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Gertrude Von Hackeborn.
It was during the forty years in which the convent was under the able direction of the 8 Abbess Gertrude von Hackeborn, that it became distinguished for the high attainments of its inmates. Gertrude was of the family of the Barons of Hackeborne, whose castle and manor was situated a little to the east of the town of Eisleben. At the age of nineteen she was already marked out, by her spiritual and mental endowments, as a capable directress of the nuns placed beneath her care. It was she who persuaded her brothers Albert and Ludolf to give the manor of Hellfde for the new site of the convent, which had been for twenty-four years at Rodardsdorff. Many gifts were afterwards given to the convent by the Barons of Hackeborn, in consideration of the distinguished place held there by their two sisters, Gertrude and Matilda.
For a long time Gertrude was supposed to be the author of the book known as the Gertruden Buch, out of which Ter Steegen made the extracts which he published in his “Lives of Holy Souls,” assigning them to the Abbess Gertrude von Hackeborn. It seems now, however, clearly ascertained that the book so long attributed to the abbess was the work of a nun of the convent, also named Gertrude, to whom reference will be made later on. In 9 this book, as also in the book called the Mechthilden Buch, which was dictated chiefly by Matilda of Hackeborn, and completed by the writers (also nuns of the convent) after her death, much is related of the Abbess Gertrude. She is described as a woman of remarkable character, uniting love, gentleness, and piety with practical wisdom, good sense, and mental culture. The chief feature which appears to have impressed the sisterhood, was “the sweetness of the love which dwelt in her innermost heart.”
Up to the last her love was active and practical. When in her latter days she was completely crippled, and in constant suffering, she insisted upon being carried to the sisters who were ill in bed, that she might speak to them a word of comfort. When at last her speech failed her, her beaming eyes, her loving countenance, and the gentle movement of her hand assured the sisters who stood around her that her affection for them remained untouched by her bodily infirmities. The sisters said it was not a melancholy, but a joyful, duty to watch by her bed of weakness and suffering.
But it was never the case during her long superintendence of the convent that this 10 remarkable power of loving interfered with the strictest discipline, or with the wise and careful ordering of the convent life. She had no easy task when many daughters of the highest families of the North German nobles were committed to her care. They were accustomed to rule rather than to obey, and to live idle lives of pleasure and self-indulgence. But under the loving direction of the Abbess Gertrude order and industry flourished, and a desire to learn became very remarkable amongst these German ladies. Gertrude taught by her example, by the power of her word, by the decision and good sense which made themselves felt in all she said and did.
Above all things, are we told, she required and insisted upon a thorough and careful knowledge of the Bible. She made it her constant care that the convent should have an increasing supply of the best books, which she either bought, or copied by means of some of the nuns. “It is certain,” she said, “that if the zeal for study should decrease, and the knowledge of Holy Scripture diminish, all true spiritual life would come to an end.”
There was soon an excellent school formed in the convent, which has left proofs of its 11 remarkable character, as in the case of the books of Gertrude and Matilda, which were written by nuns of the convent. The second part of the Gertrude Book, written by the Nun Gertrude herself, is said to be an example of fluency in Latin rarely found amongst the women of the Middle Ages.
The life at Hellfde was a very busy life, and had nothing of the usual littleness of convent rule. With great spiritual fervour, there was at the same time a spirit of liberty and cheerfulness that helped forward the constant, serious, diligent work of the house. Studying and copying, illuminating, working and singing, occupied the sisters, as well as the care of the poor and the sick; and above all, the study of the Word of God.
Besides the two sisters, the Abbess Gertrude and Matilda of Hackeborn, two other nuns were distinguished by remarkable gifts. One of these, called on account of her office the Lady Matilda, was the leader and teacher of the choir, and also the chief teacher in the school of the convent. She appears to be the same as Matilda von Wippra mentioned in the Querfurdt Chronicles. Much is related of her great gift as a teacher, and of the power 12 which accompanied her words. “Her words,” so it is said in the Gertrude Book, “were sweeter than honey, and her spirit was more glowing than fire.” To her mainly was the school of Hellfde indebted for its wide reputation.
When the Abbess Sophia von Querfurdt (the successor of Gertrude) resigned her office in the year 1298, it was the Lady Matilda who took the direction of the convent, which remained without an abbess for five years. Matilda, however, filled this post for one year only, as she died in 1299. She was remembered for “the burning desire which she had for the salvation of souls,” and was deeply lamented by the sisters whom she had loved. They spoke often of her sweet voice, and her friendliness, and her holy conversation.
Last, but not least, was the Nun Gertrude, whose name is attached to the Gertrude Book, four of the five books of which were written in Latin by an unnamed sister, and one book, the second, was the work of Gertrude herself.
Her history is but little known. She was born on January 6, 1256, apparently in Thuringia, and of poor parents, and from her fifth 13 year she had been an inmate of the convent. Very early she became remarkable for her thirst for knowledge, and as a girl she devoted herself to severe study, having the singular predilection of an enthusiastic love of grammar. She soon left far behind her all the other nun-students, and till her twenty-fifth year was entirely absorbed in secular learning.
It was then that the great era in her life, described by her in the Gertrude Book, is to be dated. It was her conversion to God,11Described in her own words in “Trees Planted by the River” (Nisbet). her passage from death to life. She knew for the first time the love of Him who had borne her sins; she knew herself justified by faith in Him. This happened in the year 1281. More will be related of this remarkable woman.
It may have been that amongst the means which led to her conversion was an event which happened sixteen years earlier, and which has yet to be related. But before entering upon this part of the history of Hellfde, a few words must be said regarding the dark side of the picture presented to us in the records of this and other convents of the thirteenth century.14
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