German Women Writers: The Reformation Age

General introduction to this series of blog posts HERE.

The Reformation brought new freedoms to women: Luther published an opinion that nuns’ vows were not eternally binding (which opinion, in short order, would earn him a wife), women — both secular and (heretofore) nuns — took an active part in the Reformation movement; and the territorial and religious wars following the break-away not only of leading scholars but also several German princes from the Church of Rome placed women at the forefront of responsibilities ordinarily held by men. (Doubtless this was the case during wars fought in the Middle Ages as well, but other than the examples of queens and other high-born women like Eleanor of Aquitaine, and writings such Christine de Pizan’s comments in The Treasury of the City of the Ladies, we have little evidence, and even less from a woman’s point of view, what exactly this entailed on a daily basis; particularly for commoners, villains, serfs, and other low-born, typically uneducated women.  The active involvement of nuns such as Christina Ebner, whose counsel was eventually sought out even by the Holy Roman Emperor, was the exception, not the rule — and Christina, too, was of patrician birth.)  The writings of women from the Reformation Age and from the ensuing wars reflect both their changed status and the daily realities of a more than a century-long period of violent upheaval. At the same time, women also began to claim recognition for the sphere traditionally considered to be their domain by publishing cookbooks.

  • Katharina von Bora (1499(?)-1552):  The woman who embodied the Reformation like none other; Luther’s formidable wife, whom (together with several other nuns) he had helped to escape, in 1521, from the convent where she had been living since age five, and whom he addressed, not without reason, as “mein Herr Käthe” (“my Lord Katie”).  Strictly speaking, her inclusion here is a bit of cheating, because although she was taught to read and write as a child, she is not known to have published any works of her own.  But she unquestionably had considerable influence on Luther; and he granted her an unprecedented amount of freedom and independence in managing his household (which undoubtedly would also have involved a certain amount of correspondence), thus leaving his own hands entirely free to pursue his work — there is no saying what course the Reformation would have taken without Katharina at Luther’s side.  He even sought to appoint her his principal heiress and the administrator of his will; this failed because, based on those provisions, his will was successfully contested and declared void under then-prevailing law, and Katherina and her children fell into poverty and were dependent on the charity of several Protestant princes henceforth.  She had to leave Wittenberg several times, fleeing from the 1546-47 Schmalkaldic War (one of several armed conflicts between the Catholic Holy Roman Emperor and Germany’s now-Protestant Princes) and from the Plague; trying to escape from the latter eventually killed her when she was thrown from her cart into a watery ditch, broke her pelvis, and spent the last three weeks of her life bedridden and failing to recover from the consequences of her fall.
  • English historian Margaret Skea published a two-part biographical novel about Katharina von Bora, Katharina: Deliverance and Katharina: Fortitude.
  • Katerina Lemmel (1466-1533): A patrician businesswoman and, later, nun from Nuremberg whose final years fell into the early decades of the transitional period brought on by the Reformation.  The daughter and wife of successful merchants, Katerina (in her own name) held investments in a range of profitable agricultural and spice importing businesses; but after her husband’s death — faced with the alternative of either a second marriage or the cloister — she opted to enter a Birgittine monastery.  Her choice may have been impacted by the fact that convents belonging to this order were ruled by abbesses and largely self-governed; in fact, Katerina Lemmel was able to continue advising her cousin Hans Imhoff, who controlled the funds she had not brought to the monastery and invested towards its benefit, on the use of the interest on those funds.
  • As a result, she left behind a collection of 52 letters to and from Hans Imhoff and other members of her family and friends, which permits multifaceted insights into life in a late-medieval female monastery and into its system of spiritual economies, as well as Nuremberg life of the period in general: Beyond financial decisions, the letters discuss everything from transportation, communication and banking, to medical matters, family events and gossip (births, marriages, illness, death, controversies and misunderstandings), local Nuremberg news, as well as major religious and political issues of the day; with the persons discussed including members of the leading southern German merchant families (including the super-rich Fuggers of Augsburg, bankers to the Emperor) and Luther’s first opponent on the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, Emperor Maximilian I. — The Reformation caught up with Katerina in 1525, when during the Peasants’ War (the first and one of the most violent uprisings brought about by the Reformation) she and her fellow nuns had to flee from rebels storming their monastery and, upon their return, found large parts of the monastery and its properties destroyed and plundered.  As, in the interim, many of the Southern German merchant cities (including Nuremberg) had turned Protestant, the nuns were henceforth cut off from their major sources of support; and Katerina spent the remaining years of her life in considerably more modest circumstances than she had been used to during most of her life.
