In 1519 Martin Luther took the little German village of Grimma by storm. He had recently become somewhat of a national icon having taken on the famous Dr. Eck in a seriously heavyweight theological disputation in Leipzig. The relatively unknown German monk was catapulted to stardom overnight and became the poster boy for a transformative new movement that would come to be known as the Reformation
So when Luther sailed into Grimma with the winds of triumph gusting in his sails he was a force to be reckoned with. And as was to be expected he left a fairly indelible mark. One of those he left a deep impression on was the Prior of the Augustinian Monastery in Grimma, Wolfgang von Zschau. Not only was Wolfgang extremely impressed with Luther’s teachings he was determined to share what he had heard with as many people as he could. He managed to smuggle a sizeable portion of Luther’s writings to his nieces Veronika and Margaret who were young nuns at the Cistercian Cloister of Marienthorn in Nimbschen. Veronika and Margaret shared their illicit missives with their sisters, among whom was the inimitable and feisty Katharina von Bora.
Born in Lippendorf to a family with noble ancestry, Katharina’s parents, though well connected in their past, were unfortunately rather poor in their present circumstances. After her mother died when she was about 4 or 5 Katharina’s father sent her away to school, first at the Benedictine Convent in Bernha and later to the Cistercian Cloister in Nimbschen.
Katharina lived at a time when having girls was a financial drain on a family, mainly because girls were unable to work and support themselves. This meant that girls needed a father or a husband to provide for them and husbands didn’t come cheap. Payment to enter a cloister was cheaper than a marriage dowry. In a cloister the girls would be safe, well fed, well clothed and well occupied and many 16th century parents who found themselves floundering financially resorted to this option. Hans von Bora was one such parent.
Being sent away to boarding school in a convent had its advantages. Katharina was well educated, which was rare for women who were in her financial situation. She could read and write Latin and was able to read the Bible as a result.
When Luther’s work swept through the little convent, the young novices were all agog at the new and forbidden truths they read there. Since they were able to read the Bible for themselves Katharina and her sisters were able to independently corroborate Luther’s work as well which added to their convictions. The more they read the more restless they became to escape their repressive and monotonous life in the cloister in exchange for the fresh possibilities of the new world that was beginning to blossom outside the convent walls. But how to leave? Society being what it was they needed their families to facilitate their removal from the cloister. Katharina’s father refused, as did the families of many of the other nuns. Word of the predicament of the nuns at Nimbschen reached the ears of Martin Luther and he masterminded a brilliant little heist.
One cool April night in 1523, twelve young nuns huddled in the shadow of the convent walls shivering more from anticipation than cold as they waited for their getaway vehicle. It soon drove around the corner and into view. Leonhard Koppe, a merchant and town councilman was driving. The girls quietly hurried out into the night and clambered up into the open bed of the fish wagon and then slid into the large fish barrels that lined the back.
Nearly two days later nine of them made it to their final destination in Wittenberg (the other three had been dropped off earlier in the town of Torgau). Exhausted, starving and disheveled they presented themselves to the mastermind behind their escape, the peerless Martin Luther himself, who later described them to a friend as a “wretched crowd”.
Luther managed to marry off 8 of the 9 nuns but Katharina von Bora proved to be difficult to match. She had a few suitors, some more likable and desired than others but all in all none which actually materialized into real marriage proposals. Finally, Katharina herself wrote to Luther’s friend Nicholas von Amsdorf telling him that she would be willing to marry him or even Luther himself.
Luther took that as a signal to personally step in and solve Katharina’s problem, which he did by marrying her in June 1525. The marriage caused a general uproar throughout Christendom because of the sheer audacity of the renegade monk taking as his wife, of all people, a runaway nun. Henry VIII was so incensed that he declared the match would produce the antichrist himself. Luckily for Katie and
Martin Luther, they only produced six children and could safely say that none of their progeny had any anti-christian leanings. In many ways, Katharina was a pioneering if somewhat unconventional role model for 16th-century women. She ran away from a cloister and spent a period of time working as a housemaid in the home of the famous painter Lucas Carnache, before breaking all social norms and marrying an excommunicated monk. She then produced six children, managed a household that had a constant stream of guests and at least two farms, ran a brewery and found the time to sit at her husband’s famous table talk sessions and debate with some of the brightest theological minds of her time.
She died from injuries she sustained as a result of a fall from the family wagon in 1552, declaring on her deathbed “I will stick to Christ, as a burr to a top coat”.
Though she stood in the shadow of one of history’s most powerful men, Katharina von Bora was herself a force to be reckoned with. Luther affectionately called her “my lord Katy” and if history is to be believed “lord Katy” left her own mark on history that was seismic in its reach.