“As soon as this former monk married a former nun, people took interest,” says Gabriele Jancke, a historian at Freie University in Berlin. “The moment someone left the cloister, they destroyed themselves, from the Catholic point of view. It was as bad as being divorced.”
As Luther’s intellectual fame grew, some of his allies, uncomfortable with his wife’s outsize presence, referred to her as “Doctorissa” in their letters – intended as a mean-spirited dig at both Katharina and her husband. Others tried to needle Luther by suggesting that some of his ideas were actually Katharina’s.
“Women at the time were supposed to be seen and not heard,” says Martin Treu, a historian at the Luther Society in Wittenberg and author of a von Bora biography. “Von Bora was seen as self-confident, strong-willed, and independent, which were all negative attributes for women at the time.”
The Luthers’ 21-year marriage was an arrangement unusual for their era. While Luther spent his time teaching, preaching, and writing, Katharina worked tirelessly to keep the family business running. After marrying Luther, Katharina turned a three-story former monastery building into the 16th-century equivalent of a hotel, dormitory, and conference center.
As the Reformation movement spread across Europe, the house that Katharina ran became its epicenter. After dinner, Luther, Katharina, and select guests discussed theology and politics in Latin, hammering out the intellectual framework of the Reformation. Her presence at Luther’s “table talks” was unusual. Women were usually excluded from such discussions, and contemporaries remarked on her presence disapprovingly.
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