What was it like, to live “back then?”
I began asking this question as a child and haven’t been able to stop. There is something endlessly fascinating about history, about peering into the past. How did certain events happen? Why did certain people do what they did? How did the people respond to the events? What was it like to live and love, laugh and cry, in the midst of the great upheavals of the timeline?
As a daughter of the Reformation, I know all about both the brilliance and the deep, often horrifying flaws of Martin Luther. He cried out against the excesses and corruption of the late medieval Catholic church. He taught salvation by grace, through faith. He translated the Bible into the common tongue of his people. He wrote hymns. At the same time, Luther failed to support a leveling of the class system, essentially ordering the peasants to stay in “their place.” He was anti-Semitic, though not in a racist sense. Rather, his prejudice was theological, arising from conclusion that God had rejected the Jews. (Let me be clear: Hate is hate, whatever the reason). Love him or loathe him, Luther is a seminal figure in history. The transition from medieval to modern cannot be understood without him.
What would it have been like to love such a complicated, intense man?
This is the question Allison Pittman addresses in her novel Loving Luther. Instead of focusing on the man who lit the match, she turns her attention to a woman who lived in the explosion: Katharina von Bora.
As was common practice at the time, Katharina was taken to the Benedictine convent at Brenha around the age of five. For the next 19 years, her world was one of women and walls. She took the veil as part of the Cistercian order, at the convent of Marienthron in Grimma (eastern Germany). It was a life of deprivation and duty; never quite enough to eat, cold in winter and hot in summer, the clanging of bells interrupting the few hours of precious sleep. Leaving was unthinkable.
Until it wasn’t.
Katharina somehow became aware of Luther and the growing reform movement. (Pittman has her reading messages smuggled into the cloister). A large part of the novel centers around Katharina’s dissatisfaction with life as a nun and her growing spiritual awareness, therefore I won’t go into great detail and so spoil the story for you. Suffice it to say, on Easter Eve, 1523, Katharina and eleven other nuns staged a jailbreak of sorts, assisted by Luther and his friends. (Don’t tell me I should have #spoileralerted you. This happened almost 500 years ago).
It was difficult for her to adjust to life on “the outside.” A woman without fortune, family or marriage occupied a tenuous place in society, dependent upon the goodwill of friends, or, in Katharina’s case, strangers. By the time she left the convent, Katharina was old by the standards of the day (24; I mean, can you even?) and, by all accounts, possessed a sharp intellect and a witty tongue, neither of which were considered attractive. (Glad I am that I was not born centuries earlier). Luther took it upon himself to arrange a match for her, feeling responsible for her settlement.
If you know anything about the history of this pair, you know where there is headed. Even if you don’t know, you can guess, simply by glancing at the title of the book. This is where Pittman shines. She takes us through Katharina’s life, step by step. The reader may know where it will end, but the character doesn’t, and the reader is moved to sympathy for her in her struggles. Indeed, even modern women can easily relate to the struggle in seeking to please God above all, while longing for love and a meaningful place in the world.
There was a clunky transition in the book, having to do with a man named Jerome Baumgartner. I can’t delve too deeply into this as it is integral to the plot, but you will notice the shift as you read, almost as if an engine moves from first gear to third, skipping over second completely. There’s just a shudder and grind to it. Not enough to ruin the narrative and, honestly, I’m not sure how Pittman could have handled it better. Due to a lack of resources on Katharina’s life, no doubt certain choices had to be made in telling her story.
Loving Luther was an enjoyable read, particularly in these weeks leading up to the celebration of Reformation Day. So often church history focuses on the great heroes of the faith. It was a lovely change of pace to read about a heroine instead. I want to know more about Katharina now and am confident that she will be a source of inspiration for years to come.