Bora, Katharina von (1499–1550)
Bora, Katharina von (1499–1550)
Wife of German theologian Martin Luther who, in presiding over the first Protestant parsonage, did much to determine the tone of German Protestant domestic life. Name variations: Catherine de Bora or Bohra; Katherine von Bora Luther; "Kette" (meaning chain, as in "ball and chain"), a pun on the diminutive "Katya" or "Katie" and often used by her husband. Born Katharina von Bora in January 1499; died in Wittenburg on December 20, 1550; married Martin Luther, on June 13, 1525; children: Hans (b. June 7, 1526); Elizabeth (b. December 10, 1527, and died young);Magdalene Luther (b. May 4, 1529); Martin (b. November 9, 1531); Paul (b. January 29, 1533); andMargareta Luther (known as Lenchen, b. December 17, 1534–1548).
Katharina von Bora would not be remembered in history, except that she was the wife of the German theologian who led the Protestant Reformation that altered the Western world. Had it not been for the importance of "Kette" in the life of Martin Luther, however, Protestantism might well have evolved into an institution very different than what it is, and for that reason she deserves attention.
The "von" in the name of Katharina von Bora indicates that she belonged to a family of lower nobility. Little is known of her early life except that she was born in January 1499. When she was ten years old, her father remarried, and she was placed in a Cistercian nunnery at Nimschen. At age 16, she took the vows of holy orders, but within a few years she was ready to accept the anti-monastic doctrines of Martin Luther then sweeping through Germany.
On Easter morning, 1523, Katharina joined eight other nuns aided by Leonard Kopp, a trusted follower of Luther, in escaping the convent, hidden in a wagon used to deliver smoked herring. On the following Tuesday, the fugitives arrived at Wittenburg, but their relatives refused to take them in. Since the late-medieval society
they were reentering offered virtually no means of support for single women, their welfare and survival became Luther's responsibility.
Out of Katharina's group, one woman was qualified to obtain a lowly position as a teacher. For all the female refugees being emptied from the monasteries and pouring into Wittenburg, marriage was their only remaining option. Since Katharina, at age 24, was one of the oldest, she was considered the least marriageable. For a year and a half, she boarded in the home of Argula von Grumbach (1492–c. 1563), one of Luther's more forthright female disciples, who then began to urge Luther to marry the former nun.
Luther had good reasons to resist. Beyond the usual reluctance of a 40-year-old bachelor, 16 years older than the proffered bride, the theologian could truthfully point out that he was not a safe person to marry. Having been labeled as a heretic, condemned by the pope, and declared an outlaw by the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, which encompassed Germany, he was a man with a price on his head, who had ample reason to worry about leaving his bride a widow; he was also living in a country currently being ravaged by the Peasants' War, which lasted from 1524 to 1525. There was no pretense, therefore, that this was to be a romantic love match. When Martin later listed several reasons for getting married, falling in love was not one of them; it was primarily out of his sense of responsibility for provoking the events that had thrust her out of the safety of her monastic world. The event of his marriage, on June 13, 1525, occurred because the minister had come to believe that he could do no other.
Nevertheless, the union was quick to demonstrate its benefits, beginning with the attendance of Martin's now-aged parents at the wedding. A bitterness of 20 years had existed between the father and his eldest son. Old Hans Luther had poured much of the family's hard-earned wealth into educating young Martin, and then had felt angered and betrayed when Martin became a monk and priest. Mollified by the marriage, Old Hans became fully reconciled at the time of the birth of Martin's first son.
As time passed, Martin rationalized his marriage by declaring that it had occurred out of religious conviction. As he often put it, marriage allowed him to thumb his nose at the pope, and make the angels laugh and devils weep as he sealed his testimony of faith with contempt for clerical celibacy. As the marriage of convenience came to reinforce Martin's religious commitment, Katharina's desire to share and reinforce the religious commitment of her husband also grew, and the couple came to genuinely love each other.
Children came promptly. On October 21, 1525, Martin reported Katharina's first pregnancy to a friend by declaring that she was fulfilling the words of Genesis 3:8, "In pain you shall bring forth children!" On June 7, 1526, she gave birth to a boy, named Hans after Martin's father. On December 10, 1527, the couple's first daughter, Elizabeth, was born, but soon died, and was grieved for mightily. Katharina then had four more children, born approximately two years apart: Magdalene, Martin, Paul, and Margareta. Margareta was named for Luther's mother, Paul became a successful physician, and Magdalene, known as Lenchen, was perhaps her father's favorite.
Although Katharina von Bora's view of her married life was not recorded in documents that have survived, the enthusiasm of her husband attests to the feelings of both of them. At the outset, he confided to a friend, "I am not madly in love, but I cherish my wife and would not exchange her for France or Venice." Later he is said to have added that he "would not exchange her for the riches of Croesus."
[Luther] ruefully confessed that he relied more on Katie than on Christ. "In domestic affairs," said he, "I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost."
Along with their six children, the Luthers adopted eleven more. By all accounts, their home was a happy one. As time passed, Martin came to depend upon his "beloved Katie" and confessed that he relied upon her more than he did Christ. On occasion, he did register frustration with her in his use of his pet nickname, "Kette" (chain), but any complaint against her is offset by one famous letter, written to his good friend George Spalatin, who also married an ex-nun named Katharina. Martin exhorted him to take his bride to bed immediately, and wrote, "As you penetrate your Katie, I'll penetrate mine, and we'll be united in Jesus Christ." In a more characteristic sentiment, he wrote, "The first love is drunken. When the intoxication wears off, then comes the real married love." To the bride, he wrote: "My dear, make your husband glad to cross his threshold at night." To the groom, he wrote: "Make your wife sorry to have you leave."
