I’m addicted to memoirs and biographies, and fascinated by Christian history and daring women, so I jumped at chance to review Michelle DeRusha’s, Katharina & Martin Luther, about a radical marriage of a runaway nun and a renegade monk. This well-crafted book reads more like suspense story than a historical account of two fascinating people in the Middle Ages who changed history. Michelle, a gifted writer, finds an eloquent balance in presenting facts within a well-structured, intriguing storyline that kept me wanting more as I finished each chapter. Sleepy and up way past my bedtime, I found myself reading just one more page.
I knew some of Martin Luther’s influence on Christianity that launched the Protestant Reformation in the 16th Century, including his radical rejection of the Catholic Church due to its power and corruption in seeking indulgences – getting people to purchase a free ticket from punishment of sin. I knew less about his years as a monk and his harsh asceticism, his spiritual awakening, and being excommunicated by the Pope for his unfolding conflicting theologies. I knew little about his influence on clerical marriage, marriage ceremonies as we know them today, and his high esteem for marriage and sexuality as God-appointed. I knew nothing of Katharina, little about girls women in the Middle Ages, or of this fascinating marriage portrayed in Katharina and Martin Luther — a book that opened wide the door into another world of the Middle Ages and a pivotal point in Christian history.
As a filmmaker, I appreciate Michelle’s cinematic writing bringing the reader into the heart of the 16th Century Europe, into the intimacy and immediacy of a scene such as a flickering of candlelight on the wall, a breath, and detailed sense of place and time. Although, little is known about Katharina due to scant correspondence and the fact that women weren’t even considered citizens unless married, historians believe Katharina was born in 1499 into the von Bora family of lower nobility. We soon learn she’s sent to a cloister at five-years-old, alleviating financial burdens of her father, common for many families with daughters, a practice Martin Luther later considered a disgrace.
Katharina’s early years in a Benedictine cloister were rich in education and comfort, however at 9-years-old she moved to a more austere, isolated Cistercian cloister, far from the world where she mostly lived a life of industrious silence and obedience with strict daily practices and duties that allowed little sleep. Michelle’s writing drew me into the isolation Katharina must have felt as such a young girl, sparking a quiet outrage that raised questions for me about the cloister’s oppressive spiritual practices imposed by the invisible, yet powerful ghost of the Catholic Church lurking somewhere in the backdrop.
I won’t offer too many more details because I don’t want to spoil the fun! Just to say Katharina and Martin Luther is a daring escapade of two rebels with a cause challenging the authority of the Catholic Church, a story of scandal and rebellion and history changing material that delights, educates and entertains. It’s also sexy in an odd, Middle-Ages sort of way, as these two heretics, a former monk and nun, break the chains of the rigid sexual ethics of the Catholic church. Readers even get to glimpse the consummation of their marriage on their wedding night!
I warmed to the industrious, strong-willed, intelligent Katharina — amazed by her talents and perseverance: planting fields, butchering livestock, catching fish, preserving foods, hauling water, chopping wood, selling cows, brewing beer, caring for an often ill Martin, concocting herbal remedies, hospitality to an ongoing stream of guests, care-taking a distressed property, being given (by Luther) all financial responsibilities, and more. I leave wondering if she was the ultimate Proverb’s woman (Proverb 31 is a woman who can do it all- She seeketh wool, and flax, and worketh willingly with her hands; She riseth also while it is yet night, and giveth meat to her household; She considereth a field, and buyeth it: with the fruit of her hands she planteth a vineyard, etc.). Or was she more of like a slave under the patriarchal expectations of wifely duties of her time – not much different from cloister life? I’m still contemplating this question.
Martin Luther, well, at first I had mixed feelings about Mr. Luther. His outspoken, fearless tactics and clever rants against the injustices of the Catholic Church, inspire and entertain. Yet, “obstinate, rebellious and sharp-tongued”, at times he seems pompous and even irritating — which also makes for a great character, the kind of person needed to take on the injustices of the Catholic Church and change history. He conformed to the belief of the time (a belief still today held today in some Christian circles), that wives and husbands have separate roles, and men are head of the household and superior as ordained by God. Martin wrote, women are created for no other purpose than to serve men, which made me feel more protective of Katharina — surely she was much more than a servant! Also, I felt irritated by his letters to friends during their early marriage, stating how he really wasn’t attracted to Katharina, although he esteemed her. He wrote to his friend, I do not love my wife, but I appreciate her, feeling only that God willed the marriage. Surely, Katharina deserved more!
Yet, DeRusha goes on to unfold a softer, more loving man who actually deeply respected women, a man fiercely in love with his wife. DeRusha asserts his seemingly misogynist rants about women in his writings were more often part of his typical playful bantering around a table with beer drinking buddies, rarely done without a feisty, outspoken Katharina joining in, holding her own, joining in the fun.
I warmed to Martin even more as DeRusha unfolds the power of his love, honor, adoration and respect of, his Kate –even calling her, Lord! Many consider Martin Luther a misogynist, but his letters and life with Katharina tell a different story. DeRusha writes, how he lived with Katharina in their day-to-day life as husband and wife was another thing entirely — closely bound to, and dependent on Kate.
In the end, Katharina emerged as a powerful force in a marriage surely God-ordained, steeped in a love more rich and intimate than romantic love, an intelligent, strong-willed woman, who alongside Martin Luther, helped change Christian history.
A big kudos Michelle DeRusha, an enjoyable, enriching read and highly recommended!
Michelle DeRusha is author of Spiritual Misfit: A Memoir of Uneasy Faith and 50 Women Every Christian Should Know: Learning from Heroines of the Faith. She also writes a monthly column for the Lincoln Journal Star and has contributed to various online publications and sites, including Relevant magazine, Her.Meneutics, Ann Voskamp, Emily P. Freeman, Grace Table, and For Her magazine. You can learn more about Michelle here.
You can purchase Katharina and Martin Luther here: