In this year, which marks the five-hundredth anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, many are focusing on the male reformers. But Germany is also focused on some of the females. Though quite influential, they are often forgotten. And we can learn much from their lives. I’m thinking of one in particular.
Come back in time with me to about 1499 in what we know today as eastern Germany—then called Saxony. And picture a girl born to a noble family. When she turns five, her mother dies and her father sends her to a cloister. There she receives a nun’s education.
When she is about 24, she and some of her friends—aware of the reform movement and dissatisfied with their lives in the monastery—seek to flee. Like so many others, they haven’t taken vows of celibacy due to calling, but due to a parent’s decision (sometimes for reasons of economic and/or convenience)—something which Martin Luther condemns. So she gets in touch with Luther to beg his assistance. Escaping is a crime under canon law. As in, it has burn-in-hell consequences! But that’s what they want to do.
At this time, Torgau is the political center. Torgau is a key site in Reformation history, even though you may have heard only of places like Wittenberg, Worms, or Augsburg. Torgau has a gorgeous town hall (still there today) and Hartenfels Castle, (also still standing in all its glory—including the bear pen with live bears), where the most powerful man in Saxony resides. This man has a fantastic university going in Wittenberg. And Luther is his star professor. So he wants to keep him alive. Thus, in this ruler Luther has a sponsor and political protector. All this to say, at the time when Luther receives the nun’s letter, he has great connections in Torgau. So on Holy Saturday in April of 1523, Luther conspires with a city councilman and merchant of Torgau —who regularly delivers herring to the monastery—to help with the escape. And this merchant, as the story goes, tucks these virgins in among, or maybe even inside, fish barrels, and they all escape to Wittenberg.
At first Luther asks their families to take them back. But they decline—probably in part because they fear the fires of hell. So it takes a while, but by the end of about two years, Luther has arranged homes, marriages, or employment for all except one of them: Katharina. Katie.
At first she lodges in Wittenberg with the family of the city clerk, but later she resides in the home of Lucas Cranach the Elder and his wife, Barbara. Still known today for his great art, Cranach the Elder was a German Renaissance painter and printmaker in woodcut and engraving—and did I mention he is court painter to the Electors of Saxony? Think: Hartenfels Palace. (When I was there earlier this month , they showed me some wall décor by Cranach the Elder in the castle discovered only two months ago, now being restored.)
Katharina is keeping great company, and she has the respect of those who know her. But she is also considered old for marriage, at age 26. But Cranach is impressed with her, and perhaps he puts in a good word. She has a number of suitors, but she says the only one she will marry is Martin Luther himself, who is 41.
Luther says he doesn’t want to marry because he thinks he will be killed for his beliefs—maybe soon. And being on the verge of martyrdom makes it tough to be a groom. But his father loves the idea, and so it happens. Martin, the former priest, and Katharina, the former nun, tie the knot. And in marrying her, the brilliant professor now has one of the only educated wives, not to mention one of the only theologically trained wives, in the world.
They take up residence near the university in Wittenberg in the former dorm of a now-emptied monastery (Augusteum), given as a wedding gift by his powerful political allies back in Torgau. And in Wittenberg, Katharina apparently excels at administration. She manages the former monastery’s holdings, breeds and sells cattle, and runs a boarding house for a steady stream of students who want her husband, the prof, to mentor them. She also brews good beer, as the water isn’t so safe to drink. And these are the days of massive disease, so Katharina also ministers to the sick. On any given night, she has about thirty people at her dinner table. Remember…no dishwashers, grocery stores, washing machines, microwaves, fast food…. And if you know anything about table talk, you know most alliances and good theological discussions happen around a table and after dinner with a fire going. Profs and students and reformers, Bible-readers, gather nightly for conversation.
Luther calls her the “boss of Zulsdorf,” after the name of the farm they own. He also calls her the “morning star of Wittenberg” for her habit of rising at 4 a.m. to take care of her various responsibilities (“she rises while it is still night…”). Perhaps most famously, he also sometimes calls her “Herr Käthe” (Mr. Katie/Lord Katie). (Today you can eat yummy Saxon delights at the “Herr Käthe” restaurant in Torgau.) Luther is known for saying, “Let the wife make the husband glad to come home, and let him make her sorry to see him leave.” By all accounts, Katie is just such a partner.
Katie and Martin are the ultimate power couple for about two decades. In addition to raising four orphans and her nephew, Katie conceives seven children—one of whom she miscarries. Of those who make it to birth, one dies at eight months and another at age thirteen. So the Luthers have their share of heartbreak. Martin writes to a dear friend, “I believe the report has reached you that my dearest daughter Magdalena has been reborn into Christ’s eternal kingdom. I and my wife should joyfully give thanks … yet the force of our natural love is so great that we are unable to do this without crying and grieving in our hearts, or even without experiencing death ourselves. The features, the words and the movements of the living and dying daughter remain deeply engraved in our hearts.”
Before Luther dies at age 63, he tries to arrange his will so Katie will be his inheritor. Unheard of! He has a variety of health issues, and when he is off in Mansfeld helping some bickering princes find reconciliation, he overtaxes himself. He has a heart event there and dies. But because it is winter, at least his corpse can be returned to Wittenberg “without seeing too much corruption,” and there the famous prof is buried.
Without her husband’s salary and income from students studying with him, Katie struggles, even though she has land. Fortunately, her youngest child is eighteen years old, so Katie does not have as many mouths to feed as in previous years. But war and disease require her to flee Wittenberg several times.
When Katie is 52, Wittenberg has an outbreak of the plague—imagine half the people around you dying—and her harvest has failed. So she flees to Torgau.
But near the city gates, something goes wrong and she is thrown from her carriage. She sustains a head injury, but she survives for about three months. She is reported to have said on her deathbed, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.” And she dies still in Torgau. Visitors today can tour the house there where she took her last breath. And they can visit the Katherine von Bora grave stone in Torgau’s St. Mary’s Church.