When Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora married on June 13, 1525, neither was in love with the other. “I do not love my wife, but I appreciate her,” Luther declared in a letter to a friend a few weeks after celebrating his nuptials. In fact, just months before his wedding day, Luther had written to another friend that he had no intention of marrying: “Not that I am insensible to the emotions of the flesh, being neither wood nor stone, but because I have no desire to, and daily expect to die a heretic’s death.” It was not that he didn’t experience physical desire—“emotions of the flesh”—Luther assured his friend, but that he simply was not interested in marrying.
As for Katharina, we cannot know for sure what she thought about marriage—either personally or in general—because only eight of her letters have survived, all of which were related to financial and estate concerns in the wake of Luther’s death. However, we do know that as a single woman and a former nun living in sixteenth-century Germany, Katharina’s options were limited. Survival, rather than romantic love, was undoubtedly her foremost concern.
Nearly five hundred years after they said, “I do,” we esteem Katharina and Martin Luther as one of Christian history’s most legendary and inspirational couples. Click To TweetYet how did two people so obviously reluctant to marry come not only to enjoy a fruitful, loving, mutually fulfilling union, but also to have such a profound impact on the institution of marriage during their own time and as we understand it today?
An Unlikely Proposal
Late on the night of April 4, 1523, twenty-four-year-old Katharina von Bora escaped from a Cistercian convent in rural Germany along with eleven of her fellow nuns. Enrolled in a Benedictine school for girls at the age of six following the death of her mother, Katharina had known nothing but convent life for eighteen years. However, spurred by bits and pieces of Luther’s writings against monasticism and celibacy (both of which he viewed as indicative of works-based rather than grace-based faith) that had been smuggled into their cloistered convent, Katharina and her peers made a bold decision. Risking punishment and possibly even death, they fled the convent and, hidden in a herring wagon, were whisked under cover to Wittenberg.
Upon arriving in Wittenberg, all twelve nuns found themselves on Martin Luther’s doorstep. Luther had helped to orchestrate the nuns’ escape. Months earlier they had written to him, pleading for his assistance, and he had subsequently arranged for friend, Leonhard Koppe, a merchant who made frequent visits to the Cistercian convent, to hide them in his herring wagon. But now Luther faced a formidable challenge. Noblewomen during the sixteenth-century had two choices available to them: marriage or the convent. Luther, feeling responsible for the nuns’ livelihood, took on the role of Wittenberg’s matchmaker, writing letters to potential suitors and facilitating engagements for those nuns who, like Katharina, had not been welcomed back home by their parents.
Two years after their middle-of-the-night escape, only one nun remained unmarried, and Luther was desperate to find her a husband. The problem was, she refused to marry the suitor he had selected for her. Instead, Katharina suggested to Luther that he marry her himself.
For Katharina, the decision was a simple one: Luther was the best choice among limited options. Luther’s decision, on the other hand, was more complicated. Although he had written extensively in favor of marriage for both laypeople and clerics, he was reluctant to take the plunge himself. Perhaps, at age forty-two, he was simply accustomed to the freedom he enjoyed as a bachelor. Maybe he worried marriage would distract him from his reform work. Or perhaps Katharina herself was the obstacle.
“I didn’t love my Kathe at the time, for I regarded her with mistrust as someone proud and arrogant,” Luther admitted many years later. “But it pleased God, who wanted me to take pity on her.” In the end, it seems Luther married Katharina out of a sense of duty, obedience, and compassion.
The Sacred State of Marriage
The Roman Catholic Church at the time had established a hierarchy of holiness, elevating the celibate life over married life and considering monks, nuns, and priests—those who had taken vows of celibacy—holier and more pure than ordinary laypeople. This theology was ingrained in Luther since his childhood. “When I was a boy, the practice of celibacy had made marriage so disreputable that I believed I could not even think about the life of married people without sinning,” he wrote in his Lectures on Genesis. “Everybody was fully persuaded that anyone who intended to lead a holy life acceptable to God could not get married but had to live as a celibate.”
