We’ve all heard of Martin Luther, right? And no, I am not talking about that inspiring leader and awesome demagogue who spoke that immortal line “I have a dream” – I am rather referring to the man for whom he was named, a German priest born in 1483. That Martin Luther was one of the pivotal people in the religious movement that swept through Europe as a firestorm during the 16th century, namely the Reformation. And once the continent emerged from that crucible, the hitherto united Christian faith had divided into two blocks – Catholics and Protestants.
Now Martin Luther and his contemporary religious hotheads did not spring out of nowhere. Religious debate has been around as long as the Church, and through the centuries wise and learned men (and women – one example can be found here) have raised their voices to question various aspects of faith as imposed by the church. Many of these were found guilty of heresy. Many of them died at the stake, such as Jan Hus and George Wishart. Many had even been exhumed and burned after they were dead – like John Wycliffe . And yet, despite the very obvious risk of taking on the mighty Church, people continued to do so.
When Martin Luther was born, all Christian people were effectively Catholics. Martin himself was baptised into the Holy Church, would go on to study law and philosophy, generally frustrated by how much trust people put in reason when addressing the central issue of God and faith. After a near death experience during a thunderstorm (or maybe Martin was just scared of lightning) he promised God he would become a monk if his life was spared, and being a man of his word, the 23-year-old Martin entered the Augustinian order.
It does not seem to have been a joyous decision, and as to Martin’s father, he was royally pissed off. He’d invested a lot of good money on his son to ensure he’d be a member of the educated commercial class, and instead Martin decided to set off in search of God. Pah! God was all around – why bother looking for him?
Martin would have replied that yes, God might be all around, but the teachings of the Holy Church – and specifically certain practices, such as the sale of indulgences – were leading the believers astray, away from God. Martin’s solution was simple: people needed to read the word of God themselves, and they needed to understand that faith is based on just that: faith. It is about subjecting your will to that of God, of not expecting to be able to understand or explain, but to simply believe. A difficult concept to embrace for crass modern mankind…
For people to read the word of God – the Scriptures – they needed to be translated into the vernacular. Martin did some serious translation of his own, and other likeminded men did the same in other countries, producing a Bible in German, English, French – well, in most European languages. All this translating coincided with the introduction of the printing press in Europe – thank you Gutenberg (related post, see here) – and so the vernacular versions of the Bible were easily made available to common man. Ahem: well, not so easily, as the powers that were did not approve of all this translating and did their best to destroy the translations, causing a trade in contraband Bibles (!).
Martin started his little crusade against the established Church on October 31, 1517, when he banged up his 95 theses on the door to the Wittenberg Cathedral. At the time, his writing had as its purpose to create debate rather than antagonise, but sometimes there’s a fine line between dialogue and provocation, and clearly Martin rubbed a number of people up the wrong way. Seriously, the man was also requesting the church to stop selling indulgences, thereby depriving the coffers of sizeable income!
In 1521, Martin Luther was excommunicated, and would so remain for the rest of his life. Seeing as he was by then already busy with creating his new, revamped version of the Christian faith, I don’t think he was unduly worried – but at the same time I suspect that a man who had spent so much time within the Catholic Church must have woken up at night and wondered what in God’s name he was doing, taking on this behemoth, this self-proclaimed representative of God on Earth. (Before we go any further, it might be important to point out that I have no intention – or interest – in belittling the Catholic Church, spiritual home to so many millions of people)
Back to Martin and his restless nights – and I am sure they were many, endless hours when the teachings of his youth made him twist in fear as to what he was risking on behalf of his eternal soul… One of the things Martin opposed, was the Holy Church’s insistence that priests be celibate. As per Martin, there is no support for this in the Bible, and it may be worth remembering that until the Second Lateran Council in 1139, Catholic priests quite often lived as married men, with no stigma attached. (As an aside, can you imagine the heartbreak when these men were told they had to put aside their wife if they wanted to continue working as priests?)
