Monday, October 2, 2017

By Donna Davis Donald

One of the defining issues of the Reformation was authority, specifically that of tradition versus scripture. With the refrain sola scriptura, the reformers affirmed the supremacy of the Bible as the source of authority. What remained was to sort out what that meant. Signature doctrines such as transubstantiation, purgatory, and clerical celibacy all succumbed to the authority of the biblical text, but not all traditions were subject to the same scrutiny, especially those related to the role of women.

At the time of the Reformation, the western tradition regarding women was commonplace. Women were valued primarily as vessels for bearing children. As heirs of Eve, they were culpable for the very existence of sin and the curse. at women were physically, intellectually, and spiritually inferior meant that they had few legal rights, limited economic opportunities, and virtually no choice in the trajectory of their lives. Women were to be modest, passive, and silent. While the Reformation brought significant changes to sixteenth-century Europe, historians disagree about whether these changes were a net gain or a net loss for women.1

What is certain is that women contributed significantly to the Reformation. Even within their circumscribed place, women found ways to act by partnering with their reforming husbands, supporting leaders of the movement, and sometimes taking more independent action.

Katie Luther: Theologian, Wife, & Reformer 

Katherine von Bora, the former nun who married Martin Luther, is surely the most widely recognized female figure of the Reformation.2 She was one of several nuns from a local Cistercian monastery who embraced Luther’s teaching and sought to leave the convent. Luther himself devised a plan for their escape, enlisting the help of his merchant friend who often delivered herring to the monastery. Of the twelve women who were smuggled out of the cloister in a fishwagon, several returned to their families, but most were married to former monks or priests. After finding marital matches for other nuns, monks, and priests, and two subsequent years of unsuccessful matchmaking for Katherine, Luther and Katie agreed to wed.

In 1525, the former monk and the former nun set up housekeeping in a building that had housed the Augustinian monastery at Wittenburg. Since the idea of married clergy was a novel one in the Christian west, Katie (as her husband called her) and Luther’s home became the model for the Protestant parsonage. The former monastery was soon lively with ten children, six of their own and the four orphans they raised. Their home was also a center of hospitality, frequently housing as many as thirty students, guests, or boarders all under Katie’s supervision.3

While Katie never established a public role for herself outside the household, it is clear that she was well-educated and fully engaged in the theological controversies of the day. Space limitations prevent a full portrait here, but the way Luther spoke of her and to her says something about the part she played in his work. Not surprisingly, she was his “dear wife,” but he also called her a theologian and a scholar. He lauded her as a consummate gardener and brewer, but also as a preacher. More than once, he publicly called her his “lord.” Indeed, he had no trouble elevating her to a superior place in their partnership: “I am an inferior lord, she the superior; I am Aaron, she is my Moses.”4 Apparently, Katie was not only a supportive companion to Luther, she was also an active participant in his work, all within the traditionally accepted roles of wife and mother.

Marie Dentière: Author, Apologist, & Reformer 

Marie Dentière was also a former nun and minister’s wife, but she was not content with what tradition dictated for women. From the Augustinian convent at Tournai, Marie converted to Protestantism and fled to Strasbourg where she married Simon Robert, a priest-turned-reformer. Together, they became the first husband-wife team sent out to promote the Reformed Church in other cities.5 Widowed after a few short years, she married another minister, Antoine Froment, and moved to Geneva where she became an ardent supporter of John Calvin.

Although her family life is not documented, it seems likely that her home was similar to those of other reformers. However, Marie extended her influence beyond the domestic sphere through writing. In her earliest known work, The War and Deliverance of the City of Geneva, she recorded the first eyewitness account of the Reformation in Geneva. More like a sermon than a chronicle, Marie’s narrative interprets events through the lens of scripture and boldly calls out those she identified as the enemies of God’s work in Geneva.6

More controversial was the publication of a letter from Marie addressed to Queen Marguerite of Navarre. Most of the letter consisted of an articulate defense of Protestant theology, but it also included a more radical section in which Marie defended the place of women within that theology. Based on her understanding of scripture, she reasoned that women should be permitted to write and act as ministers even if they were not allowed to preach in assemblies and churches. She also defended the right of women to interpret scripture and to teach that interpretation to one another.