However, as Luther delved more deeply into Scripture, particularly the book of Genesis, he began to rethink the accepted ideas of celibacy and marriage. Ultimately he came to understand marriage and sexuality as divinely ordained. “Whoever is ashamed of marriage is also ashamed of being and being called human and tries to improve on what God has made,” Luther wrote.
Luther was clear: marriage should not be seen as less sacred than celibacy, and married couples should not be considered less holy or less spiritually pure than monks, priests, and nuns. Furthermore, he insisted, marriage and sexual relations within marriage were not only an important means for keeping the sin of lust at bay, they were also divinely ordained, a gift from God to be honored and esteemed. Luther came to understand celibacy as potentially dangerous to one’s spirituality.
From Mess to Makeover
In addition to redefining marriage as sacred and equal in holiness and purity to celibacy, Luther also reformed the institution of marriage itself. Today, Western Christian weddings generally follow a standard protocol. A couple becomes engaged; the engagement is announced, followed by a period of wedding planning; the couple is married by a priest or minister in a church; and the union is celebrated at a reception following the church ceremony. This, however, was not the case in sixteenth-century Europe.
Back in Luther’s day, a couple who simply declared a commitment to one another, regardless of whether or not a priest or even their own parents were present, was considered by the Roman Catholic Church to be married. The Church claimed marriage as one of seven sacraments, yet it was not regulated by canon law in any substantive way. A couple who promised to love one another and live together until death was considered officially married in the eyes of the Church, especially if the couple had consummated their vows. It was also common for boys as young as fourteen and girls as young as twelve to make a secret commitment to one another by promising to marry and then “validating” that promise with consummation.
The result of these clandestine marriages was a rash of broken commitments. The ecclesiastical courts were overrun with thousands of cases of contested betrothal: girls seduced – some of them impregnated – on promises of marriage; young men discovered to have married more than onewoman; and irate parents endeavoring to undo the secret unions of their children. Luther was incensed by the fact that the Church, which charged fees to dissolve contested marriages, was making a lot of money off the mess it had created. “The Romanists of our day have become merchants,” he raged in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church. “There is no impediment nowadays that may not be legalized through the intercession of mammon.”
One of the first reforms enacted by Luther was to “desacramentize” ” marriage, which ironically gave the new Protestant church a greater role in the matrimonial ceremony. Click To TweetAccording to Luther’s definition, only rituals commanded in Scripture by Christ should be considered sacraments. Thus, he claimed baptism, Holy Communion, and, at least initially, confession (which he later eliminated) to be the only true sacraments.
At the same time, however, Luther insisted that the church have a greater role in the marriage ceremony itself. According to Luther’s reforms, a couple was required to meet with their pastor before announcing their marriage intentions and to issue an official announcement of their engagement—called the banns. It was also expected that a couple would marry in a church in the presence of family and friends and with a pastor officiating. Engaged couples were not allowed to have premarital sex—and those who did and were discovered were publicly shamed—and Luther also claimed that marriages of minors that took place without parental approval were invalid.
Luther’s marriage reforms were successful. Within ten years, the number of contested marriages in the courts was dramatically reduced.
A Sixteen-Century Scandal
Although Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora were not the first monk and nun ever to marry, their marriage was by far the most controversial, both because Martin Luther was famous and because of their status as former monastics. Laypeople generally supported the idea of priests marrying, because the fact was, many priests at the time were living with women and even raising families anyway. But they drew the line at the idea of monastics marrying.
“While celibacy was expected of all clergy, and they made a clear vow of chastity, the vows made by the monastics, male and female, were held as more binding because of the separation of the monks and nuns from the rest of society,” explains historian Marjorie Plummer. Monastic marriages were even viewed by some as incestuous, because theologically, a nun was considered to be the bride of Christ and a monk the brother of Christ.