  • Anna Ovena Hoyer (1584-1655): A Protestant writer and poet from Northern Germany, the daughter of a wealthy astronomer who was married to a local dignitary at age 15 but lost a large part of her dowry as a result of its use to pay off her new husband’s debts.  Her husband’s position assured a comfortable existence while he was alive; after his death, however, she had to sell off the real estate remaining to her in various Northern German locations and, following a controversy over her anti-Lutheran stance, as well as due her attitude to the catastrophic 1634 flood that devastated much of Northern Frisia (which she saw as God’s judgment on the wicked, showing no pity for those who had been struck), she moved to Sweden, where she joined a Mennonite community. — Anna published a text entitled Spiritual Conversation of a Child with His Mother, designed for the instruction of her own children, as well as a rhymed version of Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s novel Euryalus and Lucretia, called Süßbittere Freude (“Bittersweet Joy”), several collections of poetry, songs (with melodies composed by herself), a rhymed version of the biblical Book of Ruth, writings and songs dedicated to Swedish Queen Christina and to Sweden as a country, and religious tracts with an anti-Lutheran slant.
  • Catherine of Mecklenburg (1487-1561): Duchess of Saxony by marriage to Henry IV, who became Duke of Saxony after his elder brother George’s death.  Catherine was an early follower of Luther’s and tirelessly lobbied in favor of her new faith even before her husband had succeeded his brother.  Fearing his much more powerful and staunchly Catholic brother’s revenge, Henry resisted for years, but in 1536 at last allowed the Lutheran creed to be taught in his own territory of Freiberg (then not part of the duchy of Saxony) and, again spurred on by Catherine, also introduced Protestantism in Saxony three years later upon becoming Duke. — In addition to her correspondence with other supporters and adherents of the new religion, including the leaders of the Reformation movement, which contains lively and incisive commentary on the political and religious issues of the time, as well as her letters her family and friends, Catherine authored a book of etiquette for ladies, which likewise allows important historical insights, as well as shedding a light on the court life of her day.
  • Argula von Grumbach (1492-1554): A Bavarian writer and noblewoman who, though raised a Catholic, beginning in the early 1520s got involved in the debate on the Reformation and became the first Protestant woman writer.  She published letters and poems promoting and defending Martin Luther, his associate Philip Melanchthon and other Protestant groups; including and in particular, challenging the University of Ingolstadt in a letter (subsequently published in booklet format) speaking out against the arrest of a Lutheran student.  As one of the few women at the time openly professing her views, her writings sparked rabid controversy, while also becoming instant bestsellers, with tens of thousands of copies of her letters and poems circulating within a few years of their publication: as such, the letter / booklet addressed to the University of Ingolstadt alone went through fourteen editions in a mere two months.  Argula was subject to an unconscionable amount of slander, verbal persecution and name-calling, but this only seems to have encouraged her.  The distribution of her writings, which Catholic authorities tried in vain to suppress, was greatly aided by the recent invention of the printing press, which authorities had not yet learned how to deal with, and which enabled anyone in possession of a press to produce fresh copies of any document, book or pamphlet they wanted to share.  Argula also undertook journeys unaccompanied by a man (unheard-of for a woman at the time) to seek out German princes and other dignitaries in order to persuade them to follow the new creed.
