Katharina & Martin Luther, Michelle DeRusha. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2017.
Summary: An account of the “most unlikely to succeed” scandalous marriage of Katharina Von Bora and Martin Luther, a runaway nun and former monk who marry out of necessity and principle, and grow into love.
By today’s standards, as well as those of their time, this was a marriage that didn’t hold much promise. A 42 year old former monk and leader of the Reformation marries a 26 year old nun who fled the cloister inspired by Reformation ideals. Friends thought the wife would distract from the important work of church reform. Some predicted that any offspring would be monstrosities. The truth was, Katharina was beyond the usual age for marriage, often in one’s early teens. She had no dowry and no means of support, having fled the cloister where her father had placed her. Luther had actually tried to match her up with other men. At one point, she refused a candidate, saying she’d rather marry Luther (or another man). Meanwhile, Luther had actually had his eye on another nun, who someone else proposed to first. In the end, economic necessity on her part, and principle on his brought them together. Luther was better at writing about marriage and the follies of celibacy than acting on what he wrote. Her proposal probably did as much as anything to decide him. Not a promising beginning!
Michelle DeRusha gives us a narrative of how necessity and principle grew into respect, and eventually deep love. But first she gives us some background in the lives of both, and particular the economic necessities that resulted in the child of a poor but titled noble being consigned to the cloister. We also have the more familiar story of Luther the monk, who undergoes a radical transformation as he teaches the book of Romans and posts debating theses on the evil of indulgences that light the fires of Reformation. These ideas inspire Katharina and a group of others to flee Marienthron convent only to face an uncertain future necessitating for most the finding of a mate, however undesirable.
DeRusha sketches the strong character of Katharina, who quickly whips the Black Cloister into shape, from a somewhat decrepit bachelor pad to a family home where other tenants paid rent–an early source of resentment. Luther’s respect for her abilities (rivaling the woman of Proverbs 31 in her industry) leads to his quickly turning over the household and its finances to her.
But she was no mere domestic hausfrau. She could challenge Luther’s ideas and was a strong enough personality to stand her ground. Other accounts have suggested monumental clashes. This book only hints at these, but does suggest that her strength of character and stubbornness made for a match that Luther came not only to respect but in which he was changed.
DeRusha also shows how this marriage, and Luther’s ideas about marriage changed the institution and regularized it. Prior to their time, many marriages were the equivalent of common law affairs, and often contested when one party claimed vows had been made that were denied by others, or where there were conflicting claims on the same person. Of course, this couple set the precedent for marriage among the clergy. They may not have been the very first, but were clearly the most famous, and set a high standard.
The final chapters touch on both the joys and frailties of family life. Infant and child mortality was rampant and the Luthers lost two of six children including their teen age daughter Magdalena, a heartbreak that drew them closer yet from which they did not recover. Luther’s death exposed the precarious state of widows, made more difficult by an irregular will, and invasions that brought ruin to lands she held. Katharina’s extant letters are from this time, and basically are “begging” letters.
Perhaps the most profound theme of this book is that despite the circumstances, despite the lack of “romantic” love, and despite the inequities between genders, these two strong individuals grew into a deep love filled with mutual respect. Both had grown up in systems where love often followed rather than preceded vows. No doubt some would find the patriarchy and oppression of women of this time deeply offensive. What is more remarkable is how these principled and strong-to-the-point-of-stubborn people challenged convention to the point where Martin addresses Katharina at one point as “my kind, dear Lord, Catherine Luther, a doctor and preacher in Wittenberg.”
This will be a year of many Luther books, given the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses. This book helps fills a gap in focusing on Katharina and the decisive role she played in Luther’s life, and maybe in at least a small way, pointing to the greater possibilities for women inside and outside of marriage, with effects rippling down to our present day. So much of it came because of a woman who decided that she would not submerge her ideas and personality to the strength of a man, even a great public figure, and in the end both were stronger for it.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.