I think it is impossible for anyone who has read about the man behind the legend of Martin Luther to walk away without thinking – for so many reasons – that it must have taken an incredible woman to be his wife. Well, get ready, because Katharina von Bora lives up to that expectation!
Katharina von Bora is perhaps one of the most recognisable faces of women in the Reformation. From the moment of marriage right up to the present day, Katharina has gained lots of attention as the wife of Martin Luther. During her lifetime she was looked on to prove the benefits or the downfalls of clerical marriage (depending on what side of the debate you were on), and today she is often used as a curious case study when attempting to understand her husband’s slightly complicated views on women. But there’s a lot more to Katharina von Bora than we see if we constantly view her through the lens of her husband.
A lack of surviving sources means we don’t know much about Katharina’s family history. What we do know is that, at the age of five, Katharina was sent to a Benedictine cloister for her education, before moving to a Cistercian monastery in central Germany when she was nine in 1509. When she was 16 Katherina made her vows, becoming a nun and Bride of Christ in the eyes of the Catholic Church.
Only a few years later, Luther’s activities and the wider Reform Movement began to gain momentum. During the early 1520s, Luther’s writings began to infiltrate even the most censored monastic houses, including the one which housed Katharina. With eight other nuns, Katharina began to doubt the validity of the monastic life and wrote to Luther to seek his advice. From Luther’s other letters we know that his opinion on monastic houses at this point in the Reformation movement was that they were not wholly bad so long as a) the person was there out of their own free will and were not there out of need or external pressures and b) that they were living a holy life and receiving correct doctrine. Under these criteria he sometimes recommended that nuns stay where they were, however, in the case of Katharina and her friends, his advice was to leave.
But for Katharina leaving was not going to be as simple as walking out of the door. Her convent in Nimschen was in the part of Saxony ruled by Duke George – who was not a fan of Luther, well, he was probably Luther’s biggest political adversary. Needless to say, Duke George did not take kindly to nuns escaping their convents because of Luther’s teachings. In fact, he had already executed one man who had aided the escape of another group of nuns. So, Luther turned to his friends and they devised a plan.
The night before Easter 1523, Luther’s friend Leonard Köppe enlisted the help of a merchant who delivered barrels of fish to the convent. Hiding amongst the barrels, Leonard was smuggled into the convent and the nine nuns were smuggled out. They arrived at Wittenberg the next morning, an event famously recounted by a student of the University as follows:
“A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town all more eager for marriage than for life. May God give them marriage lest worse befall.”
Luther agreed with the sentiment of this student. These nuns would need to marry soon. Having a group of unmarried women at the University would lead to problems he didn’t care to deal with. Pretty quickly Luther was able to place 8/9 of the nuns in marriages or teaching positions until only the 24-year-old Katharina remained.
Katherina was a woman who knew her mind and was not afraid to speak it. For two years she lived at Wittenberg receiving training in domestic skills – a pretty extensive education if her later life is anything to go by! Throughout this time, Luther attempted to set up suitable matches for her. Katharina was attractive and had many suitors during these years. At one point she accepted the proposal of the patrician of Nürnberg, but when his parents refused to consent, the engagement fell through and Luther was once again left wondering what to do with her. He wrote to different acquaintances trying to arrange a match before Katharina took matters into her own hands. Katharina sent a message to Luther saying she would only marry Luther’s friend and Reformer Nikolaus von Amsdorf, or Luther himself.
In the lead up to Katharina’s ultimatum, Luther had begun to consider the pros of getting married. While he had previously questioned the sense in ex-monks marrying, he had since begun to consider the good of clerical marriage and its extension to ex-monks. Katharina’s message sealed the deal. Luther would marry her because, as Roland Bainton writes: “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, make the angels laugh and the devils weep, and would seal his testimony.” (That last point was one made by our friend Argula von Grumbach!)
So, with no romantic sentiment involved, directed purely by pragmatism on Luther’s part and convenience on Katharina’s, Luther and Katharina were married on June 13th, 1525. Katharina was 26 and Luther 42.
Even before their marriage, and with greater intensity after the ceremony took place, the marriage was questioned by fellow Reformers and condemned by Catholics. While attacks directed at Luther tended to be theological, those directed at Katharina openly questioned her character. This poem was published the same year as Katharina’s marriage and highlights the personal nature of these attacks:
“Woe to you, poor fallen woman, not only because you have passed from light to darkness, from the cloistered holy religion into a damnable, shameful life, but also that you have gone from the grace to the disfavour of God…You are said to have lived with Luther in sin. Then you have married him, forsaking Christ your bridegroom”
But I think Anne Bijn, a Dutch school teacher and opponent of the Reformation, gives us a better idea of what was said about Katharina in writing and to her face. This is from Anne’s poem These Covet Happy Nights and Lose Their Happy Days where she mocks nuns like Katharina who:
“wither fast, our lazy nuns,/ with all these shitty diapers to wash…/They’ll surely get caught in Satan’s web/Shacking up like that, heedless of the rule:/A lowly fallen nun, a friar apostate./Unclean love with paupers must swiftly fade,/Lack of money teaches them a different song.”
Despite these external attacks combined with the unromantic origins of their marriage, Katharina and Luther got on rather well…after a while.
For two people practically born and raised in monastic houses, sharing their day-to-day life with anyone, especially a member of the opposite gender, was always going to be difficult. Shortly after her marriage, Katharina is quoted stating that marriage will be a lot easier “once she had trained the Doctor”. And reader, that is exactly what she did.
