"500th Anniversary of Katharina von Bora"



    The Lutheran Journal, Vol. 68, #2, 1999 - Erwin Weber


The year 1999 marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther's beloved wife. According to Dr. Stefan Rhein, Director of Luther monuments in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, remarked that Katharine von Bora was Luther's companion and equal partner; she was the picture of a self-assured, self-confident, liberated woman at the side of her husband. But this most important woman of the Reformation period of the 16th century is relatively unknown, for she lived in the shadow of her powerful husband. Much of her life has been fictionalized and idealized. In her honor, a special exhibit was prepared by the curator, Dr. Martin Treu, in the Lutherhalle which was the former home of Martin and Katie Luther, and which displayed factual details concerning her life.

Although scholars know a great deal of Katharine's married life with Luther, they have very few facts dealing with activities before the wedding and after Luther's death. It is thought that she was born on January 29, 1499, on a country estate in Lippendorf near Borna, which is approximately 15 miles south of Leipzig. Her father, Hans von Bora, was a member of the nobility but lived in poor circumstances. He was not in a position to raise many children. For this reason, he sent his five-year-old daughter to a convent in Brehna. At the age of nine, Katharine went to the Convent Marienthron in Nimbschen located near Grimma. Six years later she took her monastic vows and became a nun. Katharine's Aunt, Magdalene, was also in the Convent Marienthron. Due to her duties, Katharine learned how to manage and take care of a large estate, for the convent owned a great deal of secular and ecclesiastical property which not only covered the cost of its inhabitants (40 servants and 44 nuns) but also showed a profit.

After Luther published his religious tracts dealing with the Monastic Life, and the Marriage of Priests, Nuns, and Monks, Marienthron Convent also began to empty. It is known that during the night of April 7, 1523, twelve nuns secretly escaped from Convent Marienthron. Nine of them, who could not return to their families, escaped in a delivery wagon via Torgau to Wittenberg. Among the escapies was Katharine who hid under a fish barrel in order to avoid punishment for escaping which was death. With Luther's help all of the nuns found husbands with the exception of Katharine von Bora. She wanted to marry an aristrocat from Nürnberg, but his family was against such a union and prevented it. Luther (41 years of age) suggested Katharine (in her early twenties) marry a 60-year-old pastor. Katharine refused and said that if she could not marry Nikolas von Amsdorf (46 years of age) or Martin Luther, she would rather remain single for the rest of her life.

Only six to eight months before the marriage, Luther had no intention of marrying any one, let alone this determined young lady, who since the age of five had spent all her life in a convent. He thought surely she would know little else than singing and praying. He certainly was not in love with her. However, he thought that what he preached to others, he ought to practice himself. Perhaps Luther didn't expect such a beautiful union would result from such a hasty step. Luther learned to love Katharine and the couple had six children. In the beginning, the couple was so poor, they couldn't even afford to buy a wedding ring. Katharine used a ring, which the king of Denmark, Christian II, had given her as a present during his stay in Wittenberg.

Ten years after the wedding, the Luther family was so well off that it was able to renovate their living quarters and make the rooms more comfortable. Of the rooms renovated by Katie, only Luther's room remains today. From its windows on the second floor, Katharine was able to see the entire courtyard below. There was the brewery, a building for taking baths, and stalls for domestic animals such as cows, pigs, chicken, and goats. There was a bench with drawers along the windows which served as a work place for Katie. Here she could sit, knit, or read, and especially observe the activities in the courtyard below. Luther called Katie "The Morning Star of Wittenberg", because she began her duties with the first light of day. She took care of the animals, her large garden, the brewery, and the large tracks of land she bought in order to raise grain for the animals. Some of her property was located as far away as Leipzig. In addition to that she participated in Luther's "Table Talks" and took care of her husband, children, numerous guests, and students that stayed in her house.

When Luther died in 1546, Katharine's world fell apart. In his Last Will and Testament, Luther left everything to his wife and gave her power of attorney. Although the Elector honored Luther's request, the judges in the territory would not permit widows to inherit the estate and ordered guardians for her children. During the year of Luther's death, the war between Protestants and Catholics broke out with the defeat of the Protestant at Mühlenberg. The Elector of Saxony was sent to prison and Katie had to flee from Wittenberg with Philip Melanchthon. Later she returned home without means of support. She wanted to flee again but the plan failed. When she returned to Wittenberg, her fields had been ravaged and burned. She then received modest help from the King of Denmark, the Duke of Prussia, and Philip Melanchthon. In 1552, the plague broke out in Wittenberg and the university was temporarily moved to Torgau. Perhaps, Katharine wanted to be with her youngest son who was studying at the university. During the trip, Katharine fell from the wagon just before reaching Torgau. She never recovered from her injuries and died on December 20, 1552. She was buried the following day in the City Church in Torgau. Her beautiful grave marker can be seen in the church to this very day.