Argula von Grumbach née von Stauff (1492-1563?) was a Reformer active in Bavaria from the early 1520s. From the noble, but impoverished, Bavarian house of Hohenstaufen, Argula used her position and education to defend fellow Reformers even when it pushed her to the centre of public controversy.
Orphaned at around ten years old, Argula grew up in the court of the Duke of Bavaria. There she received a basic education which allowed her to read and write in German. She remained at court until the age of 24 when she married Friedrich von Grumbach. Friedrich was also from an impoverished noble house and supplemented his income by working as one a local prefect to the Duke.
When Argula was 28 Luther began publishing his treatises before completing his German translation of the New Testament in 1522. Despite Lutheran writings being banned in Bavaria, Argula, ever the avid reader, eagerly read everything she could get her hands on. Concerned for the salvation of her soul, Argula struck up a correspondence with different Reformers including Frederick the Wise (a friend of Luther who sent her more material) and Luther himself.
Somewhere between 1520-1523 Argula became convinced of Luther’s teaching – justification through faith alone – and was unknowingly about to start her career as a “heretical author” as a result.
In 1523 the University of Ingolstadt arrested an 18-year-old ex-student and member of staff because of his Protestant views. In fact, Arsacius Seehofer had been arrested three times for his beliefs and was now facing execution. He narrowly escaped this punishment because of his noble lineage and was instead forced to recant his beliefs, which he did so through tears.
Argula was having none of this! First, Argula went to Andreas Osiander, an evangelical minister, to see what he planned to do on behalf of Seehofer and the Church in Bavaria. Then, realising Osiander intended to do nothing, Argula decided she would have to take his place.
Argula put her pen to paper and wrote to the University of Ingolstadt not only defending Seehofer but the teachings of Luther and Melanchthon as well. She anticipated that they would refute her because of her gender, so, quoting Matthew 10 and Luke 9, Argula argued that if men would not speak up, she must, otherwise her silence was equal to denying Christ. To make her position clear, Argula finished her letter with these lines:
“I send you not a woman’s ranting, but the Word of God. I write as a member of the Church of Christ against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, as they will against the Church of Rome. God give us grace that we may all be blessed. Amen.”
TRANSLATED BY ROLAND BAINTON, WOMEN OF THE REFORMATION: IN GERMANY AND ITALY.
But Argula was not content to leave it there. This letter became her manifesto and Argula also sent it to the Duke of Bavaria and his magistrates.
Argula received no formal reply to any of her letters. Was this just an administrative oversight? Was this because she was a Reformer? Or was this because she was a woman? I think the contemporary inscription at the bottom of one of her letters in Munich answers these questions:
“Born a Lutheran whore and gate of hell. 13 December, 1523”
Being a Lutheran was bad enough, but a female Lutheran was even worse. Argula’s gender obviously played a role in the abuse she received. For example, in his sermon on the 8th of December 1523 Professor Hauer preached against “daughters of Eve” like Argula before insulting her directly calling her a: “female desperado”, “arrogant devil”, “heretical b****”, and “shameless whore”.
The University of Ingolstadt likewise thought replying to a “heretical b****” below them, but that didn’t stop one of their students from producing a satirical defamatory poem addressed to her. Hidden under the guise of humour, the venom of the words and their misogynistic undertone still reads clearly today. One section of the 150 lines of rhyming couplets reads:
“You are a creature wild and saucy, yet think yourself so very brainy…To salvage your honour from this take, discard your pride, your vain opinions and instead take up your spindle; and edging make or knit a bonnet”
THE ANONYMOUS ‘JOHN’, A WORD ABOUT THE STAUFFEN WOMAN AND HER DISPUTATIVENESS.
But Argula was not one to take such humiliation lying down. Oh no! As Derek Wilson writes, “ridicule did not work because she was always ready with jibes of her own.” Argula responded in kind with 240 lines of rhyming couplets which directly referenced her right to speak into religious affairs despite her gender. She writes:
“He tells me to mind my knitting. To obey my man indeed is fitting, but if he drives me from God’s word…Home and child we must forsake, when God’s honor is at stake”
Argula agrees with ‘John’ was this is not the place for a woman but she argues that men are doing such a bad job of things that she is being forced to take the wheel. Now, it was her duty as a Christian, which superseded any limitations on her gender, to argue on behalf of reform.
Needless to say, this did not go down well. While no public punishment followed these events, rumour had it that the Duke had left Argula to the discipline of her husband, permitting him to chop off her fingers if need be. The rumour went as far as to suggest that if Friedrich strangled her, he would not face any legal action. These rumours might sound far-fetched to us today, but sadly they are a reflection of Argula’s reality. Argula’s husband was fired from his position and was left with little income, a wife and four children to support. We know from her letters that Argula bore the brunt of her husband’s anger as she references the domestic abuse she suffered in letters to her family. In one such letter written in 1523, Argula condemned her cousin for doing nothing to help her despite knowing that her husband had locked her up.
Despite this abuse, Argula continued to plead the Protestant case both in the public domain and through her writing for the next seven years. While her letter-writing career spanned only a year (1523-24) an estimated 29,000 copies of her pamphlets were in circulation on the eve of the Peasants War in 1524, meaning she was, in the words of Roland Bainton, “the most famous female Lutheran and bestselling pamphleteer.”
As the sole Reformer in Bavaria at the time, she gained the attention and support of Luther and fellow Reformers. Luther wrote to others of her bravery in the face of the power of the Duke of Bavaria and the abuse of her husband. The two continued maintained their correspondence and friendship even though they only met once in secret when Argula attended the diet of Augsburg in 1530.
Shortly after this meeting, Argula’s husband died, marking the end of her public career as a Reformer. Argula remarried two years later in 1532, only to be widowed once again the following year. Now, living in her inherited estates in Bohemia, Argula dedicated her time to the Protestant education of her children and the care of the estates they would inherit.
At one point in history, this is where Argula’s story ended. Her duties as a mother forced her out of action where she remained until she died in 1554 – as reported by a local chronicle. However, historians have since discovered that Argula was alive and up to her old tricks as late as 1563!
In May 1563, 40 years after her entrance into the Reform movement, the Duke of Bavaria reported that he had once again imprisoned the “old Staufferin” for circulating Protestant literature and drawing people away from Catholic church services to private gatherings in her household. The City Council said that she was because she was just an “enfeebled old lady” they would have “pity on her age and stupidity”.
Argula von Grumbach was a strong and loud voice for the Reformation in Bavaria – she was the only voice for the Reformation in Bavaria! But history almost forgot about her. Despite her best efforts, Argula’s family remained embarrassed by her activities and attempted to write them out of history. It was only forty years ago that Argula’s contribution to the Reformation was rediscovered.
The efforts to erase Argula’s name from history very nearly worked. So, Argula von Grumbach leaves us asking an important question: How many others have been forgotten? Throughout history, the voices of women have been the hardest voices to hear. How many, like Argula, were silenced by their families and the authorities? How many other voices have we lost?
Argula reminds us of the uncomfortable reality that women are all to easily forgotten by history – even when that woman was a prolific author, outspoken aristocrat and “Lutheran whore”.
Argula von Grumbach is the Reformer history almost forgot. But now that she has been ‘rediscovered’ how much more should we celebrate her bravery and defiance? Not just for her, but for the uncountable others who history has not remembered.
Further reading: Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation; Katharina Wilson, Women Writers Of The Renaissance And Reformation; Peter Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice In The Reformation; Martin Luther and K Zimmermann, Luther’s Letters To Women; and Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation: In Germany and Italy.
Image shows a woodcut image of Argula von Grumbach with her pamphlets in hand.