Katharina von Bora: The Morning Star of Wittenberg

 

Biographical Sketch of Katharina von Bora

by Katherine Evensen, Biola University

Screen_Shot_2012-05-02_at_3.11.36_PM_400x400.pngEarly Days and Nunnery

1499 Katharina is born in Hirschfield, Saxony (some suggest she was born in Lippendorf, Saxony).

1505- Sent to the cloister school of the Benedictine nuns at Brehna, Germany

1509- Continues her education at the Marienthron convent in Nimbschen, Germany

1514- Passes her novitiate, and consecrated as a nun

1520- News of Luther and his writings enter into the convent

1523- Katharina and 11 other sisters escape from the convent on Easter Eve to Wittenburg, Germany

Life in Wittenburg

1523- Katharina lives in the Reichenbach home, helping maintain the household.

  • May/June 1523- Meets Jerome Baumgartner, son from the Reichenbach household.

1523- Katharina moves to the Cranach family’s house.

1524- Luther attempts to unite Katharina with Dr. Kasper Glatz, but Katharina refuses

1525, June 13th- Katharina is betrothed to Martin Luther

1525, June 27th– Katharina and Martin Luther marry at the Black Cloister

 Life as Mrs. Luther

1532- The Black Cloister is fully given over to Katharina and Martin by Elector Johann of Saxony

1526 June 7th- Hans Luther is born

1527 December 10th– Elizabeth Luther is born

1529 May 4th– Magdalene Luther is born

1531 November 9th– Martin Luther is born

1533 January 29th– Paul Luther is born

1534 December 17th– Margarete Luther is born

1540- Katharina suffers illness after a miscarriage

1546 February 18th– Martin Luther dies

After the Death of Luther

1546 Fall- The Schmalkald War approaches Wittenberg. Katharina and her children flee to Magdeburg.

1547- Katharina returns to the Lutherhaus, and then again has to flee to Magdeburg.

1548- Katharina renovates the Black Cloister

1552- A plague spreads in the city, and Katharina is injured in a wagon accident in her flee

1552 December 21st– Katharina dies in Torgau at age 53.

Most Important Legacies

  • Established the Protestant parsonage: Katharina set the tone for the first Protestant parsonage: authoritarian, paternalistic, no nonsense, tenderly affectionate, and complete devotion. This was very different from the medieval understanding of a “noble nun” being the best route for a woman to take in godliness.
  • Hospitality: Katharina hosted at the Black Cloister.
    • At dinners, “Table Talk” was common, where Luther would invite other Reformers to come and speak about the issues of the day- both political, and theological. The Reformation gained momentum because of these communal events.
    • Luther says he was inspired by his wife’s hard work, waking up at early hours daily to tend to her work.
    • Many people came to stay at the Black Cloister, and she maintained the Lutherhaus with dignity and respect as travelers, foreigners, and refugees came in and out for years.
  • Influence on Luther: She took care of him as a nurse, doctor and counselor. Luther suffered from severe depression at times, to which Katharina was his main aid, (along with Christ as he was heard to have said). Luther had many physical ailments, and thus her knowledge of health greatly helped him to stay stable and do his work. In his writings and letters, he takes note of her inspiring hard work, and desire to live out her faith.
  • Assisting Luther in his work: Katharina worked with Luther to publish his works on the Prophets, including his sermon, “An Admonition Concerning the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Our Lord,” and she was a member of a pastoral search committee in 1540.

Influences

  • Birth into an aristocratic family: The status of her birth and example of aristocratic life at a young age possibly influenced her understanding of the level of home life one should have. She hosted frequently, and worked very hard towards ownership and cultivation of land.[1]
  • Luther as Reformer: Luther’s writings somehow entered Katharina’s convent around 1520. His work, “About the Spiritual and Monastery Vows,” was especially influential, and began planting seeds of doubt about the way of life within the monastery.
  • Luther: “Freedom of a Christian,” most likely fell into the hands of the sisters at Marienthrom, raising more discontent about being in the convent.
  • Luther as Husband: In their marriage, Luther was Katharina’s teacher.
    • He promised her 50 gulden if she would read the Bible all the way through in a year. He always encouraged her to read Scripture, memorize it, and discussed spiritual things openly with her.
    • It seems she really emphasized living out her faith, instead of taking time to reflect, study, and write about her beliefs. Instead through her life she lived her faith.
    • Luther would write her letters explaining all the progress happening at the Diet of Worms

Influenced

  • Reformation: Katharina set the standard for how reformer’s homes would be operated. Through frequent hosting, theology was openly discussed and fostered. Katharina supervised the printing and distributing Luther’s writings. Luther relied on Katharina to communicate with others in the movement about developments, and dealt with various issues related to Luther’s work.
  • Women in the Reformation: Through Katharina’s managing of the Luther parsonage, she was an example for all women in the Reformation for what it meant to be a godly spouse and mother.
  • Luther’s physical health and spiritual wellbeing: On occasion, Luther would be so enthralled in his writings he would neglect himself. Katharina would take care of him with her knowledge of health, and would pray for him daily.
  • Luther’s understanding of marriage: Luther’s views on marriage are very much shaped by his own experience married to Katharina. Many of his writings use Scripture intertwined with stories of his own, as he grew in affection for his wife, and learned more from experience what he already saw affirmed in Scripture.
    • Speaking of his wife in the words of Proverbs 31:11ff, Luther said: “Among the noblest priorities of a wife is that her husband trusts her and confides in her, that she loves her husband warmly and with all her heart and is assured of his love for her. She considers a field and buys it and lives of the fruit of her hands. She averts damage, sees what is of value, and promotes it.”

