Michelle DeRusha is the author of 50 Women Every Christian Should Know. She publishes a monthly column on religion and spirituality for the Lincoln Journal Star and writes about faith in the everyday on her blog, www.michellederusha.com. She lives with her husband and their two boys in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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About the Author
Tanya Eby has been a voice-over artist for over a decade. She is an Audie-nominated and AudioFile Earphones Award-winning narrator. Besides narrating, Tanya spends her time teaching creative writing classes at the collegiate level, blogging, and working on her own novels.
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Katharina and Martin Luther
The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk
By Michelle DeRusha
Baker Publishing GroupCopyright © 2017 Michelle DeRusha
All rights reserved.
To the Cloister School
The young girl gazed at the countryside as the wagon jolted over the rough roads. Since she was more than one hundred miles from the home where she was born and raised, nothing in the unfurling landscape looked familiar to her — not the fields and farms she passed, not the bustling town marketplaces, not the faces she saw along the way. Neither the girl nor her father who sat beside her said much during the two-day journey. Each was distracted by a swirl of thoughts — a mix of fear, trepidation, and doubt. Each dreaded the moment the wagon would arrive at its destination, knowing that when they parted ways, they might not ever see each other again.
Most historians concur that Katharina von Bora was born on January 29, 1499. According to one of Katharina's earliest biographers, she wore a commemorative medal around her neck — a gift from Luther — inscribed in Latin: "Dr. Martin Luther gave this symbol to his Katharina who was born on the 29th of January in the year 1499" One side of the medal pictured the bronze serpent Moses carried on a pole in the wilderness, along with the Latin inscription "The lifted-up serpent is a type of crucified Christ" The reverse side depicted Christ on the cross, along with the words "Christ died for our sins." If we accept this account as reliable (the medal has since been lost), which most scholars do, then we can be fairly confident that January 29, 1499, is indeed the date of Katharina's birth.
From here, though, details get sketchy. The truth is, despite the fact that she married one of the most famous men in history, we know very little about Katharina von Bora's early years, and we hear even less about her life in her own words. While volumes of Luther's correspondence, particularly his letters to politicians, theologians, and friends, have been preserved, a scant eight letters written by Katharina are extant today, most of them dealing with legal and economic issues after Luther's death. Any diary or journals she may have kept, as well as her letters — and we know she wrote many to Luther, because we have his replies to her — were lost or destroyed, including some of the family papers, which were destroyed in 1945 at the end of World War II.
This is not surprising. Women who lived during the Middle Ages and early Renaissance (also known as the early modern period) were considered second-class citizens. In fact, most unmarried women during that time were not granted citizen status at all. German cities required that individuals fulfill three criteria in order to be granted citizenship: military obligation and an oath of allegiance formalizing it; an honorable means of support; and property ownership — or as historian Merry Wiesner puts it, "war, work, and wealth." As one might imagine, for a single, working woman to meet even one ofthese requirements would have been challenging; to meet all three was nearly impossible. There was, however, a loophole: for women, marriage was the only surefire way around the citizenship requirements. "Though women were never categorically excluded from citizenship in German towns and villages," Wiesner notes, "notions of women's proper place within the family and community increasingly made the only type of female citizenship that was acceptable a derivative one." In other words, the fact that she had a husband made a woman eligible for citizenship.
In addition, most women did not have the opportunity to attend school and were thus illiterate. The few, like Katharina, who were educated in convents and could read and write were not valued in the same way men were valued in society. Most women (with rare exceptions, as we will see in a subsequent chapter) simply did not have a voice during this time. Their thoughts and opinions were not considered. Aside from their responsibilities as wives and mothers, their role in society was regarded as unimportant. Thus, while it's disappointing that no one deemed Katharina's correspondence worth preserving, it's not unusual for the time.
That said, primary sources like city ledgers and government and historical documents have allowed scholars to piece together what they believe are the basic facts of Katharina's early years, although even the most rudimentary details, like her birthplace and her mother's name, are still debated. Most scholars agree that Katharina descended from Saxon nobility, although her exact ancestry remains controversial, due largely to the fact that Bora (the "von" signifies nobility) was a popular name during the time. Research is further complicated by a coincidence: two noblemen by the name of Hans von Bora — Katharina's father's name — lived in close proximity in Saxony (a small area located about halfway between what are now Berlin and Prague) around the same time. Historians question which Hans von Bora was Katharina's father.
Biographer Ernst Kroker, author of The Mother of the Reformation: The Amazing Life and Story of Katharine Luther, cites Hans and Katharine (maiden name unknown) von Bora of Lippendorf as Katharina's parents, basing his theory on a claim that a Hans von Bora assigned his wife a manor at Saale, in Lippendorf, as her retirement property (this typically happened on the day a couple married, which was the husband's way of ensuring his wife's livelihood after his death). Katharina von Bora biographers Rudolf Markwald and Marilynn Morris Markwald, on the other hand, claim Katharina's parents as Hans von Bora and Anna von Haugwitz of Hirschfeld, citing a 1998 official statement by the Saxon State Archive at Leipzig, German Central Office for Genealogy. However, they also concede that after the village of Lippendorf was bombed in a World War II air raid, a plaque inscribed "Katharina von Bora was born here on January 29, 1499" was discovered in the rubble.
