Women of the Reformation: Queens and scholars, poets and diplomatsWritten by Subby Szterszky
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Ask an average modern evangelical to name the leading figures of the Protestant Reformation, and more often than not, they’ll stop at two: Martin Luther and John Calvin. Some might also toss in Huldrych Zwingli or John Knox, but that’s about it.
Ask them to name any leading female figures of the Reformation, and the standard list is down to one name: Katharina von Bora, a.k.a. Katie Luther, wife of Martin. Beyond that, nothing.
“My Lord Katie,” as Luther affectionately called his wife, was a formidable woman and a perfect match for her high-maintenance husband. She reformed his slovenly bachelor ways; bore and raised his six children along with four adopted orphans; managed his household and finances; provided a sounding board for his writings; hosted and housed his students and other guests, dozens at a time; and ran several businesses to support his ministry. She essentially mapped out the role of pastor’s wife within the Protestant tradition for generations to come.
But the story of women in the Reformation doesn’t begin and end with Katie Luther. It is replete with influential women who led countries and armies, sheltered the persecuted, engaged in scholarly debate with their opponents, and spoke and wrote eloquently in defence of the faith.
Marguerite de Navarre (1492-1549)
Poet, playwright, diplomat, cultural leader, royal adviser, patroness of the arts and theology, Marguerite de Navarre was a true renaissance woman in both the literal and figurative sense. As the older sister of the French king, Francis I, she was one of the most educated and influential women in Renaissance Europe. She married Henry II, king of Navarre, thus becoming queen of that small nation, wedged between the powerful kingdoms of France and Spain.
In the 1520s she encountered the teachings of the Reformation, and her own writings charted her journey from Catholicism to an evangelical faith. One of her allegorical poems, “Mirror of the Sinful Soul,” evoked the beauty of Christ as father, brother, bridegroom, and all-sufficient sacrifice. As a whole, her poems and plays brought wide publicity to Reformed ideas, much to the chagrin of the Catholic authorities. Even so, she never formally broke with the old Church, preferring internal reform over confrontation. She maintained cordial correspondence with kings and popes, Renaissance scholars and Reformation leaders. She also continued to offer financial support to the reformers and sheltered them from her powerful Catholic neighbours. She was equally at home hosting her culturally thriving royal court or engaging in espionage and diplomatic intrigue. It’s a wonder her life hasn’t been made into a Hollywood film or a cable TV series.
Jeanne d’Albret (1528-1572)
The daughter of Marguerite de Navarre, Jeanne d’Albret followed in her mother’s footsteps as ruler of her small mountainous country. She was also the mother of Henry IV, who would become the first Bourbon king of France. But whereas Marguerite was a discreet diplomat, Jeanne was more of a warrior queen. She publicly converted to the Reformed faith on Christmas Day in 1560, and thereafter made Navarre an officially Protestant nation, offering safe haven to those suffering religious persecution in France and Spain. As such, she became a major spiritual and political leader for the French Protestant Huguenots, going to war in their defence and even rallying their troops in person.
When the Spanish king, Philip II, sent an envoy to intimidate her, she replied, “Although I am just a little princess, God has given me the government of this country so I may rule it according to his gospel and teach it his laws. I rely on God, who is more powerful than the King of Spain.” One of her more intriguing accomplishments was to spearhead the translation of the New Testament into her country’s native Basque, a language unrelated to any other in Europe.
Argula von Grumbach (1492-c.1554)
“You wouldn’t want to argue with Argula,” quipped historian Diane Severance. And she was right, you wouldn’t. Born into a Bavarian noble family, Argula von Grumbach was a formidable apologist for the evangelical faith by any measure. She maintained a correspondence with Luther, who thought highly of her and dedicated one of his books to her in 1522.
Her letters were widely circulated, but she’s best known for one that she wrote to the University of Ingolstadt. In that letter, she rebuked the faculty for putting a student on trial and forcing him to recant his Lutheran beliefs. She marshalled 80 scriptural references to build her theological case, imploring the university to grant justice to the young man, and calling on them to obey, as she put it, the Word of God rather than the pope, the kaiser, or Aristotle. She even challenged them to a debate of her Protestant beliefs. Her letter, combining theological insight, compassion and concern for justice, was published as a pamphlet and became a bestseller.
Katharina Zell (1497-1562)
Reminiscent of Priscilla and Aquila in the New Testament, Katharina Zell and her husband formed a ministry team of which she, perhaps, was the more gifted and prominent member. Like several of the early reformers, her husband Matthew was a former Catholic priest who had gotten married, incurring the wrath of the church authorities. In response, Katharina wrote a scriptural defence of clerical marriage that brought the issue into the public arena and removed much of the stigma surrounding it.
