“Far from a mere plank in her husband’s platform, Katharina von Bora was an integral part of the entire foundation.”
That’s from Michelle DeRusha’s 50 Women Every Christian Should Know, in which Katharina von Bora was woman number 6. DeRusha has now expanded Katharina’s story in Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk.
Katharina left behind eight letters, none of which were written to her husband. For a writer trying to bring a historical figure to life, that’s a pittance of primary sources. Somehow DeRusha did it.
She did have some of Luther’s letters to Katharina, sermons and treatises published back in the day, and more books on Martin Luther than she could ever hope to read.
But I know she wished for more of Katharina’s own voice. I sure did. And of course, that made me think of Eliza Hamilton.
“Unfortunately, she was so self-effacing and so reverential toward her husband that, though she salvaged every scrap of his writing, she apparently destroyed her own letters,” writes Ron Chernow in his biography Alexander Hamilton.
Any papers belonging to Katharina that may have remained following her death no longer exist. The remaining family documents were destroyed following World War II.
But oh, Katharina, what might you have written? About your father taking you to the convent school and leaving you there at age 6? About your 18 years in cloistered life? About your escape on Easter eve? About your thoughts regarding this renegade monk both before and after you married him? What about the loss of two daughters? Would you share your recipe for home-brewed beer? Why was Tuesday considered a lucky day for weddings? What did you think of the young men gathered around your table? Of the kings and noblemen to whom you turned for help when society shunned you once again?
The bits of Katharina’s voice that we have intrigue me, including this one: “More damage has been done to me by my friends than by my enemies.” Yes, said every woman ever.
Or when Luther encouraged her to read her Bible cover to cover, she argued, “I’ve read enough, I’ve heard enough. I know enough. Would to God I lived it.” I think her statement shows a profound understanding of theology. She was educated enough in Scripture to be a sounding board and confidant to her husband, Mr. Reformation, but she also knew reading and hearing and knowing isn’t enough. May I add my amen, “Most holy Mrs. Doctor” (one of the tender ways in which Luther addressed her in his letters.)
My favorite nonfiction historical book ever is Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. She focuses on the stories of three people to tell the larger story of the Great Migration. In a similar way, DeRusha uses the story of Katharina and Martin Luther to tell the story of the Reformation.
“Luther saved Katharina. He rescued her from the convent, from a life she didn’t choose for herself, and offered her security, stability, and a place in a society that regarded her very existence with suspicion. … What history has largely failed to acknowledge, however, is that Katharina saved Luther as well. … The Protestant Reformation would have happened without the marriage of Luther and Katharina. But Luther would not have been the same Reformer without Katharina.”
As I finished the book on Thursday, while the plumber (who I’ve come to know on a first-name basis) installed a new water heater, I started writing this review. On Friday I slept and rose and did as many errands as I could to avoid finishing it. Finally I wrote, “So this is personal.”
Katharina’s story is personal to me because it made me wonder what other women in my life have not left a record.
I have only a few things written by my mom, mainly prayer letters to friends and family during her years with cancer. I also have a journal she wrote when she was pregnant with me, that she abandoned when real life required more attention. From her mother, I don’t have anything (although Nannie was more of a numbers gal). From my dad’s mother I have one letter.
Then there’s me. My children will have more writing than they’ll know what to do with. But even so, they’ll never see the poems I’ve deleted. I’ve burned letters. I have given great thought to what my writing journals say, should someone find them after I’m gone and choose not toss them in a landfill. I tweet with care.
Speaking of Twitter, while jotting notes for this review, I came across an essay by Rahawa Haile, who hiked the Appalachian Trail in 2016 and read books by black writers along the way. She wrote, “That visibility is vulnerability, but that it also paves the way toward action for those who see themselves in you. That your existence, whether you see it or not, helps others be brave.”
Katharina lived in a time when she was already plenty vulnerable. More visibility might not have been wise for a woman who existed between the years of 1499-1552. I’m not bold enough to say I see myself in her, but I see in her the woman I want to be. DeRusha, in telling Katharina’s story, helps me be more brave.