Noble woman and nun – gardener, brewer, cook, and chief financial officer of the Luther household

Katharina von Bora
Katharina von Bora. (Illustration: Marco Wagner)

50 gulden: this was the amount of money Martin Luther offered to his wife Katharina if she read the whole Bible. At that time, it was the price of two barrels of wine, and a pastor could make a living from it for months. Luther never had to pay, because Katharina, who was pious and well versed in the Bible, was not up for such bargains. However, there were another 50 gulden she would have liked to accept. But when Cardinal Albrecht from Mainz offered her this amount of money as an acknowledgment of her work, Luther forbid her to take it. Katharina pretended to give in, but summoned the messenger secretly back and accepted the money.

The only women present during Luther's table talks

Today, Katharina von Bora is often described as a woman who shouldered an enormous double burden as a family women and housekeeper. She, the former nun, who loved theological conversations, was the only woman present during Luther's table talks with all the students, fellow professors and religious refugees. Later, however, her contributions were removed from the minutes. In general, written references are mostly lacking, even Luther did not keep his wife's numerous letters. And the malicious pamphlets about the "runaway nun" enable to draw less than a conclusion about her real life.

She came from a poor family and was given into a Benedictine convent when she was five years old – her widowed father paid 30 groschen to secure her a place there. Aged 10, she came to the Cistercians in Nimbschen near Grimma, where she took her vows when she was 16.

Picture of Luther's wife
The picture of Luther's wife can be found in the museum "Luther's Death House". (Photo: epd-bild/ Norbert Neetz)

In the convent she learned to read and to write. At that time, only five percent of the population were capable of these skills. This is why she was later able to read the letters of her husband, which dealt with complicated questions like the theology of the Lord's Supper. It was also due to her time in the convent that she knew how to manage a farm, how to cultivate gardens and fields, and even how to stage a magnificent meal.

A cloister as a wedding gift

With confidence, Katharina led the "Luther business" – her husband did not know much about money. And she gave birth to three daughters and three sons. The centre of her life was the Black Cloister, the former Augustinian monastery of Wittenberg, which had been converted into a guest house and was given to them for their wedding by the Saxonian Elector John the Steadfast.

Katharina was very conscious of her noble origin, even when she had not married befitting to her social status, but, after all, a professor of theology. She stuck to the rules of society, addressed her husband formally in public, respected that, like every other husband, he had superiority over the household. But she purposefully led her husband by his hand. 

Sparks flew between "Herr Katie“ and Luther

Katharina acted with a high degree of independence. She ran the "students' hostel" with up to forty residence. She looked after the sick ward and the children's nursery, the administration of the farm with chickens, goats, cows and horses, with fish ponds, at a time three large gardens, the growing of grain and peaches. She was the administrator of the former monastery's brewery. A comparison: the only thing that is known about Melanchthon's wife is the fact that she had an herb garden. During the course of the years, the Luther family acquired a small farm near Wittenberg, and from Katharina's impoverished brother they bought the Zülsdorf estate, where she then stayed often. With such a lot of activities, arguments were inevitable: again and again, sparks flew between "Herr Katie" and Luther, who finally withdrew to his work and left the business to Katharina.

In his last will, Luther made her his sole heir and guardian of his children. This went against the law of Saxony. Therefore, Katharina had the last will confirmed by the Elector after Luther's death. Nevertheless she ended up in financial adversity: During the Schmalkaldic War 1546/47 her estates were heavily damaged; the Black Cloister lost its significance. Like most members of the university, she fled from the plague to Torgau, where the courageous woman died from the consequences of an accident.

The text by Eduard Kopp has already been published in the Protestant magazine "chrismon" and on