In terms of marriage prospects, Martin Luther wasn’t necessarily a natural pick. The middle-aged theology professor was known to be loud, argumentative, and judgmental. He was always on the road, came from a common family, and didn’t have enough money to buy a wedding ring.
Oh, and the pope himself had compared the German theologian to a wild boar, declared him a heretic, and ordered all of his writings burned.
But a noblewoman and former nun named Katharina von Bora saw something in the 42-year-old preacher that captivated her. When the couple married in 1525, it was a scandal that reverberated across Europe—and the beginning of a partnership that lasted more than two decades and shaped the course of history. (Read "How Martin Luther Started a Religious Revolution.")
October 31 marks 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a Wittenberg church, an act that secured his place in history. But historians say his later career—and the Reformation movement he led —might have looked very different if not for his marriage to von Bora.
Luther’s bride was no ordinary woman, particularly for the 16th century. In 1504, at the age of five, von Bora—born to impoverished German nobility—was shipped off to a convent. She spent most of her early life secluded in a cloister in Nimbschen, not far from Leipzig, where she learned to read, write, speak Latin, and sing. It’s possible she also learned to balance books, manage a farm, and tend to the sick behind the cloister’s walls.
At some point, copies of Luther’s fiery pamphlets attacking celibacy and monastic orders may have inspired Katharina and others to reject their vows and leave the cloister. Somehow, a group of Nimbschen nuns smuggled a message to the outside world. Luther worked with a local merchant to engineer a daring nighttime rescue at a time when removing a nun from a cloister was an offence punishable by death. On April 7, 1523, the women were smuggled out of Nimbschen by a merchant delivering herring.
Once the escapees arrived in Wittenberg, they were married off to eligible bachelors within months—all except an older nun who found work as a school headmistress, and von Bora, who turned down several suitors and ultimately refused to marry anyone but Luther. Reluctant at first, Luther ultimately decided to marry. “I have made the angels laugh and the devils weep,” he wrote of his decision.
Portrait of Katharina von Bora painted in 1529 by the Luthers' close friend Lucas Cranach the Elder. - PHOTOGRAPH FROM DEAGOSTINI, GETTY IMAGES
At the time, Luther’s marriage was a scandal on many levels: He was a monk who had broken his vows, married to a nun who had broken hers. As Luther continued his career as a theologian and preacher, his marriage flouted centuries of Catholic teaching about celibacy and the priesthood—and established married clergy as a precedent for Reformation churches.
Predictably, Luther’s enemies seized on Katharina as a weak point, hoping that by discrediting her they could undermine Luther’s credibility as a man of God. She was called an alcoholic, money-grubbing, and a slut. Anti-Reformation pamphleteers accused her of having children with Luther out of wedlock and worse. Just the fact that she was a former nun was scandal enough.
“As soon as this former monk married a former nun, people took interest,” says Gabriele Jancke, a historian at Freie University in Berlin. “The moment someone left the cloister, they destroyed themselves, from the Catholic point of view. It was as bad as being divorced.”
As Luther’s intellectual fame grew, some of his allies, uncomfortable with his wife’s outsize presence, referred to her as “Doctorissa” in their letters – intended as a mean-spirited dig at both Katharina and her husband. Others tried to needle Luther by suggesting that some of his ideas were actually Katharina’s.
“Women at the time were supposed to be seen and not heard,” says Martin Treu, a historian at the Luther Society in Wittenberg and author of a von Bora biography. “Von Bora was seen as self-confident, strong-willed, and independent, which were all negative attributes for women at the time.”
The Luthers’ 21-year marriage was an arrangement unusual for their era. While Luther spent his time teaching, preaching, and writing, Katharina worked tirelessly to keep the family business running. After marrying Luther, Katharina turned a three-story former monastery building into the 16th-century equivalent of a hotel, dormitory, and conference centre.
While local students and visiting professors boarded in the rooms upstairs, paying top rates for access to Luther’s ideas and prestige, Katharina invested the income in a growing portfolio that eventually included a large farm, multiple gardens, fish ponds, and fruit orchards. Letters and account books show the Luthers owned more cows and pigs than anyone in Wittenberg, a town of several thousand at the time. On top of all that, Katharina ran a household brewery that produced 8,800 pints of ale each year.
Martin Luther was 50 years old when Cranach painted this portrait in 1533. - PHOTOGRAPH FROM FINE ART IMAGES, HERITAGE IMAGES, GETTY IMAGES
By subtracting the costs of running the household from what Katharina charged boarders and guests, historians suggest the runaway nun brought in as much money from her various enterprises as her husband did teaching at the local university. “In the cloister, she was at the bottom of the hierarchy,” says Jancke. “Marrying Luther made her the boss.”
As the Reformation movement spread across Europe, the house that Katharina ran became its epicentre. After dinner, Luther, Katharina, and select guests discussed theology and politics in Latin, hammering out the intellectual framework of the Reformation. Her presence at Luther’s “table talks” was unusual. Women were usually excluded from such discussions, and contemporaries remarked on her presence disapprovingly. Sabine Kramer, a historian and Lutheran minister who wrote her doctoral dissertation on von Bora, says when transcripts of the debates were edited and published decades later, many of her contributions were removed, or attributed to men.
Remarkably, Luther’s last will made Katharina his sole inheritor, and named her guardian of their children. (Treu says the move was unheard of at the time, and ultimately ruled illegal by incredulous judges after his death in 1546.) While their marriage had sharply defined roles that would seem foreign to modern feminists, “she was an equal partner,” says Treu.
Kramer says von Bora’s story is a reminder that the Reformation wasn’t a one-man project.
“Luther played his role in the Reformation, but it’s important to remember that she played hers too,” says Kramer. “There wouldn’t have been table talks if she hadn’t provided the table.”