Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Katharina von Bora, the Reformer's Wife

Katharina von Bora Luther (10 November)

The religious reformer Martin Luther was born on 10 November 1483--and so, feeling a bit pissy, I have decided to use his date of birth to write about the woman he married, Katharina von Bora.

Katharina "the Lutheran," 1526,
painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder
Although her birthday is frequently given as 29 January 1499, the truth is that there is no contemporary evidence to indicate that is when she was actually born. There is also doubt about her family, her place of birth, and even her name. There is relatively little information about her at all, in fact, aside from a few bits of information, most of which is conveyed through the medium of Luther's own writing. 

She is generally thought to have been in a Benedictine convent by the time she was five (around 1504), though the only support for this is a letter written much later, in 1531, by one of Luther's correspondents. She is documented to have been in a Cistercian convent, Marienthron, by 1509. 

In 1523, inspired by ideas of religious reformation and dissatisfied with convent life, the young woman fled along with several of her religious sisters. Luther found husbands for all the other escaped nuns; when none could be found for Katharina, he married her himself, on 13 June 1525.

Although Luther had reforming zeal when it came to theology, he didn't exactly have reformed ideas about women. 

I thought today I would share a few of Luther's views on women:
  • The woman certainly differs from the man, for she is weaker in body and intellect. Nevertheless Eve was an excellent creature and equal to Adam in so far as the divine image--that is, righteousness, wisdom, and eternal salvation--is concerned. Still, she was only a woman. As the sun is much more glorious than the moon (though also the moon is glorious), so the woman was inferior to the man both in honour and dignity, though she, too, was a very excellent work of God. 
  • This punishment, too [woman's inferiority], springs from original sin; and the woman bears it just as unwillingly as she bears those pains and inconveniences that have been placed upon her flesh. The rule remains with the husband, and the wife is compelled to obey him by God’s command. He rules the home and the state, wages wars, defends his possessions, tills, the soil, builds, plants, etc. The woman, on the other hand, is like a nail driven into the wall. She sits at home . . . Just as the snail carries its household with it, so the wife should stay at home and look after the affairs of the household, as one who has been deprived of the ability of administering those affairs that are outside and concern the state. She does not go beyond her most personal duties. . . .
  • Women . . . naturally seek to gain what they have lost through sin. If they are unable to do more, they at least indicate their impatience through grumbling. However, they cannot perform the functions of men: teach, rule, etc. In procreation and in feeding and in nourishing their offspring they are masters. In this way Eve is punished; but, as I said at the beginning, it is a gladsome punishment if you consider the hope of eternal life and the honor of motherhood which have been left to her. 
  • The word and works of God is quite clear, that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes. 
  • Girls begin to talk and to stand on their feet sooner than boys because weeds always grow up more quickly than good crops.
  • Even though they [women] grow weary and wear themselves out with child-bearing, it does not matter; let them go on bearing children till they die, that is what they are there for. 
  • God created Adam master and lord of living creatures, but Eve spoilt all, when she persuaded him to set himself above God's will. 'Tis you women, with your tricks and artifices, that lead men into error.
  • We may well lie with what seems to be a woman of flesh and blood, and yet all the time it is only a devil in the shape of a woman.
  • Men have broad chests and narrow hips; therefore they have wisdom. Women have narrow chests and broad hips. Women ought to be domestic; the creation reveals it, for they have broad backsides and hips, so that they should sit still. 
  • There is no dress that suits a woman or maiden so badly as wanting to be clever.
  • God created man with a broad chest, not broad hips, so that in that part of him he can be wise; but that part out of which filth comes is small. In a woman this is reversed. That is why she has much filth and little wisdom.
  • . . . when women speak well, it is not praiseworthy. It befits them to stammer and not be able to speak well; that adorns them much better.
  • . . . what goes in through women's ears comes out again through their mouths. For that reason a secret is to be entrusted only to a dead woman. 
  • Although women are ashamed to admit such things, both Scripture and experience teach that among many thousands there is not one to whom God gives the grace to maintain pure chastity. A woman does not have the power [to do this] herself. 
  • When He cursed Eve, he did not take her female body or her female sex organs; He . . . said, "I will give you much trouble when you become pregnant." This misery was not just promised to one or two women, but to all of them. The words sound as if God knew that all women would become pregnant and would carry this curse, except for those that He Himself excepted. Against this no oaths or agreements can be maintained, for it is God's word and power. . . . if it were possible and saintly to abide by any oath you swore, then you might as well swear that you would become the Mother of God, like Mary.
  • In Paradise woman would have been a help for a duty only. But now she is also, and for the greater part at that, an antidote and a medicine; we can hardly speak of her without a feeling of shame, and surely we cannot make use of her without shame. The reason is sin . . . We are in the state of sin and of death; therefore, we also undergo this punishment, that we cannot make use of woman without the horrible passion of lust, and, so to speak, without epilepsy . . .
  • And who can enumerate all the ludicrous, ridiculous, false, vain, and superstitious ideas of this seducible sex? From the first woman, Eve, it originated that they should be deceived and considered a laughing-stock.

Luther died in 1546, leaving Katharina in desperate financial straits. She died in poverty in 1552. 

For an excellent resource, see Susan Karant-Nunn and Merry Wiesner-Hanks's Luther on Women: A Sourcebook. The publisher, Cambridge University Press, has made the introduction available online; you can read it by clicking here.