By Bishop Michael Rinehart
In November, I decided to read a book on Katie Luther, a person I had never learned much about. After looking around a bit, I settled on Ruth Tucker’s book. I took this book along with me on our synod’s trip for the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. While traveling with our group around Leipzig, Wittenberg, Eisenach, Eisleben, Wartburg, Erfurt and such places, I found myself fascinated with the life of this unique person.
A member of our group had just finished a novel about Katie Luther by Jody Hedlund, entitled, Luther and Katharina. The novel was steamy in places she said. The story suggested some remarkable occurrences. Were they historical? she wondered. In this blessed age of instant books, I downloaded the book as our bus cruised down the Thuringian autobahn. I read these two books side-by-side, enjoying both the historical facts of the former and the smooth fictional imagination of the latter.
On June 13, Luther unexpectedly and without informing in advance any of his friends of what he was doing, married Bora . . . These things have occurred, I think, somewhat in this way: The man is certainly pliable; and the nuns have used their arts against him most successfully; thus probably society with the nuns have softened or even inflamed this noble and high-spirited man. In this way he seems to have fallen into this untimely change of life. The rumor, however, that he had previously dishonored her is manifestly a lie . . . I have hopes that this state of life may sober him down, so that he will discard the low buffoonery which we have often censured.
Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation: The Unconventional Life of Katharina von Bora by Ruth A. Tucker gives us a historical window into the life of Katharina von Bora, and an understanding of the incredible impact their marriage had on the Reformation, and Luther himself. Tucker takes us through what we know about Katharina’s childhood, her entrance into the Benedictine cloister at the age of five, her escape from the convent on Easter morning twenty years later, her uncertain future, her life with the reformer, and her struggle after his death.
Katie’s mother died when she was little. Her father remarried a woman with children of her own, and so Katie was sent to boarding school, and then to a cloister. This was not an uncommon fate for girls in this situation. It was not uncommon to sell girls into monasticism. It fed the system, fed the child, and removed her from the family inheritance.
It is hard to imagine a lifetime of seclusion in a cloister. What was that life like in the early 1500’s? It would be easy to malign life in a cloister, but it was not a bad life. The average life span for an abbess was 50, while the life expectancy of women outside the cloister was 30-something. Arranged marriages to elderly men who had absolute control over women and family life, a high probability of death during childbirth, the potential of yellow fever or another malady, made life difficult for late-Medieval women.
But life could be difficult in the convent as well. Stories of 16th century nuns rebelling are interesting. Nuns become pregnant, sometimes against their will. Some convents are considered, according to accounts of the day, to be virtual brothels. Disobedient or pregnant nuns can be punished by beatings, being placed in stocks, solitary confinement, or a host of other outcomes. Escape attempts are punished severely. Assisting an escaping nun, considered kidnapping, is punishable by death.
Such was the fate Leonard Koppe faced when he aided the twelve nuns of the Marienthron convent of Nimbschen. Koppe was a city councilman in Torgau, who was encouraged by Luther himself. Nuns should be free to leave a convent if they so desire, Luther felt. Life would not be easy. If these nuns were not married off, what would become of them?
Twelve nuns escaped that night, in herring barrels: Magdalene von Staupitz, Else, Lanita, Ave, Margarete, Fronika, Katharina, and a few others. They would not be the last. In two years, half the nuns at the convent escaped. That other convents experienced the same exodus speaks for itself.
According to James Anderson, “both Erasmus and [Jesuit] Maimbourg . . . eulogize her as possessed of . . . a dignity, without affectation, about her air and manner, which at the very first sight commanded respect.” A letter from that era says Luther “took a wife, from the noted Bora family, a girl of elegant appearance, 26 years old, but poor.”
Tucker compares Luther’s writing about women prior to his marriage, then his writing afterwards. As a young monk, Luther speaks of women like Eve, whose weakness and disobedience led to the fall. After a few years of marriage his appraisal has shifted dramatically. Still laced with sexist tropes, Luther nevertheless speaks of Katie with tremendous respect. She is, afterall, the primary breadwinner, brewing beer, growing and selling crops, and running an inn the size of a modern-day motel. He calls her “Lord.” When decisions need to be made, he often defers to her, even asking him to give instructions to his printer when he is out of town.
This book offers many insights for students of the Reformation. Katie is the only wife of a reformer who is painted in portraits and spoken of so prominently. It is hard to imagine what would have become of Luther had she not been running affairs at the Wittenberg cloister where Luther lived, first as a monk, and then the rest of his life as a family man.
Jodi Hedlund brings these characters to life in her novella about Katie and her relationship with the reformer. Leonard Koppe, Katie’s Aunt Magdalene, Abbot Balthazar, Pastor Bugenhagen, Dr. Philip Melanchthon, Lucas Cranach and many others laugh, eat, discuss and struggle.
Nearly a decade after the posting of the 95 Theses, a pragmatic Luther claims to be marrying out of utility, not love. Certain that he will be martyred for his writings and resistance, he knows he will provide no long term support for anyone. How then, does the reluctant commoner fall so deeply in love with this woman of noble birth?
Melanchthon, working tirelessly to reconcile the divided parties, knows that Luther marrying will upset the apple cart. It will derail the current negotiations, and confirm the suspicions of the critics who are smearing Luther, saying this whole Reformation business is simply to satisfy Luther’s lust. No wonder Melanchthon is not invited, and things happen so quickly.
Hedlund’s story tracks the historical events quite closely, the ups and downs, the death of children, the realities of Medieval life. Of course, any work at historical fiction must extrapolate. Conversations have to be constructed by speculation. We can only imagine what the actual conversations between Martin and Katie were like. Fortunately, we do have some of their letters, which reveal much. There are also some characters and events in the book that are complete fabrications. An authors note at the end is helpful in clarifying those few imaginative scenes. The book, therefore, is of course not a scholarly work, but it might be a delightful read for those who like fiction, but want to know a little bit more about this intriguing unique character in world history.