A Woman for All Seasons – An Excerpt from Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation
“How do we make a five-hundred-year-old Katharina relevant to North American culture? Is there anything she has to say to Western women and men today? Why should we take the time to make her acquaintance?” (9)
In today’s excerpt from Kathie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation, Ruth Tucker invites readers to discover this no-nonsense, confident and determined woman, and to consider why her life is relevant for men and women today.
In many ways, Katharina’s voice echoes among modern women, wives, and mothers who have carved out careers of their own. And unlike so many of the Reformation women we read about, her primary vocation was not related to ministry. She was a farmer and a brewer with a boarding house the size of a Holiday Inn. All that with a large family and nursing responsibilities. In many ways, Katie could walk right into the twenty-first century—and claim lean in as her motto.
Here we focus our sights on her, while at the same time bringing to the fore her predecessors and contemporaries, both Reformed and Catholic. What was it like for a young woman to grow up in a convent? Were they the fortunate girls of the day, or were they pitiful cast-offs, incarcerated in cells? What were their hopes and fears? Does the story of Williswind shed light on convent life? She was a little-known eighth-century nun who suffered dreadful aftereffects of what was most likely rape at the hands of violent backwoods thugs. Had Katharina heard such stories? Did she fear the all-too-real monsters breaking down the monastery walls?
Many of Katharina’s predecessors in monasticism are familiar names like Clare of Assisi and Hildegard of Bingen. Others are new to us, but what can we learn about the nun Katharina from their experiences and from the nuns of her own day—some who escaped, others who chose to remain in convents? And what about Reformed women of the era? Do the lives of Katherine Zell, Argula von Grumbach, Renee of Fererra, and others shed light on Katharina? They do. But Katharina stands alone, even as she speaks for all of us in every age and culture.
Indeed, she is a woman for all seasons. More than that, her life embodies all that is human—struggles and sorrows and joys that belong to every culture and all generations: her second-guessing difficult decisions, a hectic schedule, sleepless nights, family illness and mental health issues, deaths of children. These are not gender-related troubles. Nor is her lost love and loneliness as a single or her marital clashes related to money or personality differences. These are human problems. That is not to deny, however, that many troubling matters for her were related to gender and culture. She carried women’s burdens that no man can fully comprehend—burdens we shall encounter as we glimpse her life from childhood to old age.
But most striking is her singularity—her thoroughly unconventional life. She is not easily lost in the crowd of history, even considering the paucity of original sources. She cannot be straitjacketed into the role of a proper Reformation wife—a wife acceptable neither for the sixteenth century nor for today. That she was an assertive and decisive manager of household and business affairs has been well documented, and today we praise her for that. Less, however, has been sorted out regarding her religious role—or lack thereof—as we shall see.
It is critical that we do not mold Katie into a modern-day evangelical. Martin more easily serves such a purpose in that he was adept at God-talk, emphasized salvation by faith alone, and testified to being born again. Not so Katie. Not, if we were to use the definition of a true Christian as opposed to a “nominal” Christian, as set forth by the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization (LCWE). She would no doubt be relegated to the latter category: one who gives “intellectual assent to basic Christian doctrines and claim[s] to be a Christian”—but is “a person who has not responded in repentance and faith to Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and Lord.” The late John Stott called nominal Christianity “the great scandal of Christendom today.”
Most Christians of the Reformation era, however, did not testify to having “a transforming personal relationship with Christ,” and Katie would have been among them. Religion was determined more by where a family lived than by personal profession of faith, an oddity introduced by Anabaptists. By virtue of marrying Martin Luther, Katie joined the Protestant ranks. That there is no evidence she actually made this new faith her own has gone essentially unnoticed by historians.
She was nevertheless the most indispensable figure of the German Reformation, save for Martin Luther himself. 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, he may have gone off the rails emotionally and mentally by the mid-1520s. His emphasis on and modeling of marriage and family as an essential aspect of his reform would have been lost. Only Katharina von Bora—no other woman—could have accomplished what she did with this most unstable man. Without her, the Black Cloister would have gone to ruin—the result of which would have been no “table talk,” and that is only the barest beginning of what would have been lost if she were taken out of the equation.
Although Martin’s colleagues surely must have been at least unconsciously aware that she was the key to his emotional, mental, and financial stability, they were far more annoyed than appreciative of her commanding presence in his life. But the question remains, where would he have been without her? What if he had never married? What if he had married a sickly and submissive woman like Idelette Calvin? It is difficult to imagine him as the great Reformer he became.
And what about Katie? What if she had remained in the convent and had become a leading German abbess? What if she had left the convent but had remained single? What if women then were widely acknowledged as equals as they are today in Germany and in many other parts of the world? What if she had married a quantum chemistry professor who had not minded staying out of the spotlight while she pursued a political career? Might she have become a sixteenth-century version of Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany?
Such counterfactuals—the what-ifs of history—can shed light on an individual or heritage that can never be fully recovered. Still, when we hold out our flickering lanterns in the vast caverns of sixteenth-century Germany, we strain to accurately identify what meets our gaze.
So how does an author even begin to write a biography of Katharina von Bora? For me, it is a tenuous task of feeling my way into an already partially explored cave, looking for things others may not have seen. And I begin by recognizing the filter through which I see her. Katharina von Bora through the filter of its own values.
Luther’s “Lord Katie” has been variously depicted as the First Lady of the Protestant parsonage, the Morning Star of Wittenberg, the businesswoman of the Reformation, a role model for working wives, the ideal wife and mother, a pig (in polemical satire), and a woman who exemplifies the inconsistencies of the transition between medieval and modern worldviews of women. 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. 1
- Jeanette C. Smith, “Katharina von Bora through Five Centuries: A Historiography,”Sixteenth Century Journal 30.3 (1999): 745.