Monday, 2 March 2015

Kitty, My Rib - the story of Katie von Bora




Now I have two heroines in this world, and one of them is Elizabeth Cromwell (well, dear, if you wanted orange sauce, you shouldn't have made war on Spain, should you?) and the other is Katharina von Bora, die Lutherin. After those two stubborn, domesticated, marvellously level-headed females is Het Babbitt patterned.


There is an argument which I often hear, and it goes something like - but women in the 17th century, they were the weaker vessel, right? Poor dependents, meek and milky and subservient.... right?
Well - some names to look up, to begin with, then. Bess of Hardwick. Elizabeth Cromwell. Elizabeth Lilburne. Brilliana Harley. Anne Fairfax.

All noblewomen? Hardly. Elizabeth Lilburne and Elizabeth Cromwell were merchant's daughters - and Bess of Hardwick knew how to make a penny work for its living, by all accounts.

But die Lutherin is sadly neglected. Her 16th-century life-story reads like something from a lurid romantic fiction - convent-educated, she was brought up in cloisters until at the age of 24, she started to become interested in the growing reform movement and became unhappy with her secluded life within the Cistercian monastery. Now, the weaker-vessel argument would have die Lutherin meekly submitting to male domination, right? Um, nope. She wrote to Martin Luther, a 41 year old rebel, subversive and politically active cleric. An excommunicated priest, mind, who was not known for his tactful expression of his opinions. Katie von Bora wrote to Martin Luther - a man she had presumably never met formally in her life - and asked him to bust her and another twelve nuns out of the Cistercian monastery.

And he did. They were smuggled out in the back of a cart, in herring barrels. A credible fiction author could not make this up.

Luther, despite being the man behind the Reformation, now had twelve rogue nuns on his hands. Their families wouldn't take them back, this being a breach of canon law, and so he found them all husbands. In the end, there was only Katie left. He found her husbands. Nope. Eventually she gave him the ultimatum - sorry, Martin, the only man I'm taking is either you or Nicolaus van Amsdorf, your friend. (Check out the portraits. She made a good call in Martin.)

Katie von Bora then took on the massive tasks of a) running the enormous monastery estate atWittenburg, where they boarded at the Cistercian monastery, b) running the brewery there, c) running the hospital, d) looking after all the students and visitors coming for audience with the notorious rogue priest behind the Diet of Worms, and e) keeping an eye on Martin, who had not been exactly the most promising of eager bridegrooms - he admitted himself that before his marriage his bed was often mildewed and not made up for months on end. By the sound of Katie, she'd have put up with neither the mildew, the unmade bed, nor the grubby husband.

The Luthers had six children (not all of whom survived to adulthood, sadly), Katie had one miscarriage, and they brought up another four orphans. This was not, clearly, a nominal marriage of platonic and dutiful affection. Martin freely admitted prior to his marriage that despite his clerical celibacy he was aware of the existence of the female form, even in spite of the mouldy bed. Had it not been for the admittedly rather pretty Mistress van Bora, it's not impossible that the Protestant clergy would have remained formally celibate for many years - not that Martin and Katie were the first, but their wedding set the seal of approval on clerical marriage. It was a long and happy marriage, if often short of money, and even then it seems that she had the habit of accepting gifts from benefactors on his behalf, and putting the money away for the rainy day that seemed to follow the Luther household around.

They were married for almost twenty years, and he had counselled her to move into a smaller house with the children when he died, but she refused. A sentimental attachment to the marital home where she'd been happy and useful for so long? Struggling financially without his salary, she stayed stubbornly put until soldiers in the the Schmalkaldic War destroyed farm buildings and killed the animals on their farm, and she was forced to flee, living on the charity of the Elector of Saxony until it was safe for her to return to Wittenburg. Bubonic plague then forced her to flee a third time, this time to Torgau, but she was thrown from her cart near the city gates and very badly bruised, and died less than three months later.

She was not buried near to her Martin in Wittenburg, but since one of the Lutheran doctrines was that "It is enough for us to know that souls do not leave their bodies to be threatened by the torments and punishments of hell, but enter a prepared bedchamber in which they sleep in peace," - she probably didn't mind too much.


Ladies  and gentlemen, a toast to die Lutherin, Katie von Bora - the role model for the Mrs Cromwells and Mrs Fairfaxes, the domestic rock on which a political citadel stood firm.

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Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists

Awarded for Excellence in Research by 17th-Century Specialists