Gertrude the Great (1256–1302)

Updated About content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Gertrude the Great (1256–1302)

German nun from the monastery of St. Mary at Helfta in Saxony whose mystical visions and devotion to God earned her the title "the Great," making her the only woman in Germany to be given such an honor. Name variations: Gertrude of Helfta; Gertrud von Helfta; Gertrude of Eisleben. Born on January 6, 1256, somewhere in Germany; died on November 16, 1302 (some sources cite November 17, 1301 or 1311), in the monastery of St. Mary at Helfta in Saxony, Germany; there is only speculation regarding her family and heritage; educated in the monastery at Helfta where she learned Latin, church history, and theology.

Entered the monastery at the age of four or five; at age 25, had her first mystical experience (1281); was a recipient of the stigmata (1283), prophetic visions (1292 and 1294), and minor miraculous events; began writing the Legatus and the Spiritual Exercises (1289); recognized as a saint by the Catholic Church though never formally canonized (1677); given the title "the Great" (1738); November 16 is honored as her feast day.

In 1281, wrote Gertrude the Great, the Lord first appeared to her in the form of a 16-year-old youth. Having sensed her lack of passion with her faith, He took her right hand in His own and said to her, "You have licked the dust with my enemies and have sucked honey among thorns. Now return to me and I shall make you drink from the torrent of my delights." At that moment, she notes, she was so in awe of God that she recognized her own inferiority and gave herself up with total and joyful abandonment.

Like other religious women of the 13th and 14th centuries, Gertrude saw divine images that allowed her to have a direct relationship with God. Mysticism was not just one event, writes Evelyn Underhill , but a succession of insights and revelations about God that gradually transformed the recipient. Mystics, who could either be men or women, experienced things as opposed to accepting them through faith. Mystical communication could be in the form of voices, symbols, or visions of a member of the Holy Trinity or other revered individuals, such as Mary the Virgin . These experiences generally occurred spontaneously without regard to time or place and usually were out of the control of the recipient. For women, mysticism afforded them an extremely unique opportunity—a direct relationship with God. The Catholic Church forbade women to perform any of the sacraments. To receive the Eucharist or confess one's sins, a cleric was needed to act as an intermediary between the woman and God. However, if a woman was chosen by God to be the recipient of visions or symbols, she had an avenue with which she could bypass the male cleric and engage in a unique relationship of her own with the Lord. It is for this special relationship as well as her devotion to God that Gertrude is known.

Gertrude was born on the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256. Nothing is known of her childhood, including her birth name, prior to her entry into the Benedictine monastery of St. Mary at Helfta in Saxony, Germany, at age five. She was named after Helfta's abbess, Gertrude of Hackeborne (1232–1292), with whom hagiographers have often confused her. A fellow nun of Gertrude's indicated that her birthplace was a distance from Helfta, and that Gertrude was "exiled from all her relatives, so that there should be no one who should love her for the sake of ties of blood." Nothing is known for certain of Gertrude's parentage either. Sister Maximilian Marnau suggests that Gertrude was probably not a member of a noble or wealthy family since a surname was not transcribed for her in St. Mary's registry. As a rule, a monastery recorded its association with a powerful family and often required payment of a dowry for the young girl, to cover educational and boarding expenses, before they admitted her. The recording of this payment, along with other welcome financial donations, would have been necessary for proper bookkeeping. However, monasteries were often charitable and received those less fortunate; it is therefore likely that the omission of a family name for Gertrude reflected her impoverished status.

Gertrude's early years as an oblate, or child in the care of a monastery, consisted mainly of an introduction and education into the ways of the Catholic Church. She learned Latin fluently, was well-versed in rhetoric, and studied the works of the church fathers, Augustine and Gregory the Great, and contemporary spiritual writers such as Hugh of St. Victor and Bernard of Clairvaux. When not studying, Gertrude's life consisted of prayer and work. This tripartite scheme of study, prayer, and labor is the bastion of Benedictine monasticism, founded by St. Benedict of Nursia (480–550). Due to consistently poor health, however, Gertrude's portion of any manual labor, such as tending the crops or working with the farm animals, was greatly reduced. Instead, her work consisted of spinning and copying manuscripts. She also wrote explanations and simplifications of the Scriptures. The portion of the day devoted to prayer would have combined individual worship with communal daily services.