  • Katharina Zell (1497/8 1562): A Protestant reformer and writer and one of the first Protestant women to marry a clergyman; namely, the pastor of Strasbourg cathedral, whose sermons had instructed her in the new faith to begin with.  Katharina is believed to have been given an excellent education for what was a commoner’s home (her father was a carpenter), including a rudimentary knowledge of Latin; and she made a point of continuing her learning process throughout her life.  She considered her marriage to a clergyman — which was solemnized even before that of Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora — an expression of her faith. She personally also came to know many of the leaders of the Reformation movement, including Luther, Melanchthon, and Ulrich Zwingli, and corresponded with them.  Like Argula von Grumbach (above), she was a pamphleteer, employing the new printing technology in furtherance of the new religion; and like Argula, she was maligned for her activities, having to face charges of neglecting her husband, though not anywhere near the level of vitriol that Argula had to deal with.  She also acted as the publisher of a Moravian hymn book (though not participating in the book’s actual creation), preached at the graves of Anabaptist women whom Lutheran pastors refused to bury, and gave refuge to Protestants persecuted and banned in other parts of the Holy Roman Empire.
  • Ursula of Munsterberg (1491/95/99 – after 1534): A granddaughter of Bohemian King George of Poděbrady and, like Katharina von Bora, a former nun who left her convent after having been introduced to Luther’s writings (though she had entered that convent at a somewhat later point in life than Katharina, when she was at least in her teens).  She fled to Wittenberg and justified her choice to leave the convent in a 1528 text composed of 69 articles (see cover image to the left), to which Luther himself contributed a postscript: it is likely that Luther’s own 1528 tract on the harmful and unchristian nature of cloistered life — the rewrite of an excerpt from his 1521 treatise on religious vows that, in turn, had inspired Katharina von Bora’s flight — was at least partly inspired by Ursula’s pamphlet.  Later in life, Ursula returned to the lands towards the east of the territory of the Holy Roman Empire, spending some time in Königsberg under the protection of Protestant Duke Albert of Prussia and probably dying either in Bohemia or in Saxony.  The pamphlet justifying her exodus from her convent remained on the Catholic index of prohibited writings for over three hundred years, from 1596 to 1900.
  • Amalia of Cleves (1517-1586): The youngest sister of Anne of Cleves, Henry VIII’s fourth wife for the briefest of times.  Henry had sent Hans Holbein to Germany to paint both Anne and Amalia to allow him to choose between the two … all things considered, Amalia probably was lucky that he didn’t select her.  Like her two sisters Anne and Sibylle, Amalia had only been given a limited and, for the time, conservative education. After further marriage proposals had likewise fallen through, she remained celibate and helped raise her nieces, the daughters of her brother William, who, she was adamant, were to be raised in the Protestant faith (much to her brother’s displeasure, who unlike his sisters was a Catholic). — Amalia was not a prolific writer, but she authored a songbook which is still extant in two copies and, in her own hand, she added a poem of her own to a book of love poetry owned by a friend.
  • Christine of Hesse (1543-1604): Arguably a woman more important for political reasons than as a writer, though unquestionably also due intellectual plaudits.
  • In the late 17th / early 18th century, Madame Palatine (Liselotte von der Pfalz; see post on German women writers from the Age of Enlightenment) was known as “the grandmother of Europe” — but the same name might just as well also have been given to Christine of Hesse: Having become Duchess of Schleswig-Holstein-Gottorf (anglicized: Gottorp) by marriage, and thus having married into one of northern Germany’s leading dynasties, she would also come to  be tied to three even more important European dynasties: Through her second eldest daughter Christine, she was the grandmother of King Gustav II Adolf of Sweden, one of the foremost rulers during the Thirty Years’ War of 1618-1648; the huge territorial and religious conflict ensuing from the Reformation, which would end up radically redrawing the map not only of Germany / The Holy Roman Empire, but also that of Continental Europe as a whole.  Through her third eldest son Johann Adolf, Christine was an ancestor of Carl Friedrich von Holstein-Gottorf, who married Peter the Great’s eldest daughter, Anna Petrovna, and with her founded the final Russian imperial dynasty, by its full name known as Holstein-Gottorp-Romanov; retaining the Romanov name by way of emphasis on the descent from Peter the Great in addition to the name of the husband’s family.  Finally, through her eldest daughter Sophia and her third eldest daughter Anna, Christine would become an ancestor of King George III of England of the House of Hanover.
