by Joe Longo
How did a nun from the Early Middle Ages become the patron saint of cats, though the Catholic Church has never made that official? But that is how she is known today.
Saint Gertrude lived between 628 and 659 in Nivelles, Belgium. She was born on the 17 of March (the same date that St. Patrick is celebrated) into family of wealth and nobility. She knew at an early age what she wanted from life. When she was ten she was asked by her nobleman father and the king to marry a certain noblemen. In those days marriage between families of nobility were common, since those marriages increased power and wealth. She, however, adamantly refused and said, ”I would take Christ alone as my bridegroom.” When her father died her mother feared that Gertude, because of her wealth and beauty, would be kidnapped. So she started an abbey and Gertude became a devout nun. When her mother died Gertrude became the abbess. She, however, gave the administration of the abbey to other nuns. Her behavior then became peculiar. She isolated herself in the abby, wore a hair shirt, fasted, prayed constantly and became sickly. Her ascetic lifestyle, which included long periods without food or sleep, took a toll on her health. She died at 33, the age that Christ died. One writer wrote that her habits became peculiar like those of a cat.
Saint Gertrude had a dream about travelers, and her abby became known for its hospitality. Because of her reputation, Gertrude became the patron saint of travelers and the recently dead (who were also travelers on a journey) as well as gardeners and the mentally ill.
At one time, Gertrude’s abbey had a rodent problem, and she was successful at killing them. It was said that the water from her abbey’s well would chase away rats and mice. Also, cats were welcome inhabitants in abbeys and monasteries during the Early Middle Ages. They must have also helped with the rodent problem.
As the centuries wore on, she became associated with rodents. She was known to pray for the souls in purgatory, and medieval artists often portrayed the lost souls as mice. Illuminations appeared with rats at her feet or climbing up her garments.
The connection between Gertrude and rodents became a popular belief through Europe, and silver or gold statues of mice were left at a shrine to her in Cologne as late as 1822. By then, she had become the saint one asked to intercede in the case of a rodent infestation. That, one can assume, is where her association with cats developed, since cats are a predators of rodents.
It is hard to date when Saint Gertrude became known as the guardian saint of cats. During the Middle Ages, it seems that images of her began to appear with cats. But the only images I could find of her pictured with cats are contemporary renderings of illuminations. There are plenty of images from the Middle Ages of her with rodents. However, the title of Gertrude as patron of cats seems to date, oddly, from the 1980s. The first major English-language publication presenting her as patron of cats is in a 1981 catalogue published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Historically, cats were not always treated benevolently by the Catholic Church. In the Late Middle Ages, they were often associated with Paganism and Witchcraft. Some people saw cats as the servants of the devil. In the 13th century, Pope Gregory IX issued a church document that proclaimed that black cats are an incarnation of Satan. He then issued a death warrant for every black cat in Christendom. For some reason, this death sentence was spread to almost all cats, and the cat population significantly declined.
Some attribute the killing of cats to be the cause of the Black Plague. Actually, the killing of so many cats likely contributed to the spread of the plague, as the rodents carrying them flourished without their natural enemy hunting them.
The Black Plague is believed to have been the result of an infectious fever caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis. The disease was likely transmitted from rodents to humans by the bite of infected fleas.
Cat massacres are not at all uncommon in history. Many reasons have been given for pogroms against cats, such as religion, superstition, concerns over public health, politics. However, in the late Middle Ages with fewer cats roaming Europe and Asia, the more rats there were. More rats, meant more carriers of the disease, which could be why so many people died from the plague. If this is true, then it is quite possible that Pope Gregory IX’s demonization of cats is one of the causes that allowed the black death to spread so quickly throughout Europe and Asia.
But history is not all bad news for cats. They were considered sacred animals in ancient Egypt. Pharaohs highly respected their feline companions, who were also used as religious symbols for grace, poise, wisdom, strength, and fertility. Cats are featured in ancient hieroglyphics and Egyptian structures. Egyptians had domestic cats. The Greeks and Romans used cats to keep the vermin population down. Early Christian used cats for the same purpose.
In conclusion when you tuck your kitties in at night, say a prayer to Saint Gertrude of Nivelles, the patron saint of cats.
I could not find the date for this bas relief. Gertrude with rodents.