Katherine Von Bora Luther: Herbalist, Gardener, Farmer, and Patron Saint of the Reformation

Katherine Von Bora was the wife of Martin Luther. She was a prodigious gardener, a skilled herbalist and an avid farmer. Her training in herbalism, her ability to bring forth abundant harvests from the soil, and her administrative skills made her indispensable to the support and success of the Protestant Reformation.

One doesn’t often run across accounts of Katie Luther in the history of herbalism, though she did not lack skill. Roland Bainton, Martin Luther’s biographer, refers to her as a “master of herbs,” massage and poultices. Her son, Paul, who became a physician, called her at least half a doctor.

More known for her support of her husband during the Reformation, Katie Luther had an identity in her own right. Even though her famous husband was continually the center of attention, she was impossible to dismiss, so much so that she had many enemies. Much of her presence was due to the woman’s sheer energy. Through her own initiative, she purchased lands, planted gardens and orchards, planted grain to feed farm animals, grew hops for brewing beer, kept honeybees, and kept a pond stocked with fish. She even slaughtered her own livestock. She possessed seemingly endless vigor, entrepreneurial initiative, versatility and diligence.

In addition, she was compassionate. Katie had probably been introduced to the art of healing by Muhme Lene, a woman who was head of the infirmary at Marienthron convent, the convent where Katie had been a Cistercian nun prior to escaping, and marrying Martin Luther.

We are told almost nothing of Katherine Von Bora’s methods of herbalism. As far as we know, she wrote nothing down about the plants she used, nor the means she employed, to nurse her husband through complex illnesses, and to bring her friends, children and neighbors through plagues. Though she could read and write, and knew some Latin, she was not much given to scholarly pursuits, as was her husband; she was a woman of action. Then again, Katie may have simply taken her herbal knowledge and ministry in stride. Often little note was taken of the ministries of female healers, nor were they made part of the historical record. Their work was often taken for granted as one of the many duties that wives and mothers performed for their families and communities. The fact that Katie was known for her skill speaks for itself, but it is not remarkable that her methods were not written down.

We can, perhaps, deduce some of her methods by examining the context in which Katie Luther worked. She was born during the transition from Monastic medicine to what is sometimes referred to as scientific medicine.

The Cistercian nuns were, like their brothers in the monasteries, heirs to remnants of the great traditions of Monastic medicine. During the Dark Ages, monks had preserved (through copying) ancient manuscripts containing the writings of such Greek and Roman physicians as Galen, Dioscordes and Hippocrates. These, intermingled with folk medicine, formed the basic pattern of Monastic medicine.

The Cistercian nuns would certainly have been familiar also with the writings of the famous German Benedictine nun, Hildegard Von Bingen, a famous practitioner of Monastic medicine from the 12th century. She was the first woman to write a materia medica, Physica, as well as writing other manuscripts recording her theories of medicine. In addition, there were many women in villages and towns who were folk healers known as wise-women.

Herbalism figured prominently in all of these traditions. During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, herbals were written in other languages beside Latin and Greek. We don’t know if the nuns at Katie Luther’s convent were familiar with these herbals or not, but as they could read and write, the chance of them having access to at least some of the resources discussed above is likely. How many we don’t know, because Katie belonged to one of the poorer convents in Germany, as her family was too impoverished to pay the larger dowries required to enter more prosperous cloisters. There was ample opportunity for sharing among houses of the same order, though nuns may have been dependent on information from the monks, as they had strict travel limitations. Perhaps they were lent manuscripts to copy for their own uses.

Like monasteries, convents kept gardens where they cultivated herbs for medicinal and culinary uses. They also raised vegetables for the table and flowers for the altar. Orchards were kept. The literature on Katie Luther tells us that she grew many of the same fruits and vegetables that were commonly grown in the convents: melons, radishes, cabbage, beans, cucumbers, lettuce, peas, almonds, grapes, apples, pears and peaches.

