Originally published in German in 1906, The Mother of the Reformation presents a compelling portrait for those desiring to know more about a quietly influential Reformation character, Katie Luther.
If Luther was all too generous and too carefree about the necessities of daily life, then Katie had to be all the more frugal and more meticulous. Yes, several contemporaries call her miserly, stingy, greedy.
It certainly may have happened more than once that the woman, who was pressed upon from all sides, in the rush of the business or in time of need, forgot to pay for purchases that were under her supervision, and that someone in that situation didn’t hesitate to remind her, but still we must not discredit her by generalizing from a single occurrence. And when the same young man who complains about this—that is, Jerome Besold—goes on to say that she kept everything in order and got the necessary payment from the lodgers, then it is really praise for her rather than blame. The only way she was able to balance her books was by holding on to what she could with both hands, to counterbalance her husband who scattered with both hands.
Occasionally she expressed the wish that her husband might have a bit more business sense. Who could blame her? One time when they were talking about a greedy scholar, she thought, if her husband were so minded, he could be very rich, but she calmly accepted Melanchthon’s reprimand: Whoever would serve the common good must not think about his own profit. In the summer of 1540 money troubles brought to her lips half-jokingly, half-seriously the common wish: “Herr Doktor, now don’t teach the young fellows for free!” But even that was simply complaining that she didn’t want her husband to dish out the Word of God like an innkeeper selling beer on tap. And that same year, when she brought up for discussion the fact that the King of England had honored her husband with only 50 Gulden, but gave Melanchthon 500, she certainly was speaking less out of envy than from insulted pride, because proud self-confidence was one of the fundamentals of her character.
Not a single time do we hear that she seriously opposed her husband’s lavish charity. Only, the first year they were married, when he wanted to give away a glass encased in pewter that he had first been given by his friend Nikolaus Hausmann, to another friend whom she also regarded highly, Master Johann Agricola, she felt bad about the beautiful piece. She secretly followed after him, and when he wanted to pack it up, it had disappeared. The worthy Herr Doktors Jonas and Bugenhagen had been her fellow conspirators. So she understood quite well how to hold on to what she didn’t want to let go, but she seldom did! With self-sacrifice she managed the large household without complaining. She willingly took on the burden her husband put on her of providing for his poor relatives. She would have gladly kept his aging parents in their house as well.
The best testimony to her domestic virtues is her husband’s straightforward acknowledgment. Never did he speak of her alleged greed, but he praised her thriftiness. He knew what he needed most, and he drew from his own experience when he spoke about being married: “The man is to acquire, and the woman is to save. So the woman can make the man rich, but not the other way around, because a penny saved is better than a penny earned.” In 1542 he says of Katie: “What she has now, she got without me.” Of the position of homemaker he thought like Bugenhagen, who gave all the keys to his young wife, but the sword, which is the ultimate authority, he kept for himself. In the same sense Luther says to Katie: “In the house I grant control to you, irrespective of my right.”
In and around the house she was the lord. He couldn’t be and didn’t want to be. Even apart from the fact that by his own admission he was not a skillful householder, he wouldn’t have had the time at all to manage the large household. Often enough, Katie had to redirect his restless pen anyway for her big and little concerns about rather important matters. Many of her husband’s sharp but also humorous letters would have remained unwritten if she had not stood behind his chair pleading and urging. She did not shy away from calling upon the services of good friends in all kinds of jobs needed for her household, which was in such demand from all sides. She also contacted the Electoral officials when the barn was empty and there was no seed. Through her husband she ordered from friends: seeds for the garden, fruit that couldn’t be bought in Wittenberg such as bitter oranges or Borsdorf apples, as well as other food for the kitchen and the cellar, household equipment, and clothing. And if a shipment took longer than usual, she certainly reminded them and asked whether the sea had been drained so that no more fish could come from it.
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