Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife in Review

Would it be too much to say that part of being human is to love a good story? I believe we were created with the ability to learn significant truths from the stories we read and hear, often times unaware that anything at all has transpired. But then the bits and pieces come together over time, and we suddenly realize that a story has shaped our thinking and feeling. Wittgenstein once said, “A new word is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of discussion.” We might tweak that a bit and say, “A new story is like a fresh seed sown on the ground of imagination.”

I had the immense pleasure of returning to the world of historic fiction last week through the writing of Anne Boileu. Most of you are probably aware of the anniversary the Protestant world is about to celebrate on October 31st of this year. With that in view, Ms. Boileu has written a “fresh seed” that tells the story of Katharina von Bora’s life in autobiographical form. We can thank this innovative style for giving us an accurate, exciting, and beautifully detailed portrait of the great German reformer’s wife. Additionally, each chapter opens with a quote from Martin Luther’s Table Talk.

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Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife takes us on an amazing journey that begins in Lippendorf where Katharina spends her early childhood, then to Nimbschen where Katharina enters a Cistercian house (at the age of 9), and finally to Wittenberg—the eye of the Reformation storm—by way of a herring barrel.

The reader is swept into the incoming tide of turmoil and rebellion among the peasants while at the same time given a chance to eavesdrop on the landed class and gentry. However, the real feat the author accomplishes is plunging us into the heart and mind of Katharina from her childhood years all the way into her early adult life. Katharina invites us into the inner world of her struggles, discoveries, and triumphs, fleshed out through her friendships, loyalties, and loves.

Boileu also does a good job of engaging our senses with vivid descriptions of the German countryside as well as all the detail-rich sights, sounds, and offensive smells of city life in Wittenberg. You can almost feel the microbes entering your digestive track as you turn the pages. (Few of us would desire to live in 16th century Germany no matter how much history we imbibe from this time period.)

Although I was familiar with Katharina’s life before reading the book, I found the writing style pleasing and informative, especially as the story progresses to where Luther’s September Bible stealthily enters the convent, and its inhabitants must individually deal with the “new” teaching surrounding it. Nothing would ever be the same again.

I love the smell of spices. Caraway, cinnamon, ginger, turmeric, nutmeg, and cloves; above all I love cloves, and I will tell you why. That day, Dr Luther’s September Bible, a new and wonderfully readable translation of the New Testament, arrived hidden in a sack of cloves. Even now the smell of them reminds me of that book. We read it in secret, handing it round, taking it in turns, tucking it into the pockets under our habits. “Who’s got the Bible now?” we would mime to each other, and with our eyes, point to the sister who was currently in possession of the book, the hot book, the fragrant, clovey book, so hot and powerful it might have burnt a hole in our habit.

Katharina faced many challenges throughout her life, but she trusted in God and eventually entered into marriage with one of the most famous men of her time. It’s a beautiful tale, woven together with passion and warmth and skill. At the same time, I must warn you that Ms. Boileu takes readers on a sortie into the the Luther’s bedroom that left me wishing for less, not more. So I don’t think I would recommend this book to young people. With that exception, I can heartily recommend it to all others.

Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife is published by Clink Street and contains 221 pages of pleasurable reading.

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