It is likely that she also cultivated the same herbs that were commonly cultivated in convents and monasteries: rue, sage, parsley, mint, wormwood, borage, aloe, rosemary, mugwort, pennyroyal, calendula (known as pot marigold) gladioli and basil. We know she cultivated hops for beer, and probably employed them also for their sleep-inducing sedative effects. It is possible that she grew cherries, as Martin Luther once hung a cherry bough up in their home to signify the blessings of his marital domicile.

Examining Hildegard’s Physica, we find that all of the herbs listed above had medicinal uses. In addition, many, if not all, of the vegetables and fruits listed above were used for health purposes, as well. This is because special diets were firmly entrenched in the monastic medicine tradition. Rudolph K. and Marilynne Morris Markwald tell us that part of Katie’s training in the infirmary at Marienthron was the use of special diets, as well as massage and compresses. These diets were used according to what were then known as humors, or in easier terms to understand, identified health constitutions of individual persons being treated. For example, Katie preferred to serve her husband beer, rather than wine, as she thought it was better for his particular health needs. She used it as a sedative for his insomnia and as a solvent for stone (most likely kidney stones).

We are told that Katie grew flowers that her husband loved. The blogspot, Women in the Garden, lists flowers, vegetables and herbs common for convent gardens. Flowers listed are roses, lilies, primroses, asters, carnations (probably clove pinks, otherwise known as gillyflowers) and pot marigold, or calendula (marigolds as we know them today are from Mexico and a completely different plant). Again, taking a look at Physica, we find that all of the flowers, except for aster and carnation are found to have health uses in Hildegard’s work. Carnations, or clove pinks, though not listed in Physica, were a common component of perfumes and potpourris in some parts of Europe.  The web site, eHow.com, however, informs us that asters, also known as Michaelmas daisies, were used in Medieval times for blockage of the bowels and tumors, as well as nervous disorders. Kate probably adorned her house with these blooms, but she was most likely aware of their herbal uses, too.

Also found in Physica are spices such as ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg that were used medicinally. How much access to these spices Katie had is not easy to ascertain. They were very expensive in the 1500’s and could not easily be grown locally in Northern Europe’s cool climate. We are told in the Markwalds’ biography, Katharina Von Bora: A Reformation Life, that Katie scoured the local market watching for bargain prices for spices, so she may have used them medicinally whenever she had a supply.

It is also quite likely that she availed herself of the many wild plants growing on her lands, though no mention is made of this aspect in any of the biographical works I have read.

We don’t know just how extensively Katie was trained as an herbalist, but we do know that she was respected for her abilities by those who knew her. During plagues, her home was filled with sufferers, both loved ones and strangers. Her friends and husband trusted her implicitly, though Luther sometimes chided her for a tendency to worry too much. Luther’s friends praised her care of her husband’s frail health.  He suffered from chronic maladies including gout, hemorrhoids, constipation, catarrh, dizziness, severe ringing in the ears, insomnia, and recurrent deep depression.

Luther often addressed Katie in letters as Doctor and at least once as Pharmacist. She probably learned some apothecary skills from Muhme Lene, the Head Infirmarian at Marienthron.

As mistress of the Black Cloister, a rundown former Augustinian monastery that had been given to the Luthers, it appears that Katherine von Bora made use of many of the skills she had observed at the convent of which she had been a member. She must have been a keen observer and a quick study. In her home, she seems to have taken on many of the roles that individual nuns commonly filled for the benefit of their communities. She was combination Cellarer, Infirmarian, Sacrist and Prioress. She took charge of the money, directed manservants and maidservants, refurbished her home and provided for the education and health of her household.

And, as in a convent, her home was filled with a steady stream of guests, refugees, family members, students, academics, travelers and others in need. For the benefit of all these, she filled her table with honey, fish, meat, poultry, fruit, nuts, beer, raisins, and whatever else she could procure from her lands and gardens. She was an excellent cook, making breads and hearty dishes. She was hostess at the many famous Table Talks over which her husband presided, while students and scholars from all over Europe took notes from Martin‘s lectures. Not only did she provide the food, but she participated in the conversation. These discussions were central to launching the Reformation.

