Nun. Rebel. Wife
Oct 4, 2016
also available as ebook
historical fiction / religion
MY THOUGHTS ABOUT THIS BOOK
Une fois n’est pas coutume, as we say in French, so this review will start with a very personal confession. Katharina von Bora (1499-1552) was a Cistercian nun. She eventually left her monastery, we’ll see more about her reasons further down in my review, and married. We remember her because her husband was very famous and instrumental in a major change in Western Christianity. He was Martin Luther.
Now, I was myself a Cistercian nun for 29 years, left my monastery, also for religious reasons, that is, to become Eastern Orthodox; and I eventually married. So when I was approached about reviewing Katharina Luther: Nun. Rebel. Wife, I knew right away I had to read it. I was a bit nervous of what the author would do with her life, but it was totally unjustified. This historical novel, written in view of the 2017 Reformation anniversary (The Ninety-Five Theses, the writing that started the movement, were written by Luther in 1517, so 500 years ago next year) is so spot on!
The beginning of the book is quite clever: despite monastic life not being popular in the Germany of the 16th century, the former nun Katharina, married to a former monk and now pregnant, is the object of insults and humiliations on the market place (remember, it’s also the time of witch hunts). So her attentive husband advises her to stay indoors for the rest of her pregnancy. She decides to use this quiet time to write “the story of her life.” Which is what the novel is.
Her infancy in rural Germany is lived in poverty, with times of famine. Her mother dies young and her stepmother dislikes her. They decide to send her away for her education. So at 9, she is sent to a Cistercian monastery. Unlike current Cistercian/Trappist monasteries in Western Europe and the United States, for instance, German monasteries took the care of young children for their education. When coming of age, some would stay to become nuns. Katharina enjoyed the lessons (writing, drawing, Latin) and the quiet life devoted to God, so she did stay and pronounced her vows. Though at a still very young age, when she really had no clue what she was actually renouncing.
The descriptions of her monastic life are very accurate, even in the smallest details. Cistercians developed a sign language very early on (the Cistercian Order was founded in Burgundy, France, in 1098), to allow the monastics to communicate when necessary without disrupting silence, in order not to disturb the other monks or nuns (this is the only Roman Catholic religious order where the life is exactly the same in a monastery of men, monks or in one of women, nuns) in their prayer life. So the author gives the example of the sign language for milk (there are old documents explaining them), and yes, this is the one I still remember using!
Katharina loves the monastic life, the regular rhythm of the liturgical year and the seasonal works.
This is an aspect I really appreciated finding in the book. The danger in that type of topic would be to show a nun unhappy with her life. This was not the case.
Her reason for leaving her monastery is much more subtle, and so in keeping with the spirit of the time.
One day, another nun receives a letter from her brother, who speaks enthusiastically of a certain Martin Luther. The young sisters manage to get his sermons and they read them in hiding. His writings start unsettling them and making them question their choice of life and their future as nuns. One of the big novelties is that he translated and presented Scripture in the vernacular, for the first time, and not in Latin. This is a major change, even for the sisters, who suddenly get a total different feel of the Gospel.
The changes introduced by Luther and his harsh criticism against the Pope and Roman Catholicism at large embolden people, and encourage peasants to defy their lords. Restlessness and revolts start spreading all over Germany. There is “turbulence in the streets, dissent in the church” (p.46).
Katharina hears about all of this. She is scared, but at the same time excited, and she is eager to leave the monastery to be part of this “atmosphere of change”.
So with 8 other young sisters, after much plotting, and Luther’s help himself, they flee the monastery. The fugitives also dream of living a “normal life”, marrying, having babes, and traveling.
After they escape, the former sisters meet Luther. I enjoyed the presentation of the difference between the man they had dreamed of and the real man.
Their discovery of life outside the walls of their monastery was very well rendered. Oh the noise! (Yes!!, still valid in the 21st century!!). This was another plus for the novel, the way the author does not picture a black and white picture between life in and out. Katharina and the other sisters have actually a hard time adjusting to secular life and they are sometimes nostalgic of their monastic life.
Outside the monastery walls, Katharina is still a very prayerful person, eager to do the will of God.
The passages about her discernment for marriage are excellent. She is also a strong woman, who will not agree to be humiliated by her own husband.
Theologically speaking, I also enjoyed the debates about Scripture and reforms in the church, and the way Katharina and Martin took care of each other, how she helped him pursue his mission.
The passages about Luther’s own spiritual journey were very interesting as well, and his anxiety and guilt at seeing the devastating results (in the violent behavior of the people) of the seeds he had sown.
In the background, there are great description, you can feel the author is a poet, of daily life in the German countryside and of the folk mentality. This is illustrated by the quotation inscribed at the beginning of each chapter, excerpts from Luther’s Table Talks.
At the beginning, I mentioned the framework of the book. So when Katharina gives birth to a baby boy, she stops writing her notebook. But I wonder, will the author offer us another novel, about her later years? Katharina had indeed a full life and bore 6 children in all. She had to face a war and the Black Plague.
Come back later at the beginning of December, for my interview with the author!
