Parsonage and Prophecy
Her name was Katherine von Bora. She was 26, an escaped nun who had left the convent along with 10 of her sisters when she became convinced of the truth of Lutheran theology. After two years as a guest in the home of German artist Lucas Cranach and his family, who made various attempts to marry her off, she finally gave word that she would only marry either Luther's friend Amsdorf or Luther himself. She and the 42-year-old reformer were married on June 13, 1525. The marriage lasted 20 years, produced six children, and (to the dismay of many, including the Catholic pamphleteer who addressed her as a "poor fallen woman" who had "gone to Wittenburg like a chorus girl" and by her example "reduced many godly young women in the cloisters to a pitiable state of body and mind") changed the relationship of women, church, family, and ministry forever.
The Reformation has often been seen as freeing women from captivity—to convents, the dangers of the confessional, and an ideal that exalted virginity, clerical celibacy, and a male priesthood. Women, like men, were part of the Protestant "priesthood of all believers;" they could bypass church hierarchy, read and hear the Bible in the vernacular, and choose marriage instead of a life behind convent walls. Many women indeed died for this newfound confession, or for the newfound faith of their reforming husbands. Some of them, like Argula von Grumbach and Katharina Schütz Zell, wrote considerable theology themselves. Zell even officiated at several funerals—including her husband's.
But at the same time, women's roles in the church shifted, subtly but certainly, as Katherine von Bora Luther's had done—away from the church itself and into the home. Other trends born of Reformation theology were at work here, as historian Peter Matheson has written—"the disappearance of the nunnery and other religious associations, the new centrality of the family, with the patriarch set firmly at its head, the critique of popular culture and its replacement by a piety under the word."
Nuns, mystics, and fund-raisers
It did not take the Reformation to inspire theological reflection by women; medieval women (chiefly nuns) were popular devotional authors. Benedictine abbess Hildegard of Bingen founded two monasteries, went on preaching tours, and wrote music and medical treatises in her spare time. Clare of Assisi escaped a potential arranged marriage to join the Franciscan movement and founded an entire order of nuns in that tradition. Catherine of Siena (later named a Doctor of the Church) wrote works of scholastic theology and frequent letters of advice and counsel to the pope. And even though Julian of Norwich never left her cell, her writings inspired other mystics and pilgrims—including professional pilgrim Margery Kempe.
While these women's public witness and management skills were obvious, the public service of women was also vital to the practice of popular piety in the local church. Wealthy women contributed money and gifts to church upkeep. A study of medieval English wills notes that they were much more likely than men to leave bequests to individual saints (usually jewelry and handkerchiefs) and to give very specific instructions about the disposition of their gifts. Historian Katherine French writes, "Sheets became altar cloths, gowns and dresses became copes and vestments, and kerchiefs became corporaxes to cover the host."
Middle-class women were likely to be found baking communion bread, mending altar cloths, sewing vestments for the priests (out of donated kerchiefs and diapers), and caring for the statues and paintings of saints which filled medieval churches. One of the most popular female saints, next to the Virgin Mary, was the Virgin's mother, St. Anne. Most paintings and statues pictured her teaching her daughter—and her grandson Jesus—to read, in what was often called the "Saint Anne Trinity." (When such images were revived by 19th-century Victorian artists, the books were re-imagined as needlework.)
Medieval women also participated in parish guilds and confraternities, which served in equal parts as devotional community, social network, and fund-raising organizations. Within these single-sex groups, just as in convents, women exercised various positions of leadership and often handled their own money, not without controversy from male parish officials and confraternity brothers who tried to get their hands back on the purse strings.
Introducing the Pastor's Wife
Most obviously, the Reformation removed convents as an avenue of ministry (and management) outside home and family. But it touched women's daily piety in smaller ways as well. Reformation of the sacraments returned baptism to public worship, but in the process took it out of the hands of lay midwives who had often administered it in emergency situations. Reformation of church decoration and worship eliminated the saints to whom women had voiced feminine concerns, the altars that female guilds had cleaned and decorated, and the feast days on which they had raised money. While Protestant churches still contained sacred objects, chiefly communion vessels, women's contributions to their upkeep became less public and organized. In addition, re-arranged church seating put families together, rather than separating the sexes, emphasizing the family's new role as the center of devotional practice.
Women shifted many of their management skills from church groups and guilds into the family circle, especially in the role Katherine von Bora Luther pioneered—that of the pastor's wife. The Luthers and the Zells, among other high-profile clerical couples, kept a constantly running open house, which included family members, friends, students, and the occasional reformer on the run from the magistrates. One woman, Wibrandis Rosenblatt, managed such a cross between an orphanage, hospital, and school for no less than three leading reformer husbands.
The Luthers lived in the "Black Cloister;" formerly Martin Luther's home as a monk, it was given to them by Elector Frederick the Wise, and its 40 rooms were nearly always full. They hosted at various times the Duchess Ursula of Münsterburg, an escaped nun, and Electress Elisabeth of Brandenburg, also escaping (from her Catholic husband) and waiting for the Elector of Saxony to renovate a castle for her use. While Luther traveled, preached, and wrote, Katie (with the help of aunt, children, and servants) sowed and reaped the garden, planted an orchard, brewed beer, milked and slaughtered cattle, made butter and cheese, and bought a nearby brook and fished from it.
Katharina Zell, in addition to taking in large groups of Protestant refugees, wrote theological pamphlets, starting with a defense of her husband—clergyman Matthew Zell, who had been excommunicated due to marrying her. She also engaged in debate by open letters with male theologians and edited a hymnal. She and Argula von Grumbach were not alone in their literary endeavors, although von Grumbach's writing career was the most controversial because her husband was a lay nobleman, not a priest. Pastors' wives and royalty alike defended their faith in print in the Reformation's early days, though not all as prolifically. (As Roland Bainton once pointed out, queens were likely to be involved in such debates "for the simple reason that they were already queens.")
However, it was the management of the clerical household, not the theological defense of clerical marriage and an egalitarian lay priesthood, which survived into later generations as the most defining feature of this new form of female ministry. Unlike both convents and parish guilds, it was a role which by definition required a male presence, making an exception rather than a rule out of the consecrated single life—as practiced by Margaret Blaurer, who dedicated herself to serving the poor in the world (and whom Martin Bucer, Wibrandis's last husband, repeatedly tried to marry off), or Zell herself, who in her youth headed up an informal group of women devoted to practicing the means of grace. (Although some convents remained open for generations as Lutheran "boarding houses" when their nuns refused to leave, single-sex devotional groups were otherwise less prominent.)
"Your sons and daughters, servants, maids/ Will prophesy; read Scripture straight, / And learn from God what this could mean," von Grumbach wrote. As she and her compatriots cooperated to dethrone the St. Anne Trinity in service to the Gospel message, they may never have realized how strongly their actions would establish the parsonage, rather than prophecy, in its place.
Jennifer Woodruff Tait is adjunct professor of church history at four institutions (Asbury Theological Seminary, Huntington University, Southwestern College, and United Theological Seminary). Edwin Woodruff Tait is assistant professor of Bible and religion at Huntington University.
Copyright © 2009 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History & Biography magazine.
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