my household. We have three cats, all ragdolls, all quite handsome, aged 14, 11, and 8; they are all well-fed and cared for, able to roam into any room of the house (but not outdoors, unless in the special enclosure). They are living the good life every day with their two full-time live-in servants; and every so often, they go on vacation to Curtin Cat Care to be spoiled 😁.

Gertrude’s mother Itta died in 650, so the 24-year-old Gertrude took on sole governance of the monastery, and was known for her hospitality to pilgrims. She died in 659 – worn out in her early thirties, says the Cambridge Medieval History, “because of too much abstinence and keeping of vigils”.

Mel Campbell reports that the story is told, that a visiting Irish monk, whose brother Gertrude had sheltered, predicted she would die on St Patrick’s Day, and that “blessed Bishop Patrick with the chosen angels of God … are prepared to receive her”. Begorrah, it was so!

Mel Campbell also writes, “On a day that has become unfortunately associated with public displays of boorish masculinity, wouldn’t it be nice to honour a saint whose domains of patronage have traditionally been belittled as feminised and domestic? Gertrude was an independent woman who refused to be treated as a chattel.”

And THAT, above all else (even above our feline friends!) is cause for remembering and honouring Gertrude of Nivelles.

I have taken much of the information about Gertrude from https://junkee.com/today-is-also-st-gertrudes-day-celebrate-the-patron-saint-of-cats/53228

There’s a page honouring her as a saint at https://catholicsaints.info/butlers-lives-of-the-saints-saint-gertrude-virgin-and-abbess-of-nivelle/