On the Weather, Charlemagne, and the Importance of Relics


The weather, recently, really has been rather lovely for ducks and so, of course, rather lovely for me too as nothing really legitimizes my habit of dressing all in black and wearing only boots, boots, and more boots, quite so well as rain and gray skies. The best part of this, too, was probably that it necessitated my buying a pair of Hunter boots (black, matte), which I’ve wanted since who knows when. So. Life is good.

The thing about this weather, though, is that I have even less of an excuse than usual not to work. All I ever want to do is sit bundled in my room (preferably in bed) with a cup of tea and watch the rain so there really should be nothing between me and getting some work done. Except. Yeah. Work.

Point in case: I got home from crew this morning at the bright (well not really) and early hour of 9:30 am and promptly got right back into bed. Whereupon I watched Cléo de 5 à 7 (which I’m lucky enough to have count as work) and then fell asleep. The afternoon proceeded in much the same way: 5 pages of Hincmar’s On the Governance of the Palace, 2 hours of reading this book and sticking things to my wall (which, by the way, is a work of art), 10 0r so pages of POPism (something which no one needs ever—let alone on a peaceful rainy Saturday), and then several hours of doing nothing much. I did manage to go to the gym today, though, which was very productive of me generally, but didn’t really aid the war effort much. (I am speaking, of course, of the war on homework, which I have been waging in the manner of the Carolingians (that is—seasonally) for the last 15 years.)

Anyway, despite all these barriers between myself and work, I continue to surprise myself with my ability to actually get shit done when it comes to it. Which is good, I suppose.

Have some proof, in the form of a quick essay for my Charlemagne class:

Examining the Life of St. Geretrud through the Lens of Peter Brown’s “Relics and Social Status in the Age of Gregory of Tours”

Though the Life of St. Geretrud might be read as the highly political account of a noble family overcoming adversity by means of religious devotion, expressed through monastic foundation and patronage, the vita first and foremost is the life of a pious woman standing above the treacherous eddies of power in the tradition of the model of the holy person as described by Peter Brown in his “Relics and Social Status in the Age of Gregory of Tours.”

Much of Brown’s criteria for the portrayal of a holy person in late Merovingian France concerns itself with the relationship between relics and the people deemed worthy of those relics. If one were truly holy and pious, when met with a relic, a miracle would occur: some sign to demonstrate the merit of recipient would occur. Almost immediately upon assuming the position of abbess, at least in the loose time framework of the vita, a sign such as this appears because of Geretrud. When the relics of St. Sixtus are brought to Nivelles, “a flaming pellucid sphere” (Fouracre, Gerberding 323) descends and rests in the basilica for half an hour. “What,” asks our narrator, “does the appearance of that light indicate if not a visitation of the True Light which does not cease to illuminate every holy person praying for himself and all?” (323). Brown notes that “the arrival of the relic was an occasion to highlight the personal merits of the recipient (Brown, 240) and this is clearly the case with Geretrud. It’s important, too, that the pellucid ball of flame rests for awhile, not only appearing to Geretrud, but to the others at the monastery, too, that they may know Geretrud’s true merit and power and increase her reputation by the inevitable gossip that would follow an event such as this.