Katherine Von Bora was always looking for ways to expand her agricultural operations. She coaxed her husband on more than one occasion for his consent to lease or purchase more land and gardens. Eventually, she inherited her family farm in Zulsdorf, as well. She, who had lived in poverty in her early life, was deeply aware of the importance of lands for providing adequately for her family. It isn’t likely that the perceptive Katie Luther failed to realize that her gardens and lands contributed to her husband’s financial independence, and that this independence made it easier for her uncompromising husband to take his stand in the face of hostile priests and princes.

After her husband died she struggled to hold her lands together, and to provide for her children. She fought fiercely for her children’s right to inherit her property. She had powerful enemies who, on more than one occasion, blocked her efforts. Part of the reason for their enmity is no doubt the scandal she and Luther incurred by marrying after forsaking their monastic vows. There were those that thought she had seduced Luther with her wiles.

Upon reflection, one must wonder if there wasn’t some other underlying cause of their dislike. Women in Katie’s time were strictly limited in scope, though times were changing. They weren’t allowed to travel freely, and were expected to be passive, quiet, virtuous, docile, submissive, retiring and dependent, though endowed with a generous dowry. Katie Luther was none of these according to to many lights. She was strong-willed, independent, proactive, quick-witted, outspoken, and resourceful. She often took the initiative and ran the household finances. Even her loving husband would, at times, sigh in exasperation at her take-charge attitude.

Katie would also take leave from her household to travel to her farm in Zulsdorf, where she would spend lengthy periods of time away from her husband, something that may have raised eyebrows. Perhaps some of the men who undermined her, after Martin Luther’s death, resented a woman of Katie’s fiery and independent temperament.

But Katherine Von Bora was the perfect wife for Martin Luther. He was dreamy, scholarly, generous to a fault, neglectful of his health and surroundings, and impractical. She was perceptive, diligent, pragmatic, orderly and thrifty. He had his head in the heavens; she had her feet planted firmly in the earth. Their common background as members of cloisters gave them a pattern for their household that allowed their home to be self-sufficient enough to offer hospitality to those thinkers that gave form to the Reformation. The Luthers’ common love of God gave them zeal and faith to persist in ushering in an age of grace, despite the deaths of children and vicious slander.

While Martin Luther had his own income, due to influential patrons of his work, it is also obvious that Katherine Von Bora funded much of the Reformation by her own activities. Every great vision needs a place to come to pass, and Katie Luther provided that place. There wouldn’t have been nearly so much Table Talk if the Mistress of the Black Cloister hadn’t set the table.

 References and Works Consulted

Bainton, Roland. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Penguin Books Canada Limited: Markham, Ontario, 1977.

Throop, Priscilla (Translator). Hildegard Von Bingen’s Physica: The Complete English Translation of Her Classic Work on Health and Healing. Healing Arts Press: Rochester Vermont, 1998.

Markwald, Rudolph K and Marilynne Morris. Katharina Von Bora: A Reformation Life. Concordia Publishing House: Saint Louis, 2002.

McWilliams, Professor Charles. Modern Pastoral Medicine: A Historical Account of Christian Nature Cure and Pastoral Medical Care Today. Sacred Medical Order of the Knights of Hope: 2nd Ed., 2010.

Peterson, William J. Martin Luther Had a Wife. Bridge Publishing, UK: 1984.

Women in the Garden: The Garden in a Nunnery, Part 1. Online document Retrieved March 30, 2012 at http://womenandthegarden.blogspot.com/2010/10/garden-in-nunnery-part-1.html .

The Medieval Garden: Monastic Gardens as a Source of Food, Herbs and Medicine. Online Document retrieved March 30, 2012 at http://rachel-bellerby.suite101.com/the-medieval-monastery-garden-a47198 .

Medieval Healing Herbs. Online Document retrieved April 2, 2012 at http://www.ehow.com/list_7424780_medieval-healing-herbs.html#ixzz1 .

