Andrew Curry for National Geographic writes in October 2017:
October 31 marks 500 years since Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of a Wittenberg church, an act that secured his place in history. But historians say his later career—and the Reformation movement he led —might have looked very different if not for his marriage to von Bora.
Luther’s bride was no ordinary woman, particularly for the 16th century. In 1504, at the age of five, von Bora—born to impoverished German nobility—was shipped off to a convent.
At the time, Luther’s marriage was a scandal on many levels: He was a monk who had broken his vows, married to a nun who had broken hers. As Luther continued his career as a theologian and preacher, his marriage flouted centuries of Catholic teaching about celibacy and the priesthood—and established married clergy as a precedent for Reformation churches.
“As soon as this former monk married a former nun, people took interest,” says Gabriele Jancke, a historian at Freie University in Berlin.
As Luther’s intellectual fame grew, some of his allies, uncomfortable with his wife’s outsize presence, referred to her as “Doctorissa” in their letters – intended as a mean-spirited dig at both Katharina and her husband. Others tried to needle Luther by suggesting that some of his ideas were actually Katharina’s. [ed: and maybe
they were. . . ]
“Women at the time were supposed to be seen and not heard,” says Martin Treu, a historian at the Luther Society in Wittenberg and author of a von Bora biography. “Von Bora was seen as self-confident, strong-willed, and independent, which were all negative attributes for women at the time.”
Luther sometimes referred to his wife as Wittenberg’s “morning star,” up earlier than anyone else in town to manage a staff of nearly a dozen servants, look after their six children, and manage the equivalent of a mid-sized company. (He also called her “Lord Katie” in some of the 21 surviving letters he wrote to her.)
As the Reformation movement spread across Europe, the house that Katharina ran became its epicenter. After dinner, Luther, Katharina, and select guests discussed theology and politics in Latin, hammering out the intellectual framework of the Reformation.
Remarkably, Luther’s last will made Katharina his sole inheritor, and named her guardian of their children. (Treu says the move was unheard of at the time, and ultimately ruled illegal by incredulous judges after his death in 1546.)
Kramer says von Bora’s story is a reminder that the Reformation wasn’t a one-man project.