Mrs Luther and her Sisters: Women in the Reformation
Church Times Bookshop £9
“WIFE, mother, electress, sister” — these were all roles that one 16th-century woman, Elizabeth of Brandenburg, tried to fulfil. In the latest book by Derek Wilson, we find other parts that Reformation women might play, as prophetess, printer, persecutor, or patron.
Wilson sets out to answer two questions: “What did the Reformation do for women?” and “What did women do for the Reformation?” He tackles both the emerging Protestant churches, and Roman Catholic communities. In his attempt to reintegrate women’s stories into the turbulent history of the Renaissance Church, he ranges across the whole of Europe, from Edinburgh, to Ferrara and Valladolid.
The strongest message to emerge is that faithful women broke down traditional boundaries in their pursuit of “true” religion. Geographically, many sought safe havens in Geneva or London, and socially, they established new roles as clergy wives, translators, and, most controversially, leaders of worship. Well-to-do women had always guided their households and children, and shared news with their neighbours. Now with the Bible or Calvin’s Institution of the Christian Religion in their own hands, these Frauenzimmer, or gatherings of women, were fruitful in fostering recruits to the new cause.
Wilson devotes his first chapter to the unprecedented marriage between the ex-monk Martin Luther and ex-nun Catherine von Brora. He shows how their relationship opened up new possibilities for women, as “church mother”.
Catherine kept open house for students. She also gave refuge to Elizabeth of Brandenburg when her husband, Joachim, refused to follow her into the reformed faith. Elizabeth was an awkward guest, barging into the Luthers’ bedroom unannounced. Like most women of her generation and class, she was married as a teenager, a pawn in dynastic wranglings. She embodied the personal, political and religious tensions experienced by many women, both Catholic and Protestant.
I wish we were told more about the circumstances of Elizabeth’s “mental breakdown”. Wilson passes over this too lightly. His pace is swift, and he is quickly off to give us a paragraph on Mary, Regent of the Spanish Netherlands, and then on to Margaret of France.
This is one of the drawbacks of Wilson’s book. Another is the relentlessly popular tone. It is readable and clearly constructed. But, although Wilson includes many findings from recent research by feminist historians, he does not grasp the essence of their work. If he did, he would never condescend by calling the Protestant martyr Anne Askew “pert” and “feisty”, or Anne Bacon “awesomely brainy”. Nor would he maintain the old line that Mary Tudor was “bewildered”, while her half-sister Elizabeth I was “shrewd” in her creation of a “unique” Church in England.
These concerns, however, are largely outweighed by the chance to hear the voices of so many women. As Marie Dentière wrote in the 1530s, “it would be foolish to hide the talent that God has given us.” Wilson’s work enables Vittoria, Cassandra, Margaret, Argula, Olympia, Giulia, and their sisters in Christ to inspire and revive a 21st- century audience.
Dr Suzanne Fagence Cooper is a cultural historian with an interest in Victorian and 20th-century Britain. She is currently teaching at the University of York.