The Runaway Nun
By Kristin Tabb
On a chilly April night, twelve nuns crept silently into a fish wagon and waited for city councilor Leonard Koppe to begin driving, counting the tense minutes until their monastic vocation would end forever.
These women, smuggled from the convent in Nimbschen, Germany (in a breakout masterminded by Martin Luther), risked punishment as criminals if caught, and braved an uncertain future if successful. They were entirely dependent upon their family’s willingness to “harbor” the fugitives by receiving them back into their homes. Nuns whose families refused them would need to avail themselves of a husband, or discover some rare form of female employment by which they could independently support themselves.
Katharina von Bora, one of these nuns, found no recourse in these options, and after she experienced two failed marriage proposals, Luther found himself feeling responsible for the former nun. The feisty Katharina finally insisted that she would only marry Luther or his friend Nicolas von Amsdorf. Apparently, Luther accepted the challenge and wed the runaway nun on June 13, 1525.
The Pastor’s Wife
Marriage to Luther was a social step down for Katharina, who was born into a noble family, with generations of lordly lineage. It also catapulted her into scandal and public ridicule. Erasmus of Rotterdam even predicted that the union would result in the birth of the Antichrist!
In spite of the tumultuous environment for their controversial marriage, the allegiance proved affectionate, loving, fruitful, faithful, and enduring. The couple moved into their new home, dubbed “The Black Cloister,” and Katharina pioneered a “new” calling that had been absent in medieval times — the pastor’s wife.
The morning after her wedding, Katharina initiated her new vocation by serving breakfast to the few friends that had attended the ceremony the night before. Katharina’s role as spouse of the famed Reformer, mother to six biological (and several orphaned) children, and manager of their parsonage (another innovation of the Reformation) and property became an instructive model for Protestant pastors’ wives of that era.
The Reformers firmly established this role as a high vocational calling with theological and biblical foundation and gave new dignity to Christian women by including domestic work in the ministry of the gospel, thereby transforming the ideal Christian woman from its former medieval ideal (i.e., nun).
God in Every Task
For Katharina, this calling involved caring for Luther, supporting his work and travels, nurturing their children, and a wide variety of tasks involving their parsonage. She renovated the abandoned Augustinian monastery that served as their home; hosted the guests that stayed in their forty rooms; served meals to thirty or forty people regularly and banquets for more than a hundred; and created a self-sustaining household by purchasing and cultivating farmland for gardens, orchards, and animals to provide food for family and guests — as well as making bread and cheese and brewing beer.
In keeping with the Reformers’ view that all of life is spiritual, Katharina did not distinguish between “practical” and “spiritual” tasks, but found fuel for her daily work in that she served God in all tasks. Her engagement in theology was limited to her participation in the “table talks” that the Luthers hosted in their parsonage. She knew enough Latin and Scripture to engage in heated dinnertime debates, a habit Luther apparently encouraged.
“I Will Stick to Christ”
In 1542 Katharina and Luther grieved the loss of their 13-year-old daughter, Magdalena, of which Luther wrote, “My wife and I should only give thanks with joy for such a happy departure and blessed end [for Magdalena] . . . yet the force of our natural love is so great that we cannot do this without weeping and grieving in our hearts or even without experiencing death ourselves. . . . Even the death of Christ . . . is unable totally to take this away, as it should.”
This grief would only be paralleled by Katharina’s grief at Martin’s own death in 1546, which she described in one of her few surviving letters:
I am in truth so very saddened that I cannot express my great heartache to any person and do not know how I am and feel. I can neither eat nor drink. Nor again sleep. If I had owned . . . an empire I would not have felt as bad had I lost it, as I did when our dear Lord God took from me — and not only from me but from the whole world — this dear and worthy man.
Katharina spent the rest of her days seeking support from Luther’s former supporters in hopes of maintaining their home and children, until she died after falling out of a wagon in December 1552. On her deathbed, she proclaimed, “I will stick to Christ as a burr to a topcoat.”