Simanaitis Says

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MARTIN LUTHER disagreed with the Roman Catholic Church’s sale of indulgences, its “Get Out of Purgatory Early” scam. October 31, 2017, was the 500th anniversary of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses, also known as Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, his protest that fostered the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther, 1483–1546, German professor of theology, composer, monk, and priest. A seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. Portrait by Luca Cranach the Elder.

Some things about Martin Luther are general lore: posting his iconoclastic views on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church in 1517; his excommunication by Pope Leo X in 1521; his teachings leading to establishment of Lutheranism, one of the largest Protestant faiths; and his leading the way for other Protestant denominations.

Luther posts his objections to Roman Catholic sale of indulgences, its “Get Out of Purgatory Early” scam, on the door of Wittenberg’s All Saints’ Church. Engraving from the 1617 Jubilee.

Less recognized, perhaps, is Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, or as Martin was known to call her affectionately, Katy and “the boss of Zulsdorf.” Katharina has been described variously as of impoverished noble birth, a runaway nun escaping in a herring barrel, a reluctant bride until Luther proposed, an important spokesperson for the Reformation, a capable administrator of the Luther household and estate, and a brewer of beer.

Amazingly, to the extent possible in authenticating events happening 500 years ago, each of these descriptions is true. Indeed, the tale of Katharina von Bora Luther calls for Part 1 today and Part 2 tomorrow.

Katharina von Bora, c. 1499–1553, German nun in the Cistercian order, escapee from this order, wife of Martin Luther. Portrait by family friend Luca Cranach the Elder.

Born, likely in 1499, to a family of Saxon landed gentry, the “von” of von Bora is not inappropriate. Records show that in 1504 five-year-old Katharina was sent off to a Benedictine convent school some 70 miles from home. Five years later, she entered the Marienthron cloister in Nimbschen, only a bit closer to home, where her aunt was abbess. Nuns of the Cistercian order lived sparse lives there, filled with manual labor.

Ruins of Marienthron, Nimbschen, Germany, as they appear today. Image from

In 1515, Katharina took her vows as a novice. But she and others at Marienthron also became acquainted with the theological writings of Martin Luther. In particular, it’s noted, his belief that “grace came from faith alone, not through prayer or works” had an effect on these young women living sparse lives filled with manual labor.

Katharina and her pals wrote to Luther for help. In the spring of 1523, so a story suggests, Luther arranged with a friend delivering supplies to Mareinthron to bring back “empty” herring barrels containing a dozen runaway nuns, including Katharina. Or maybe they simply escaped hidden in the herring wagon, not in the barrels per se. In either event, their escape occurred on Easter Eve, 1523.

This was no whimsical escapade. A person caught abandoning vows of Holy Mother the Church could be tortured and given life imprisonment. What with canon law—and the indulgence scam—Holy Mother the Church could be a cruel mother.

Tomorrow in Part 2 we’ll see how Martin Luther finessed this matter and Katharina von Bora played an active role. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. jlalbrecht64
    November 3, 2017

    You might want to forward this blog entry to Peter Jackson. He has some experience filming similar adventures.

  2. Steve
    November 3, 2017

    The Diet of Worms was a running joke at meal times in our house as a branch of our family tree traces back to the town of Worms. For all we know, one of our ancestors might have been on the scene when Martin got 86’d.
    Thanks for this fascinating look at a theological revolutionary and special thanks for profiling ML’s wife. Most real accomplishments attributed to men are influenced by women in some way, not the least of which being that each of us has a mom.
    On another note – An old friend is Lithuanian-American and has been trying to find a home for an archive of historically significant documents and art he inherited from his parents. Do you have any connections to the greater Lithuanian community?

    • simanaitissays
      November 3, 2017

      Thanks for your kind words.
      Alas, I have no significant connection with other Lithuanians. I seem to recall, though, that there’s a magazine published out of Chicago (which has a large Lithuanian population). It might be Googleable. Ha. A new word….

  3. Michael Rubin
    November 3, 2017

    Paying indulgences, in retrospect, seems a lot like political donations! Good article, Dennis.

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