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 .