Katharina Luther: Nun. Rebel. Wife.
I did not find Katharina von Bora, she found me. I was in my final year of a BSc degree course at Anglia University in Essex. For my Dissertation I wanted to write about conservation in the former East Germany (this was 1992, not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall.) I won a travel award from the estate agents Strutt and Parker, and travelled to Saxony and Brandenburg with my husband, Charles Clarke. For the title I chose: Agriculture, Land Management and Conservation in the New Lands of Germany following Unification.
Before we went I arranged several meetings with farmers, officials, planners and naturalists; we visited an open-cast lignite mine, two nature reserves, two carp farms and a huge dairy unit. People we met were reserved at first but opened up when they realised we were British and not West Germans.
While staying in Wittenberg we visited the Black Cloister, Luther’s former monastery, which became their home. We found there a small exhibition about Katharina von Bora, who married Martin Luther. I was surprised because although I had learnt in school about Luther’s notorious 95 theses and the subsequent Diet of Worms (ha ha!) nobody had ever mentioned his wife. But there she was: a fine figure of a woman with a strong, intelligent face, portrayed in three different versions by the famous painter Lucas Cranach the Elder. We saw, among other things, one of her dresses, a pair of shoes, some stockings, a little hour book, and a lavish ring, which had been a gift from the King of Denmark. I was intrigued and wanted to learn more about this woman. I then discovered that she is a well-known figure in the German consciousness, whereas in England her story is scarcely known.
So a little seed was sown in my mind – this would be something to re-visit and write about when I have more time, I thought. But life took over: work, family, responsibilities. Then, in 1999 disaster struck: my beloved husband Charles fell ill and died, much too young. I was thrown into grief and confusion.
Then I resolved to write that novel. I travelled back to Saxony on my own and visited Erfurt, Weimar, Eisenach and the Wartburg Castle; Bautzen and Wittenberg. I cycled beside the Elbe and talked to local people. I stayed two nights in Luther’s old Monastery. Along the way I picked up a lot of German books on the Reformation, Luther, his colleagues and Katharina. (It’s worth remembering that this was still before the internet.) Without my knowledge of German I could never have researched this story.
Having gleaned the facts, the bare bones, of her life, I set about putting the flesh on those bones. What was life like for women at that time, particularly fugitive nuns who must adapt to secular life at a time of social, political and religious upheaval? The printing press and cheap paper had ushered in a new Information Age. Common folk were learning to read and becoming empowered. Even more seditious, thanks to Luther they were reading the New Testament in their own mother tongue!
From a feminist standpoint, why is it that an historical point of change such as the Reformation in Europe is inevitably told with reference to the deeds and agency of Men? While the men sit around the table discussing religion, theology and politics, writing learned books and making history happen, the woman make sure food and beer is on the table; they bear children and care for them; they manage the livestock, keep the household in good order, and see that enough provender for humans and domestic animals is preserved and put by for the long dark winter months. In other words, women keep the show on the road, but men get all the credit!
So I wish to cast light on the life of a courageous woman living in “interesting times”, as we are doing now, in the 21st century. Katharina von Bora was brave enough to defy the Church, break free from her convent, withstand the hostility and suspicion of men at that time. Above all she had the temerity to tackle head on that misogynist bully, a giant of a man, an inspired theologian, a poet, who was to change the course of history in Europe. 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of that Reformation. This is the story, told by Katharina Luther, who was there.
Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife
On 31st October 1517, Martin Luther pinned ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door, Wittenberg, criticizing the Church of Rome; they were printed and published by Lucas Cranach and caused a storm. Nine young nuns, intoxicated by Luther's subversive writings, became restless and longed to leave their convent. On Good Friday 1523 a haulier smuggled them out hidden in empty herring barrels. Five of them settled in Wittenberg, the very eye of the storm, and one of them - Katharina von Bora - scandalised the world by marrying the revolutionary former monk. Following a near miscarriage, she is confined to her bed to await the birth of their first child; during this time, she sets down her own story. Against a backdrop of 16th Century Europe this vivid account of Katharina von Bora's early life brings to the spotlight this spirited and courageous woman.
About the author: Anne Boileau (also known as Polly Clarke) lives in Essex. She studied German in Munich and worked as interpreter and translator before turning to language-teaching in England. She also holds a degree in Conservation and Land Management from Anglia University and has written and given talks on various aspects of conservation. Now she shares, writes and enjoys poetry; her work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines; she has also won some awards, including First Prize with Grey Hen Press, 2016. She translates modern German poetry into English with Camden Mews Translators and was Chair of Suffolk Poetry Society from 2011 to 2014.