Today we have a guest post by Bethany Lang, a fellow member of the Young Writer’s Workshop! Since it’s Reformation Day, and I’ve already done a post on Martin Luther, Bethany did a post for me about Martin Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora. Hope you enjoy reading Katharina’s amazing story!
We have all heard of Martin Luther the courageous Reformer who stood against the Catholic Church. However we often forget the personal side of his story: he married and had a family of his own! Let’s take a look at the life and legacy of “my darling Katie.”
The Beginning of Katharina’s Story
Katharina von Bora was born January 29th, 1499 to Hans von Bora and his wife Anna near present day Leipzig Germany. She was the only girl with three older brothers (we aren’t sure she had a sister). Unfortunately, Anna died when Katharina was quite young. Her father remarried a widow who possibly had children from her previous marriage.
We don’t know very much about Katharina’s childhood. However we do know she was sent to a Benedictine cloister in Brehna Germany when she was only five years old. It was here in Brehna that she received a staple education. Before being sent to Marienthron, a Cistercian cloister near Nimbschen when she was nine. At age sixteen, she took the vows of nunnery.
Around that same time a young monk by the name of Luther started getting radical ideas about the church. When he nailed his ninety five theses to the door of his Wittenberg church, it caused a stir in many places—including the very convent where eighteen year old Katharina lived in.
While many know Luther’s story it bears repeating. The pope threatened to excommunicate him. The monk traveled to Worms where he was asked to recant his writings. Then the duke of Wittenberg had him “kidnapped” for Luther’s own safety.
It was while hidden in the Wartburg Castle that Luther began to write. These writings were smuggled into the hands of the people. They were even sneaked into Katharina’s convent. The nuns kept the writings hidden amongst themselves for fear of being scolded (or worse) if the writings were found.
Nuns on the Loose!
Luther returned to his work in Wittenberg in 1522, upon his release from the Wartburg Castle. Around this same time, Katharina began contacting him asking for his help so that she and her nun sisters could escape.
On the eve of Easter the year after, Katharina and eleven other nuns. Sneaked down to the entrance of the convent where they met a merchant who Luther had arranged to help them.
There is some disagreement on how the nuns were able to escape in a wagon. Some say they hid in herring barrels. Others aren’t sure. No matter the theory, the fact remains clear that Katharina and her fellow nuns were no longer in the convent.
There were high risks with the nuns living on their own. For many of them, their families would not receive them back. Along with that, there was the danger that the Catholic Church would expose them.
To keep the nuns safe, Luther found the nuns husbands. Well, he was able to find husbands for all of them except… Katharina.
Her first suitor’s parents didn’t approve of the match. The second suitor, a pastor, didn’t work either—possibly because he was too old. Katharina later told Nicholas von Amsdorf, one of Luther’s colleagues, that she would be willing to marry von Amsdorf or even Luther himself.
Luther pondered the life of a married man. He knew he was still a wanted man and feared he would leave his wife not only widowed but penniless. However, he did note that there were advantages to this. He could pave the way for others to follow.
The Marriage of the Nun and Monk
On June 13th, 1525, Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora were happily wed. It shocked many people, including some of Luther’s closest friends. Yet everyone knew it was a big step for the creed Luther had started in the reformation.
Martin and Katharina’s 21-year marriage blossomed along with their family, which included six children of their own. They also had various guests, family and Luther’s students from the Wittenberg University stay with them.
John the Steadfast, elector/duke of Saxony and Luther’s benefactor, bestowed upon the married couple the Black Cloister as a gift. Katharina would make this ugly brick monastery into a loving welcoming home.
As I said before, Martin and Katharina had six children. Their eldest was Hans, born in June, 1526, less than a year after their marriage. Their second child, Elizabeth, was born eighteen months later but she died when she was only ten months old. The family welcomed another May of 1529 whom they named Magdalena. This daughter unfortunately would not live past the age of thirteen.
It is said that Luther held her tight in the last moments and asked her “Dear Magdalene, my little daughter, you would be glad to stay here with me, your father. Are you also glad to go to your Father in heaven?” The little girl replied she wanted God’s will.
We can only imagine the heartache Luther and Katharina experienced, but we know that they were at peace knowing their little girl was in heaven. The fourth child was Martin Jr. born in 1531. His little brother Paul came in 1534. Lastly, Luther and Katharina were privileged to have a daughter once more. Margarethe was born in 1535 and grew to be an adult.
Lighting up Luther’s Life in a Black Dress
Many have said that Katharina brought a light into Luther’s life. During the past few months alone he had feared what might happen to him if captured. He once said “I give more credit to Katharine than to Christ, who has done so much more for me.”
There are many stories that show their love for each other. One time Luther had come home in a dark mood. No could get him to stop brooding. Katharina went to her room and changed into a black dress. Back then, black showed you were mourning for someone.
Imagine Luther’s surprise when he sees his wife wearing a black dress. “Are you going to a funeral?” Luther asked.
“No, but since you act like God is dead, I wanted to join you in your mourning.” Katharina replied.
Katharina did in fact turn the ugly building into a loving home. She bought a parcel of land outside the city where she made her own little farm. She raised a garden, fished, she even made her own beer, which is still credited by people in Germany today.
From what many have gathered, raising six children caring for a household and managing a farm takes quite a lot of work. Yet Katharina became the very image of the Proverbs 31 woman.
Loss and War
The sudden news of Luther’s death brought everyone reeling to stop for a moment. Luther got ill while away from Wittenberg, he died February 18th 1546 his body was then taken in a funeral procession to his home. Martin’s death probably took away many of the financial resources. Katharina must have been struggling to figure out how to provide for her family.
Luther had requested her to sell the house and move into a more modest dwelling, but Katharina didn’t want to. After all that had been their home for twenty one years. Luther had written in his will that Katharina was to be his soul heir of the Black Cloister. This went against the Saxon law of the time.
She could not stay long to mourn her loss as there was an outbreak of war. The Schmalkaldic War went from 1546-1547, causing Katharina to flee two times. Upon her second return, everything she had built up had been destroyed. The cloister lay in shambles her livestock had been stolen for army food on both sides.
Had she sold according to Luther’s wishes, she would have been able to support herself and the children. Thankfully the Duke of Saxon gave her enormous generosity for many years.
In 1552 she was forced to flee again due to the outbreak of the Black Plague. Upon her arrival in Torgau, a village not far from Wittenburg, she was thrown from the ox cart into a ditch of brackish water. She died three months later on December 20th, 1552 saying her last words “I stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.”
What I Learned From Katharina
Katharina has left a legacy that inspires many—including me, a teenager from America who is living nearly five hundred years after her death. She brought a loving light into Luther’s life, a life that would have played out very differently had they not married. Katharina brought to life the Proverbs 31 woman arising at dawn to begin her work and not stopping till dusk.
One of the most inspiring things about Katharina is her courage to flee the life of a nun. There are probably many who would be only too glad to accept that life and ignore the Reformation. By staying in the convent they had financial security and no threat of persecution. However, Katharina knew that was not what God wanted her to be or to do. She knew that He had better plans and far bigger than she could have ever imagined.
If you’d like to get to know Katharina for yourself, Ruth A. Tucker does a wonderful insight digging into not only Katharina’s life, but also her culture in her book, Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation. Allison Pittman has also done a remarkable job of bringing that life and culture to life in her historical fiction, Loving Luther. I would highly recommend that you check out these books for yourself if you would like to learn more about this remarkable woman.
What Do You Think?
What did you think of Bethany’s guest post and Katharina’s story? Do you have any fun facts about the Reformation to share? Who are your role models?