It was a big risk. Nevertheless, 500 years ago it was not just men who advocated the reformation of the Church, but confident women too. They created a female side to the religious movement, as Luther expert Sonja Domröse reports.
Anyone following discussion of the anniversary of the Reformation in 2017 could easily form the impression at first glance that events 500 years ago were only shaped by men. At best, Katharina von Bora, Luther’s wife, receives public coverage. “There were however many more courageous women in the early modern period who adhered to their faith privately and publically,” says the Luther expert Sonja Domröse, pastor in Stade.
Luther’s idea of a “priesthood of all believers” shook the late medieval understanding of gender roles. “Until then, the idea had been that the wife generally looked after the house, did not make public appearances and was largely excluded from education – as if she was a second-class being,” Domröse tells us. “The ideal was the woman who preserved herself as a nun in a convent.” But Luther’s concept included everyone who was baptised, be they a man or a woman. “Be they a man or a woman,” emphasises Domröse, who considers this idea to have played a key role in opening the door to women later becoming ordained as pastors – a path she took herself centuries later.
Not just noblewomen, but women from the bourgeoisie also played a role
In her book “Frauen der Reformationszeit” (“Women of the Reformation Period”) she portrays the female influence on the Reformation in Germany through eight biographies. She makes it clear that women played their own role in these upheavals. Along with Princess Elisabeth of Calenberg-Göttingen, the lives of other noblewomen such as Argula von Grumbach and Ursula von Münsterberg are presented. Figures from the bourgeoisie are also included. Some of them, such as Katharina Zell and Ursula Weyda, supported the new Evangelical doctrine in their writing. The erudite Italian Olympia Fulvia Morata even fled to the land of the Reformation for religious reasons. What they all had in common was that anyone who supported the Reformation took a huge personal risk.
“Male dominance was shaken wherever women discovered and accepted only God as the highest authority over themselves,” summarises Domröse. “By honouring female Biblical figures, the women championing the Reformation took up the struggle for equal rights for men and women in the Church.”