Sarah Farrow, chaplain at Mansfield College, looks at the extraordinary life of Katharina von Bora – wife, businesswoman, and Reformer.
Martin Luther’s large personality perhaps explains why the annuals of his-tory are quick to overlook Katharina von Bora, his wife, financial supporter, and fellow Reformer. But Katharina’s intelligence and strength of character helped create the space for Luther’s own work to grow and flourish.
Katharina entered conventual life at age five – perhaps it’s only fitting that she should end up marrying a monk! It was during her time in the convent that Katharina came across the writings of the German Reformers and her interest in the movement grew. After writing to Luther, along with several other nuns, a plan was hatched to help them ‘escape’ the nunnery (removing a nun from a cloister was punishable by death at that time). During a regular delivery of herring, the nuns would hide themselves among the fish barrels and from there be taken to Wittenberg.
Many of the nuns who had been ‘smuggled’ out, were soon married (mostly for their own safety). Katharina found herself to be one of the last ‘single ladies’. She could only see herself marrying ‘Herr Doktor’ - Martin Luther. At first, Luther felt obliged to marry Katharina out of responsibility; after all, he had been the one to help her escape from the nunnery in herring barrels. Soon however they became a devoted couple creating a partnership that would shape history.
Katharina oversaw the household books, ran a brewery and managed livestock in order to keep funds available for Luther's work. She took the old monastery where they lived and turned it into a financially viable hostel. It became a place of discussion and debate where Luther would hold his famous ‘table talks’ on theology and politics – in which Katharina was also involved. On top of this she raised six children. Luther's admiration for Katharina’s intellect and shrewdness is apparent in his nickname for her, ‘Lord Katie’.
But Katharina was publicly shamed in her new hometown. Like so many other fierce womxn now and then, she was shouted at in the street, called a ‘slut’ and a ‘whore’. Her life itself was a scandal. Gossip flew that she was a gold-digger and that her children were illegitimate. Despite this, ‘Lord Katie’ continued her work and never hid.
Luther made Katharina his sole inheritor – something unheard of at a time when women were unable to own property. Katharina fought for what was hers. She was, after all, the one who had built up their land, livestock and buildings. Katharina held a remarkable role in the Reformation – one of the first Pastors’ spouses to have such a public role. She filled this role with her own strength and intelligence and is truly a great Reformer.
Writer: Sarah Farrow of Mansfield College
Editor and illustrator: Mary Whittingdale of Mansfield College