Katharina von Bora was helpmate to a busy and difficult man, the mother in charge of their many children, and the first woman to preside for the public as host in a Protestant clerical household at their home in Wittenburg. As a typical 16th-century woman bearing children during her 20s and 30s, she had pregnancies that were difficult but not dangerous, suffered the usual dizziness, headaches, nausea, toothache, and swelling of the legs. When one or more of the babies cried incessantly, father Martin commented, "This is the sort of thing that has caused the Church fathers to vilify marriage." Looking at his family on one occasion, the frustrated Luther observed, "Christ said we must have become as little children to enter into the kingdom of heaven. Dear God, this is too much. Have we got to become such idiots?"
Katharina von Bora not only raised and tended to the sicknesses of her normal but not always healthy children, but had to give special attention to her overworked, overwrought husband who suffered from a full range of physical ailments, diseases, and eccentricities. Martin's ailments stemmed largely from poor diet and lack of exercise as he overlooked the practical necessities of life while fighting the public battles. But all the past petty irritations of family life melted away when Katharina and Martin Luther knelt at the deathbed of their beloved Lenchen. As the mother backed away, dumb with grief, the father held the dying child in his arms and prayed that God's will be done. The death of Lenchen, at age 14, darkened the remaining three years of his life.
In addition to the care she gave her family, Katharina von Bora became responsible for the many who flocked to Wittenburg as the new followers of their embattled Reformer of the Faith. In a building known as the Black Cloister, where Martin had lived as a monk, she established a hostel for the many hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of visitors and religious refugees requiring food and rest and sometimes medical care. The building had 40 rooms on the ground floor, with smaller cells above them. Katharina supervised the remodeling, then acted as host to the travelers, who came from all over Germany, and from as far away as Hungary and England. Some arrivals were rich and prominent, and some were of noble blood, demanding and scornful of the inferior lodgings. Others were exiles from religious persecution or refugees from the turmoil of Europe's wars. Most were poor and sick, and some came there to die. In accordance with the necessities of a world without commercial hotels, they would often stay for weeks and even months at a time. If their prodigally generous host had had his way, most would have paid nothing for their room and board. It was up to Katharina to be the hard-nosed hostess, demanding payment and evicting the most overbearing of the freeloaders.
Although Martin Luther's greater age made it likely that he would die before her, he derided her desire to accumulate real-estate property, which might help to secure her economic position. He not only preached about the "birds and the lilies of the field" that relied upon the good Lord for their sustenance as described in Matthew 6:26–30, but he considered property to be bondage to place and situation. In fact, the only enduring result of Katharina's plunge into the 16th-century version of real-estate acquisition was to blacken her reputation. To subsequent generations of Lutherans, Katharina von Bora has often been cast as the grubby materialistic counterpart to their spiritual founder of the faith. As Martin Luther was the first to testify, however, he would not have been able to "serve Christ and combat Satan in the appropriate ways" without his wife to help him.
On February 18, 1546, the great religious leader died, and Katharina von Bora's fight to retain their property proved to no avail. When the Schmalkaldic wars, the military conflict waged earlier between Protestant princes and the Roman Catholic Emperor Charles V, broke out again, the Lutheran forces were defeated this time by the emperor, and the widow was forced into exile. After a short time, she was able to return home to Wittenburg, where she found devastation and chaos and was soon forced to leave again. After a second return home, while she was still trying to rebuild from her losses, she was injured in an accident. After three months of intense suffering, Katharina von Bora died on December 20, 1550. Her last words were recorded as "I will stick to Christ as a burr to a top coat."
According to his own testimony, Martin Luther, the instigator of the Reformation, would not have been able to challenge the celibate clerical domination of medieval Christianity were it not for his wife. Their home, writes Reformation scholar, E.G. Rupp, "became a more effective apologetic for marriage of the clergy than any writing and the prototype of a Christian minister's household." In fact, it was Katharina rather than Martin, through her own sense of religious conviction, who broke the traditional medieval concept of Christian ministry as the work of men only. At the head of the newborn Protestantism, the couple lived in contradiction to the monastic model followed for centuries according to the life of the man Jesus, who had repudiated his mother "to be about my business" and never married at all. The Luthers thus became responsible for shaping the family-centered aspect for half of Western Christendom. The alternative family model they created in Christian ministry has dominated Protestant Christianity throughout the world and in some areas, particularly North America, presents a strong challenge to Roman Catholic Christianity almost five centuries later. Martin Luther helped to refocus the Christian religion, with the family unit as its center. But if Luther was the one to proclaim this difference, Katharina von Bora became the first to show how it could work.
Bainton, Roland H. Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy. Minneapolis MN: Augsburg, 1971.
——. Here I Stand: A Biography of Martin Luther. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1950.
Boehmer, Heinrich. The Road to Reformation. NY: Meridian Books, 1957 (c. 1946).
Marius, Richard. Luther. Philadelphia, PA: Lippincott, 1974.
Kroker, Ernst. Katharina von Bora. Leipzig, 1906.
Thoma, Albrecht. Katharina von Bora. Berlin, 1900.
David R. Stevenson , Professor of History, University of Nebraska at Kearney, Nebraska
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