We have a little St. Gertrude plastic figurine holding a cat sitting above our sink. Friends gave it to us. It is cute, but I had never heard about a patron saint of cats until then.
If you are on social media today (St. Patrick’s Day), you’ll see lots of references to St. Gertrude because it’s her day of veneration as well as Patrick’s day. Gertrude of Nivelles, O.S.B. (also spelled Geretrude, Geretrudis, Gertrud; c. 628-17 March 659) was a seventh-century abbess who, with her mother Itta, founded the Abbey of Nivelles located in present-day Belgium. She’s also the patron saint of the City of Nivelles and travelers.
But why a patron saint of cats?
The first major English-language publication presenting her as patron of cats is a 1981 catalogue of the Metropolitan Museum of Art
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Gertrude’s path to feline favour has been a circuitous one. In truth, little in the medieval version of her legend justifies it. Rather the association itself speaks to a particular pathology in certain forms of Christianity.
Catholics, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox all recognise patron saints: special figures among the avowedly blessed whom, by choice or by venerable tradition, particular groups have taken on as their primary intercessor with God.
The idea for such patron saints first emerged in the Middle Ages when certain saints became particularly associated with places where they lived (like Patrick in Ireland) or where they were said to work their miracles (like Thomas à Becket at Canterbury). Some saints were also recognised for particular efficacy when interceding to cure particular conditions.
Gertrude seems to have acquired a reputation of this latter kind after the time of the Black Death. In the Low Countries and Western Germany, she was said to protect against rats and the diseases they brought with them.
From there it was only a short leap to making her patron of the creatures that 15th-century folk used to keep those rats in check. And yet, there is no clear evidence that Gertrude was depicted in such a role until well into the 20th century.
I’m not a fan of the ‘crazy cat lady’ trope, so I created ‘cat folx’ to be more inclusive and representative of all the people, Catholics included, who appreciate cats and work to create a better world with them. A gender neutral term reflects there reality that a lot of these ‘cat ladies’ are actually men, nonbinary, or otherwise not gender conforming. And the use of the ‘x’ versus the traditional spelling of folks reflects the ethnic diversity, a fact that is often literally whitewashed away by the stereotype of middle-aged white ladies doing all the cat work and cat loving. That’s untrue and unfair.
What is true is that most animal welfare organizations are heavily dominated by white cishet voices, including women. In 2014, long before we got into cat rescue, I wrote a blog post exploring some of the issues around white led animal welfare organizations speaking from Black communities. Some of the content is dated, but some still very real.
So celebrate how you will, now you know.
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