Katharina’s Theology

  • Katharina had knowledge of Latin (most likely from her days in the cloister) along with general theology as she frequently contributed to conversations at “Table Talk” dinner. However, very little is known of what she actually held to.
  • Katharina is said to have disagreed with Luther about polygamy, God’s test of Abraham’s faith on Mt. Moriah, and David’s claim to his own righteousness.
  • She called attention to the lax prayer life after the Reformation.
  • She strived to perfect her knowledge of the catechism, and the Bible, while using common sense to object to difficult theological concepts.
  • Helped Luther to reach an agreement with the “Uplands theologians” at Wittenberg about the Lord’s Supper.
  • Luther is said to have remarked that Katharina knew the Psalms better than the papists. No doubt her time in the convent and early education helped get her to this point of knowing them so well.
  • Though we don’t know exactly what she thought was wrong of the monastic life, the fact that she chose to escape the convent shows she was convicted of some error, to which Luther’s writings helped illuminate for her.
  • It is suggested from Luther’s letters to Katharina that they both shared a quite negative opinion of the Jews and “their god.”
  • A few times, Katharina was reported to speak to her husband about how the clergy didn’t preach enough “Gospel” to which Luther replied they did speak a good amount about the gospel, but not enough about the Law.

Katharina’s Writings

  • Relatively few writings by Katharina are known. She wrote letters to her husband about family concerns, occasionally behalf of her husband, or to seek help for her estate and livelihood after her husband’s death, however none of these original letters remain. To find more about her, it would be helpful for Luther’s various letters to be made more available to the academic and public world to supplement research.
  • Copies of these letters are found in: Smith, Jeanette C. “Katharina von Bora Through Five Centuries: A Historiography.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 30, no. 3 (1999): 745-774.

 

 

Primary Sources

  • Information on Katharina can be found in some of Luther’s writings and letters based off of how what he says to her and how he responds to letters she wrote.
  • “Table Talk.” Also known as “Divine Discourses.” The following are quality locations for accessing these talks:
  • Both Luther and Katharina’s letters are regretfully quite unavailable to the public. Few accessible versions are in English. However compilations of these letters can be found in: Smith, Jeanette C. “Katharina von Bora Through Five Centuries: A Historiography.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 30, no. 3 (1999): 745-774. 

Secondary Works

Bainton, Roland H. Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1971.

Beste, W. Die Gesch. Catherina’s von Bora. Halle: 1843.

Boehmer, Heinrich. “Luthers Ehe,” Lutherjahrbuch 7, (1925): 40-69.

Deutler, Clara Louise. Katherine Luther of the Wittenberg Personage. Philadelphia, 1924.

Freybe, Peter. Mönchshure und Morgenstern : “Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin” – im Urteil der Zeit, als Nonne, eine Frau von Adel, als Ehefrau und Mutter, eine Wirtschafterin und Saumärkterin, als Witwe. Wittenberg : Drei-Kastanien-Verl., 1999.

 Hofmann, G. Katharina von Bora, oder M. L. als Gatte und Vater. Leipzig: 1846.

Junghans, Helmar. “Luther in Wittenberg.” Leben und Werk Martin Luther’s von 1526 bis 1546, edited by Helmar Junghans, 2 vols., pp. 11-37, 723-732. Berlin, 1983.

Kroker, Ernst. Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s Frau. Leipzig: Haberland, 1906.

Kroker, Ernst. Luther Werbung um Katharina van Bora. Weimer: Hermann Bohlau, 1917.

Markwald, Rudolf K., Marilynn Morris. The Reformation Life: Katharina Von Bora. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2002.

Meurer, Mor. Katharina Luther geborne von Bora. Dresden: 1854.

Morris, John G. Life of Catharina von Bora. Baltimore: 1856.

Stein, Armin. Katharine von Bora, Dr. Martin Luther’s Wife. Philadelphia, PA: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1890.

Stjerna, Kirsi, Women and the Reformation. Wiley Blackwell, April 2009.

http://site.ebrary.com/lib/biola/reader.action?docID=10313705&ppg=61

Thoma, D. Albrecht. Katharina von Bora: Geschichtliches Lebensbild (1900)

Treu, Martin. “Katharina von Bora, the Woman at Luther’s Side.” Lutheran Quarterly; 13.2 (1999): 156–178. ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials. Web. 3 Dec. 2014.

Winter, Ingelore M. Katharina Von Bora. Ein Leben mit Martin Luther (Mit Briefe an die liebe Herrin). Düsseldorf: Droste, 1990.

Bibliography

Bainton, Roland H. Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 971.

Hillerbrand, Hans Joachim. The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Markwald, Rudolf K., Marilynn Morris. The Reformation Life: Katharina Von Bora. St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2002.

Smith, Jeanette C. “Katharina von Bora Through Five Centuries: A Historiography.” The Sixteenth Century Journal 30, no. 3 (1999): 745-774.

Stein, Armin. Katharine von Bora, Dr. Martin Luther’s Wife. Philadelphia, PA: The United Lutheran Publication House, 1890.

Stjerna, Kirsi, Women and the Reformation. Wiley Blackwell, April 2009. http://site.ebrary.com/lib/biola/reader.action?docID=10313705&ppg=61

 

[1] Hans Joachim Hillerbrand, The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 460.

 

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