The Footsteps of Katharina: Margaret Skea on the Wife of Martin Luther

Margaret Skea

Every writer of historical fiction knows how important research is. For some it may be a necessary chore that distracts from the real job of writing. For others, and I count myself in this category, it is addictive: fascinating and intriguing in equal measure, frequently opening up new avenues to explore. Which, of course, can sometimes make it difficult to stop researching and start writing. It is all too easy to wander down highways and byways on the trail of snippets of information that, however interesting, will almost certainly never be used.

However, that wasn’t the issue that faced me when I decided to write a novel, or rather what I hoped would be categorised as biographical fiction, based on the life of Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther’s wife. Quite the opposite, in fact. There are some books written about her, though not many, and Martin Treu, the person widely regarded as the nearest one can get to an expert, opens his (extremely slim) volume with this sentence:

“It is impossible to write a biography of Katherine Luther, née von Bora.”1

So there I was, wanting to write a novel about an historical person about whom almost nothing is known. A gift to the historical novelist? Well, perhaps.

Treu continues:

“The lacunae in the sources have, of course, tempted authors and authoresses to fill in the gaps with their own imagination. The result of this is frequently enough a picture that says more about the writer and their time than about the person and journey through life of Katherine von Bora.”

Did I want to write a book that said more about me and the 21st century than it did about Katharina? No, I didn’t. It is, of course, inescapable that my background, experience and, yes, personal perceptions – dare I say, bias – colour what I write. And while a biographer must strive to avoid bias, a writer of biographical fiction can choose whether to strive for objectivity; focus on fiction; or, as in my case, seek to steer a course somewhere between the two.

Katharina von Bora, the renegade nun who became Martin Luther’s wife, is a fascinating and, in many ways, an enigmatic character. There is debate over her parentage, her birthplace and the circumstances surrounding her admission to two different convents. Her subsequent escape, as one of a group of twelve, is the first recorded ‘mass’ breakout following Luther’s revolutionary teachings. From the time of her arrival in Wittenberg onwards, there is more information on the timing and place of key events, though even that is incomplete, and sometimes differs between sources. There is little documentary evidence of her personality: only a handful of letters written by Katharina remain, and of those, only one contains a personal reference. It is possible, however, to catch tantalising glimpses of her from surviving letters that are written to her, particularly by Luther; through the reactions of others, both positive and negative; and via her reported actions.

With my ‘novelist’ hat on I relished the challenge of seeking to find a ‘voice’ for Katharina and was glad of the somewhat freer hand that the lack of concrete evidence made possible. However, as someone who is passionate about historical authenticity – short of time-travelling I don’t think it’s realistic for any novelist or historian to claim accuracy when writing about former times – I was concerned not to step outside the bounds of what was at least plausible, and could be defended by reference to the historical record, sparse as it was. As a consequence, the writing of this book was a continual juggling act between what I wanted Katharina to say and be and what might have been possible for her at the time.

As a child Katharina was placed in two separate convents, one Benedictine, and one Cistercian. Studying their rules and practices was an obvious starting point, as was the situation of impoverished members of the German knightly class, as Katharina’s family appears to have been. A scouring of documentary sources makes it possible to speculate, in a reasoned way, about the background to decisions made by others about her future. I do have to admit here to succumbing to one legend about her, which from a novelist’s point of view was irresistible – that her father’s remarriage contributed to her being sent to the first convent at about five years old – though I did try to soften the ‘evil stepmother’ image a little.

It was much more difficult when it came to the adult Katharina. There are extant records of the Nimbschen convent where she lived from c. 1509–23 and where she took her vows, aged 16. They contain no censure of her, so clearly she did not cause her superiors concern. And yet she is part of a mass break-out at Easter 1523, aided by Luther. How she personally came to that point can only be speculation, but I felt it important that my speculation was not contradicted by such facts as could be ascertained. Nor could I allow myself the luxury of indulging in the perpetration of one often-quoted legend, that the nuns escaped from the convent hidden in herring barrels. While the idea may be attractive from a dramatic point of view, it is highly impractical. Being bounced along some 30 miles from Grimma to Torgau in the back of a goods wagon, in the middle of the night, would be uncomfortable enough, but folded into a barrel which normally contained fish? I don’t think so. It is possible to see how this error could have arisen from a misreading of a contemporary source, which indicates that it was a merchant who supplied fish to the convent who helped the nuns escape. It also serves, however, to illustrate both the need for careful reading and the value of applying common sense when interpreting sources.

The more I sought to draw Katharina out of the shadows, the more convinced I became that as well as reading about aspects of 16th-century life in Saxony – household matters, husbandry, clothing, transport and so on – the best research I could do would be to go there myself, to try to experience the physical surroundings through her eyes. I would seek to gain a sense of her by walking where she walked, standing where she stood, and, if such a thing should prove possible, handling things she handled. I was fortunate (and thrilled) to be given a grant by Creative Scotland to do just that, in a two-week solo trip that involved driving 1,000 miles in a circular tour of Saxony.

Of course, the Saxony of 2017 isn’t the Saxony of 500 years ago, and there was much that I would have liked to see that has disappeared. But the Black Cloister in Wittenberg remains. Now called the Lutherhaus, it was her marital home, and through the combination of the existing architecture, the well presented displays, the access I was given to some areas not open to the general public, and the help of senior staff, it was possible to imagine what it would have been like to live there in her time.

The square in Wittenberg is very different now from when Katharina first saw it, when the current Rathaus (town hall) was in the early stages of construction, but I was able to stand in what was most likely the Stube (heated living room) of the house she stayed in prior to her marriage and stare out of the windows as she might have done. I visited Luther’s birth house, stayed in the building he died in, spent one night in a room overlooking the famous ‘Theses’ door of Wittenberg’s Castle Church and one in a monastery cell. Albeit more comfortable than it would have been in 1517, its size and position, adjacent to an internal cloister, was enough to give me a sense of enclosure.

There were two unexpected highlights of the trip. The first was Quedlinburg, which, while not directly connected to Katharina, has some 1,200 half-timbered buildings, and wandering through the narrow streets mentally transported me back in time. All that was needed to complete the picture was muck and glaur underfoot, the reek of animals and unwashed bodies, smoke from hundreds of chimneys and the everyday sounds of a small medieval town.

That, aside from the smell, was what I found in the magnificent Yadegar Asisi 360° Panorama of the Wittenberg of the early 16th century. Watching every aspect of life unfold through changing images and sounds over the equivalent of a twenty-four hour period, was a breath-taking experience. The details were exquisite, the whole Panorama seething with life. It was a ‘you are there’ experience par excellence. The longer I stayed, the more I found to see and many of the details that contribute to the atmosphere created in the book come from that Panorama.

Talking to experts on the ground at all the various Luther-related sites I visited was immensely valuable, not least because they often answered questions that I wouldn’t have known to ask without being there. And, as always, it was the unsought and unexpected discoveries that proved the most valuable. Would I do it all again? In a heartbeat … now where can I set my next book?

Katharina: Deliverance will be published by Sanderling Books in both print and e-book in October 2017, exactly 500 years after Martin Luther displayed his 95 theses on the Wittenberg church door, an event which is credited with sparking the Reformation.

1. Treu, Martin. Katharina von Bora Luther’s Wife, Reformation Biographies, English Edition, Drei Kastanien Verlag (2016), p.5.

ABOUT THE CONTRIBUTOR: MARGARET SKEA is an award-winning novelist and short story writer. Her Scottish novels, also set in the 16th century, are Turn of the Tide and A House Divided.

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