When we last connected with Katharine von Bora and her husband, Martin Luther, it was June 1525, and they had just married. Luther consented to the marriage as a testimony to his theology about monastic life. But life with Katie proved to be more than Luther could have imagined. In some measure, if Luther had any success during his last two decades, it happened because of the woman who’d insisted on him as her bridegroom.
Katie Luther managed the household and their finances, which were, at first, precarious. The newly married Luther’s weren’t sure how they’d make ends meet. The new elector, John, sent a wedding gift of a hundred gulden. Even Luther’s theological and political enemy, Albrecht of Mainz, sent twenty gulden. Luther wanted to send it back, but Katie insisted on keeping it. Eventually, Prince John of Saxony arranged for Luther to be paid 200 gulden a year, the highest of any professor at the university. Still, it certainly didn’t make Luther a member of the upper class. Because the prince was paying him, Luther refused compensation for any of his speaking or preaching gigs. For a while in 1527, Luther briefly thought he would take up carpentry to help his family financially. He even had woodworking tools shipped in from Nürnberg.
In some measure, if Luther had any success during his last two decades, it happened because of the woman who’d insisted on him as her bridegroom.
Katie and Martin continued to live in the Augustinian monastery – a big place with lots of empty rooms. It was deeded over to them. There were only about twenty gulden of furnishings left because all the monks who had left had taken bits and pieces with them. At the time of their wedding, the straw in Luther’s bed hadn’t been changed for a year, and it was rotting from the moisture of his sweat. Luther may have thought he was the one granting Katie some autonomy in running the household, but she knew better. She said, “I must train the Doctor differently, so that he does what I want.” It was her gardening and cattle raising that supplemented Luther’s income enough for them to survive financially. She drove the wagon, cultivated the fields, fed the animals, did the shopping, and brewed the beer.
The household didn’t just include Katie and Martin. In October 1525, Katie began showing signs of pregnancy. The baby was born in June, and they named him Hans. Their second child, Elizabeth, was born in 1527 in the middle of an outbreak of the plague, and she died just a little over a year later. Luther and Katie had six children, and we know that theirs was a lively household. In his letters home, Luther would often send kisses to the kids. Our Christmas carol, “From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” was a hymn Luther wrote to be performed as a Christmas pageant at home. One of Luther and Katie’s children, Magdalena, also died as a child. Luther was heartbroken and pretty much shut down for a few months, doing no work, writing nothing. Katie and Luther’s household was augmented by the six children of Luther’s own sister who had died, as well as the children of another sister. Katie’s aunt Magdalena von Bora, who had also been a nun at Nimbschen and fled the abbey, lived with them and became the children’s, dear Tante Lena.
Other professors who taught at the University of Wittenberg also lived in the old monastery, along with reformers who had been kicked out of the lands of Roman Catholic princes and pretty much any stray evangelical Luther happened to meet. He regularly brought people home for supper to Katie’s great surprise and chagrin, and she had to come up with enough food to feed them all. Luther’s conversations around the table were renowned. His comments were written down and collected and are now known as the Table Talks. There’s an entire volume of Luther’s works dedicated to them.
It’s around the time of Luther’s marriage that you start to see a change in Luther’s shape in paintings of him: he gets a little more dignified and fatter. But even early in his married years, Luther’s health deteriorated. He had heart palpitations and kidney stones, and he suffered chronic constipation. In one letter home, when Luther was off traveling to settled one dispute or another, he responded to a recommendation that Katie had sent to him for how to remedy whatever it was that ailed him. He said, “Your manure cure didn’t work.” There were lots of recipes floating around in those days for concoctions that included various kinds of livestock manure in the list of ingredients. Even though that particular medicine didn’t work, in so many other ways, Katie made it possible for Luther to work at extending the Reformation and establish a formal church in the coming years.
Luther’s last will and testament was interesting. Luther had willed everything to her, which was an odd bit of equality in the 16th century. He gave her the property of their farm. She was also to have the use of a small house in front of the monastery. She was given household goods and valuables like rings and necklaces. There were about 1,000 gulden in coins. Luther wanted Katie to be independent of the children, knowing she would see to their best interests. His prince, Elector John Frederick, saw to it that Luther’s wishes were carried out. At one point in his last years, Luther said it would be best if Katie lived out at one of their farms when he was gone, rather than in Wittenberg – which some people see as a sign that Katie wasn’t well-liked in town.
In so many other ways, Katie made it possible for Luther to work at extending the Reformation and establish a formal church in the coming years.
When Luther died in 1546, Katie was heartbroken. This is what she wrote her sister-in-law:
For who would not be as sad and afflicted at the loss of such a precious man as
my dear lord was? He did great things not just for a city or a single land, but for the whole world. Therefore I am truly so deeply grieved that I cannot tell a single person of the great pain that is in my heart. And I do not understand how I can cope with this. I cannot eat or drink, nor can I sleep. And if I had a principality or an empire and lost it, it would not have been as painful as it is now that the dear Lord god has taken from me this precious and beloved man, and not from me along, but from the whole world.
After Luther’s big speech before the Holy Roman Emperor at the Diet of Worms in 1521, the Emperor’s edict made Luther wanted dead or alive. All his books were to be burned. And anyone who associated with him or supported him could have all their property impounded. Luther survived thanks to his princes’ ongoing protection. After Luther’s death in 1546, the emperor’s armies went after the evangelical princes with a vengeance. Katie was forced to flee Wittenberg, and all her property was confiscated. She was penniless. She was able to come back to Wittenberg a couple times, only to be driven off by the plague. In the winter of 1552, she was in a wagon that rolled over and was thrown into a canal filled with ice-cold water and severely injured. She never recovered. She died at the age of just 53 on December 20, 1552. Luther’s dear Katie (and ours) is buried in St. Mary’s Church in Torgau, a town near Leipzig, where a stone effigy in her likeness stands watch at the side of the chancel.
But that image isn’t the real Katie Luther. The best portrayal of her is a modern statue in the central courtyard in front of the Augustinian monastery in Wittenberg, where she and Martin lived. There she stands looking over toward the big rambling building. She can see the “Katie Portal,” the doorway Luther had built for her. On either side of the door, you’ll find a seat for the happy couple to sit and watch their children at play and see their many visitors approach. The Katie statue stands guard over it all and gives witness to the gift of marriage, to the gift her husband was to her, and to the gift the gospel is to you 500 years later.