Katharina von Bora, after her wedding Katharina Luther, also referred to as “die Lutherin”, was the wife of Martin Luther, German reformer and a seminal figure of the Protestant Reformation. Beyond what is found in the writings of Luther and some of his contemporaries, little is known about her.
Born into a noble but poor family on 29 January 1499 in Lippendorf, Katharina was only five when she was sent away to school and eventually took vows to become a nun. After several years of religious life, Katharina became interested in the growing reform movement and grew dissatisfied with her life in the monastery. 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. Conspiring with several other nuns to flee in secrecy, she contacted Luther and begged for his assistance. On Easter Eve, 4 April 1523, Luther sent Leonhard Köppe, a city councilman of Torgau and merchant who regularly delivered herring to the monastery. Katharina and 11 of her fellow nuns hid in a wagon and escaped from their Cistercian convent. Once the wagon arrived in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, she was taken in by the family of none other than Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Katharina had a number of suitors, including Wittenberg University alumnus Jerome (Hieronymus) Baumgärtner (1498–1565) of Nuremberg and a pastor, Kaspar Glatz of Orlamünde. None of the proposed matches resulted in marriage. She told Luther’s friend and fellow reformer, Nikolaus von Amsdorf, that she would be willing to marry only Luther or von Amsdorf himself.
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. The pope himself had compared the German theologian to a wild boar, declared him a heretic, and ordered all of his writings burned.
Philipp Melanchthon, one of Luther’s closest friends, was shocked at the idea of Luther marrying. He believed a wedding would cause a scandal that could severely damage the Reformation and its cause. On the other hand, Luther’s father supported his son, as did Cranach. After pondering the matter for some time, Luther decided that “his marriage would please his father, rile the pope, cause the angels to laugh, and the devils to weep.” The result was the joining of a 42-year-old former monk and a 26-year-old former nun in holy matrimony on June 13, 1525.
By all accounts, it was a happy and affectionate marriage. Luther wrote that he loved waking up to see pigtails on the pillow next to him. He also admired Katharina’s intellect, calling her “Doctora Lutherin.”
The couple took up residence in the “Black Cloister” (Augusteum), the former dormitory and educational institution for Augustinian friars studying in Wittenberg, given as a wedding gift by the reform-minded John, Elector of Saxony, who was the brother of Luther’s protector Frederick III, Elector of Saxony.
Katharina immediately took on the task of administering and managing the monastery’s vast holdings, breeding and selling cattle and running a brewery to provide for their family, the steady stream of students who boarded with them, and visitors seeking audiences with her husband. In times of widespread illness, Katharina operated a hospital on site, ministering to the sick alongside other nurses.
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 center.
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.
Luther called her the “boss of Zulsdorf,” after the name of the farm they owned, and the “morning star of Wittenberg” for her habit of rising at 4 a.m. to take care of her various responsibilities. He also called her “Lord Katie” in some of the 21 surviving letters he wrote to her.
As Luther’s intellectual fame grew, some of his allies, uncomfortable with his wife’s powerful 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. Von Bora was seen as self-confident, strong-willed, and independent, which were all negative attributes for women at the time.
After dinner, Luther, Katharina, and select guests would discuss 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 that “Luther played his role in the Reformation, but it’s important to remember that she played hers too. There wouldn’t have been table talks if she hadn’t provided the table.”
Although we know little of Katharina’s own views about her unusual life, we do know that she loved her husband deeply. After his death in 1546, she wrote: “He gave so much of himself in service not only to one town or to one country, but to the whole world. Yes, my sorrow is so deep that no words can express my heartbreak, and it is humanly impossible to understand what state of mind and spirit I am in . . . I can neither eat nor drink, not even sleep . . . God knows that when I think of having lost him, I can neither talk nor write in all my suffering.”
While fleeing the plague in Wittenberg in 1552, Katharina died in Torgau after a terrible accident with her wagon and horses. She was 53 years old.
By the time of Katharina’s death, the surviving Luther children were adults. After Katharina’s death, the Black Cloister was sold back to the university in 1564 by his heirs. Hans studied law and became a court advisor. Martin studied theology but never had a regular pastoral call. Paul became a physician. He fathered six children and the male line of the Luther family continued through him to John Ernest Luther, ending in 1759.
Margareta Luther, born in Wittenberg on December 27, 1534, married into a noble, wealthy Prussian family, to Georg von Kunheim (Wehlau, July 1, 1523 – Mühlhausen, October 18, 1611, the son of Georg von Kunheim (1480–1543) and wife Margarethe, Truchsessin von Wetzhausen (1490–1527)) but died in Mühlhausen in 1570 at the age of thirty-six. Her descendants have continued to modern times, including German President Paul von Hindenburg (1847–1934) and the Counts zu Eulenburg and Princes zu Eulenburg und Hertefeld.