Posted in Blog, Herbalism | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Focus on Garden Varieties for Zone 4: Spring 2012

Time to Order Seeds

Seed CataloguesWell folks, it’s garden time again. I have a stack of garden catalogs beside my couch. When taking a break from work, I pore over this year’s offerings. Though your die-hard gardeners probably already have their orders speeding through the mail, it is still late snowy winter here in zone 4 of North Idaho, and there is plenty of time, no matter where you live, to put together a seed order for the coming year.

This is the time for dreaming: do you long, as I do, for a sweet pepper that ripens to red in a cool climate? Are you hankering for a cool-soil tolerant watermelon? A pumpkin or dent corn that ripens ten to twenty days ahead of all others?

It is also a time for reflection: how did your choices work out last year? This is one of those times for taking out your garden journal and reading your notes.

In this blog, I will share some of the varieties that performed superbly last year, and I will also tip you to some varieties that are a stand out in this year’s catalogs.  Before I begin, let me tell you that I only look for open-pollinated varieties that will mature in my growing region, as I want to produce my own seeds, whenever possible.

Another thing, I don’t want to have to baby something too much. I am willing to take reasonable measures to see that a variety yields a crop, and I might even baby a watermelon some, but I am not going to devote my life to the endeavor. Either the variety is hardy enough to thrive here with a reasonable effort, or it is too much trouble for me.

I scour the catalogs looking for early, cold tolerant, open-pollinated varieties. If one is growing peas or cabbage, this is not too difficult, but if one’s taste runs to peppers, tomatoes, corn, squash, etc., one can find oneself on a never ending quest.  Let me give you some suggestions, as you make your way on your own garden journey.

Last Year in Review

An Excellent Early Cucumber: Bushy, Queen of Cool

Having said that, I’ll share what worked for me last year. One excellent performer was Bushy cucumber, offered by Seed Savers Exchange. Bushy thrived in cold weather that I have seen slow other cucumbers to a stop. Originating in Russia, and advertised to mature in 45-50 days, Bushy performs like a champ. I have grown other short season varieties, such as Cool Breeze, which is supposed to be exceedingly cold weather tolerant, and Little Tyke, said to mature in only 34 days, and I have not had the vigorous growth put on by Bushy. In addition, Bushy gave me cucumbers earlier than both and is open-pollinated to boot, whereas the other two are hybrids. Bushy is a find, and I will not grow any other, as long as I can get the seeds.

Peppers: Bringing Some Heat to the North

Another pleasant surprise performer last year was Hot Hungarian Wax pepper. I have never had a pepper show such tolerance for cold weather. Even the Sweet Banana pepper plants turned yellow and lost a few leaves during our characteristic mid-June inclemency, but Hot Hungarian Wax never even wavered. It just kept setting on new fruits until the plants looked like they had little yellow horns all over them. The Sweet Banana peppers rebounded, as usual, and did give a phenomenal yield, so I don’t want to belittle their heroic efforts, but they don’t rival the sturdy Hungarian Wax for cold tolerance.

Some people say that the Hot Hungarian Wax peppers are not very hot. All I can say is, let them stay on the plant until they turn deep yellow and tinged with orange. I had to label them Triple H when I froze and canned them–that’s Hot Hungarian Hydrogen Bomb. They made my husband’s eyes roll like a slot machine. And if you don’t like very hot peppers, you can pick them earlier. I took some younger peppers and stuffed them like a bell pepper. They were superb–just a hint of spiciness.

Incidentally, the Sweet Banana peppers are mild and taste good in Mediterranean style dishes.

Autumn Britten: The Best Early Fall-Bearing Raspberry for Zone 4

The last new-to-me variety I found especially pleasing last year was the Autumn Britten fall-bearing raspberry. I had previously grown Heritage fall-bearing raspberry, but, in my present location, that variety is marginal. I tried several other fall-bearing varieties without satisfying results. I loved Heritage’s big size, meaty texture and perfect blend of sweet and tart. Other fall-bearing varieties advertised for zone 4 seemed tasteless, or dry, by comparison. They were a disappointment. But last year, the Autumn Britten I had planted the year before yielded a crop in August, and the berries were superb. This year, I am putting in nine more plants.