Until her conversion, Gertrude had only systematically lived the life of a nun. She followed the monastic rule and looked to God as her spiritual leader, yet she lacked fervor in her devotions. Her conversion experience then, was not one from a life of sin to one of virtue, but rather the beginning of a life completely and totally devoted to God with a new found fervor. Gertrude, however, treated this experience as a complete turning point in her life. She saw herself as someone who had taken too much pride in her accomplishments and had not paid enough deference to the Lord's power. Prior to her conversion, Gertrude's dedication to her studies led her biographer to note that by "attaching herself with such enjoyment to the pursuit of human wisdom, she was depriving herself of the sweet taste of true wisdom." After her conversion, Gertrude's studies did in fact move from grammatical matters to only those that dealt with theological issues. She wrote to God, "I offer you my laments for the very many infidelities and sins which I have committed in thought, words, and deed… but especially for being so unfaithful, careless, and irreverent in the use of your gifts."

Gertrude's displeasure with her own behavior stemmed from an intense feeling of unworthiness in contrast to the awesomeness of the Lord, for her sins were only those of impatience, vainglory, and negligence. It is ironic then that her cries of humility earned her the respect and admiration of her contemporaries who wished they could aspire to be like her. They often sought out Gertrude for spiritual guidance and as their own intercessor. Her mystical relationship with God caused many to ask Gertrude to pray for them, thinking that her prayers were more likely to be heard than their own. While she often complied in order to aid fellow nuns, she herself would turn to others for prayers and guidance, noting her own unworthiness as a cause for God not to respond to her. Such confidantes included fellow mystics at Helfta, Mechtild of Magdeburg (c. 1207–1282) and Mechtild of Hackeborne (1241–1298), sister of Gertrude of Hackeborne. It was with Mechtild of Hackeborne that Gertrude collaborated on many writings, possibly contributing prayers and biographical vignettes to Mechtild's volume of revelations, Book of Special Grace.

Gertrude of Hackeborne (1232–1292) and Mechtild of Hackeborne (1241–1298)

German sisters and mystics

The monastery at Helfta was only 20 years old in 1251 when Gertrude of Hackeborne became abbess. Its great days continued after her death in 1292, until the death of Gertrude the Great. in 1302. Gertrude of Hackeborne's sister Mechtild, the choir mistress of Helfta, also had visions; an account of her revelations, compiled by two nuns, is titled Liber specialis gratiae (Book of Special Grace). Since Mechtild was always accessible to the community, her visions concerned messages of love from Jesus to sustain her in helping her fellow sisters. Her grief at the loss of her sister Gertrude as well as Mechtild of Magdeburg in 1282 was also assuaged by these visions. Mechtild of Hackeborne once saw the newly departed Mechtild of Magdeburg dancing around Christ in heaven, celebrating the goodness of the nuns at Helfta.

Though Gertrude's own writings have proved to be important, it took the mystical intercession for her to write them down. Gertrude wrote that God told her, "Know for certain that you will never leave the prison of your flesh until you have paid the last farthing that you are keeping back." She understood this to mean that she would never be received into Heaven until she shared with others her unique mystical experiences and revelations. She then began composing a volume of works that later generations would find invaluable.

In 1289, Gertrude started Liber Legationis divinae pietatis (or Herald of God's Loving Kindness). Written as a simple essay, the Legatus was addressed to God and offered an account of her inner thoughts, feelings, and devotions. What was significant about the work was the openness with which Gertrude discusses her intimate relationship with God. The Legatus reads like a diary, allowing others a private look at God's dealings with a soul. Often combined with the Legatus in later collections are writings by fellow nuns who tell of Gertrude's accomplishments and provide her biography. It is only through these anonymous voices that anything is known of Gertrude's life, since her humility prevented her from believing that her life was in any way noteworthy. Surpassing the popularity of the Legatus was Gertrude's Spiritual Exercises. No date is given for the writing of this work, except that it was begun after her conversion experience in 1281. A kind of handbook for Christians, Spiritual Exercises consists of reminders of the privilege of being part of God's family and the necessity of preparing for the next life through the words and deeds of this life. Topics in the work include conversions, preparations for death, the love of God, and the renewal of faith.