“For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth. And even though we are not permitted to preach in public in congregations and churches, we are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity.”7 

Marie called on women to cross the boundaries erected by tradition and step into a more active role in spreading the gospel. Specifically, she asserted that women and men had equal claim to reading and understanding the scriptures. Her writing demonstrates her impressive knowledge of scripture and her theological acumen. is public plea to reconsider biblical teaching about women rather than adhering to conventional practices drew opposition. However, Marie’s greatest transgression was not her doctrine, but that she dared to speak and write with authority, particularly on religious matters. After her death, her support for the reformation in Geneva and her theological contributions were largely unknown until the recovery of her work in the nineteenth century.

Charlotte d’Arbaleste: Biographer, Mother, & Reformer 

The visibility of Katie Luther’s position and the vehemence of Marie Dentière’s writing stand in contrast to the less public approach of another Protestant woman, Charlotte d’Arbaleste.8 As the wife of a Philippe de Duplessis-Mornay, a prominent Protestant nobleman, Charlotte managed a large household and actively supported the military activities of her husband, during the French Wars of Religion. Mornay was also a man of letters and Charlotte became his self-appointed archivist, going to great lengths to collect and preserve his literary output which included theological treatises, polemical pamphlets, and poetry.

She also became the guardian of his legacy. Beginning in 1584, she penned a lengthy account of his life dedicated to their only son. Recounting his achievements and challenges as a political and military leader, Charlotte also wrote of her husband’s conversion, narrated their separate, but equally harrowing, escapes from Paris during the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, and described their subsequent courtship and marriage. In fact, her memoire remains the best source we have for his life and work.

In this account, Charlotte is an indispensable partner in her husband’s work as a leader in the French Protestant community. Her role as wife and mother remain traditional, but the act of writing itself, especially in this form, was unusual. For her, writing was a means for influencing her children and perpetuating the legacy of her husband, but also a way to support and preserve the Protestant cause within the bounds of socially accepted behavior for women.

In a separate account, Charlotte describes an incident that forced her to press the limits of those boundaries. As a noblewoman, Charlotte was obligated to maintain her family’s standing at court and part of the requirement was to keep up with the latest fashion. When the local Protestant pastor forbade a certain hairstyle in the interest of modesty, Charlotte boldly defied his order. She defended her action, not in terms of her own rights to self-determination, but with an appeal to the traditional authority of her husband and of the church. She admonished the pastor for confronting her personally and directed him to take the matter to her husband, for he had the final say over her hairstyle. She also questioned the minister’s interpretation of Reformed Church teaching on what she saw as a non-essential matter, affirming her willingness to obey such teaching.

This paradoxical moment illustrates the tension that characterized the contribution of many women of the Reformation. Charlotte challenged one authority figure by appealing to another authority, and, in doing so, asserted her own ability to identify truth. Both in her writing and in her resistance to an overzealous minister, Charlotte tested the limits of the traditional ideal of the silent, submissive woman. But even her assertiveness was carefully inscribed within the accepted norms of the authority of husband and Church.


These women of the Reformation did not set out to break the tradition of marriage and family or to have women overtake men in positions of authority. However, their confidence in their own knowledge of scripture and their own assurance of sound doctrine tested the limits of the traditional perception of women. They knew the scriptures, they were convinced of the authority of biblical teaching, and they did not hesitate to use this as a means to challenge those who would value tradition more highly than truth.

1. For an overview of the development of this tradition, see Margaret L. King and Albert Rabil, Jr. “The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe: Introduction to the Series,” published in all 60 volumes of The Other Voice in Early Modern Europe (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996-2010).

2. The most accessible introduction to the women described here is Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).

3. Stjerna, 59.

4. Quoted in Stjerna, 60.

5. Marie Dentière, Epistle to Marguerite De Navarre: And, Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin, trans. and ed. Mary B. McKinley (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 5.

6. Jane Dempsey Douglass, “Marie Dentière’s Use of Scripture in Her Theology of History,” in Biblical Hermeneutics in Historical Perspective: Studies in Honor of Karlfried Froehlich on His Sixtieth Birthday, edited by Mark Stephen Burrows and Karlfried Froehlich (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 227-244.

7. Dentière, 53.

8. Charlotte Arbaleste de Mornay, A Huguenot Family in the XVI Century: the memoirs of Philippe de Mornay, sieur du Plessis Marly written by his wife, trans. and ed. Lucy Crump (London: Geourge Routledge & Sons, 1926); Charlotte Duplessis-Mornay, Les Mémoires de Madame de Mornay, trans. and ed. and Nadine Kuperty-Tsur (Paris: Honoré Champion Editeur, 2010).