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The runaway nun of the Reformation

28 April 2017

In a talk to be broadcast next week on Radio 3, Charlotte Woodford explores the life of Martin Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora


Behind every great man: a portrait of Katharina von Bora by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528

Behind every great man: a portrait of Katharina von Bora by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1528

IN A satirical woodcut from around 1580, Martin Luther is shown arguing with the devil while in bed with a naked woman. The cartoonist is wanting to emphasise the scandalous nature of the marriage of this former Augustinian friar to a runaway nun, and that their union was a sinful double breaking of the monastic vows of chastity.

The woman is Katharina von Bora. Her marriage to Luther has often been sentimentalised; she’s been held up as the ideal pastor’s wife, a paragon of virtue. But this loses sight of her intellect, her feisty personality, and the contribution that she made to the Reformation by turning Luther from a monk into a prosperous family man.

Katharina von Bora married Luther on 13 June 1525, seven and a half years after he’d posted his 95 theses challenging the practice of selling indulgences which promised the forgiveness of sins. By now, Luther was famous all over Europe — declared a heretic and excommunicated by the Pope in 1521, then put away for his own safety in the Wartburg Castle, where he completed his ground-breaking new translation into German of the New Testament. The year 1525 finds him back in the university town of Wittenberg, surrounded by fellow reformers and implementing his vision of religious reform.


LUTHER wasn’t the first German priest to marry. Andreas Karlstadt had done so in 1522. In Strasbourg, Mathias Zell married Katharina Schütz Zell — she published a daring pamphlet in which she claimed she was saving her husband from a life of sexual immorality. The church authorities were hypocrites, she said; everyone knew that the same clerics who opposed priestly marriage had mistresses or slept with prostitutes.

Even so, Luther’s marriage caused shockwaves across Europe. Henry VIII of England wrote an open letter the following year, attacking him for his marriage to a nun in which Luther “openly abused her in sinne”. And, as is so often the case in such matters, the woman took more than her fair share of blame.

The influential Humanist Erasmus was among those to accept rumours that Katharina von Bora had been sexually promiscuous and needed to marry in haste. He wrote to a friend: “In case you should have any doubts that the marriage was blessed by heaven, a few days after the singing of the wedding hymn the new bride gave birth to a child!”

But Katharina von Bora was no harlot, and she wasn’t pregnant when she married Luther. She was an educated woman of noble descent who had seen how Luther’s teachings could transform her life, and decided to act on them.


BORN in 1499, Katharina had lost her mother when she was five, and was sent to live in a convent. Her family was not wealthy, and life in the cloister was common for noble girls who didn’t have the dowry to make a good marriage. When she was about ten, she joined the Cistercian convent of Marienthron in Nimbschen, Saxony, where we think two of her female relatives were already nuns.

Here, Katharina learned to read and write, as well as, it seems, a fair amount of Latin. She gained some of the skills needed to run an estate, since girls like her would eventually occupy important positions of responsibility in the abbey.

But Katharina hadn’t really chosen convent life; she’d never known anything else. And beyond the convent walls the world was being turned upside down by Luther, who taught that salvation was a free gift from God that couldn’t be earned. No amount of fasting, praying, or separation from the world would bring monks and nuns closer to heaven. According to Luther, their vows were not to be found in scripture, and the celibacy enforced on them was “cursed and impure.”

These ideas would have reached Katharina. Luther preached a sermon near Nimbschen in 1519 which was heard by the uncle of two of Katharina’s fellow nuns; support for Luther’s ideas ran high. Lutheran writings, printed locally in small pocket-editions, were probably smuggled into the convent. Such material was a kind of contraband in Saxon convents; communicating with Luther and his friends was dangerous.

Katharina was one of 12 nuns who took the risk and asked for help to escape. And so it was that Katharina and her sisters were able to flee from the convent on the night before Easter in April 1523. Their accomplice was Leonard Koppe, a merchant from Torgau. The story goes that Koppe and his nephew concealed them on wagons among the empty barrels from his delivery of herrings.


THE nuns were taken to Wittenberg, where their arrival caused quite a stir; they were apparently in need of clothes and shoes, and Luther and his friends had to beg for some support for their upkeep.

The escape of the Nimbschen nuns was a significant propaganda coup for the Reformers, especially since Katharina’s convent was in the territory of Luther’s enemy, Duke Georg of Saxony, a fierce opponent of the Reformation. Although many women’s monastic houses fought bitterly in defence of their lifestyle and their religious freedoms, public support for convents was declining.

The publicity undoubtedly made some families reconsider plans for their daughters’ futures, and helped undermine a culture of monasticism in Germany which had flourished for centuries. Luther capitalised on this, writing a public letter to Koppe called “Why Nuns May Leave Cloisters with God’s Blessing”, and praising him for releasing the nuns from their life of celibacy into the fruitfulness of marriage.

“It is impossible that the gift of chastity is as common as the convent. A woman is not created to be a virgin but to bear children,” he wrote. And later, in a public letter to three nuns, he argued that it was as natural for a woman to be with a man “as eating and drinking, sleeping and waking up. It is created by God.”


IN THE 1520s, men who left monasteries found a ready role in the reform movement as Lutheran preachers or pastors, but escaped nuns had no place in the Church. So it was lucky that Katharina, at 24, was still young enough to marry, although the first man she became fond of in Wittenberg left without proposing.

