Sunday, 27 July 2014

'My Lord Katie'

I was scrolling back through previous articles on this blog (as you do) and, as someone who’s recently been getting really into all this Reformation stuff, E.C’s post from April on Martin Luther caught my eye. I thought I’d throw in my twopence too.
I could sit here and type out the key elements of Lutheranism (original Lutheranism, I mean – it’s changed a bit since Luther’s day) but something else caught my eye, and that was a short post I found on the women of the Reformation, featuring none other than Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora.

(Before I start, if anyone needs a quick introduction to Luther, this song by the History Teachers does the trick.)

Katharina (or Katherine) von Bora was sent by her father to a Benedictine abbey, aged just five, to receive an education, but was transferred four years later to a Cistercian chapter near Grimma, where she took her vows and became a nun in 1515.
However, Katharina’s religious life was about to be shaken up a whole lot more than merely by a change in chapter. Luther had nailed his theses to the door of Wittenberg Cathedral, and before long, religious reform in Germany was underway. This young Cistercian nun got wind of these evangelical ideas and became dissatisfied with life in the abbey. She and eleven other nuns, having sought help from Luther and his fellow reformers beforehand, managed to escape in secrecy, hiding in a fish-filled wagon. (Also, it’s worth noting that smuggling nuns was a capital offence, so hats off to the wagon driver, Leonhard Koppe.)

Because it was against canon law for their families to take these nuns back, Luther had to find jobs or husbands for all of them. He managed that for everyone except Katharina. Determined to set an example of clerical marriage, he married the last runaway nun left.
Luther and Katharina were married at some point in 1525, which definitely raised eyebrows. He hadn’t told his friends that he had planned to marry her.

Luther being Luther, by marrying, had broken the Roman Catholic rule of clerical celebacy. Some priests had – and continued to - marry in secret (perhaps one of the most obvious examples being Thomas Cranmer in 1532) but Luther didn’t. Their original, private wedding ceremony was followed by a much more public one. This was a pretty big deal: one of Luther’s contemporaries, Philipp Melanchthon, saw it as an ‘unlucky deed’ which would bring about the downfall of the Reformation (though he might have just been miffed because he wasn’t invited to the wedding).

Katharina von Bora, painted by Lucas
Cranach the Elder, 1526

Also, as clerical marriage was almost unprecedented, Katharina effectively had to answer one big question: What were clerics’ wives supposed to do?
The answer, it turns out, was an awful lot.
It was said that Martin Luther knew next to nothing about how to run a household - presumably monks didn’t need these skills – so the task fell to his new wife. Katharina was, in essence, the perfect housewife. As well as supporting her husband in the Reformation, she managed to:
  • Raise ten children (six of her own, one of her nephews and three others)
  • Run the household, including looking after all those theologians and students Luther kept bringing into the house.
  • Look after the gardens and livestock.
  • Run the brewery. (Monasteries were allowed to brew beer, and Luther House was an old Augustinian cloister. Katharina used this to her advantage.)
Following Luther’s death in 1546, his widow fought tooth and nail for her lands, property and her family. They were a tight unit, and when Chancellor Brück was adamant that her sons should be properly educated away from home, Katharina was having none of it. Brück was eventually forced to give up, and the boys stayed where they were.

What was worse, the remaining Luthers no longer had the money to maintain their house. They were allowed to keep it, and were given money and a farm by the Elector, but with the outbreak of the Schmalkaldic War, the family had to flee. They later returned to find that their farm had been used by the two armies: the buildings had been burnt down and the animals had gone. They wound up in debt, and Katharina had to take in students from Wittenberg University to make more money.
Perhaps, in light of what other women have done, Katharina Luther doesn’t stand out as the perfect role model, or someone who deserves extra praise, but what she did was nevertheless admirable, and her influence in the Reformation regarding the argument against clerical celibacy was very significant. The Luthers were a high profile couple, and Katharina was held in high esteem by her husband, who called her ‘my lord Katie’ and ‘the boss of Zulsdorf’ (Zulsdorf being the name of their farm). Sexual freedom for the clergy was an important aspect of the Reformation, and it was Martin and Katharina Luther who led the way.


(Oh, and a final piece of trivia for you: Martin and Katharina’s line still continues today through their daughter, Margarete. One of their descendants was the German president, Paul von Hindenburg.)

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