Katharina von Bora: What do we really know about her?
From the outline of her life we can “paint in” a picture, but pictures by artists typically reflect contemporary time and culture. In the 19th century, portraits of Katharina von Bora suggested that she was a good wife.
We do know that Frau von Bora came from a family of minor nobility. She was married to Martin Luther from 1525 to 1546, and these are the years of events best documented.
Scholars are not sure whether she could write, given that nothing she might have written has survived. An inscription attributed to her in a Bible has been shown to be written by Luther. Because she had been a nun, she was able to read. In fact, Luther asked Katharina to read his translation of the Bible.
She wasn’t particularly interested, so Luther offered her 50 guilders to read it in the winter when there would be little to do in the fields. Luther’s annual salary as a professor would have been 250 guilders.
Typical of minor nobility -- proud yet poor -- it was easier for Katharina’s father to send his daughter off to the convent than to provide a suitable dowry. This practice yielded two advantages for women given to the church: They received an education, and they lived healthier, longer lives. Katharina entered the convent as a student at age 6.
We don’t know how Katharina became acquainted with Luther but we do know that at Easter 1523, 12 nuns left the convent in Nimbschen. Three went back to their families; nine could not, including Katharina (entering the convent was considered a permanent decision and one that effectively removed a woman from her family, so it is not surprising that none of the von Boras attended Katharina and Luther’s wedding two years later).
In the 16th century, marriage was a business arrangement between families and couples. Love was not a factor in the decision although it was hoped that it would come later.
With no one to support them and virtually no opportunities available to them, once the Reformation happened, most of the nuns who left the convent were soon married.
Married in 1525
In 1525, most Protestant pastors had married, and Luther followed suit the same year.
By 1527, Katharina had established a household in a former monastery. With that much space, she successfully ran a student hostel. Besides hosting 20 students, she farmed, raised cows and pigs and brewed her own beer. From all of this she earned almost as much as Luther earned as a professor.
In 1542, Luther recognized his wife’s success and independence in his will by appointing her sole heir and guardian of their children.
This was not only unthinkable at the time but was, in fact, illegal. She needed to have a guardian appointed to her, and initially she selected a faraway relative. The authorities were not amused so she selected Philip Melanchthon, who agreed but essentially left her to do as she pleased.
After Luther’s death in 1546, Katharina fell back into the anonymity typical of women of that time. There are no written sources documenting her death -- only a brief obituary by Melanchthon that notes her “special life.”