Reformation Women (part 1: wives): #Refo500atDET

The #Refo500atDET series (introduction and schedule here) intends to deliver posts on many of the important Reformation figures that we all know and love. And that, coincidentally, I’m sure you’ll be able to read about on many other blogs and websites during this period of festivity. However, we here at DET want to take a different tack here at the beginning of our celebration by highlighting the contributions of women to the Reformation. Although they are, traditionally, much less of a focus in recounting of the Reformation, those events would never have occurred if it had not been for courageous women of deep conviction working tirelessly and – far too often, thanklessly – in the background. And sometimes the foreground, too.

So let’s kick off our celebrations by remembering and honoring some of their contributions!

I have to stress that I know much more about some of these figures than others. Indeed, I know very little about some of them. Hopefully collecting their names here will spur others on to learn more about them than I have yet had the opportunity to do. And if anyone would like to write up a guest post for DET on them, our inbox awaits your good pleasure.

By Clemensfranz (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0],
via Wikimedia Commons
Katharina von Bora

Otherwise known as Katie Luther, Katharina von Bora is perhaps the most well-known of the figures in this post. She was born to a landed family, was sent to a Benedictine cloister fir her education at five years of age, and moved to live there at nine. She somehow heard about he Reformation and its theology, and decided that the cloister was not for her. Von Bora made her escape with some friends by hiding in a herring delivery cart. Luther helped arrange the escape, and the escaped nuns headed for Wittenberg. Von Bora rejected a number of different marriage proposals before accepted Luther’s, and she became the invaluable and indispensable aid to Luther’s work. Their relationship seems to have been very affectionate, and Luther wrote letters to her constantly when his work took him away from Wittenberg. Many of these letters contain off-color lascivious jokes which, as far as I’ve seen, von Bora pretended not to have read. So great was Luther’s confidence in his wife that he named her the executor of his will. This was very unusual at that time. Luther died before the Interdict, but von Bora lived to see the apparent destruction of everything that she and her husband had worked for. She died of complications from a traffic accident in December of 1552.

Anna Reinhart

Anna Reinhart was already a widow with three when she met Ulrich Zwingli. Nor was she Zwingli’s first close encounter with women, having kept a few mistresses earlier in his pre-reforming career. This was not uncommon for priests at the time. Anyway, Anna and Ulrich were married in practice in 1522, and then publically in 1524 when the official status of the Reformation in Zurich caught up with them. In any case, Anna’s son from her first marriage, Gerold, was perhaps the one who first caught Zwingli’s attention. He quickly recognized the boy’s scholarly talents and gave him private lessons, and then sent him to University in Basel. In 1523, Zwingli gave Gerold the present of a treatise on “The Upbringing and Education of Youth in Good Manners and Christian Discipline,” which is perhaps my favorite thing that Zwingli ever wrote. In any case, Gerold seems to have been what brought Ulrich and Anna together. We can imagine that Anna was attracted or thankful to Ulrich—or, perhaps, even felt obligated to him?—for the interest that he took in her son. Reports suggest that she was struggling to support her family and was happy for the help. She and Ulrich had four children together in the approximately seven years that they were publically married before Ulrich fell in the Second Battle of Kappel. They seemed to have a happy marriage and Anna took an active role in supporting Ulrich’s work. All the leading figures of Zurich’s Reformation praised her. After Ulrich died, Anna and her youngest children lived with Zwingli’s successor, Heinrich Bullinger. Bullinger’s wife was also named Anna, coincidentally.

Idelette de Bure

Readers of DET know that I have a major soft-spot for Calvin, and that translates into a ton of respect for Idelette because she had the unenviable task of trying to manage him. But she’d had practice. Her first husband was John Stordeur, with whom she had two children before he died. John and Idelette were members of the French congregation in Strasburg that Calvin pastored during his time there. They had Anabaptist leanings of which Calvin cured them. (#SorryNotSorry to any Anabaptist friends reading this.) Anyway, John died at just about the time Calvin started looking for a wife. He found himself a citizen of Strasburg with a salary for the first time in his life, and wanted someone to manage his household. His household at that time included several students boarding with him. We have some of Calvin’s letters to friends describing the sort of woman he was looking for. Bernard Cottret paraphrases these in the form of a personal add (or Tinder profile?): “Preacher of the gospel seeks chaste woman for caregiving, and possibly more. Only serious woman wanted.” I bring this up only to make this point: Idelette was the woman who answered that add! Calvin’s best friend, William Farel, was shocked that Idelette was “actually pretty”!

They were happily married, even if their marriage wasn’t happy: these were hard years for Calvin’s work in Geneva, they both suffered from chronic illness, and they lost a number of children in various stages of pregnancy. After Idelette died, John cared for his stepchildren with fatherly affection and later remembered them in his will. Idelette and John were married for about nine years before she died in 1549. John never remarried and, having read his letters, my view is that was because he had absolutely no interest in another woman trying to take Idelette’s place.

Wibrandis Rosenblat

Rosenblat grabs the whole “previous relationship” motif that’s been developing through Anna Reinhart and Idelette de Bure, and takes it to an entirely different level. Hers is one of the more interesting personal stories that I’ve encountered from the Reformation period. She was married four times, and each of her husbands was a reformation-minded scholar (her first husband, Ludwig Keller / Cellarius in Basel) or important reformer. Her second husband was Johannes Oecolampadius, also based in Basel. Oecolampadius was an important first-generation Reformer who argued the Swiss case (with Zwingli) at the Marburg Colloquy. Rosenblat’s third husband was Wolfgang Capito, who was one of the principle reformers in Strasbourg. But then Capito also died, and she married her fourth and final husband—Martin Bucer. There should be much more on Bucer to come later in the #Refo500atDET series, so I won’t belabor his contribution here. She outlived Bucer by ~15 years, however, and died of the plague in 1564.

It’s staggering when one thinks of the momentous contributions to the Reformation that Rosenblat’s husbands made to the Reformaion, and it isn’t a great stretch of the imagination to think that much if not all of that would not have been possible without the labor she invested in their lives and ministries.

I wish that I had the time and expertise necessary to elaborate more fully the contributions that these (and other) women made to the Reformation. But I do feel safe in asserting that the Reformation would have looked very different, if – indeed – it could have still occurred, without their contributions. Marx teaches us that ideas are always located in particular social and material contexts, and these women provided the some of the most vital social and material contexts for the Reformation. Perhaps the next 100 years of Reformation scholarship might focus on elucidating this legacy, and ascertaining the extent to which the Reformation itself honored or betrayed its most vital supporters.

But I'm not done talking about women of the Reformation quite yet. Stay tuned for more tomorrow to learn about a few women who contributed to the Reformation in a more directly intellectual way - through teaching and writing.


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You know, there was another Reformer's wife who had to hide in a basket as Von Bora did. But we'll be hearing about that Reformer in a few days.

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