Just a few short years after Katharine von Bora’s birth in 1499, her mother died. Her father Hans remarried almost immediately and for reasons we can’t fully know, she was sent away to convent school at the age of five. Paying the entry price was a stretch for the family; it was a hard, final decision to send Katy away. She seems to have been a typical student, getting in a little, but not notable, trouble, before saying her vows and becoming a Cistercian nun at the convent of Nimbschen in 1515. Her life was simple and dedicated.
Outside the nunnery, though, Germany and all Europe were in turmoil. In 1517, Martin Luther posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg. Many people don’t know that the main thrust of this document was to dispute the Church’s use of indulgences. Put simply, an indulgence was partial forgiveness granted in exchange for monetary payment. Indulgences were an elaborate system with many qualifications and myriad possible scenarios for a transaction. Luther disputed their rightness at the very core.
This restlessness and chaos stretched far beyond Germany’s borders and into all Europe. It entangled not just Luther but many, many more contemporary reformers, like Huldrich Zwingli, John Calvin, William Tyndale, Desiderius Erasmus, and more – not to mention reformers who had stretched far into these men’s pasts, like Jan Hus and John Wycliffe.
Something of this unrest reached the nuns at Nimbschen. On Easter morning, 1523, Katy and eleven other nuns were smuggled out of the convent by a fish merchant named Leonard Koppe. The legend is that they were smuggled out in fish barrels, which is a colorful, if disputable, version of the story. At any rate, the nuns risked their lives in escaping, and only three of them could return to their families. Most girls were disowned when they left, including Katy. These young women were serious about their decision.
Did Katy have a strong, informed theological opinion? Had she read Reformation writings covertly? Or did she simply know that she was in the wrong place? Again, we can’t know for sure.
Along with the eight other nuns that hadn’t returned to their families, Katy traveled to Wittenberg. She lived temporarily with the Reichenbach family, but soon moved in with the famous painter Lucas Cranach and his wife, Barbara. She worked in their household for a few years while she awaited a husband. Matches were being made for the nuns by Luther and his friends, specifically Niklaus von Amsdorf and Philip Melancthon.
By all accounts, Katy was a refined, no-nonsense, trustworthy woman. She was not attractive, though, and was regarded as very strong-willed. Luther cared for her and worked at length to find her a husband, but she proved difficult to match. She did have a serious suitor named Jerome Baumgartner. But when he returned to his family, supposedly to make arrangements for a wedding, he never returned or answered any of Katy’s letters. Katy held out hope for many months before finally getting word that he had married another.
Martin and Katy, as far as we can tell, were very fond of each other, but Martin insisted that he’d never marry, for fear that he’d be martyred and leave a widow. It became more and more obvious, though, that Katy would become his wife. Katy had no other options, and needed cared for. And Martin began to realize that, publicly, by remaining single and celibate, he was reinforcing a mandate of the Church, and of a vow which he’d shed years earlier. Out of good wishes for his wife-to-be, and with the political motive of condoning marriage – even in those formerly cloistered – Martin proposed through a friend, and the two were married in June 1525.
What was it like, being married to the “Father of the Reformation?” Stay tuned.