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TENTH PAPER: MARRIAGE AND HOME LIFE
BY ARTHUR C. McGIFFERT
Professor of Church History in Union Theological Seminary, New York
TOT far from the banks of the Mulde, just above the town of Grimma, stand the ruins of the wealthy Cistercian convent of Nimbschen. In 1523 one of its inmates was Katharine von Bora, daughter of a nobleman, Hans von Bora, whose modest estates lay only a few miles to the west. She was born on January 29, 1499, probably in the little village of Lippendorf, where her father had a residence. Her mother died and her father married again when Katharine was but a small child, and after spending some time away at school, she was set apart for the religious life, and put into the convent at Nimbschen when only nine or ten years old.
Like many another, this particular convent drew its inmates chiefly from the daughters of the local nobility. At the time of Katharine's entrance, one of her relatives was abbess, and her father's sister was among the nuns. The residents numbered more than forty, and included many young girls like herself in training for the religious life. The life was not of her own choosing, but she grew into it naturally, as her companions did, and was quite ready to take the veil when she reached the age of sixteen. The discipline of the convent was not over-strict, and
Katharine and her sister nuns were apparently happy and contented until the influence of Luther's movement began to be felt. The convent, with the neighboring town of Grimma, lay within the borders of Electoral Saxony, in a region permeated with the new ideas. As early as 1522, the prior of the Augustinian monastery at Grimma, a relative of two of the Nimbschen nuns, renounced monasticism with a number of his monks. It was perhaps the contagion of their example that led some of the inmates of the near-by convent to wish for freedom, and when their relatives refused to do anything for them, they appealed to Luther for help. Since they claimed that their consciences, enlightened by the gospel, did not permit them to remain longer in the convent, he felt in duty bound to come to their assistance. A Torgau friend, Leonard Koppe, who had business dealings with the convent, was commissioned to arrange the escape. On Easter eve, 1523, a number of nuns, including Magdalen von Staupitz, a sister of Luther's old superior, and Katharine von Bora, left the place secretly, and made their way hurriedly to Wittenberg, where they arrived on Tuesday of Easter week.
A month later a Wittenberg student
wrote his old teacher Beatus Rhenanus: "I have no other news to write except that a few days ago a wagon landed here full and loaded down with vestal virgins, as they call them, who desire as much to marry as to live. May God provide them husbands, that they may not in course of time fall into worse evils!"
Within a short time six of the nuns were taken in charge by relatives or friends, while three of them remained in Wittenberg, two sisters finding a home with the Cranachs, and Katharine von Bora with the family of a prominent lawyer, Philip Reichenbach. Katharine was a girl of considerable spirit, and apparently held her head high. When she reached Wittenberg a former student, Walter Baumgärtner, son of a patrician family of Nuremberg, was visiting Melanchthon.
As Luther had helped the nuns to escape, he felt responsible for their welfare, and put them up temporarily in the Wittenberg cloister, already emptied of most of its monks. Immediately after their arrival, he wrote Spalatin of his plans for them, expressing the hope that he could find homes for some of them and husbands for others. At the same time he asked for money to support them until they were properly disposed of, for he was too poor to help them himself. Luther's colleague Amsdorf also wrote Spalatin:
He and Katharine speedily fell in love, and it was hoped a match could be arranged between them; but he returned home in June, and perhaps because of the objections of his family to his marriage with an escaped nun, the affair was broken off. Nearly a year and a half later Luther still hoped they might yet marry and wrote Baumgärtner: "If you wish to keep your Käthe von Bora, make haste before she is given to another who is at hand. She has not yet conquered her love for you, and I should certainly rejoice to see you joined to each other." Whether Baumgärtner replied to this letter, we do not know. At any rate, nothing came of it, though Luther, and Katharine, too, for that matter, remained his friends as long as they lived.
Not nine, but twelve, nuns escaped. Nine of them have come to us. They are beautiful and ladylike, and all are of noble birth and under fifty years of age. The oldest of them, the sister of my gracious lord and uncle, Dr. Staupitz, I have selected, my dear brother, as your wife, that you may boast of your brother-in-law, as I boast of my uncle. But if you wish a younger one, you may have your choice among the most beautiful of them. If you desire to give something to the poor, give it to them, for they are destitute, and deserted by their friends. I pity the creatures. They have neither shoes nor clothes. My dearest brother, I beg, if you can get something for them from the court, you will supply them with food and clothing. You must make haste, for they are in great poverty and anxiety, but very patient. I wonder indeed how they can be so brave and merry when in such distress and want.
The new suitor referred to by Luther was the theologian Casper Glatz, rector of the Wittenberg University. Not finding him to her liking, Katharine refused him, and in March, 1525, when the wealthy bachelor Amsdorf, then pastor of the city church in Magdeburg, was visiting Luther, she begged him to urge the latter not to force her into a marriage which was distasteful to her. At the same time she naïvely assured him that while she was unwilling to marry Glatz, she