Women of the Reformation: Olympia Fulvia MorataWritten by Subby Szterszky
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The pages of Scripture are dotted with stories of wise, intelligent women who were valued for their counsel. Deborah was a military leader as well as a judge who arbitrated the legal cases of her people. Abigail argued with verve and reason to persuade David not to take revenge on her foolish husband. The wise woman of Abel Beth Maacah negotiated with Joab to spare her city from destruction (Judges 4-5; 1 Samuel 25; 2 Samuel 20).
In the New Testament, Phoebe was Paul’s envoy who delivered and read his magisterial letter to the Roman church. Priscilla, together with her husband Aquila, corrected the theology of Apollos. And the intriguing Damaris was present at the Areopagus, an intellectual and philosophical court normally reserved for men (Romans 16; Acts 17-18).
This pattern has only expanded in the centuries since. God continues to raise up intelligent, wise women of faith who use their minds and their talents in the service of the Gospel and to build up the Church.
Olympia Fulvia Morata (1526-1555) was an Italian scholar whose brief life spanned the early years of the Reformation. She applied her prodigious literary and intellectual gifts to promote biblical literacy and to encourage fellow scholars, nobles and common people alike with the hope found only in Jesus.
A prodigious young girl
Olympia was the daughter of Fulvio Pellegrino Morato, a humanist scholar and university professor who specialized in the classics. Morato had been influenced by the Reformation teachings of Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Erasmus, and passed these influences on to his daughter. He gave Olympia an education that included literature, history, philosophy, theology and languages – by the time she was 12, she was fluent in Greek and Latin.
Morato was engaged as a scholar at the ducal court of Ferrara in northern Italy, where he lectured on Catholic, humanist and Protestant ideas. The duke was a staunch Catholic, but his wife the duchess, Renée de France, sympathized with the Reformation movement. Renée had been raised by her aunt, Marguerite de Navarre, absorbed her Protestant sympathies, and set up her own court along similar lines as Marguerite’s – a cultural oasis where Reformed ideas were welcome. Also like her aunt, Renée sheltered Calvin and other Protestant leaders from persecution.
Within this court setting, Olympia was engaged as a companion and tutor to the duke and duchess’ daughter, Anna d’Este. Olympia was also invited to lecture at the court in Greek and Latin, discoursing on the works of Cicero and Homer – all between the ages of 12 and 14. She was known as fanciulla prodigio, or girl prodigy.
The happy life of a youthful scholar
During her time at Ferrara, Olympia met a young noblewoman named Lavinia della Rovere, and the two became lifelong friends. They read and discussed Scripture together, wrote letters and supported one another through their most difficult times. Later on, when the religious climate had darkened in Ferrara, the two women campaigned for the release of Fanino Fanini, a Protestant who’d been imprisoned by the duke for evangelizing.
The young Olympia revelled in her role as intellectual prodigy and delighted in exercising the gifts and opportunities God had given her. She wrote a short poem in Greek, expressing her lack of interest in living according to the restrictions of traditional female roles:
And I, though born female, have left feminine things,
yarn, shuttle, loom-threads, and work-baskets.
I admire the flowery meadow of the Muses,
and the pleasant choruses of the twin-peaked Parnassus.
Other women perhaps delight in other things,
These are my glory, these my delight.
Love, adversity and spiritual awakening
However, the happy times would not last. Olympia’s father got sick, and she had to leave the court of Ferrara to care for him. After he died, she tried to reclaim her position at court but found she was no longer welcome. Her friend and former charge, Anna d’Este, had been married off and left the country. Olympia, now in her twenties, no longer enjoyed the cultural prestige of being a child prodigy. And the duke, in concert with the Roman Inquisition, had cracked down on Protestantism in his realm, no longer permitting his subjects to read or discuss the Scriptures.
Around this time, Olympia met and fell in love with Andreas Grunthler, a Protestant German doctor who was also classically educated and a kindred spirit. The two were married and fled Italy for Germany, where there was a greater tolerance for Protestantism.
These reversals of fortune had a profound impact on Olympia’s spiritual life, transforming her faith from superficial philosophical assent to deep trust in Christ. As the saying goes, she found that Jesus was all she needed when Jesus was all she had. In her words, “I am glad for all that has happened to me, for if I had lingered any longer in that court, it would have been the end for me and my salvation.”
