So St. Patrick’s Day, I did the same silly tweet I did every year about St. Gertrude – March 17th is also the feast day of St. Gertrude of Nivelles, today seen as a patron of gardeners, sufferers of mental illness and cats. I am generally not a St. Patrick’s enthusiast, I find the curious world of lesser known saints interesting, and pointing out that you could celebrate St. Gertrude instead is at least arguably a joke.
This year the tweet kind of blew up for whatever reason, getting seen by (checks stats) 87,000 people. This provided me with the answer to a question I couldn’t help but have: ‘what happens when you have a tweet go (semi?) viral?’. The answer is ‘not much’, but it was fun to watch happen.
I honestly forget where I first read about St. Gertrude, but she’s an interesting figure. She was born in the early 7th century, refused marriage (shaving her head to try to put off potential suitors), eventually entered a convent (well, double monastery) and is supposed to have saved the faithful from both a storm and a sea monster. Regarded as a saint (although not recognized as such until the 17th century), she was invoked for help by people keeping gardens, travellers, and people suffering from fever.
The association with cats appears a very late addition, usually slotted into the 1980s. St. Gertrude was invoked against rodents earlier than that, at least in the 15th century against the Black Plague (spread, in part, by rats), and concern with rodents does make sense for a gardener. In addition, several depictions of St. Gertrude show her surrounded by mice or rats. There isn’t another patron saint of cats, a lot of people like them, and it’s not such a leap from invoking a saint against rodents to invoking her in favour of their classic nemesis (and our companion).
(I did find one article that said (correctly) that most monasteries and abbeys would have kept some cats to deal with the mice, and that Gertrude was known to be especially kind to the ones in her abbey. They didn’t cite a source, though, aside from mentioning the vita of her life in general, and I haven’t ever read it myself. So I’m not 100% confident on that one)
There’s another explanation out there for the mice – St. Gertrude apparently had special concern for souls in Purgatory. (imagine a sort of afterlife penalty box where you serve out the balance of your sins on earth) These souls were often represented in medieval art by mice or rats – so the depictions of St. Gertrude and the mice may have had nothing to do with actual animals at all, originally: they were about her interest in relieving souls from Purgatory, reinterpreted to be literal mice by the later Middle Ages and then to interest in cats even later.
We should note that she’s still not officially the patron of cats – the Vatican has never recognized the connection. But all of this demonstrates a lot of things about medieval religion that I find somewhat charming and endlessly fascinating, because a great many saints ended up getting their patronages due to popular connections first, and then later recognition by the institution. Popular practice was the driver a lot of the time, and people brought their own meanings to their devotions and found ways to get their needs served.
It is also interesting to me that St. Gertrude clearly has a great many authors to her story, and it has been continually rewritten, or at least reinterpreted, over the centuries. Unpicking what is the truth of her life is a puzzle for historians, but it probably didn’t matter to someone in 15th century Holland, looking desperately for help against a deadly disease. Their version was that St. Gertrude would help. It probably doesn’t really matter to the cat lovers who liked my tweet Sunday whether or not Gertrude of Nivelles really liked the abbey cats or not; their version is that she loved cats like we love cats.
Different people with different needs and priorities wrote the versions of St. Gertrude that they liked. I think it’s very cool that we’re still, on some level or another, working on the story of this woman from the 7th century today. It also demonstrates (I think) something else that fits more clearly into a writing blog.
Chuck Wendig wrote a blog entry last week about how, in his opinion, the people who run the Star Wars franchise should split off the movies into a separate continuity (or ‘canon’) from the books and comics, in sort of the same way that the Marvel superhero universe is similarly divided. His argument was (basically) that then writers would have more freedom to do what they wanted without worrying about whether they were fitting in with a lot of previously established (or still to come) canon. They could just write their stories, and not worry about it.
I think when you look at writing in the past, our obsession with ‘canon’ is a relatively recent development. If you look at the stories of King Arthur and his knights, it’s clear that there were a great many different writers across a great many years writing the stories they thought would be cool about these characters, and many of them do not even slightly make sense together. Even when someone tried to create a canon, like Thomas Malory, it doesn’t really work: Malory’s compilation still has two Excaliburs kicking around, and the Lady of the Lake is deeply confusing.
People at the time would have been perfectly aware of this, of course they would. This was their popular culture! But they also don’t seem to have been particular bothered about it, loved the stories anyway, and writers just wrote their tales, and didn’t worry about it.
Obviously this was a very different time, before ‘intellectual property’ was exactly a thing. And I could do a pretty deep dive into why we, as a society, might tend to gravitate towards the concept that there is a single right answer to any question (whether that be ‘what is at the centre of the Solar System’ or ‘did Han shoot first’) and are often uncomfortable with the idea that different interpretations may be equally valid for different people. Even without doing that, I think it is reasonably obvious why we tend to want at least some consistency within our stories, and to want satisfying answers to our questions about them.
However, I do think this gets carried rather too far, with expectations that each and every story set in the same universe has to fit together seamlessly and unproblematically. Heck, the stories we have about our own universe don’t even do that, so why expect it of our fictional ones? I think there’s a lot to be said for writers being able to ignore or at least greatly loosen ‘canon’ in all kinds of popular settings, write their stories, and not worry about it.
I think our stories changing depending who tells them, and who is listening, is a wonderful tradition and a great way to keep them alive. There’s centuries worth of evidence that even if there isn’t an air-tight ‘canon’, people will love them anyway.
Thanks for reading.