We could dedicate a significant number of pages to the disparate theories about Katharina's lineage, but this fact would still remain: Although her marriage to Martin Luther and her role in helping to define clerical marriage and Protestant family life makes Katharina an important contributor to the Reformation, scholars can't be absolutely sure of even the most basic facts about her early life. Everything that transpired between her birth and her arrival at the convent school in Brehna is unknown. The best we can do is to paint her early years in broad brushstrokes, employing educated guesswork and our imaginations.
To a Distant Land
While confusion about Katharina's ancestry persists, scholars agree that her mother died in 1505, and that her father remarried a woman by the name of Margarete, a widow, within the year. We also know that Katharina's father, Hans, was in debt. Although the von Boras were members of the landed gentry, meaning they owned land and were considered nobility, they were what we might call "house poor" today. Hans was a "gentleman farmer" — a knight, indicated by the title "von" — but his relatively small parcel of land, combined with an agricultural crisis in the early 1500s, did not produce enough to pay the bills. In addition to Katharina, Hans had three sons and perhaps another daughter with his first wife, and his second wife brought several children of her own, and no dowry, to the marriage in 1505. Katharina's father simply couldn't support his expanded family on his income. Something had to give, and that something was Katharina.
Shortly after her mother died in 1505, Katharina von Bora's father packed up his six-year-old daughter and her paltry belongings and traveled from their rural home in Saxon Germany to a Benedictine convent in Brehna. There she bid goodbye to her father and the only life she had ever known. When she entered the cloister school, Katharina was still reeling from her mother's death. She would remain behind convent walls for the next eighteen years of her life.
It's tempting to criticize Hans von Bora for a decision that seems heartless and more than a little selfish. But there are additional factors to consider: it was not unusual for families in the Middle Ages and early modern period, especially the nobility, to send their young daughters off to cloister schools and even to the convent for life. For example, twelfth-century German mystic Hildegard of Bingen, the tenth-born child in her family, was sent by her parents to the convent at age eight as a tithe (as the tenth child, she represented 10 percent of their assets) to the church and to God. In many cases convent schools were the only opportunity for girls to receive any education at all. Most medieval villages had only one school, which typically enrolled only boys, so many parents did what they had to do to ensure their daughters' education. Furthermore, schools connected with Benedictine cloisters were noted for their stellar academic reputation. As Kroker notes, "Katie certainly received a better education with the Benedictine nuns in Brehna than she could have received otherwise as a young girl of the nobility anywhere else in the country at that time."
Hans von Bora may not have initially intended his daughter for the religious life when he enrolled her in the cloister school in Brehna; the decision may have been a temporary measure, the best solution to a difficult situation. Enrolling Katharina in a convent school at the age of six resulted in one less mouth to feed for Hans von Bora, along with the assurance that his daughter would be well cared for.
Regardless of Hans von Bora's intentions, the decision undoubtedly had a tremendous impact on young Katharina. Imagine, for a moment, that long, uncomfortable, one-hundred-mile journey via horse-drawn wagon from her rural childhood home to the cloister school. The trip would have taken the better part of two days, and just a few miles into it, the familiar, comforting surroundings would have given way to new and unfamiliar terrain. We can't know for sure the thoughts that tumbled through her young mind, but we can try to put ourselves in Katharina's shoes, imagining what it must have been like to bounce along those rough roads. The route took them across fertile fields and meadows and into the bustling city of Leipzig, where Katharina would have experienced an overwhelming array of new sounds, sights, and smells. Perhaps these experiences distracted her from the hard truth of what she was leaving behind and the fear of all that lay ahead. Or perhaps young Katharina was simply too terrified and grief-stricken to notice much at all. Perhaps her father tried to soothe her fears; or maybe he sat silently at her side, wrestling with remorse and regret. There's a chance Katharina was excited about the new experiences that awaited her, but it's far more likely the six-year-old girl, still grieving the sudden death of her mother and now leaving behind everyone and everything she'd ever known, sat small and quiet on the wagon seat, trembling with dread, sorrow, and fear.
Known for its high-caliber curriculum, the Benedictine cloister school in Brehna primarily attracted the daughters of nobility who were there to be groomed as nobles' wives. The remainder of the Brehna students were orphans. Such was the case of Klara Preusser, daughter of the Leipzig magistrate Dr. Johann Preusser. Klara entered the Benedictine cloister school when her parents died, around the same time Katharina arrived, and perhaps because of their shared history, the two became friends. Many years later, when Katharina was married to Luther and Klara was living in Halle as the wife of Magdeburg chancellor Lorenz Zoch, Klara wrote to Katharina, reminiscing about their years together in the cloister school. She promised to visit Wittenberg so the two could renew their friendship. Unfortunately, this letter is the only factual information we have about Katharina's four years at the cloister school, and we don't know whether the two friends ever reunited in Wittenberg.
