“There is no more lovely, friendly, and charming relationship, communion, or company than a good marriage.”
Katharina von Bora is still seen as an inspiration for smart and enthusiastic women everywhere. Each year, the city of Torgau appoints one woman as “Katharina ambassador” for her outstanding social commitment.
Torgau was young Katharina’s first stop after escaping from the monastery and was also the place where she passed away in December 1552. In St. Mary’s Church one can visit the epitaph of Katharina von Bora and in the Katharinenstraße one can visit her death house – the only Katharina von Bora memorial site in Germany.
If ever there was a power behind the throne it was Katharina von Bora, or “Dear Kate,” as Luther described his wife. Her story is full of drama. Born of a noble, but poor family, she was only three when she was sent away to school, eventually taking vows to become a nun. In April 1523, with the Reformation under way, she and 11 fellow nuns hid in a wagon and escaped from their Cistercian convent. In Wittenberg, she was taken in by the family of the painter Lucas Cranach.
Although Katharina was courted by two men, she married neither. In the end, she said that she would only marry either Martin Luther or his friend, Nicholas von Amsdorf.
Philipp Melanchthon, Luther’s close associate, was shocked at the idea, reckoning that the wedding would cause a scandal and damage the cause of the Reformation. On the other hand, Luther’s father supported his son, as did Cranach. Having thought long and hard, 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 wedding on June 13, 1525 of a 42-year-old former monk and a 26-year-old former nun.
By all accounts, it was a happy and affectionate union. Luther recorded that he loved waking up to see pigtails on the pillow next to him. He also admired her intellect, calling her “Doctora Lutherin.” She bore six children, ran the household, and organized the family finances. Their home was in Wittenberg’s Black Monastery, the former Augustinian monastery where Luther had lived before the Reformation.
Katharina grew much of what they ate including livestock and vegetables; she cooked the meals and, famously, brewed the beer. To boost their income, she made use of the rooms in the former monastery, running a medieval guest house and offering board and lodging for as many as 30 paying students and visitors.
Katharina was trusted in ways unheard of in those days. Luther allowed her to deal with his publishers and made her his sole heir. 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.”
Six years later, when fleeing from the plague in Wittenberg in 1552, she died in Torgau after an accident with her wagon and horses. She was 53 years old.
Portrait of Katharina von Bora by Cranach
Statue of Ktharina von Bora in Wittenberg
Katharina v. Bora in front of Lutherhaus