Happy to be hitched

Mrs Luther and Her sisters: Women in the Reformation, Derek Wilson, Lion

We don’t have a huge amount of historical material on Katie Luther, even though Martin Luther is one of history’s most documented figures. So Katie becomes, for Derek Wilson, a point of entry into the world of Reformation women, and what changes in society they drove and encountered. And in compilation there is a surprising amount of material. In both quantity and quality, women contributed, and, unsurprisingly, received both praise and blame for doing so.

The first significant change to the life of women occurred with the dismantling in the north of Europe of the monastic system. For some, this was a loss, as women who previously found stability and community in the cloister were now forced out into the world where women where dependent on men and destitution loomed.

For other women, being forced into the convent was the problem, and escape brought new freedoms. Not only this, but Luther insisted that the work of childrearing, the education of children, and the ups and down of marital life were all part of God’s plan, holy in his sight, and not a lesser activity compared to the supplications and midnight masses of nuns and monks sequestered away from the corrupted world of the everyday. So nuns embraced with gusto tis new life, and were happy to be hitched, often to former monks, in fairly arbitrary fashion. (Katie Luther was one of the more recalcitrantly choosy ones.)

This is one of the Reformation’s most enduring legacies, beyond arguments over free will and God’s grace which now mystify many in the modern world. It remains in our attitudes to both the individual and the family, within the church epitomised by the phrase ‘the priesthood of all believers’, though there will always remain within the church a tendency to view ordination as something conferring a more exalted status.  Beyond the church, there remains an emphasis on the sanctity of the family, and the ability of the individual of any rank to make meaningful contributions to society.

As many have pointed out, and as Andrew Petegree does at length in his Brand Luther, the new printing presses were indispensable for the promulgation of the new Lutheran faith, and ironically, nuns picked up the new teachings, first by being educated and literate, and secondly by getting their hands on the newly printed material. In the wider community, literate women, encouraged by the Reformers, read and attempted to understand the Bible for themselves. An incredulous European visitor commented on the tendency of English women to take notes during sermons and then discuss theology afterwards.

Some even dared to teach men. Luther was magnanimous in praise of his wife’s business acumen, and probably well aware of his own propensity to destitution were it not for the management of his wife. But his praise ended at the edge of the realms of philosophical discussion, and he thought women’s attempts at teaching and preaching ‘foolishness’. As is often noted, Luther was a radical spiritually, and a conservative socially. Actually, this may not be quite right. Luther simply was concerned about the breakdown of society, led, as he well knew, by his break from Rome, and he was at pains to suppress revolutionary ideas. In the radical wing of the Reformation they weren’t so reticent, and there was a perceived logic between equality of the sexes regarding salvation and equality of the sexes regarding spreading the Gospel by print and mouth.

Threatened men, even among the radicals, argued from the Bible that women should not teach men. The women countered by arguing this did not apply to widows, or by quoting scripture that the Gospel must be preached wherever possible and that they must obey God, not men. Then, as now, the place of women in churches was debated fiercely. Unlike today, martyrdom was often the result. To adapt a phrase from the French Revolution, it was the liberty to preach the Gospel or death.

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