EN DEUX MOTS :
Fascinant roman historique sur Katharina von Bora, son enfance, son temps dans un monastère cistercien, et pourquoi elle le quitta pour finalement épouser Martin Luther.
VERDICT: Superb and very accurate book on Katharina von Bora, a former Cistercian nun who ended up marrying Martin Luther. This is what historical fiction looks like at its best.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT
On 31st October 1517, Martin Luther pinned ninety-five theses on the Castle Church door, Wittenberg, criticizing the Church of Rome; they were printed and published by Lucas Cranach and caused a storm. Nine young nuns, intoxicated by Luther’s subversive writings, became restless and longed to leave their convent. On Good Friday 1523 a haulier smuggled them out hidden in empty herring barrels. Five of them settled in Wittenberg, the very eye of the storm, and one of them – Katharina von Bora – scandalised the world by marrying the revolutionary former monk. Following a near miscarriage, she is confined to her bed to await the birth of their first child; during this time, she sets down her own story. Against a backdrop of 16th Century Europe this vivid account of Katharina von Bora’s early life brings to the spotlight this spirited and courageous woman.
From Chapter 10 – Hieronymous
Katharina is living as a house daughter with Barbara and Lucas Cranach. She teaches their two sons, Hans and Lucas. Hieronymous Baumgartner, a handsome young man from Nurnberg, comes to the house each day, in order to learn the art and trade of printing.
After that Hieronymous took to visiting the schoolroom regularly at midday, and the boys looked forward to his visits. Sometimes he took them fishing in the afternoon, or they invited him upstairs to their father’s studio. At other times he stole time off to be with me.
I remember one particular afternoon in April. The boys had finished their lessons and the morning chores were done; we had eaten lunch and the whole household was quiet for the midday rest. Hieronymous took my arm and we walked down the street, through the Elster Gate, past the fairground and over the causeway into the water meadows.
It was probably risky, going out alone with a young man, but I was prepared to risk it. The sun shone, the Elbe flowed past, smooth, powerful and eddying. I have never seen the sea, but this river is so wide and so deep, I sometimes pretend it is the sea, especially when it’s misty and you can’t see the far bank. A few horses were plodding upstream, pulling barges, their brown sails furled; other barges were gliding north with the current, a breeze in their sales; their horses accompanied them on the tow-path, occasionally trotting to keep up.
Life was thrumming after the long dormant season. Frogs and toads were croaking in the marsh and we breathed in the fragrance of wild flowers: speedwell, forget-me-nots, Pasque flowers, buttercups. The air was buzzing with insects: dragonflies, lacewings, butterflies, mayflies. Larks hung suspended above us, spilling out their strings of notes. We stood still to watch a great sea eagle circling above the river; without warning it folded its wings and dropped vertically into the water, then emerged beating its enormous wings in spray and floundered awkwardly back into the air clutching a writhing fish in its talons. We held hands and laughed, and played ‘hit the cockchafer’; we felt alive and the air was heavy with love.
Suddenly, he stopped fooling around, stood still in front of me and cupped my cheeks in his hands, his face grave.
“Kathe”, he said. He kissed my hands: my knuckles first, then, turning them over, he kissed my palms; he kissed my wrists, and the soft skin inside my arm; then he embraced me, kissed my eyes, my cheeks, my lips. And overhead, a skein of cranes are flying, their long necks stretched out in front, their long legs behind, calling, calling. My knees are weak, and I am filled with desire for him.
There are those who like to imply that my husband was not the first man to know me. They can say what they like. If I were to refute their allegations they would not believe me. I have to admit I wanted him. I felt his lips on my lips, his tongue on mine; his warm breath on my neck, the ache within me. As our intellects entwined in sweet conversation and our spirits entwined with affection and humour, so it followed, as night follows day, that our bodies should entwine and want to become one as well.
While I was in the convent, I used to dream of life outside those high walls, free from the constraints of routine, silence, temperance, abstinence, self-effacement. I dreamt, as any young woman would, of running barefoot in spring grass, of playing silly games of hide and seek, of laughter and conversation. My longing for the embrace of a man had been more nebulous, I could not really imagine how it might be. But now, I knew what I wanted yet it was forbidden fruit.
That evening I lay in my little bed above the printworks and re-lived our afternoon together. The hum of insects, the homing cranes and tumbling eagle, the warmth of sun on our skin; the Elbe flowing clear and strong; our desire for each other as strong as that river, flowing north. My secret place, up to then dormant, was awakened. With my hand, in the darkness of the night, I discovered my petals, open like a foxglove welcoming a bumble bee: moist, warm, aching. For Hieronymous I lay awake and ached.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
(also known as Polly Clarke) lives in Essex.
She studied German in Munich
and worked as interpreter and translator
before turning to language-teaching in England.
She also holds a degree
in Conservation and Land Management
from Anglia University
and has written and given talks on various aspects of conservation.
Now she shares, writes and enjoys poetry;
her work has appeared in a number of anthologies and magazines;
she has also won some awards,
including First Prize with Grey Hen Press, 2016.
She translates modern German poetry into English
with Camden Mews Translators
and was Chair of Suffolk Poetry Society from 2011 to 2014.
Read more about her and her poetry on the Suffolk Poetry Society website