A Run-away Nun

Imagine a little five-year old, one of four children, mother recently deceased, new step-mother with children of her own. Imagine her being taken away to a convent, and then at ten taken to another convent to become a nun for the rest of her life---silence the rule. We can hardly imagine it. It’s unreal; it’s child abuse. That little girl was Katharina von Bora. It cost her father to send her away, but it was a good investment--one less mouth to feed, and less less to claim any inheritance. Convents, however, had many positive qualities. Katie would get an education, nor would she die in childbirth--though it certainly wasn’t unheard of for nuns to give birth. 

There is no evidence that Katie hated convent life (as some of her contemporaries did, and escaped to write about it). She never spoke ill of her 18 years of confinement. But she did join with 11 other nuns in an escape to freedom. Though often described in terms of an exciting midnight caper, a dozen nuns hiding among herring barrels in a horse-drawn wagon, it was in actuality a most daring and dangerous feat---and a capital crime to kidnap nuns. In fact, it was one of the most stunning “jailbreaks” in history—-a conspiracy carried out by a dozen tight-lipped nuns and several others on the outside. They made it to Wittenberg, without being captured by Duke George of Saxony. But how does an exhausted nun alight gracefully from a wagon with sideboards? What a spectacle it was—-a spectacle captured in Wittenberg by a student writing to a friend: “A wagon load of vestal virgins has just come to town all more eager for marriage than for life. May God give them husbands lest worse befall.”

A Singular Woman

Katharina stands alone as a woman in Christian history. She is a woman for all seasons. More than that, her life embodies all that is human—struggles and sorrows and joys that belong to every culture and all generations: her second-guessing difficult decisions, her hectic schedule, sleepless nights, family illness and mental health issues, deaths of children. These are not gender-related troubles. Nor is her lost love and loneliness before marriage or her marital clashes related to money or personality differences. These are human problems. That is not to say however, that many troubling matters for her were related to gender and culture. She carried women’s burdens that no man can fully comprehend—burdens that we shall encounter as we glimpse her life from childhood to old age. But most striking is her singularity—her thoroughly unconventional life. She is not easily lost in the crowd of history even considering the paucity of original sources. She cannot be straight-jacketed into the role of a proper Reformation wife—a wife acceptable neither for the sixteenth century nor for today. 

That she was an assertive and decisive manager of household and business affairs has been well documented and today we praise her for that. Less, however, has been sorted out regarding her religious role—or lack thereof—as I write in this book. Her significance can hardly be exaggerated. Indeed, she was the most indispensable figure of the German Reformation save for Martin Luther himself. Take her and their twenty-year marriage out of the picture, and his leadership would have suffered severely. Had it not been for the stability she brought to his life, he may have gone off the rails emotionally and mentally by the mid 1520s. His emphasis on, and modeling of, marriage and family as an essential aspect of his reform would have been lost. Only Katharina von Bora—no other woman—could have accomplished what she did with this most unstable man. Without her, the Black Cloister would have gone to ruin—the result of which would have been no “Table Talk,” and that is only the barest beginning of what would have been lost if she were taken out of the equation.

A Marriage Like None Other

Katharina Von Bora was the most significant individual in Martin Luther's life. I maintain that without her the "Lutheran" Reformation would have barely gotten off the ground. She was anything but a submissive wife, and Martin chided her for that. Was Katie in love? Wildly in love? A heart-pounding romance? For sure. But not with Martin Luther. Indeed, the young man was one of Luther's students. Words were whispered and a promise was made, that is until Jerome returned home to visit his well-heeled parents and told them he would be marrying an impoverished run-away nun. Her marriage to Martin at age 25 was no romance at all; he was a brutish man who, by his own account, had not changed his sweaty, smelly bedding for more than a year. She was determined to change him, and she did. His friends and colleagues thought her to be a domineering woman, but Martin adored her, and she him. 

 What we would find most shocking about Martin and Katie’s marriage would be the circumstances surrounding the consummation. Any secrecy prior to the marriage did not extend to the marriage bed itself. Indeed, what the bride and groom would normally want to be a very private occasion was anything but. Justus Jonas, Martin Luther's close friend, described the scene the following day: “I was present yesterday and saw the couple on their marriage bed. As I watched this spectacle I could not hold back my tears.” And what about Katie? How did she feel about this invasion of privacy? Had she been some sort of sixteenth-century floozy it might have been different. I have long wondered whether Katie herself could hold back the tears during this “spectacle.” It would be enough to make any bride weep.

Katie Luther, Farmer and Business Woman

She was a shrewd businesswoman who ran the Black Cloister monastery like a Holiday Inn; she bought farms; raised crops, cattle, swine and poultry; she planted gardens and vineyards, brewed beer, served as a midwife and was mother of six biological children and several orphans.

With six children of her own besides several orphans, motherhood, as we have seen, had become a full-time job. Add to that adult relatives, students and strangers, and it would seem as though she would have had no time for anything else. But she did. Truly Katie was a workaholic, in part because she could not depend on her husband for financial security. He was heading for old age when she had married him, and it would be left to her to provide for her children’s future. 


For most of her married life, Katie ran a boarding house. Except when her husband canceled their bill, young men paid her for room and board in her Black Cloister home. A bed-and-breakfast of today is no comparison. A term that best describes the general state of affairs is bedlam. Prince George of Anhalt, traveling to Wittenberg, was warned against staying at the Black Cloister then “occupied by a motley crowd of boys, students, girls, widows, old women and youngsters.” The writer lamented this primarily because of the “much disturbance” that interfered with the work of  “the good man, the honorable father.” The three-story structure had “forty rooms on the ground floor alone” and “was at times so chaotic that it is a wonder Luther was able to work.” In the midst of this bedlam Katie soldiered through the day as though it were normal.

Katie as Mother and Widow

She was not only very protective of her husband but also her children. She feared for the health of her husband and was grief-striken when he died. Indeed, she floundered in her later years and suffered a tragic death. 

The book goes into the details of her mothering and her years as a widow and the tragic accident that would take her life.