St Geretrud and the Irish

I’ve been browsing through Paul Foracre and Richard Gerberding’s Late Merovingian France: History and Hagiography 640-720 (Manchester, 1996) this Easter break and I came across a curious account in the Life of St Geretrud.

Geretrud was the daughter of Peppin I and his wife Itta, born in about 621, and the first solidly saintly ancestor of the Carolingian dynasty. After the death of Peppin, his widow Itta and their daughter Geretrud founded the monastery of Nivelles where Geretrud spent the remainder of her life. Geretrud became abbess at age 26 and after a relatively quiet tenure died at the age of 33. She was succeeded by her niece Wulfetrud in about 653. The house of Nivelles therefore became one of the earliest Carolingian houses.The painting to the right is a Flemish painting of St Geretrud from Wikipedia commons.

In the contemporary vita written for the saintly Geretrud we can see the ruthless political pressures and manipulations that surround young noble girls. Geretrud’s desire to be the Bride of Christ confounds most of these pressures.

One of the few times that we can see Geretrud and her mother Itta intervening in political matters is when they give refuge and aid to Abbot Foillan when Erchinwald expels the former East Anglian missionaries from Peronne where St Fursey was buried. Sheltering Follian from such a powerful enemy was probably at least suggested by Geretrud’s brother Grimoald I, a major rival of Erchinowald. According to the ‘Nivelles Supplement (to the Vita Fursei) on Foillan'(written 650-657), Geretrud’s mother gave the Irish missionaries refuge and helped them establish the Irish monastery of Fosses. When Foillan disappears, it is Abbess Geretrud who sponsors the long search for him. His body was found after 77 days of searching and brought to her monastery of Nivelles and presented to the conspirators Bishop Dido of Pointiers and her brother Grimoald I. Grimoald and Dido then personally carry Foillan’s body on their shoulders to Fosses for burial.

Foillan’s murder just as Grimoald and Dido were planning the exile of Prince Dagobert raises questions. Was Foillan’s murder planned because he opposed Dagobert’s exile? Was Foillan murdered because he was part of the plot by those loyal to Dagobert? Grimoald and Dido seem particularly upset by his murder. Did Geretrud expect her brother’s involvement and ensure his contrition? The result seems fairly certain; Follian’s murder made the Irish of Fosses more willing to help in the plot and Dagobert was exiled to Ireland.

None of this business with Foillan is mentioned in the Life of St. Geretrud, written after the execution of her brother Grimoald for treason. The holy virgin Geretrud is not to be tarnished with her brother’s crimes. Yet, the Irish still left a trace on the Life of St Geretrud. As Geretrud is dying she sends for the hermit of Fosses (usually considered to be Ultan, Foillan’s brother) to ask when she will die. The hermit of Fosses responds saying:

“‘Today is 16 March, tomorrow during the solemn mass the maidservant of God and virgin of Christ, Geretrud, will go forth from her body. And say this to her, let her neither fear nor be alarmed concerning her death, but may pass on joyously because blessed Bishop Patrick with the chosen angels of God and with great glory are prepared to receive her. Go now quickly.'” (p. 326)

He goes on to tell her and she accepts this joyfully. Just as the hermits prophesies, during the mass the next day Geretrud dies just as the mass finishes on March 17th in her 33rd year of life.

To the Irish attached to Nivelles and at Fosses Geretrud’s death on the feast of St Patrick must have seemed a very favorable event supporting their continued association with Nivelles and the Carolingian family. Not only had Geretrud befriended Foillan and company when they were driven from the shrine of St Fursey at Peronne, she had sponsored the search for Foillan’s body, ensured that he was properly buried and then died herself on the feast of St Patrick. The Addendum Nivialense de Fuilnano also shows us that it was appended to the Life of Fursei at Nivelles between 650 and 657, the tenure of Geretrud or her niece Wulfetrud. This suggests that the cults of Fursey and Foillan were valued at Nivelles from Geretrud’s time.

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