Mechthilde of Hackeborn and Gertrude the Great were both Benedictine nuns at St. Mary’s Monastery in Helfta, which was renowned for fostering the intellectual gifts of its sisters.
Mechthilde was born to a pious and noble family in Germany around 1240. Her older sister was already the abbess of a convent, and when Mechthilde was 7 years old the family went to visit her. Mechthilde was so enchanted with the convent, particularly its extensive library, that she refused to go home again, and her parents eventually yielded to her pleas. In the convent, Mechthilde received a superb education, and eventually directed both the convent choir and its library, illuminating manuscripts and writing her own original works. In time, the convent was transferred to her family’s estate at Helfta as it continued to grow.
Mechthilde’s most famous work is her Book of Special Grace. Only translated into English in 2017, it is an account of how she was consoled after going through a spiritually difficult time in her 50s.
Gertrude was also a nun at Helfta, but seems to have come from a very different social background. She came to the convent as a 5-year-old child of unknown parentage. Although the nuns were not willing to accept a child so young as a sister, she was given to Mechthilde to raise, and would formally enter the community several years later.
Gertrude’s writings indicate how thorough an education she must have received. She writes in fluent Latin, and shows extensive familiarity with the Scriptures, early Christian authorities such as Augustine and Gregory the Great, and even more contemporary theologians, including Bernard of Clairvaux, Richard and Hugh of St. Victor, and William of St. Thierry. She was given the title “Gertrude the Great” because she was among the most prominent theological writers of her age, either male or female.
Gertrude wrote a number of works, touching on both mysticism and theology. Her most famous book is The Herald of Divine Love. Gertrude died in 1302, but the exact date is unknown. She is therefore often commemorated together with her foster mother and teacher Mechthilde.