How do you write a book about a woman whose life story is vitally important to world history, yet almost completely unknown?
It’s hard to overestimate the significance of Katharina von Bora, whose marriage to and influence upon Martin Luther had tremendous implications for the Reformation. But it’s also hard to gather any substantial information about her. We have the bare facts of her life, a handful of letters written by her, and Luther’s own writings to and about her. But we have precious little else.
Yet the Reformation’s 500th anniversary has brought renewed attention to its most significant players, and “Katie” Luther is no exception. Hence, we have a new biography by Ruth Tucker, Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation: The Unconventional Life of Katharina von Bora.
The subtitle is something of a play on words, as one of the things for which Katie is best known is escaping the convent to which she had been sent at the age of five. But as dramatic as that story seems to us now, and as meaningful as her escape was, Tucker wisely cautions us not to romanticize it, or even over-spiritualize it.
What Katie Wasn’t
As with most of the other aspects of Katie’s life, we know little about why she decided to leave behind the life of a nun—which in some ways was safer and more comfortable than the life of an ordinary 16th-century German woman. Based on the evidence we do have, Tucker suggests that Katie’s approach to faith, and to life in general, was more pragmatic than pious. Although she regularly sat at the dinner table with Martin’s students and heard their in-depth discussions, she was unlikely to have been caught up in theological ideas or doctrinal debates; Tucker refers to her as more a Martha than a Mary. And her marriage to Martin Luther was, at least in the beginning, more a marriage of convenience than a love story.
In fact, Katie’s biographer is frequently driven to defining her by what she was not, rather than what she was—rather like a photographer making use of negative space to create a striking image. Thus, Tucker tells us, “Other nuns escaped and brought with them tales of misery and despair. [Katie] would have had the perfect forum at the table, but none of the students or other guests ever reported such comments from her.”
Rather, Katie appears to have spent her life making the best of what she had, both in her life as a nun and in her married life. Apparently, this did not always endear her to Martin’s associates—despite her diligent care for his health and finances, or perhaps even because of it. As is so often the case when a husband is an idealistic thought leader and his wife is a shrewd and practical businesswoman, this wife seems to have caught an unfair amount of flak for looking after her husband’s well-being in every way possible.
Not that both Luthers hadn’t already caught flak simply for getting married. Tucker explains just what a monumental event their marriage was: Not only was it the marriage of a former monk and a former nun, but it was (and still is) widely seen as a way of striking back at the Catholic elevation of celibacy, thereby feeding into the Protestant emphasis on family values. “Without [Katie],” Tucker writes, “Martin’s teaching on marriage and family would have been little more than a skeleton.” Not everyone was happy about the gesture, and many responded with vitriol toward both Martin and Katie, even falsely accusing them of having sex before marriage.
From what we know of Katie, however, it appears that little could daunt her. If her marriage at first was not an affectionate one, she and Martin came to feel and express genuine love, appreciation, and concern for each other. And though Martin was unfortunately one of those male Christian leaders prone to putting down women in public, at the same time he freely admitted that his wife ruled his home, even playfully calling her “lord.” One quote Tucker gives us nicely captures the contradiction between Martin’s words and his actions: “My wife can persuade me anything she pleases, for she has the government of the house in her hands alone. I willingly yield the direction of domestic affairs, but wish my rights to be respected. Women’s rule never did any good.”
Sorting out the contradictions inherent in this statement could bring on a migraine, but there is no indication that Katie ever bothered to do it. She simply went her own way and did what was necessary to support her contradictory husband in every way she could.
An Indispensable Woman
The book is at its strongest when Tucker gives us plenty of well-researched historical background and detail to help flesh out what we know of this strong, enigmatic woman. If she sometimes crosses the line into speculation, that’s understandable, given the paucity of straightforward biographical information about Katie Luther. Unfortunately, she also sometimes veers into excessive repetition, as when she tells us over and over that “Katie worried,” or when she twice tells the same story: the well-known anecdote about Katie dressing in mourning to remind Martin that God was not dead and jolt him out of a gloomy mood. It’s a good story, but it didn’t need to be told all the way through more than once.
The other main flaw in the book is Tucker’s occasional habit of identifying too closely with her subjects and their views, instead of maintaining a biographer’s professional distance. For instance, I was caught completely off-guard by this: “Roman Catholicism is and was wrong regarding married clergy.” Whatever one believes on that subject, it hardly seems the place of a biographer to take such a categorical stand. Tucker continues: “The implication that true holiness requires celibacy has led to serious sexual abuse within the priesthood. Sure, Protestants have had their own sex scandals”—an understatement if ever there was one—“but it has not been fostered by a false requirement for celibate clergy.”
That sounds like an accusation Martin Luther himself might have made, but the truth is that the connection between priestly celibacy and priestly sex abuse has never been definitely established and is still hotly debated. (And the charge is hardly flattering or fair to those of us single people who obey Christian teachings on celibacy, whether Catholic or Protestant.)
These flaws aside, however, Tucker has given us a valuable resource on the life of a woman who deserves to be much better known and respected. If Katie was not a theological giant like the men, or even a few of the women, who helped launch the Reformation, Tucker nonetheless makes a convincing case that she was indispensable to it.
Gina Dalfonzo is the author of One by One: Welcoming the Singles in Your Church (Baker).