Why you should care
Because this tale of an irreverent monk and an escaped nun is a love story for the ages.
When Martin Luther nailed up his 95 Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, exactly half a millennium ago on Oct. 31, 1517, the 33-year-old was an audacious reformer, one who would almost single-handedly (with a big hand from Gutenberg’s printing press) kick-start the Protestant Reformation and alter the course of Western civilization. He was also a life-long bachelor, and a rather slovenly one at that — he’d spent most of his time hanging around other men and was just as fluent in bawdy bathroom jokes as he was in the church’s teachings.
Then, eight years after he designed perhaps the biggest institutional schism in the history of the planet, Luther entered into a brand-new institution himself: marriage, to a recovering nun named Katharina von Bora. And in his union to this remarkable woman, later known as Katie Luther, the reformer found a new force for love and order in his life that he much preferred to the one in Rome he had forsaken.
She brought stability to a fundamentally unstable man…
The son of a miner, Luther dreamed of being a professor as a young man until one day a lightning bolt literally stopped him in his tracks, and he knew he was meant to become a monk. But Luther grew disenchanted with the Catholic Church, of which he was an ordained member. In nailing up his Theses, preaching salvation by faith alone and giving speeches challenging doctrines like papal infallibility, the practice of indulgences and clerical celibacy, Luther did not set out to create a movement, but the man almost hit by lightning would soon become a lightning rod. By 1521, he had been excommunicated, condemned as a heretic and forced into hiding.
While he was in seclusion, however, Luther’s powerful ideas roamed the countryside, winning converts. Among other things, Luther called for nuns to flee their convent confines, and so a group of local nuns wrote to him in 1523 to ask for help in orchestrating their escape. Shortly thereafter, 12 nuns, including one Katharina von Bora, were smuggled out of their cloister inside empty herring barrels. “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town,” one Wittenberg man observed of the daring escape, “all more eager for marriage than for life.”
As Ruth A. Tucker chronicles in her new book, Katie Luther, First Lady of the Reformation, Luther found suitable husbands for most of the escapees, but there was one, a bright, feisty red-haired woman in her mid-20s, who remained uncoupled, having been jilted by her potential partner. And so Martin, at that time 41, with nuns and monks marrying left and right (thanks largely to him), nominated himself for the backup role, marrying Katie in a shotgun marriage (and consummation) without informing any of his friends in advance. “The whole ordeal — from engagement to crawling out of bed,” writes Tucker, “was probably wrapped up in less than half an hour.”
For a long time, Martin had vowed to remain single, in part because he expected to be killed by his enemies at any moment. And he married Katie not out of love but rather pity, and also, as he put it, to “please his father, rile the pope, make the angels laugh and the devils weep.” It’s likewise unlikely Katie saw Martin as particularly good husband material. “He was a brilliant man and a household name when Katie married him,” says Tucker, but “she reportedly said that she would change him to be more to her liking — and she did.”
Katie and Martin’s marriage was an instant scandal, one seized on by his opponents. The prominent Catholic Thomas More compared the union to incest between a brother monk and his sister nun. “Suddenly and while I was occupied with far other thoughts,” Luther himself reflected, “the Lord has plunged me into marriage.” And Katie quickly plunged into reforming her new husband.
Despite his many other talents, Luther was financially inept, hygienically challenged and suffered from a variety of maladies, from gout to insomnia to hemorrhoids. Katie not only nursed him to health and calmed his depressive mood swings, but she did so while also looking after six children and serving as a commercial farmer, brewer and head of a boarding house. Far from being a conventional wife, Katie was assertive, opinionated and entrepreneurial, and she brought stability to a fundamentally unstable man, one who Tucker claims could easily have gone off the rails in his 40s without her.
Katie also brought out a new appreciation of family in her husband. Their marriage was defined by mutuality, and she was his primary confidant. Martin doted on his large family and, after a tumultuous youth, was able to devote himself to the simpler pleasures of life like gardening, board games and music. Marriage and family became more central to Luther’s reforms, and in many ways he became Protestantism’s first family-values proponent. Consequently, Katie should be considered, says Tucker, “the most important individual of the German Reformation second only to Luther himself.”
And by his death in 1546, Luther was undoubtedly a reformed man himself. After all, as he had argued years before in Thesis No. 44: “Because love grows by works of love, man thereby becomes better.”