I have received a free e-copy of the book “Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife” by Anne Boileau to review. Being asked to review this brought back a memory from my childhood that I will share with you. I muddled up Martin Luther and Martin Luther King in my schoolwork. Two famous figures with similar names, but that is as close as it gets. Anyhow, on with the book review.
Here is the book blurb.
On 31st October 1517 Martin Luther pinned ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door, Wittenberg, criticising 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 of enforced rest, she sets down her own story. Against a backdrop of 16th Century Europe this strikingly realised account of the early life of Katharina von Bora brings to the spotlight this spirited and courageous woman.
A timely and compelling new study of a woman whose story is not widely known in the English-speaking world,Katharina Luther: Nun, Rebel, Wife will captivate fans of the likes of Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel, and is set to fascinate, enlighten and leave readers hooked until the very last page.
This book is set in Germany in the 16th century at the time of the Protestant Reformation which was initiated by Martin Luther. The book is in the format of a diary by Katharina Luther, written whilst she is confined to her room in the last weeks of her pregnancy. Her journal begins with her childhood, sent to a convent at age 9 and soon afterwards, one of the sisters confiscates her stuffed mole. At age 15, Katharina becomes a novice.
One of the nuns then received an illicit copy of Luther’s translation of the Bible which a few of the younger nuns including Katharina took turns to read in secret for 4 weeks until sister Charity discovered them reading in German rather than Latin. Over 6 years after becoming a nun, Katharina realises she wants to escape the convent and see what is happening outside.
There are a small group of young nuns who feel the same and they write a letter to Dr Luther for help, as it is his writing which has said monks and nuns should be allowed to forsake their vows. 6 weeks later they get a reply, instructing them to get in the empty herring barrels on Good Friday. And thus they escape, some returning to their families but the other five including Katharina carrying on to Dr Luther in Wittenberg.
There Frau Reichenbach helps them adapt to the noisy secular world. Herr and Frau Cranach take in Ave and Katharina as house daughters. Ave leaves to marry Basilius. In due course, Katharina has a suitor, Hieronymous Baumgartner but as a runaway nun she is not considered suitable by his parents. She next receives a marriage proposal from an elderly pastor, Dr Glatz whom she turns down.
Then she receives another marriage proposal by proxy from Dr Luther via Herr Cranach. She meets him (see extract below) and agrees to marry. An ex-monk and an ex-nun. After her marriage, she tries unsuccessfully to reconcile with her father and step-mother. However her Aunt Lena comes to live with her following the closure of the convent. And her diary ends with the birth of her son.
I used to read a lot of historical fiction and really enjoyed revisiting this genre. A nice read.
Here’s an extract to give you a taster of the story.
From Chapter 13 – The Storks’ Nest
Dr Luther asked Lucas Cranach to convey a proposal of marriage to Katharina on his behalf. It seems he did not have the courage to ask her himself. Katharina is now going to see him, having written him a note, and he then invited her to come up to his study.
I counted the steps as I went up, stopping now and then to catch my breath. Sixty three. I tip-toed along the corridor carrying my shoes so he wouldn’t hear my footsteps. Though he must surely hear my thumping heart! The door to his study was shut. I stood still before it and tried to steady my breathing, to slow down my heart. My bodice was too tight, the laces cutting into my chest. My armpits were damp and prickling. I got a hanky out of my pocket and wiped my sweaty face. ‘Come on, you stupid girl, what are you waiting for?’ I raised my right fist and rapped on the door.
He stands up as I enter and walks towards me, his hands outstretched. He takes my hands in his and we stand facing each other in silence for what seems like several minutes. Then he leads me to a chair and I sit down. I tell my heart to slow down. My breathing is steadier now.
The great man seems rather shy. Can he really be nervous of me, a young woman of no consequence? He sits down behind the desk and runs his fingers through his hair. Then he twists away from me and points out of the window at a heap of sticks on a chimney.
“You see the stork? She’s sitting on a clutch. That bodes well, you know, for the coming year.”
“Yes, we have a pair at the Cranach House too, though we can’t see the nest so close.”
“Lovely birds. Where do they disappear to in winter do you suppose?”
“I really wouldn’t know, Herr Doktor. Somewhere warmer, I should think.”
“Yes, no doubt. They fly south, that much we know.”
He turned back to look at me, then looked away again, cleared his throat and shifted some papers about on his desk. Eventually, with averted eyes, he said:
“Fräulein von Bora, you received my message, from Herr Cranach?”
“And might I ask if you have had a chance to think about it?”
I looked past him through the window at the birds’ nest, and just then the other stork arrived, landing awkwardly on the heap of sticks. It was change of shift for the brooding pair. I thought about my prayers to Jesus, about my asking him for a sign. Was this His sign to me that it was all right? A pair of birds, raising their chicks, living and working together, in harmony and mutual affection. Yes, Jesus couldn’t have sent a clearer sign, a more apt way of telling me that this was the road for me to take. That I should indeed accept his proposal and build a nest with him, on our metaphorical chimney, like those long legged birds outside his window.
“I have thought about it. I have prayed too.”
“We can make no decision without the help of Our Lord. So let me ask you again, Fräulein, after your thoughts and sleep, after your prayers and supplications, what decision have you come to? Would this young beautiful one-time nun be prepared to marry this middle-aged ugly, difficult one-time monk?”
“I think so. Yes, I think she might be. Be prepared to, I mean.”
“But you’re not sure. I’m not an easy man. I think you know that already.”
He looks at me with such anxiety and tenderness, I see a yearning in his eyes which I have never seen before. And all of a sudden I hear myself talking with a fluency quite new to me, I hear words spilling out of my mouth almost before they take shape in my head.
“Herr Doktor. I have had reservations, I must admit. I have been wrestling with my conscience. After all, as you know, I took my vows when I was fifteen, I became a Bride of Christ. Then I became disillusioned, partly because of reading your sermons and letters. So with eight other nuns I abandoned my husband, the dear Lord Christ, and we ran away from the convent. I broke my vow of Obedience. I have suffered a heavy conscience about that for two whole years. Now, I find myself weighing up the possibility of yet another betrayal of our Lord, by promising to marry you. That would entail my breaking a second vow made to Christ, the vow of chastity. And you, Dr Luther, you were a monk and you have broken your vows. Is it not sinful for a monk to marry a nun? I’ve heard it said that any children born of such a union are evil, cursed, even monsters. You asked me about my reservations. I have done my best to explain.”
“Dear Fräulein von Bora, I understand entirely what you feel and I would worry if you didn’t find it necessary to examine your conscience on such a grave matter. But let me explain about celibacy and what I see as God’s attitude to our sexuality. God made women in such a way that they are able to bear children and give them milk to suck. He also made men long for the comfort and company of women. This is natural. God wants what is natural. As I said, He created men and women to be together in marriage, and what happens in the marriage bed is as natural as eating and drinking….”
About Anne Boileau
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.
This book will be published on 4th October and you may purchase on Amazon.
I’m participating in the book tour and you may like to check out some of the other blog stops on the tour.
Disclosure. This post is a review of an e-book I was sent for free. All opinions are my own.