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IT WAS the year 1523, six years after theologian Martin Luther posted his disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church. With Luther’s help, a dozen Cistercian nuns, including novice Katharina von Bora, had escaped from Marienthron cloister. This was only Part 1 of the tale. Here’s Part 2.

Martin Luther, 1483–1546, German professor of theology, abetter in escape of a dozen nuns from Marienthorn cloister on Easter Eve, 1523. Portrait by Luca Cranach the Elder, 1526.

The runaway nuns arrived in Wittenberg, where Luther taught at the university. At first, he contacted the women’s families. A few wanted them back, but most, including Katharina’s family, did not. Sheltering an escaped nun was against Roman Catholic Canon law.

Luther helped find husbands for some and families willing to take in the others. Katharina stayed with the family of Luca Cranach the Elder, a portrait painter friend of Luther, fortuitous to our having more than a few portraits of her today.

Katharina von Bora, c. 1499–1553, German ex-nun, destined to marry Martin Luther and play an important role in the Protestant Reformation. Portrait by Luca Cranach the Elder, 1526.

Reluctant to settle for just any husband (she turned down two proposals), Katharina said she’d marry only Luther or Nikolaus von Amsdorf, his friend, fellow theologian, and supporter.

Nikolaus von Amsdorf, 1483–1565, German theologian, professor at the University of Wittenberg, Protestant Reformer, supporter of Martin Luther.

Given Katharina’s von Bora heritage, von Amsdorf might have been a better catch in terms of the social register. And, with sad irony, the town of his birth, Torgau on the Elbe, will reappear in this tale.

Luther and his wife. Image from Lutheran

Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora entered holy matrimony on June 13, 1525. Katharina was 25; Martin, 42. Luther may have said, “The marriage will please my father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.”

The Luthers had six children. The first, Johannes, named after Martin’s father, was born June 7, 1526, almost a year after their marriage and putting end to some aspects of the ex-monk/ex-nun gossip.

Magdalena Luther, 1529–1542, third child and second daughter of Martin and Katharina Luther. Portrait by Luca Kranach the Elder.

Luther continued with his theological post at the University of Wittenberg. Katy, as Martin called his wife, assumed management of the Black Cloister, a former Augustinian monastery deeded to the Luthers by the ducal family of Saxony.

As observes, prior to the nineteenth century, earning money and running a household were not separate spousal activities. Therefore, a wife was inevitably active in the role of both economic producer and manager of a household.

Katharina’s dual role of housewife and entrepreneur was laudable, but not unique in the era. It’s one reason that Luther sensed no irony in referring to her as the “Boss of Zulsdorf” and the “Morning Star of Wittenberg.” He recognized her getting on with things each day at 4 a.m., including operation of the farm’s brewery. At the same time, being educated in Latin and not unfamiliar with theology, Katy took an active part in her husband’s discussions of Reformation matters.

The Luther family in happy times. Portrait by G.A. Spangenberg, 1866.

After Luther’s death in 1546 at age 62, and consequent loss of his academic salary, Katharina fell on hard times. What’s worse, the Saxon ducal family was defeated and imprisoned as a result of violent disputes, 1546–1547, between the Schmalkaldic League, an alliance of Lutheran princes, and the Holy Roman Empire (which, as Voltaire noted, was neither holy, nor roman, nor an empire).

Even though the Lutheran princes were vindicated, Katharina’s holdings were largely destroyed. Then, in 1552, there was significant crop failure followed by an outbreak of the plague. In escaping this mayhem, Katy was killed as a result of a cart accident at the city gates of Torgau on the Elbe. She was 53.

To Lutherans and the rest of us, Katharina von Bora Luther serves as a great model for both men and women. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Paul Williamsen
    November 4, 2017

    The period of The Reformation, 500 years ago, is a real story about the intersection of technology, religion & democracy.

    1. The liturgical changes Luther proposed might not have been possible without Gutenberg’s printing press. How else was the congregation to learn the words to the Mass and to read The Bible themselves?

    2. The churches of the Protestant faiths developed as being owned and run by the members of the congregation, with the clergy as servants rather than dictators. Would democracy have flourished around the world in the coming centries without Luther’s having put such a positive religious spin on democracy?

    3. Then there’s Bach and the other German composers of the Baroque: Luther wanted the congregation to have an active role in the mass, not to be led by preachers or cantors. The lovely four-part choral music of Bach, Mozart Handel, et al. must have been essential to the churches of the early reformation to give the people hymns they could sing.

    There’s a TEDtalk in here somewhere, or at least a thesis for a Masters in Info Technology. Or Divinity.

    • simanaitissays
      November 4, 2017

      Thanks for these insights, Paul. I agree. And, for example, Luther’s translation of the Bible into German helped this democratization too.

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