5 Things You Need to Know About Katie Luther
They say behind every great man is a great woman.
The same holds true for Martin Luther. And Ruth Tucker wants to introduce her to you in her new book, Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation. In it, she shows how, save for Martin Luther himself, Katharina von Bora was one of the most indispensable figures of the German Reformation:
Take her and their twenty-year marriage out of the picture, and his leadership would have suffered severely. Had it not been for the stability she brought to his life, [Martin] may have gone off the rails emotionally and mentally by the mid-1520s…Only Katharina von Bora—no other woman—could have accomplished what she did with this most unstable man. (11–12)
So who was this great woman behind the great Martin Luther? Here are five things you need to know about this First Lady of the Reformation.
Katharina Was a Nun
One year before Martin Luther himself entered the monastic life, “five-year-old Katie—with no friends, no farewell dinner—had also entered a cloister…Like many other young daughters of lesser nobility in this era, Katharina was carted off to a convent” (33, 16). Later, when Katie turned ten, she would be relocated to a Cistercian cloister and “take the veil” in marriage to Christ.
Tucker imagines Luther’s revolution related to clerical celibacy and marriage would have piqued Katie’s interest. “Would Katie stand her ground and resist any attempt to shut down the only way of life she had ever known? Or would she, like other anonymous German nuns, cut all ties to convent life?” (43).
As Tucker reveals in Katie Luther, she chose the later.
Katharina Fled Her Convent
“No modern nun would be caught dead fleeing a convent in the middle of the night, hidden among herring barrels and transported in a wagon pulled by a team of horses over a bumpy dirt road” (46). And yet Katharina and eleven of her fellow nuns who had pledged themselves as virgins, and Jesus their spouse, escaped the Marienthron convent in 1523. The culture shock would have been great.
Katharina Was a Lean-In Woman
Like most modern women, and unlike many Reformation ones, Katharina’s main vocation wasn’t ministry related.
“She was a farmer and a brewer with a boarding house the size of Holiday Inn. All that with a large family and nursing responsibilities” (10). She was far more than a simple housewife. In reality, “she was what we would consider today a ‘manager of a mid-size business with low intensity production’” (121).
It’s not surprising, then, that Tucker suggests she could fit right into the twenty-first century and claim Lean In as her own motto.
Katharina’s Marriage to Martin Was Equal
Tucker wonders what it would have been like for Katharina had Martin put his doctrine of male headship into practice. The reality of their marriage was quite different:
In actual practice, Luther’s view of marriage was one of mutuality. He never appears to have even attempted to tame his wife, though he certainly recognized personality and psychological differences…A typical sixteenth-century married couple? Hardly. (87, 89)
“Truly theirs is the premier marriage of the Reformation” (88–89). She suggests “Martin can be viewed as a model husband to Katie” because “he served Katie,” often “bowing to her desires” (93).
Katharina Was a Worrywart
“Katie worried about money and crops and weather and plagues and house renovations and children. But more than anything else, she worried about Martin” (146). Her worries were not frivolous, and were an ever-present shadow:
She worried about making ends meet, considering her husband’s less-than-stable income and his fiscal carelessness. She worried about his safety; he was a marked man before she married him. She worried about his health…She must have worried about her own health, considering her near-death experience at the time of her last pregnancy and miscarriage. She worried about children, and with good reason, ever mindful of the terrible loss of her two daughters, baby Elizabeth and teenager Magdalena. And she worried about the kids’ lifestyles and habits. And after her husband’s death, her worries multiplied. (148)
Tucker is careful to neither dismiss Katie’s worries nor write them off as sin; Katie was often worried for good reasons.
“Along with her husband, Katharina von Bora was satirized, vilified, idolized, revised, and fictionalized by contemporaries and later commentators. In all portrayals, her unique, strong personality, like Luther’s shines through” (13).