Reflective of her training in rhetoric, Gertrude's writing relied on comparisons, similes, and an overabundance of adjectives to describe her ideas. Later nuns at Helfta mimicked this style, most notably in the Precis Gertrudianae (Gertrudian Prayer), a work comprised of extracts from many of Gertrude's writings as well as new prayers composed in her unique style. Despite her fluency in both her native German and in Latin, only her Latin texts have survived.

Gertrude was also devoted to the symbol of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the heart of the Lord in its human, physical form. In church tradition, the Holy Spirit formed the Sacred Heart while Jesus was still in Mary's womb. Thus, it represents both the divinity and the humanity of the Lord. But the Sacred Heart is not just a symbol of the Lord but rather of the Holy Trinity. The physicality of the Heart was merged with God (the creator of humanity) and the Holy Spirit (the creator of the Heart) into the person of Jesus.

Along with Mechtild of Hackeborne, Gertrude gave shape and prominence to the devotion of this symbol. She enjoyed special images of the Sacred Heart, along with visions of its earliest associated saint, John the Apostle. In what modern scholar, Jean Bainvel, called the beginning of "an epoch in the history of the devotion to the Sacred Heart," Gertrude had a dialogue with St. John and asked him why he had not spoken of his devotion to the Sacred Heart until their conversation. Responded St. John, "It was my task to present to the first age of the Church the doctrine of the Word made flesh.… The eloquence of that loving pulsation of His heart is reserved for the modern age so that the world grown old and torpid may be rekindled by the love of God." For Gertrude, love was at the core of all her devotions and writings, and what better symbol to exemplify this notion then the heart of the Lord.

The culmination of all of Gertrude's spirituality, writings, and passion for God took three forms; receipt of the stigmata, the gift of fore-knowledge, and the power to perform small miracles. When Gertrude was 27, she was given the stigmata by God, physical proof that God recognized Gertrude's piety and devotion. The stigmata, which represent the five wounds received by Christ during His crucifixion, were emblazoned on her heart. In May of 1292, Gertrude had her first prophetic experience. At that time elections were being held to choose an emperor to replace Rudolf I Habsburg, Holy Roman emperor, who had died the previous year. Before the choice of a new emperor had been made, Gertrude informed the abbess that Adolph of Nassau had been chosen and that he would perish at the hands of his successor. Gertrude could not have received that information from a human messenger since the election took place after she envisioned it, and Adolph was not killed until 1298. In 1294, Gertrude foresaw that the monastery would be saved despite an assault from outside invaders. It was also recorded by Gertrude's biographers that God had given her miraculous power in addition to the favors he had already granted. It was said that, because of her prayers, an intense and unseasonable cold spell ended on one occasion, and on another, a rain which had threatened the harvest ceased.

Gertrude the Great's blessed life made her a dynamic figure in the history of medieval religious women. Her death on November 16, 1302, left a void for the nuns at Helfta who had looked to her for spiritual camaraderie and guidance. Gertrude's impact was not confined to just the 13th and 14th centuries alone. Translations of her writings were made from the 16th century onward as more and more of the faithful turned to her comforting words and insights. In 1677, Pope Innocent XI added her name to the Roman martyrology and Clement XII later directed that her feast day, November 15, be observed throughout the Western Church. Spain declared Gertrude the patron saint of the West Indies, while the cities of Urbino, Italy, and Tarrangona, Spain, both later recognized her as a minor patron. And finally, tradition has placed Gertrude above all other notable women in Germany's history. In 1738, Cardinal Prosper Lamertini (later Benedict XIV) accorded her the title Gertrude the Great, the only German woman to ever be given the exalted title.


Finnegan, Mary Jeremy. The Women of Helfta: Scholars and Mystics. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1991.

Gertrude of Helfta. The Herald of Divine Love. Edited and translated by Margaret Winkworth. NY: Paulist Press, 1993.

Gertrude the Great, Saint. Love, Peace, and Joy: Devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus According to St. Gertrude. Edited and translated from the French by Reverend Andre Prevot. Rockford, IL: TAN Books, 1984.

Petroff, Elizabeth Alvilda, ed. Body and Soul: Essays on Medieval Women and Mysticism. NY: Oxford University Press, 1994.

suggested reading:

Beer, Frances. Women and Mystical Experiences in the Middle Ages. Rochester, NY: Boydell Press, 1992.

Johnson, Penelope. Equal in Monastic Profession: Religious Women in Medieval France. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1991.

Ellen T. Bastio , graduate student, University of Maryland at College Park