  • Herself raised as a strict Protestant, Christine was a devoted mother and also fostered her duchy’s church and school system.  Her literary legacy includes, first and foremost, a collection of religious psalms and songs, as well as a book of prayers.
  • Anna Wecker (first half of 16th century – 1596): A 16th-century poet and author of the first cookbook in German published by a woman.  Anna was first married to the town clerk of her small hometown in the Nuremberg vicinity; after his death she married the city physician of Colmar, Johann Jakob Wecker.  After her second husband’s 1586 death, she published the Latin medical treatise which he had left behind finished but unpublished, and she also authored a wedding poem for a friendly couple.  She spent the last ten years of her life living in the house of her daughter from her first marriage, Katharina, who had married a medical and theological scholar teaching at a local university.  There, she completed the work for which she is chiefly remembered, Ein Köstlich new Kochbuch (“a delicious new cookbook”, see cover image to the left), which her daughter published a year after Anna’s death, and which was reprinted repeatedly until the end of the 17th century.  Besides Sabine and Philippine Welser (below), Anna Wecker is one of the three 16th century German food writers known by name; and her cookbook (like theirs) is an important source for the history of German cuisine.
  • Sabina Welser (16th century): An otherwise unknown woman, also the author of a cookbook, which was preserved in manuscript (see the image of an excerpt to the left), and which she dated 1553 in a brief epigraph.  Sabina may have been a member of the Welser family who were members of the mercantile patriciate of Augsburg, international mercantile bankers and venture capitalists on a par with the Fuggers and the Hochstetters: either the daughter of a junior member of that family, Ulrich Welser, who married the then-leader of the Welsers’ in-laws and main business partners, Conrad Voehlin; or the daughter of the early 16th century Welser pater familias, Anton Welser, who married one of the final representatives of another Augsburg mercantile family, Leonhard or Lienhard Hirschvogel (formerly business rivals operating on the same scale as the Welsers, but bankrupt by the mid-16th century), who in turn, however, divorced her when her father failed to hand over her dowry. — Sabina’s manuscript was first published in book form in the late 20th century as Das Kochbuch der Sabina Welserin (“The Cookbook of Sabina Welser” — in the title, her last name is modified in conformity with late medieval / early Modern Age naming conventions, adding a female ending (“-in”) to indicate a woman’s name, similar to the way it is still done in Slav languages (“-ova”)).
  • Philippine Welser (1527-1580): Another member of the Welser family and Sabina Welser’s contemporary, possibly her cousin: Philippine was the niece of brothers Anton and Bartholomew Welser, heads of the family in the first half of the 16th century (Bartholomew was eventually beheaded by a Spanish conquistador in the attempt to conquer the newly-discovered Venezuela province and make it his own).  Probably at some point in the 1550s, Philippine became the morganatic wife of Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I’s son, Ferdinand II of Habsburg, Prince of Tyrol.  Their marriage had to be kept secret initially, but it seems to have been a love match and stood the test of time.  Ferdinand II gave his wife a castle near Insbruck, which was redesigned in full Renaissance splendor, and where Philippine kept a herb garden and produced medicines together with her personal physician and her pharmacist. The authorship of a cookbook named De re coquinaria (On Cooking) is ascribed to her, though that book may originally have been commissioned by her mother Anna, and several other scribes at the very least contributed to it; and she also left behind another handwritten cook- and medicine book, as well as her prayer book, adorned with may drawings. — Philippine used her medical knowledge for the benefit of the common people in the vicinity and also stood up for them in other ways (as well as for noblemen seeking her assistance), which rendered her popular and shielded her from the discrimination she might otherwise have suffered on account of her semi-illegitimate marriage (a marriage between a commoner and a nobleman) and her, despite her own family’s stupendous wealth, inferior social standing vis-à-vis that of her husband. Towards the end of her life, she was awarded several aristocratic titles after all, as were her two surviving sons; and after her death she was buried in a chapel of the Innsbruck court church, while her husband continued to care for her servants and the poor who had supported her and had enjoyed her patronage.

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