Katharina von Bora Luther
Martin Luther’s “Dear Katie”
When Katharina von Bora and eight other fellow nuns left their convent in 1523 in Germany they did so because of arrangements made by a former monk named Martin Luther. He then had to help them return home, or find husbands. And as it turned out for one of them—Katharina von Bora—the necessary husband was Luther himself.
Katharina was probably born in January, 1499 in Lippendorf and when she was five her father sent her to live in a Benedictine cloister for schooling. Then at age nine she came to live in a Cistercian monastery where her maternal aunt was already in the community.
Meanwhile, out in the world the German religious scene was becoming tumultuous, due to the movement started by Martin Luther. It began when the former monk came to believe that a Christian’s emphasis should be on Scripture alone and the salvation it described. However, the Roman Church of the time taught it had a monopoly on church authority and its rules and as Luther’s ideas began to spread there was conflict in Germany and then in Europe. Thus began the Protestant movement and the resulting churches.
Also as these new ideas filtered even into the closed world of religious communities many, including Katharina, became disillusioned with their life and wanted to leave. So after she contacted him, Luther made arrangements for them to escape, hidden in a delivery van loaded with barrels of pickled herring. Then when word spread about the new arrivals in Wittenberg, a local man had an interesting comment. “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town,” he wrote a friend, “all more eager for marriage than for life. May God give them husbands lest worse befall.”
Thus in April, 1523 Luther took on that job and while some of the ex-sisters went back to their families, others found husbands. Finally the only one left was Katharina and though she had a few suitors, when no marriage materialized, she suggested Luther marry her himself.
Simple enough—on the surface—but this wasn’t so easy. Luther had previously said he would never marry. After all, he had enemies and as he put it, “I expect daily the death of a heretic” because of his opposition to the established Roman church. That could obviously affect his wife. Yet there was also the controversy of clergy marrying, since they had all previously been celibate. In fact a marriage between an ex-nun and a former monk might cause a scandal. Also, there was nearly 20 years between them. However, Luther had come to believe that clergy marriage should be a part of the new Protestant tradition.
So they married in January, 1525 but neither pretended it was for love. For him it was because of a deeply held conviction and for her it was for convenience. The couple then settled in a former dormitory/school for Augustinian friars in Wittenberg, a gift to them from a reform-minded governmental official. Called the Black Cloister, the property included a cattle breeding business, and a brewery and Katharina took charge of all these as well as the house. Also, there were often boarders as well as many visitors, so Katharina managed it all. At times her home even became a makeshift hospital where Katharina assisted the regular nurses. In fact, because of his deep regard for his wife, Luther came to call her the “morning star of Wittenberg” since she rose so early to carry out her duties.
However, though the marriage was indeed originally partially for convenience over the years the couple developed a deep affection, respect and admiration for each other. Katharina called her husband “Doctor” and in his letters Luther called her “Kitty, my rib” and his “Better half.” Yet also evident in their letters is the fact that they enjoyed witty repartee and lighthearted teasing. Once when he jokingly remarked that polygamy was the practice in ancient Israel, she retorted, “Well, if it comes to that, I’ll leave you and the children and go back to the cloister!” She also had no fear, at discussing theological or political matters, even challenging him when necessary. In fact, Luther’s associates often sought her assistance to persuade her husband to a certain decision. She often spoke her own mind. For instance, when her husband suggested that she read the Bible entirely through, she snapped back, “I’ve read enough. I’ve heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.”
Besides all her home management and family duties, Katharina also dealt with her husband’s occasional illnesses. Also since Luther suffered from occasional depression and hypochondria he benefited from her medical and nursing skills.
The couple had six children, and Katharina also helped raise several orphans. Indeed, her household duties were tremendous. One source put it this way: “Often all forty rooms of the Black Cloister were occupied, with Katharina managing all the associated household duties, from cooking and cleaning to gardening and laundry.” She did have assistants, but still did much of the work herself. This included caring for the dairy herd, the other livestock and poultry, and even caught fish in a nearby creek. Luther once admitted, “In domestic affairs, I defer to Katie. Otherwise I am led by the Holy Ghost.”
When Luther died in 1546, Katharina was deprived of her husband’s salary as a professor and pastor, though she did own land, and the Black Cloister itself. Before his death, Luther had advised her to move and sell the abbey property and move with the children to smaller quarters, but she declined.
Then after local wars began, Katharina moved out of the Black Cloister, and while she was forced to flee for a while. She eventually moved back to Wittenberg in 1547 to find her former home a total ruin but she could not afford to rebuild it. She and her children again fled Wittenberg in 1552 to avoid a plague, but at that time she was severely wounded in a wagon accident. She lingered for several weeks but died in December, 1552.
Though she was not buried near her husband, she did comment as she died, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to cloth.” To many Katharina remains a minor character in her husband’s life story. Yet it might be said that with her management and encouragement skills she was what might be called, “an integral part of Martin Luther’s success.”
Anne Adams is a retired church staffer. She lives in East Texas and has an historical column for a local newspaper. She has published in Christian and secular publications for more than 40 years.