Katharina bore the brunt of the public slander, which erupted and intensified in the weeks and months following the couple’s nuptials. She was accused in published pamphlets of being a whore, a “dancing girl,” and a traitor of Christ. She was viewed as a sex-crazed seductress—a former nun who had broken her lifelong vow of chastity to seduce not just any man, but a monk, and a famous one at that. People speculated that she was pregnant and would give birth to the Antichrist. In fact, rumors and gossip continued to circulate long after their wedding day and even long after Katharina’s death. Biographers writing as late as the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries depicted Katharina as a witch, a she-devil, and a nymphomaniac.
For his part, Luther faced criticism from the pope, the Holy Roman Emperor, and his own closest peers. His best friend, fellow reformer Philip Melanchthon, accused Luther of succumbing to feminine wiles, while others specifically objected to the choice of Katharina for his wife. As a poor former nun with no dowry, they considered her beneath Luther (ironically, Katharina was the one with the noble lineage; technically she was the one who married beneath her social status).
All in all, the deck was stacked against Luther and Katharina living happily ever after. A marriage between a twenty-six-year-old former nun and a forty-two-year-old former monk, each of whom was accustomed to living a quiet, monastic life, would have been challenging under the best of circumstances. Add to that their precarious financial situation (Katharina was penniless, and Luther was perpetually strapped for cash), Luther’s reluctance to marry, the daily threats against his life, and the malicious gossip and scandal their nuptials provoked. Suffice it to say, the marriage of Katharina von Bora and Martin Luther was not exactly what we would call a match made in heaven, at least at first glance.
Katie the Empress
Against all odds, the unlikely union of this runaway nun and renegade monk blossomed over time into an authentic love story. A close look at Luther’s many letters to Katharina during their nearly twenty-one years together reveals the slow but steady maturation of their relationship, from initial reservations, to trust and respect, and ultimately to genuine affection and love. Luther’s letters, as well as snippets of their conversations recorded inTable Talk, also capture the couple’s good-natured repartee and their witty, teasing banter, which reveal the comfortable ease they enjoyed in their everyday lives together.
Luther quickly came to depend on Katharina, not only for her domestic, business, and financial prowess, but also for her companionship. “Kate, you have a god-fearing man who loves you,” Luther wrote to Katharina in 1533. “You are an empress.” “If I should lose my Katie I would not take another wife though I were offered a queen,” he declared later. In spite of the fact that Luther once quipped that he would carve himself an obedient wife out of stone, should he have the chance, it was obvious he both cherished and deeply respected his wife. Capable, industrious, strong-willed, and a gifted caretaker, Katharina was the perfect match for the sometimes-volatile, stubborn, and opinionated Luther, and he knew it.
In addition to her daily workload, which included breeding and slaughtering livestock and poultry for meat, fishing the local streams and ponds, planting and tending the fruit and nut orchards and the vineyard, raising bees for honey, preserving meats, fruits, and vegetables, and brewing her own beer (Luther preferred Katharina’s homemade brew over any other), Katharina also managed the household finances, oversaw the purchase and maintenance of additional properties, and tended to Luther’s many maladies, which included kidney stones, chronic dizziness and shortness of breath, depression, and alternating bouts of diarrhea and constipation.
The couple also parented six biological children together (and weathered the deaths of two daughters), as well as eleven foster children – nieces and nephews whose parents had perished from the plague and other illnesses.
A Chancy Thing
Martin Luther’s reforms elevated marriage to a sacred state—a holy institution to be respected and honored. But Luther did not simply write about the sacred state of marriage; he also practiced what he preached in the everyday circumstances of his own married life. As Luther himself once declared many years after his own wedding day, “Marriage does not always run smoothly, it is a chancy thing. One has to commit oneself to it.”
Martin and Katharina Luther committed themselves to each other and to their marriage. Together they walked side-by-side through more than two decades of joy, grief, triumph, and travail. Together they experienced the highs and lows as well as the everyday, ordinary moments of life together as husband and wife. On June 13, 1525, Martin and Katharina Luther committed to a “chancy thing.” In doing so, their marriage set an example, not only for the people of their own time and place, but to those of us who, nearly 500 years later, look to the Luthers’ genuine, faithful, loving marriage as an example to aspire to in our own twenty-first-century lives.