Katharina was likely schooled in reading, writing (in Latin and German), and arithmetic, as well as in morals, manners, and religion, It's not known how often she saw her family or if she was allowed to visit home during her four years at the cloister school, Given the distance between her father's estate and the school and the arduous travel required by horse-drawn wagon, it's unlikely Katharina saw her father or siblings very often, if at all, We do know her uncle, Baron von Rachwitz, lived near the cloister school — Katharina and her father stopped at the baron's estate on their initial trip to Brehna — so she may have found some comfort in the proximity of extended family, But it's also very possible that the day Katharina kissed her father goodbye at the entrance of the cloister school was the last time she ever saw him.
A Sudden Change
Four years later, on a summer morning in 1509, an emissary stepped down from a horse-drawn carriage, knocked on the door of the cloister school, and presented a letter to the prioress. Unbeknownst to her, Katharina's father had made arrangements with the abbess of a Cistercian convent in Nimbschen, forty-two miles south of Brehna, for his ten-year-old daughter to become a nun. Hans von Bora had put aside a small amount of money to support Katharina's enclosure in the convent for the rest of her life. The letter delivered by the emissary was an announcement of this plan, as well as details and instructions for Katharina's transfer from the cloister school to the Cistercian convent Gottes undMarienthron (Throne of God and St. Mary) in Nimbschen, effective immediately.
As far as we know, Katharina was not consulted about this decision. Not only had she no say in determining the course of her life, she hadn't even been privy to the particulars — for example, which convent and which order she would enter as a novitiate. That said, the news of her transfer to Marienthron may not have come as a huge surprise. After all, it was common for families to place their young daughters in the convent — at least temporarily — as the nunnery was one of only two viable options (the other being marriage) for noblewomen like Katharina.
"The nunneries of the early Middle Ages not only offered women the chance to pursue the ascetical life; they performed an important social role in providing a haven for the daughters and widows of the aristocracy for whom no suitable marriage [could] be found," explains medieval historian C. H. Lawrence. "The women who entered them, and the families that placed them there, expected them to enjoy the society of their own kind. They were thus aristocratic and socially exclusive communities." Katharina's contemporary, the Spanish Carmelite nun Teresa of Avila, for example, was first placed in the convent by her father in order to protect her virginity and prepare her to lead a devout domestic life. But for Teresa of Avila, the convent life was hardly the stringent, austere existence one might assume. For the first twenty-six years of her life as a nun, Teresa lived in a two-floor suite in the convent, complete with fine furniture and its own kitchen. She spent much of her time entertaining friends and relatives, was encouraged to leave the convent when she needed to, and was even referred to as "Dona Teresa," a nod to her social standing, In other words, life in a sixteenth-century convent didn't necessarily entail dire poverty and hardship but was often more of an exclusive, women-only aristocratic society in and of itself.
For all we know, Katharina may have desired to become a nun on her own accord (although the fact that she would later escape from the cloister suggests otherwise), On the other hand, she may have assumed that once she reached the proper marrying age — which, in the early modern period, was anywhere from the late teens to the early twenties for women — she would be matched with a suitable husband, Given the fact that she was only ten years old when the decision was made, it's likely Katharina hadn't given the matter much thought at all.
While we can't know Katharina's thoughts and expectations regarding this life-altering decision, consider this question: If Hans had enrolled his daughter at the cloister school in Brehna so that she would receive a proper education and grooming for marriage, as was posited earlier, why this sudden, dramatic change in course? Why transfer Katharina to a convent for life?
According to most scholars, there is one probable answer to this question: money, While some young women did feel an authentic religious conviction and a call toward the contemplative life, many had their future determined for them by their parents or guardians simply because it was cheaper for a daughter to become a nun than to be betrothed to a man in a particular social stratum, The fact was, the entrance fee to a convent was markedly lower than the dowry needed to attract a husband of Katharina's social order, Katharina would have been expected to marry a nobleman, and thus come to marriage with a substantial dowry, Hans von Bora, whose financial troubles had only worsened in the four years Katharina was enrolled in the Brehna cloister school, may not have had any choice but to send his daughter to the convent.
Excerpted from Katharina and Martin Luther by Michelle DeRusha. Copyright © 2017 Michelle DeRusha. Excerpted by permission of Baker Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations, 9,
Map: The Luthers' Locations, 22,
Introduction: The Story of an Unlikely Life, 25,
1. To the Cloister School, 31,
2. A Nun without a Choice, 46,
3. A Family Rift, 56,
4. The Good Monk, 68,
5. The Road to Damascus and a Nail in the Door, 83,
6. Hear This, O Pope!, 96,
7. The Risks of Freedom, 106,
8. Escape, 124,
9. Marriage Makeover, 136,
10. Tying the Knot, 149,
11. Backlash, 162,
12. Hausfrau Extraordinaire, 175,
13. Two Pigtails on the Pillow, 192,
14. A Family Affair, 213,
15. The Noblest, Most Precious Work, 224,
16. In the Valley of the Shadow of Death, 235,
17. 'Til Death Did Them Part, 246,
18. A Chancy Thing, 269,
Selected Bibliography, 311,