Katharina was determined to have a say in who she married. She became tired of Luther and his friends’ working as marriage brokers for her, and urged them not to try to marry her to the pastor Kaspar Glatz, declaring to Luther’s friend Nicholas von Amsdorf that she would accept only Amsdorf himself or Luther.

Luther had previously told friends he had no plans to marry — perhaps he considered his lifestyle too risky to share with a wife and family. But, in the spring of 1525, as radical reformers like Thomas Münzer threw caution to the wind by taking up arms against the princes, Luther showed everyone that he was for order and social stability by marrying Katharina.

Although he wrote to Amsdorf at the time that he did not feel “passionate love” for her, none the less Luther came to rely on Katharina, and his affection did grow into love. He later compared his feelings for her to his devotion to one of St Paul’s epistles: “The Epistle to the Galatians is my dear epistle. I have put my confidence in it. It is my Katy von Bora.”


ONE couldn’t really call Luther’s views on women’s God-given place in society anything other than patriarchal. In his lectures on Genesis, he wrote that “the husband rules the house and the state, wages war, tills the soil. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home.” But sitting at home is hardly an accurate description of Katharina’s work as she set about her ministry as a pastor’s wife, and Luther knew it.

He admired the way she managed their extensive household, and enjoyed the hospitality she extended to his many students, visitors, and colleagues. He writes teasingly “to my friendly, dear housewife, Catherine of Luther von Bora, preacher, brewer, gardener, and whatever else she can be”.

Katharina ran the family accounts — not without some difficulty, since Luther was generous to a fault and ran up debts; but they became prosperous, and, when they had bought a large garden outside the city wall, Luther addresses Katharina as “the lady at the new pig market”.


AMONG the reports of Katharina by her contemporaries, a remark I particularly relish comes from Luther’s opponent Cochlaeus, who says Katharina spent her time in Wittenberg before her marriage “in aimless conversation among the scholars of the Academy” there. As a Catholic propagandist, Cochlaeus clearly felt it was scandalous for a former nun to engage in theological debate with young men. But it shows that Katharina was confident and educated enough to enjoy the company of the theologians and students in Wittenberg.

This is borne out in one of Luther’s letters from 1530 showing Katharina taking a lively interest in debates on the eucharist. But my favourite example is from the famous accounts of the debates which took place around Luther’s table. In a conversation about polygamy, Luther proclaims provocatively: “The time will come when a man will take more than one wife.” Katharina exclaims, “Let the devil believe that!”

The account reports that Luther spoke thus in jest for a long time, and the couple debate what scripture says on the subject. Then finally Katharina retorts: “Before I put up with this, I’d rather go back to the convent and leave you and all our children.”


LUTHER enjoyed marriage, and he and Katharina had six children together. His sexual relationship with her liberated him from the burden of celibacy and the experience of being a father led him to draw comparisons between the love of a parent and the love of God. He saw the home as the centre of an everyday Christian ministry, where both parents had an important part to play.

The work of nurturing babies and washing nappies was a service to God, he said — he doesn’t tell us how much he did of this himself, but one visitor noted his and Katharina’s mutual distress when one of their babies wouldn’t stop crying. And they mourned together the loss of their beloved daughter Magdalene when she died, aged 13, in 1542.

For her part, Katharina worried continually about Luther, especially when he was travelling. In February 1546, knowing Luther was unwell, she wrote saying how concerned she was.

Luther replied in a characteristically teasing way: “We thank you in a most friendly way for your great concern, because of which you couldn’t sleep. For since that time you have worried about us, fire wanted to consume us in our accommodation. . . And yesterday — doubtless because of the power of your concern — a stone would have struck us on the head and crushed us like a mouse. . . Now I worry that if you do not stop worrying the earth will finally swallow us up. Pray, and let God worry.”

Within little more than a week of writing this letter, Luther was dead. Katharina wrote to her sister-in-law of her grief: “I am in truth so very saddened that I cannot express my great heartache to any person, and do not know how I am and feel. I can neither eat nor drink. Nor again sleep.”


THINGS were to take a turn for the worse: Katharina’s protector Johann Friedrich, Elector of Saxony, was defeated by Duke Moritz in the Schmalkaldic War in 1547, and she and her children had to flee Wittenberg. When she returned, she struggled to make ends meet, and had to open her home as a boarding house.

In September 1552, she had to take her children away from Wittenberg again because of an outbreak of plague. She fell from her carriage when something frightened the horses, landed in a ditch of water, and never recovered from her injuries, or the chill she caught that day. She died in Torgau in December 1552. You can visit the house where she died, and see her epitaph in the city church of St Mary, in Torgau.

Katharina’s quick wit and self-assurance made her a fitting companion for Luther. She was a capable woman, without public office, but her life with Luther was made public. All this changed contemporary ideas on married priests, the role of their wives in their ministry, the meaning of womanhood and motherhood.

As well as all that, Katharina allows us to see a side of Luther we might not otherwise have seen — his harshness tempered by love, a teasing and affectionate family man, whose home, filled with students, Reformers, and other visitors, through Katharina’s hospitality, served as the lively centre of the spiritual and intellectual movement which changed the course of Western Christianity.


Dr Charlotte Woodford is Fellow in German and Director of Studies in Modern Languages at Selwyn College, Cambridge.

This is an edited transcript of one of five 15-minute talks, “Luther’s Reformation Gang”, by various scholars, in the series The Essay, to be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 at 10.45 p.m. The subjects are: 1 May, Martin Luther; 2 May, Thomas Müntzer; 3 May, Katharina von Bora; 4 May, Johann Walther; 5 May, Philip Melanchthon.

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