Brown also discusses the idea of the “ideal companion”: essentially a person’s supernatural guardian—their personal saint. For Gregory of Tours, this was St. Martin and we have numerous examples demonstrating Gregory’s intimate relationship with the saint, who was, to him, an invisible companion on the journeys of life. Similarly, Geretrud functions as the ideal companion to the monks aboard the ship “sailing over the sea on the monastery’s business.” This ship is suddenly met by a fearsome storm and its requisite terrible monster and, of course, the sailors aboard her, in their terror, turn to their pagan gods immediately, forgetting Christianity as they pray for their survival. The two monks of Nivelles, however, invoke the name of Geretrud and, on their third appeal to her, the monster and storm subside. In this, Geretrud functions in the same capacity that an ideal companion would. She is not present with the monks, but they behave as if she is, as if she can hear them, and entrust themselves into her care. And it pays off: much as appealing to St. Martin healed Gregory of constipation, invoking the name of Geretrud saves the lives of the two monks. However, I hesitate to say outright that Geretrud is a true ideal companion to these two monks. She certainly functions as one in this instance, but she’s something of a special case, considering these monks, who are traveling on business for her, presumably know her in the real world as well. We know Geretrud to be special already based on the miracle which occurred upon her receipt of the relics of St. Sixtus—essentially confirming that her “merita now stood secure in the other world” (Brown, 241), however Brown warns against considering anyone a saint until after their death. Geretrud seems to be an exception to this rule: her reputation as a holy woman was so strong during her life that even those who knew her personally considered her their protector, their ideal companion, not only trusting themselves to her, but behaving as if she were present with them even when she is not, despite the fact that she has not yet passed on to death, where she might walk among the living, invisible.

Gertrude’s vita is short and, after only a few miracles and very little else, we pass on to the twilight of her life, whose beginning is marked by her bequeathing the abbey to her niece Wulfetrud. Gertrud’s life appears to have been almost remarkably uneventful. And not only that, but Geretrud herself is a very passive character. It is not Geretrud, but Itta who establishes Nivelles and Fosses and gets them running. Itta is also the one to make Geretrud an abbess; undoubtedly the girl did not mind and probably even wanted a similar fate, if not that very one, but she does not choose it or make it happen for herself. Even Geretrud’s miracles are passive: she is acknowledged to be worthy of St. Sixtus’ relics by the appearance of a ball of flame, she saves the monks and sailors from certain death simply through the invocation of her name, but she herself never does anything particularly show-stopping. Her life seems largely to have been devoted to a quiet kind of piety, which she expressed simply and effectively in giving alms to the poor, looking after her flock, and undergoing various periods of fasting. None of this would be of particular note if her vita had not begun with a rather peculiar bang: her refusal of the marriage proposal of the son of a duke of the Austrasians.

Based on my knowledge of vitae, they generally progress chronologically through the life of the holy person they chronicle, beginning with their birth and the early development of their piety and ending with their noble deaths. Radegund and Columbanus both followed this pattern. With Geretrud, though, we do not begin at the beginning, but right in the middle of the action with an unwanted and politically charged marriage proposal which is not only refused, but is rebuffed in no uncertain terms by the young Geretrud herself: “She, as if filled with rage, refused him with an oath and said she wanted to have neither him nor any other earthly man as her groom, but Christ the Lord,” (Fouracre, Gerberding 320). In the whole of her vita, this is the largest display of emotion we see from Geretrud. Coming at the beginning, as it does, it seems to presage a more action-packed life than ends up following. True, it establishes her, even as a young girl, as defiantly dedicated to God, but the fire behind her pronouncement is completely out of keeping with the rest of her existence as a stable, holy abbess and with the tone of other vitae. This small event at the start of Geretrud’s life sets it apart from others of its kind, giving it a political significance and tone, which are not really addressed by Brown.

The vita does, though, adhere to Brown’s criteria in describing the death of Geretrud, particularly in terms of aesthetics. Brown notes that the aesthetic of the sixth century “was based on the denial that the death of the Very Special Dead had anything to do with the observed effects of death of the average Christian” (Brown, 227). Geretrud is certainly one of these Very Special Dead and, if we had had any doubts on the matter (because her Very Special Life had not convinced us), we need only look to the manner of her death for confirmation: following the moment of her passing “a most pleasant odour, as if a burning mixture of scents … perfum[ed] that little cell where the holy body lay” (Fouracre, Gerberding 326). The death of a regular person, whether Christian or not, is usually accompanied by no smell at all (at least not at first), and certainly not by a “wonderful scent” which lingers pleasantly in the nostrils. This rather affected detail is very in keeping with the aesthetic Brown describes as characterizing the hagiographical work of the time and further serves to place the Life of St. Geretrud among its contemporaries as a conventional model for Christians.


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