Life in exile and literary work
Olympia and her husband first settled in Schweinfurt, Andreas’ hometown, where he secured a post as physician to the troops. And as Olympia’s faith deepened, she shifted her focus from philosophical to theological writing. She corresponded with fellow scholars and Reformation leaders, including Calvin and Melanchthon, championed biblical literacy and the translation of theological works into Italian, and urged her childhood friend, Anna d’Este, to stand up against the persecution of Protestants in France. The Catholic authorities called her the “Calvinist Amazon,” not as a compliment.
While in exile, Olympia continued to write poetry in Greek and Latin, some of it to express her love for Andreas. Her crowning literary achievement, in the opinion of her contemporaries, was her translation of the Psalms into Greek, which her husband set to music. It was no dry, academic exercise, but a work of beauty and genius, in which she transmuted the parallelism of Hebrew poetry into the hexameter and sapphic verse of Greek poetry. Scholars and Reformers who knew the Scriptures in Greek better than in their own language could sing these Psalms with fellow believers from any country.
Another highlight of Olympia’s literary output was a pair of dialogues in Latin, dedicated to her lifelong best friend, Lavinia della Rovere. These works follow the model of classical Greco-Roman dialogues, which Lavinia would’ve recognized and enjoyed. Olympia cast herself as Theophila (“she who loves God”) and Lavinia as Philotima (“she who loves honour”), and she seeks to console her friend with the truth of the Gospel and the grace of Jesus. “Don’t be afraid,” says Theophila. “No odour of sinners can be so foul that its force cannot be broken and weakened by the sweetest odour that flows from the death of Christ, which alone God can perfume. Therefore, seek Christ.”
Writing the final chapter well
The stable life in Schweinfurt was short-lived, however. The city became a war zone between Catholic and Protestant armies, starvation and disease settled over it, and it was burned down. Most of Olympia’s writings were lost. She and Andreas escaped with the clothes on their backs – Olympia was barefoot and wearing only an undershirt given her by another female refugee. Her health was irreparably damaged by the harrowing experience, and she never recovered.
The couple made their way to Heidelberg and found renewed stability there. Andreas took a post at the university’s faculty of medicine, and Olympia tutored students in Greek and Latin. Despite everything they’d been through, they took in a poor elderly widow and a motherless girl to care for them. Olympia continued to write letters of consolation and encouragement to her fellow scholars in Latin, and to laywomen in Italian.
The Elector Palatine Frederick II offered Olympia a position to teach Greek at the university, but due to her failing health, she had to turn it down. If this was indeed an offer of a full professorship, Olympia would have been the first woman in history to hold such a university post. She died not long after of tuberculosis, just shy of her 29th birthday. To this day, the University of Heidelberg offers the Olympia Morata Program, a subsidized position offered to female scholars with PhDs doing research in science, medicine and other fields.
From fanciulla prodigio to “Calvinist Amazon,” the life of Olympia Fulvia Morata traced a brief but brilliant trajectory. She seemed to have a preternatural sense that she was not long for this world, and she spent her short time focusing on the far country. All the mounting pain and adversity of her adult life only drove her deeper into the arms of God. Like the Apostle, she longed to be with Jesus, which is far better.
It’s best to leave her the final word: “There is no part of the world so distant that we would not be glad to live in it, if we could but serve God there with full liberty of conscience.”
Sources and further reading
Valerie Abraham, “Five women of the Reformation,” Roman Roads Media, October 15, 2015.
Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation in Germany and Italy, Fortress, 2007.
Simonetta Carr, “Olympia Morata,” Leben: A Journal of Reformation Life, October 1, 2010.
Jennifer Haraguchi, “Italian women writers: Morata, Olympia (1526-1555),” University of Chicago Library, 2003.
Justin Holcomb, “Influential women of the Reformation,” Christianity.com, October 11, 2021.
Sharon L. Jansen, “Olympia Morata, scholar, teacher, and an ‘Italian heretic’,” The Monstrous Regiment of Women, October 26, 2018.
Olympia Morata, The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic, Holt N. Parker, editor and translator, University of Chicago Press, 2003.
Karen Murdarasi, “Unsung heroes: Olympia Fulvia Morata – the scholar,” Premier Christianity, September 17, 2017.
Caroline Taylor, “Olympia Morata – Erat Praeditos Discipulus,” Not Just Wives and Mothers: Women in Church History, August 8, 2020.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard, Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth, Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.
Sarah White, “Olympia Morata Grunthler: Woman, scholar, reformer,” Modern Reformation, July 27, 2020.
“Olympia Morata program,” University of Heidelberg, accessed November 14, 2021.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2021 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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