In 1992, I was in the former German Democratic Republic researching for my dissertation which was entitled: Agriculture, Land Management and Conservation in the New Lands of Germany. While visiting the Black Cloister in Wittenberg, I encountered Katharina von Bora, the runaway nun who married the rebellious monk Martin Luther. How come I had never learnt that Martin Luther had a wife? Why had this woman been erased from history? The fact was, she hadn’t, she’s a well-known figure in Germany – every school child knows about her, she’s a sort of Protestant saint, has her own special day and their wedding day is celebrated every spring in Wittenberg.
So I wanted to tell her story for an English readership and a little seed lay dormant in my heart for about twelve years; then, when I had more time, I went back to Saxony to find out more about her.
This was still before the wonders of the Internet but I sourced a great deal of material in German about this audacious woman who risked her life escaping from a nunnery, and set her cap at the most famous (or notorious) man in Germany at the time. I visited all the significant Luther towns: Eisenach and the Wartburg Castle, Erfurt, Eisleben and of course Wittenberg itself. I picked up books and pamphlets and articles about her (some of this material only came to light after Unification).
So the plot was there, and the characters in the novel just popped up ready-made, being real true people, many of whom are depicted in fine colour portraits by Lucas Cranach the Elder. Cranach was not only an accomplished artist; he also owned and ran a state of the art print works and publishing house. He and his wife Barbara lived five doors down from Luther’s Black Cloister. He was responsible for the rapid dissemination of the 95 Theses, which took the world by storm in a way they could never have done fifty years before. It was, of course, the new information technology! Young people were learning to read, and were reading or hearing the Gospel in their mother tongue; it’s hard for us now to comprehend what a revelation this was: how liberating, but also dangerous. It led to civil unrest.
Other characters who were part of this drama were Philip Melanchthon, Luther’s next door neighbour and fellow professor at the University. He taught Luther ancient Greek, so he could translate the New Testament from the original, and collaborated with him on the translation of the Old Testament.
Friedrich the Wise, the Elector of Saxony, saved Luther’s life by hiding him in his castle for ten months when a price was on his head. Rorer, Luther’s secretary, wrote down in shorthand the great man’s sayings at meal times, known as Table Talk. Hieronymous Baumgartner, a young man from Nuremburg, who fell in love with Katharina at the Cranach House; Ave, Katharina’s best friend and fellow fugitive nun; Luther’s elderly parents, Hans and Margarethe, Tolpel the dog. All these people were real, well-documented in historical accounts. I have simply put flesh on their bones and given them breath to live and speak.
Some other more peripheral characters such as Frau Reichenbach, the goat boy, the maids and cooks, were invented to further the narrative.
This is not just a story about religious enlightenment and reformation; it’s a story about society at a time of turbulence and rapid change, where women had to adapt in order for their families to survive. They had to cope with food shortages when the fields were neglected due to general disruption; with the plague, which would sweep across the land every fifteen years or so; they bore children and cared for them, looked after the sick and elderly and laid out the dead. They brewed and baked, managed the dairy; they tended bees, and domestic fowl; they grew fruit and vegetables and put by for winter; in November they oversaw the slaughtering and managed the curing and pickling and drying of meats.
And of course, in a patriarchal society, they looked after their fathers, husbands and sons, allowing them to think that they, the men, were really in charge, when in fact it was the unsung women who kept the show on the road year in year out! They did their best to adapt to what must have been alarming changes’ sweeping across Europe in the sixteenth century, as the world was hauled by its hair into the modern era.
~ Anne Boileau (3.07.17.)
On 31st October 1517, Martin Luther pinned ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door, Wittenberg, criticizing the Church of Rome; they were printed and published by Lucas Cranach and caused a storm. Nine young nuns, intoxicated by Luther’s subversive writings, became restless and longed to leave their convent. On Good Friday 1523 a haulier smuggled them out hidden in empty herring barrels. Five of them settled in Wittenberg, the very eye of the storm, and one of them – Katharina von Bora – scandalised the world by marrying the revolutionary former monk. Following a near miscarriage, she is confined to her bed to await the birth of their first child; during this time, she sets down her own story. Against a backdrop of 16th Century Europe this vivid account of Katharina von Bora’s early life brings to the spotlight this spirited and courageous woman.
Anne Boileau (also known as Polly Clarke) lives in Essex. She studied German in Munich and worked as interpreter and translator before turning to language-teaching in England. She also holds a degree in Conservation and Land Management from Anglia University and has written and given talks on various aspects of conservation. Now she shares, writes and enjoys poetry; her work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines; she has also won some awards, including First Prize with Grey Hen Press, 2016. She translates modern German poetry into English with Camden Mews Translators and was Chair of Suffolk Poetry Society from 2011 to 2014.