Let’s Celebrate St Gertrude, The Patron Saint Of Cats
Happy International Cat Day!
Everyone knows March 17 is St Patrick’s Day, when we are all supposed to be wearing green, eating raw potatoes with the skin on, drinking Guinness, making stereotypical and demeaning assumptions about an entire nation, and harassing women by asking if they have any Irish in them.
But March 17 is also the feast day of St Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of cats. She’s also the patron of travellers and gardeners, and protects against rats and mental illness. Basically, she’s a saint that Simpsons character Eleanor Abernathy, MD JD could really get behind.
Who Was St Gertrude?
Most of what’s known about Gertrude comes from her Vita Sanctae, the official Catholic biography produced to justify her worship. She was born around 626 in what’s now Belgium. Her father was Pippin of Landen, a powerful Frankish nobleman and political operator at the court of King Dagobert I. Aged ten, Gertrude feistily 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 – although sources disagree, Gertrude was probably about 14 – 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 the monastery of Nivelles and retired to a religious life – historically, this has been one of women’s few options to preserve their intellectual, economic and sexual autonomy. When her mother died in 650, the now 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”. 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.
How Are Patron Saints Decided, Anyway?
The Catholic Church holds that saints are kind of like holy MPs. They have clearly defined areas of knowledge or expertise on which they intercede with God on your behalf. You can still pray directly to God, but a saint is just that little bit closer – someone who was once human, but is now repping you in heaven. As an official FAQ states: “We pray with saints, not to them.”
The mythology of sainthood has it that saints are legitimately pious miracle workers. But of course, it’s a worldly honour that reflects the Catholic Church’s strategic aims at a given time. Some Christians, such as St Patrick, were canonised as an evangelical move to link Christianity to the saint’s hometown or home country: to make locals warm to the religion, and to justify establishing churches there.
Appointing patron saints for occupations, pursuits and quotidian phenomena also helped bring the Church closer to the fabric of everyday life. In medieval England, there were 40,000 religious organisations, charities and professional guilds, each of which had its own patron saint.
Patron saints for diseases – who were often martyred by a given disease, or cared for those who suffered from it – were also intended to give hope to the sick that God would heal them, or that faith would help them bear their suffering.
These days, the procedure of canonisation is bureaucratic, regulated from the Pope down, but early saints were often canonised by popular opinion. Historically, their areas of patronage have also established more by tradition and interpretation than official decree.
St Gertrude’s family, known as the Pippinids after her dad, became the Carolingians – the most famous of whom is Charlemagne, the papally anointed Holy Roman Emperor who united most of Western Europe. So, maintaining written records of a holy aunt’s miracles and good works was politically strategic for both the Church and the Carolingians.
Statues, illuminated manuscripts, church fresco paintings and stained glass windows commonly depict Gertrude in a garden setting, surrounded by cats, rats and mice – often with a mouse running up her staff. The animals are often held to represent souls in purgatory, for whose salvation Gertrude fervently prayed when she was alive. As recently as 1822, pilgrims left offerings at her shrine in the form of golden and silver mice. More prosaically, Gertrude and her nuns also kept cats to combat the vermin problem at Nivelles abbey.
Is Gertrude The Only Patron Saint Of Cats?
Several other saints can also be considered in charge of cats. St Francis of Assisi is the patron saint of all animals, including cats; while cats loved St Mary Bartholomew Bagnesi, a 16th century Dominican nun from Florence. “At least once when the cats knew Maria was hungry and hadn’t been looked after they went and fetched cheese for her,” says Catholic Daily.
And while cats are the internet’s spirit animal, Gertrude has no power online. That would be the domain of St Isidore of Seville, whom Pope John Paul II deputised in 1997 as the patron saint of internet users. Isidore was a real ideas man – he wrote 20 books and invented the word ‘etymology’.
But Gertrude’s patronage of travellers relates not only to her kind treatment of pilgrims in life, but also to her second attributed miracle, in which an Irish monk beset by a great storm at sea – including a sea monster! – prayed to her and the storm instantly subsided. Her hospitable treatment of Irish pilgrims was important to a Church that wished to establish its cosmopolitan reach, which is why she shares her death date with St Patrick.
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. Now she watches over nature, and calms stormy seas and minds… if you have faith in her.
This story was originally published on March 17, 2015 — St Gertrude’s Day, celebrating the patron saint of cats.
Feature image of a Swedish fresco via Wikimedia Commons.