Now Martin opposed the concept of celibacy in principle. He himself had no intention to marry, seeing as he lived under the constant threat of being apprehended and carried off to martyrdom, not, in Martin’s opinion, something he wanted to subject a wife to having to witness. Plus points to Martin, I believe…Besides, he was far too busy to consider the complication of a wife. Life, however, has a tendency to happen, which is how Martin came to meet Katarina.
We don’t know all that much about Katarina’s earliest days, but we know that as a child of six or so, she was sent to a nunnery for schooling. Some years later, she was transferred to a Cistercian convent, where she was to remain for most of her youth.
Despite a life behind walls, Katarina and several of her sisters kept well abreast of what was happening in the outside world. When Luther nailed his theses to the door, Katarina was an impressionable eighteen-year-old, and clearly what this man said resonated within. She began to feel trapped. So did a number of her sisters.
In 1523, these ladies managed to get word to Luther. They needed help to escape the convent. At the time, to steal away a nun was a terrible crime – nuns were the brides of Christ and should under no circumstances be taken from their convents, not even when the nuns in question had been forcibly veiled (and yes, that did happen). Martin had very little left to lose: he was already excommunicated, and I think it appealed to his virility to cast himself as the saviour of these poor damsels – err, nuns – in distress. Said and done, Luther devised a plan.
One day, a herring merchant drove his cart into the convent. Herring was a staple of the times, so there was nothing unusual about that. In all the bustle of unloading full barrels, loading empty ones, twelve nuns managed to hide in the cart. In the barrels, one presumes. Off they went, the herring merchant sweating profusely as he drove under the beady eye of the gate keeper, but fortunately his illegal cargo went undiscovered, and some hours later twelve giddy young women were deposited in Wittenberg.
Word went out. The ladies needed husbands, seeing as their families refused to take them back, what with all this escaping their convent being a heinous sin. One by one, the nuns were married off, until at last only one remained: Katarina von Bora herself. Whether this was due to looks or temperament, we do not know. The lady herself is said to have expressed that either she married Luther or she didn’t marry anyone. Well, even men bent on religious revolution can be flattered, right? Besides, Katarina was young and worshiped the ground Martin trod on – she called him Herr Doctor, would always call him Herr Doctor.
So in 1525, Martin Luther married Katarina. He was 41, she was 26: a former monk married to a former nun – that must have caused a number of ribald jokes. In actual fact, they were well suited, both of them of religious temperament, both of them intellectually agile and devoted to the cause. Plus, of course, by marrying, Martin was setting a precedent for all future Protestant priests.
The marriage seems to have been very happy, with Katarina assuming responsibility for all worldy tasks so that Martin could concentrate on theology and his teaching. Six children in eight years indicate they enjoyed each other’s company in bed as well, and Martin is known to have turned quite often to Katarina for advice. But it wasn’t an easy life. Katarina struggled to make ends meet, she ran a brewery, raised and sold cattle, ran an hospital, raised their children, ensured meals at set times, supported her husband whenever he needed it – in brief, our Katarina rarely had time for a nice cuppa and a slice of sponge cake. Still, I believe she was as content in him as he was in her, as expressed by him saying, “My Katie is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me, that I would never exchange my poverty with her for all the riches of Croesus.”
In 1546, Luther died. Apart from struggling with her grief, now that her beloved Herr Doctor was dead, Katarina was plunged into economic difficulties without his earnings as a professor. When war broke out she was forced to leave the life she had built up in Wittenberg and flee. With several underage children, she struggled to make ends meet, and was very dependent on the generous support of men such as the Elector of Saxony. She returned to Wittenberg for a while, but an outbreak of plague had her leaving again in a haste. There was a road accident, the cart Katarina was on upended causing her grievous injury. She never recovered, dying some months later, in December of 1552 in Torgau, where she was buried, very far from her beloved husband.
Was Katarina instrumental in Martin’s success as a reformer? No, probably not. But I do believe that Martin on more than one occasion raised his eyes towards the heavens and thanked the good Lord for this excellent helpmeet, this woman who loved him so well. And if he didn’t, well then shame on him!