The Nun in a Herring Barrel

BlogHer Original Post

It was the 1522, and Katharina von Bora was hiding in a herring barrel. Along with her were eleven other nuns in herring barrels, all in a horse-drawn cart, escaping their convent.

Since March is Women's History Month, I was asked what woman I would like to see written back into history, specifically the history of religion. For me, it's the nun hiding in the herring barrel.

It had been a long journey for Katharine to this clever escape. Katharina had been born to a noble family that had become impoverished. Her mother died, and when her father remarried Katharina was sent -- presumably by her wicked step-mother -- to a convent at age 5. By the time she was 16, she had become a nun.

By then, exciting news from outside the convent began to trickle in. Martin Luther, a Catholic monk, had been making waves, protesting many of the actions of the Catholic church. Somehow news of this filtered into the convent. Nuns dissatisfied with life there were drawn by Luther's words. Katharina smuggled word to the then-unknown-to-her Dr. Luther pleading with him to help rescue her and the other escaping nuns.

He sent a friend of his whose wagon delivered herring to the large convent. It soon became a wagon full of herring barrels full of nuns. And so Katharina's adventurous story begins.

Not much is known about the other nuns. Three went back to their homes. Nine landed on Luther's doorstep seeking husbands or positions. There was no other choice for a woman who could not or would not return home. After three years, Luther had found positions or husbands for all of them. Except Katharina.

Luther himself had been staunchly against marriage. An online biography of Luther says:

Having taken a vow of chastity and often preaching on the virtues and importance of marriage, Luther wrote in a letter to Bavarian noblewoman Argula von Grumbach, his response to her query as to whether he would ever marry;

“Nevertheless, the way I feel now, and have felt thus far, I will not marry. It is not that I do not feel my flesh or sex, since I am neither wood nor stone, but my mind is far removed from marriage, since I daily expect death and the punishment due to a heretic. Therefore I shall not limit God’s work in me, nor shall I rely on my own heart. Yet I hope God does not let me live long.”

Then along came Katharina. She turned down suitor after suitor, and refused to marry anyone but Luther. We don't know how it all managed to change for Luther, but they were wed. By this point, Luther was a famous reformer. Getting married sealed forever his departure from the role of dissident monk. He was 42, she 26.

A local nobleman gave them a ramshackle old abbey in which to make their home. In those days the household consisted of Martin, Katharina, and a growing stream of students and widows seeking shelter. Traffic in and out could mean as many as 30 living there at one time. And Katherina was at the helm.

Before long she had convinced Luther to buy neighboring farmland. She grew their food, established a herd of cattle and other farm animals, started a fishpond, opened and ran a brewery and managed every detail of this constantly flexing community. She kept all the accounts, and was the only woman allowed in to Luther's private, informal meetings with his students - later collected in volumes called "Table Talk".

In addition to their own six children, they also took in orphans and offered housing to students.

Luther, never a romantic personage, clearly fell in love with Katherina. Dr Ken Curtis of the Christian History Institute writes:

Luther wrote a friend, "There is a lot to get used to in the first year of marriage. One wakes up in the morning and finds a pair of pigtails on the pillow which were not there before."

After a year of marriage Luther wrote another friend, "My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus." Luther, the former celibate monk, now exalted marriage, exclaiming, "There is no bond on earth so sweet, nor any separation so bitter, as that which occurs in a good marriage."

Letters from Luther to Katharina which survive, show him to be an adoring husband, as he writes about how much he misses her when he travels, how dear she is to him. He also writes in Latin and German to her discussing detailed theological arguments he is having with other Reformers.

In the 1500's, women had no rights - especially after their husbands died. Luther and Katharine, whom he called "Katie" or "My Lord Katie" arranged things differently. An article by George Ella for New Focus says:

Martin’s and Katie’s contemporaries always referred to the couple in one breath as ‘Luther and Lutheress’ (Germ. Lutherin), emphasizing their joint importance. Luther made sure that Katie should be accepted as his equal in all ways. Contrary to the legal custom of the day, he insisted on making Katie his heir and legatee, even if she should remarry after his death. Luther also made Katie his children’s legal guardian, contrary to contemporary practice. When Luther died, his enemies believed Katie, whom they called Doctorissa, would continue her husband’s work. They thus used all their energies to rob her of her property, reputation and influence.

However, after Luther died, the new Elector took Luther's lands and buildings. The will was annulled and the Katharina and her children were put under the "protection" of a male guardian who forbade her making any business or financial arrangements.

She refused to go along. However, with the outbreak of the Smalkaldic War and the onset of the plague, everything went awry. Katharina had to flee the area. But she did not give up. She took to the courts and was about to win back her property and rights when she died from injuries in a cart accident.

Today, she is largely a forgotten woman. But her efforts supported the entire Protestant Reformation. Uncharacteristically industrious, outspoken and accomplished, her name needs to be written in larger type in the collective memory of those years.

She is part of the thousands of women in history who supported those whose names could become famous in a patriarchy. Her name has many other names behind it, many other lives behind it. These women fought, worked and supported the lives of others who could change the world in ways that they were not allowed. These were not just women standing behind their men -- these were women who, against odds, were part of the dialogue. These women of a different time, who, along with Katharina Luther, made historical change possible.

 

 

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also blogs until her soul shimmies at Time's Fool

Image Credit: Public Domain Wikimedia Commons

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