The Zells were leading figures in the civic and church life of Strasbourg. Katharina, in particular, took the lead in feeding and housing the poor, running women’s ministries, and organizing relief for Protestant refugees, in one instance for over 3,000 during a period of six months. Her pen remained active as well. She wrote theological encouragements for widows and orphans, and a commentary on selected Psalms and the Lord’s Prayer. She counselled peace between Luther and Zwingli following their dispute over the Lord’s Supper. An irenic spirit who worked for unity within the church, she has come to be known as a mother of the Reformation, with good reason.
Marie Dentière (c.1495-1561)
Like Katie Luther, Marie Dentière was a former nun who was exposed to Reformation teachings, left the convent and married an ex-priest. And like Katie’s famous husband, she was a rather feisty character who didn’t shy away from expressing her thoughts. She encouraged other nuns to join the Reformation and find husbands, started a girls’ school with her own husband, and urged Protestant leaders to recognize a greater role for women in the church.
She was also a gifted writer, like several others on this list. She corresponded with Marguerite de Navarre, produced a French grammar book, and wrote a history of the Reformation in Geneva. She also spoke publicly in taverns and on street corners, promoting Reformation ideas. She and Calvin had some fairly critical things to say about each other, but nevertheless, they shared a mutual respect and devotion to spreading the Gospel. In fact Calvin asked her, later in life, to write the preface to one of his books. Her spunky personality testifies to the wonderful diversity in the Body of Christ, then as now.
Jane Grey (1537-1554)
Lady Jane Grey, the Nine Days Queen, is perhaps the best-known and most tragic figure on this list. The cousin of King Edward VI of England, she was a convinced Protestant and something of a precocious teenager. She knew Latin, Greek and Hebrew, read the New Testament in the original Greek, and wrote letters to the continental reformers, Heinrich Bullinger and Martin Bucer, when she was 14 years old.
At 16, she was forced into a marriage and thrust onto the throne, against her will, upon the young king’s untimely death. Nine days later, she was deposed in favour of Mary, Edward’s oldest sister, and locked in the Tower of London. Mary’s chaplain was sent to convert Jane to the Catholic faith, but she resisted his efforts with scriptural insight and keen logic. After several months in prison she was executed, her martyrdom inspiring English Protestants during Mary’s brutal persecutions and beyond. Biographer Paul Zahl summarized the challenges of Jane’s brief life and the enduring impact of her evangelical testimony: “Everything was against her: her youth, her sex, her ‘protectors,’ her mother and her father, her despised Reformed religion, her royal blood, her short stature. Yet her witness, her light, is incandescent.”
Olympia Morata (1526-1555)
Daughter of an Italian classical scholar who embraced the teachings of Luther and Calvin, Olympia Morata was a prodigiously gifted scholar in her own right. By the age of 12, she was engaged as a tutor in the ducal court of Ferrara, and during her time there, she was invited to lecture in Greek and Latin. After falling from favour at court, she was forced to flee for her life, and the experience transformed her faith from mere philosophical assent to a true and living trust in Christ.
During this time, she fell in love with a Reformed German doctor who was also classically educated and a kindred spirit. The two married and moved to Germany, from where she continued her scholarly pursuits. Among other things, she wrote dialogues, Greek poems, letters to scholars in Latin and to less educated women in Italian, and a Greek psalter that her husband set to music. In one of her dialogues, she comforted those who feared their worst sins would bar them from God: “Don’t be afraid . . . 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.” According to historian Valerie Abraham, “Her short but faithful life was well-summed up in her own words when she wrote, ‘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.’”
These seven names are but a small sample of the influential women who stepped up, alongside the men, to champion scriptural truth during the Protestant Reformation. Queens and scholars, poets and diplomats, they wrote and fought for reform within the church and culture of their day. They held forth Christ and his Gospel, each in her own way, and thereby changed their world – and ours – much for the better.
Sources and further reading
Valerie Abraham, “Five women of the Reformation,” Roman Roads Media, October 15, 2015.
Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation: From Spain to Scandinavia, Fortress Press, 1977.
Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation: In France and England, Fortress Press, 1973.
Roland H. Bainton, Women of the Reformation: In Germany and Italy, Fortress Press, 1971.
Justin Holcomb, “Influential women of the Reformation,” Christianity.com, July 17, 2014.
Lisa La George, “Women of the Reformation,” The Master’s University, October 31, 2017.
Stephen J. Nichols, “The forgotten women of the Reformation,” Crossway, October 23, 2017.
Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation, Blackwell, 2008.
Rachel Marie Stone, “What feminism owes to the Protestant Reformation,” Christianity Today, March 31, 2017.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard, Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth, Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard, “The women of the Reformation,” TableTalk Magazine, October 2017.
Rebecca VanDoodewaard, “5 lessons from Reformation women,” The Gospel Coalition, October 24, 2017.
Paul F.M. Zahl, Five Women of the English Reformation, Eerdmans, 2001.
“The role played by Protestant women in society from the XVIth to the XIXth centuries,” Musée protestant / Protestant Museum, accessed October 15, 2019.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2017 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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