For all of his theological achievements, Luther was somewhat useless in caring for himself and managing the household and University. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again, without Katharina, Luther would not have been nearly as successful as he was. For one thing, Luther believed that the money God put in his hand should fall through his hand and into the hands who needed it most. This generous attitude left the household on the brink of poverty on more than one occasion and without Katharina’s careful management and saving, Luther wouldn’t have even had the money needed to publish his books.
Luther also suffered from many illnesses, both physical and mental. I think it’s safe to say Katharina adopted a rather no-nonsense approach to caring for him. One time when Luther was particularly ill, refusing to eat or drink, his doctors left him expecting him to pass in the night. Katharina told him straight that he needed to eat to which he replied, “Very well, roast beef, peas, and mustard and be quick before my fancy fades”. Katharina acted fast, Luther ate, and disaster was averted. With Luther’s more long-term illnesses Katharina used her extensive knowledge of diet, herbs and natural remedies to care for him and all those at the University.
But I think it is in her care for Luther’s mental health that Katharina’s boldness and plain-speaking shines through – along with her sarcasm. For example, during periods where his physical and mental health were not what they should be, Luther developed a habit of locking himself in his room, refusing food and water. On one such occasion, when Luther had been in this state for four days, Katharina had the door removed and ordered him to come and eat. On another occasion when Luther was down, Katharina dressed in her mourning clothes and when asked by Luther who had died, she replied that surely the Lord himself must have died because it’s the only reason her husband could be so sad. While I would not recommend you adopt this approach when caring for someone’s mental health, for Luther it appears to have worked.
When Katharina was not caring (or scolding) her husband, she managed the household. On the surface, this may appear as nothing extraordinary. That is until you realise that their house comprised of 40 rooms housing: the couples six children; Luther’s seven nieces and nephews who the couple adopted; the four orphaned children of a friend who they had also adopted; Katharina’s ex-nun aunt; tutors and students from the University; and numerous religious refugees from all walks of life. Managing this house was akin to managing a small business and Katharina thrived in this environment. Katharina bought a small farm where she grew food for the household, plants to be used in medicines, animals to eat and, remarkably, she even brewed beer. Luther openly admitted Katharina’s authority in their home, referring to her as ‘Lord Katie’.
This remarkable domestic setting inspired one student to record life in the Luther household in his book Table Talk. Here we get a better glimpse into the character of Katharina. For all of the busyness during her day, we see her asking deep and thought-provoking theological questions. Despite Luther’s view that women should not concern themselves too deeply with theology, he made an exception for Katharina. He answers her questions, she asks more and even enters into debates with him! He respected her intelligence, later giving her the nickname ‘Doctor Katharina’.
It’s not surprising Luther made expectations for Katharina in this area. From his letters, we can see many times in which Katharina deviates from Luther’s prescribed womanly behaviour. If he was aware of this contradiction, we don’t know. But it’s clear Luther’s love for his wife meant he rarely viewed her as he did women in a general sense. And they truly did grow to love each other. None of Katharina’s letters survives, but here are a few of my favourite quotes from Luther about his wife:
“I would not change Katie for France or for Venice, for God has given her to me and other women have worse faults. She has a few but her virtues outweigh them”; “In domestic affairs, I defer to Katie. Otherwise, I am led by the Holy Ghost”; “To my dear wife Katharina von Bora, preacher, brewer, gardener, and whatever else she may be…”; “To the saintly, worrying, Lady Katherina Luther, doctor at Zulsdorf and Wittenberg”.
Luther died in 1546 and Katharina was left with little income and a lack of direction. Luther had instructed her to sell their property and live quietly with their children upon his death, leaving provisions for her as the sole heir to his will. However, the will did not stand up to Saxon law and so Katharina was left without income and with many demands on her time. She decided to remain at the Black Cloister (their 40-room home) and continue to take the rent of the students and support herself from the farm.
She was forced to leave twice because of war, first in 1546 and again in 1547. But from late 1547 until 1552, she lived in relative peace but in near poverty until plague entered the town and she fled with her children to Torgau.
On route, Katharina was thrown from her cart and landed on her back. For three months she lay at death’s door drifting in and out of consciousness, cared for by her daughter. Until the 20th of December 1552 when she died aged 53. Her last words were:
“I will stick to Christ as a burr to a topcoat.”
Katharina was a remarkable woman. As the wife of Martin Luther during a time when clerical marriage caused heated debates, the pressure was really on for her to ‘succeed’. Thanks to Katharina’s ingenuity, boldness, plain-speaking, domestic skills and business acumen, Luther was able to continue and thrive in his teaching and writings. Meanwhile, as a couple, they were able to demonstrate the good of clerical marriage and fruit which could come from a Christ-centred union. Indeed, Luther’s teachings on marriage continue to influence the Protestant Church today (whether we’re aware of this or not). His positive outlook on the institution would not have been so obvious had Katharina not been the woman she was. Even if we don’t acknowledge it, Katharina’s bravery to marry the famous Martin Luther paved the way for every Protestant wife since.
This was written as part of a small series on the wives of Reformation Leaders in the run up to Reformation Day 2020.
For further reading: Roland Bainton, Women Of The Reformation: In Germany And Italy; Kirsi Stjerna, Women And The Reformation; Kristiaan Aercke, “Anna Bijns: Germanic Sappho”, in Women Writers Of The Renaissance And Reformation; Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation; Martin Luther, The Table Talk Of Martin Luther; Martin Luther and K Zimmermann, Luther’s Letters To Women.
Image shows Katharina von Bora painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder, in 1526 – The year after her marriage.