Other Exciting Personal Discoveries for Cool Seasons

The Quest for a Red-Ripe Sweet Pepper: Antohi Pepper and Round of Hungary

This year, I am excited about a couple of pepper varieties offered by Johnny’s Selected seeds: Antohi Romanian and Round of Hungary. Antohi Romanian is supposed to be edible in 53 days and red-ripe in 78. It is an heirloom Eastern European frying pepper that is listed as exceptionally cold tolerant. I have already started my peppers for this year, but I shall order a package of Antohi Romanian to keep handy for next year.

The other intriguing pepper, Round of Hungary, isn’t listed as exceptionally cold hardy, but it is supposed to be edible in only 55 days and to ripen in 75 days. I want to grow it, as it is a cheese pimento type with thick walls. Oh, how I long to raise a pepper like that here.

As it has been supplied to Johnny’s Selected Seeds by growers in Switzerland, perhaps I, too, have a chance here in my short, cool season.

 Tamales in the Cold Country: Corn Varieties for Cornmeal and Flour

Another vegetable that interests me is corn. Not just sweet corn, but I want a cool-soil tolerant corn that can be ground for making tortillas, tamales and corn bread. Usually, one must grow either a dent corn or a flint corn for that purpose.
I say usually. I have already discussed, in a previous blog, why I grow Hooker’s Sweet corn, a cool-soil tolerant corn that is white with a flush of purple when ripe for the table at 60-69 days. Amazingly, Territorial Seeds, out of Oregon, calls this lovely variety Hooker’s Sweet Indian corn and shares with us that mature kernels dry blue-black and “grind into the sweetest cornmeal” all in 75-80 days. Since, in the past, I have absent-mindedly allowed much of my Hooker’s corn to ripen to the blue-black stage quite by accident, I am thinking that I might let some finish up maturing until dried, and experiment with grinding it. I have dried some of the kernels before, and thrown them into beef stew with tasty success.

You aren’t supposed to grow sweet and grinding corn in the same garden because they cross-pollinate, so, if I could get away with using the same variety for both purposes, it would be ideal for me.

If you want to grow a corn that is specifically grown for grinding, however, and you must work with a short growing season, another possibility would be Painted Mountain, developed in the mountains of Montana. Johnny’s tells customers that this variety forms vibrantly beautiful multicolored ears that are used for “decorating, easy grinding, roasting, or use in hominy grits.” Painted Mountain makes in 85 days and has Johnny’s symbol for being exceptionally cold tolerant next to its name. On another page, Johnny’s Selected Seeds describes Painted Mountain as being edible in the “milk” stage (the stage when kernels, when nicked with a fingernail, exude a light, milky juice).

The two varieties discussed above mature a good 10-25 days ahead of any other varieties of grinding corn. Though Oaxacan Green Dent is listed as maturing in 75-95 days in the Seeds of Change catalog, Johnny’s lists it at 95 days. Why the discrepancy in maturing time? The reason is probably that Seeds of Change offers varieties grown in a number of places, while Johnny’s operates out of Maine, a short season growing region. What takes 75 days in Oaxaca, Mexico, or in the Southwestern United States, could easily take 95 days, or longer, in the cool soils of Maine.

And this is true for many other vegetables, such as peppers, tomatoes and squashes. This is why varieties that have been developed and tested in cold regions are so important to gardeners in zone 4.

The only other early corn for grinding that I am aware of that might be good for short seasons is Mandan Red offered by Seeds of Change (who also offer Hookers, by the way). Maturing in 80-85 days, this corn was developed by the Mandan Indians in the North Central Plains area. Also described as being highly edible in the sweet milk stage and good for parching (dry roasted on a skillet), Mandan Red matures to a deep red when mature.

I have not personally tried Painted Mountain or Mandan Red, but those are the two best bets, along with Hookers, if you are hankering for homemade corn bread from your own garden, and you garden in a place like I do.

A Pumpkin that Ripens in Wyoming: Cheyenne Bush Pumpkin

This brings me to the subject of an early maturing pumpkin developed in Cheyenne, Wyoming at the USDA Field Station. Cheyenne Bush Pumpkin ripens in 80-90 days, and has a compact bush habit. I would say that, if a pumpkin ripens early in Wyoming, it will ripen anywhere. This variety is offered by Seed Savers Exchange.

