Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Martin Luther's Reform of Marriage, Part 5

This is part 5 [parts 1, 2, and 3, and 4 are here] in a continuing series on Martin Luther and his marriage, exerpted from the forthcoming book Sex and the Supremacy of Christ.

The Marriage and Family of Martin and Katie

Their Home

The dilapidated Black Cloister—which had once housed 40 monks—was the Luthers’ home for the first eight years of their marriage. Prior to marriage, Luther slept there on a smelly straw bed. Wolfgang Seberger, Luther’s lazy servant, had neglected to air out the straw in Luther’s bed for a year, and Luther was apparently too busy too care! He later remarked: “Before I was married the bed was not made for a whole year and became foul with sweat.”[1] Shortly after their wedding Luther wisely ordered a new mattress for him and his new bride![2] Luther—who once famously boasted “If I break wind in Wittenberg they smell it in Rome”—undoubtedly had to make some adjustments to his bachelor lifestyle. It took some time for him to get used to it:

A man is likely to wonder a great deal when he first gets married. Sitting at the table, he muses, “Not long ago I was by myself, but now there are two of us.” When he is in bed and wakes up, he sees two pigtails next to him—something he did not see there before.[3]

The Black Cloiseter was quite large—and often quite full. It seems that this was the case from the very beginning of their marriage. On the night of their public wedding, Andreas Karlstadt—a frequent adversary of Luther’s—was fleeing from the Peasants’ War and seeking shelter. Martin invited him to stay—and Karlstadt stayed for eight more weeks! A few years into their marriage, the Luther’s took into their home the six children of Luther’s sister.[4] They also raised Katherine’s nephew. University students often ate and boarded there, and Luther’s letters make reference to a steady stream of guests either coming or going.[5] Their household could, at times, number as high as twenty-five!

For many years Luther didn’t charge anyone for room and board. (In fact, there was a waiting list for those who wanted to room and board with the Luthers.) This, combined with his refusal to charge for lecturing, his refusal to accept honoraria for his writing, and his generosity toward the poor, led the Luthers quickly into debt. But as Luther once wrote: “God put fingers on our hand for the money to slide through them so He can give us more. Whatever a person gives away, God will reimburse.”[6] Another time Luther said: “Riches are among the most trivial things on earth and the smallest gift God gives to a person.”[7]

Their poverty, however, was of no comparison to the richness that Martin found in his bride Katie: “My Katie,” he wrote, “is in all things so obliging and pleasing to me that I would not exchange my poverty for the riches of Croesus.”[8] Once, when Luther thought he was dying, he wrote: “My dear son and my dear Kate. I have nothing [in worldly goods] to bequest to you, but I have a rich God. Him I leave to you. He will nourish you well.”[9]


Her biographers describe her as “patient, focused, and stubborn.” And judging by Lucas Cranach’s portraits of her, they describe her as having an “interesting face: expressive, almond-shaped eyes; high cheekbones; and a mouth that appears ready to talk.”[10] Katie was the sort of person who could take a joke—and Martin was certain the type who enjoyed dishing it out. In his letters he often teased her about matters such as her frugality, negligence, and worries.[11] Katie also had a sense of humor, along with a way of correcting her husband in just that way that he needed. Once, when Luther was so depressed that no words of counsel seemed capable of penetrating his darkness, Katie decided to don a black dress. Luther asked: “Are you going to a funeral?” “No,” she replied, “but since you act as though God is dead, I wanted to join you in the mourning.” Luther quickly recovered![12]

Katie performed innumerable tasks for the family. While Martin lectured and wrote and debated and preached and traveled, Katie drove the wagon, took care of the field, bought and put cattle out to pasture, brewed the beer, prepared food for the graduation banquets, rented the horses, sold linen, served as Martin’s publishing agent, and often nursed him back to health during his frequent illnesses. [13] Martin often called her the “morning star of Wittenberg” since she rose at 4 a.m. to begin her many responsibilities—and often worked until 9 in the evening. Luther often had to urge her to relax.

[1] Bainton, Here I Stand, 226.

[2] LW 49:142.

[3] Martin Luther, D. Martin Luthers Werke: Tischreden [hereafter WATr], 6 vols. J. F. K. Knaake, G. Kawerau, et al., eds. (Weimar, 1912-21), 3:211.

[4] Scholars lack information about Luther’s sister, but it is probable that she had died.

[5] For example, see Luther’s references to household guests in LW 49:122; 50:81; 50:126; 50:149; 50:223; 50:292.

[6] Cited in Markwald, Katharina von Bora, 86.

[7] WATr 5:240.

[8] A proverbial saying referring to King Croesus (sixth cent., bc). Cited in Lazareth, Luther on the Christian Home, 31.

[9] WATr 3:90.

[10] Markwald, Katharina von Bora, 197.

[11] LW, 50:150, 174, 305, etc.

[12] Cited in Markland, Katharina von Bora, 140.

[13] LW, 50:108-109, 81, 94,167, etc.