Brand Spanking New: Somerset Seedless Grape

The last variety I will discuss that you might consider is a new seedless grape that is hardy to -30 degrees! Yes, you read that right. I said seedless. This brand new grape is offered by Miller Nurseries. Somerset Grape is advertised as the hardiest seedless grape, and was developed by the famous horticulturist Elmer Swenson, who has offered those of us in the north many other hardy grapes over the years.

Though I yearn to try Somerset, I may never have the opportunity, as grapes are not allowed to be shipped to Idaho. And to this insult comes more injury from the Idaho Department of Agriculture. This year, the catalogs all inform their readers that onion sets may no longer be shipped to Idaho, and to really work one up into a froth, several companies may not ship seed potato to the Famous Potato state either. What’s up with that, Idaho?

I say an inquiry is in order.

Where the Seed Meets the Soil: Getting Down to Reality

In the meantime, I have started my onions from seed, along with Hot Hungarian Wax peppers, Sweet Banana peppers, Oregon Spring tomato and Tiny Tim tomato. This year I dream of getting my cold frames built and setting out peppers and tomatoes in May. I do so want red-ripe peppers and early tomatoes this year.  That will take plenty of planning, good timing and hard work.

You too, no doubt have your own garden fantasies. May those fantasies sustain you as you make your plans for garden year 2012.

Posted in Agrarianism, Blog, rural life, The Garden, Zone 4 gardens | Tagged , , , , , , | 10 Comments

In Praise for the Field Part 2: Garden Progress Report

Hungarian Wax Pepper looking a bit Prehistoric

This morning, while watering the garden before bathing for church, I didn’t want to leave. The air was cool, and smelled of damp earth. I walked around languidly examining the bright rows. I love this time of year. Everything is making its crop. We are eating salads and snacking right out of hand—snap peas, cherry tomatoes, raspberries, even baby potatoes with salt.

Sugar Ann Snap Pea, Drunk with Fruit

Now the kitchen is even busier than the garden. I can’t keep up with the exploding abundance. I make pickles and jam, herb and fruit vinegars, and pesto.

Pistou Basil looking like a Chia Pet

I dry and freeze and can and bundle and gather.

Dinners are simple, and incorporate whatever is being preserved at the time or needs picking. On jam-making night, we eat pancakes topped with the tail-ends of jam batches.  Another night, I use some of my raspberry vinegar with almond oil to dress a salad to serve with baked chicken breast.

Herb & Fruit Vinegars (left to right): Raspberry, Lemon-Spearmint, Country Herb (in back) and Blackberry-Rose

Or, I may serve wilted greens with bacon and cornbread, or stir linguica (Portuguese sausage) with red kidney beans and kale into a skillet.

Tonight I made a cottage-style cobbler with a crumb topping using blackberries left over from jam making. We will have that for breakfast tomorrow. Nothing must go to waste if it can be helped.

Even the animals are enjoying the field’s bounty. Many mornings, I pull a wheelbarrow full of weeds for the chickens. They love the lamb’s quarters, shepherd’s purse, chickweed and dock that, because of their high nutrient content, boost their immune systems for the coming winter months.

Soon we will set potatoes, squash and onions to cure for winter storage.

As autumn comes on, up here in the north, we feel a little sad that we soon will put the gardens to bed, but, still, there is a slight thrill of anticipation born of the knowledge that our pantries are full, and we have done what could be done. We anticipate the coming leisure for reading, writing and family with gratitude.  Like the garden, we will be settling down for our winter rest.

Posted in Agrarianism, Blog, rural life, The Garden, Zone 4 gardens | Tagged | 6 Comments

In Praise for the Field Part 1: The Wild Garden

This gallery contains 19 photos.

About midsummer, the gardener should take time to reflect on the beauty and abundance of the fields, both wild and cultivated. As I go about my garden tasks, the natural world around me is going about its own work. Sunrises … Continue reading

More Galleries | 11 Comments