Windows on Life-Women after the Reformation

By Mennecke-Haustein, Ute | Currents in Theology and Mission, December 2002 | Go to article overview

Windows on Life-Women after the Reformation


Mennecke-Haustein, Ute, Currents in Theology and Mission


As the title of this essay indicates, the Reformation meant a significant turning point for women's lives. In those territories where the Reformation won acceptance, monastic life and the celibacy of priests were abolished, marriage of the clergy was introduced, and the propagation of marriage was generally increased. All these were drastic and publicly visible changes--but what stood behind these changes? We cannot simply look at the events in isolation from their context and without asking the question of why they happened and in what spirit. One instance of a controversial judgment on the historical events may illustrate the problem: Did the Reformation cause a loss of freedom for women because monastic life came to be prohibited? Or was this a move in the interest of the liberation of women from oppression? We see that in today's debates categories such as liberation and oppression are applied to life in a convent and to married life. Can such a conceptual framework be justified?

In order to answer this question as a church historian, I will first let history speak for itself. I start with an outline of the conflict about the alternative of monastic life or marriage. Second, I address the use of the language of liberation in this context. In a third section, I explore what other options there might have been for women during and after the Reformation. Finally, I offer some thoughts on the relevance of this historical subject for today.

A case of coercion

Nuremberg, 1525. On 3 February, Ursula Tetzel, a widow, turned up at the gate of the Convent of St. Clare and asked for permission to talk to her daughter Margarete, whom she had shut up in the convent at the age of 15, in 1516. In the meantime the mother had come to the conviction that she had not dealt with her daughter in a genuinely Christian way, that on the contrary she had exposed her to great peril for her conscience. She now demanded that Margarete leave the convent at least for a certain period in order to have an opportunity to listen to Protestant sermons in churches in the city. The abbess refused the demand, and Margarete told her mother through a small opening in the chapel wall that she wanted to stay in the convent.

The abbess, no less a figure than Caritas Pirckheimer (1467-1532), a learned woman and well connected with many of the great humanists of the early sixteenth century (and of course a sister of the famous humanist Willibald Pirckheimer, 1470-1530), declared that she would obey a ruling of the Nuremberg City Council but that there would be no chance for Margarete to return once she had left the convent. Eventually Ursula Tetzel and the parents of two other nuns secured support from the civic authorities and got their daughters out of the convent--against their own will and not without the use of physical force. (1) Even at the time people condemned that unpleasant scene. No favorable light falls from here on the Reformers' concerns! But let us see what the position of the parties involved really was.

Why leave a convent? The mother who was impressed by the new teaching of the Reformation may have fallen into qualms of conscience after reading Luther's treatise on monastic vows of 1521 or his apology for nuns who had escaped from a convent in 1523. (2) For Luther it followed directly from the concept of justification through faith that such vows could not be in accordance with faith, and he also denied that sexual asceticism was in accordance with the Word of God. Furthermore, it would be humanly impossible to keep a vow of celibacy throughout life.

Another source of inspiration for Tetzel may have been an autobiographical account by Florentina von Oberweimar that was published with a preface by Luther in 1524. This work is no theological treatise but a plain account of how Florentina was forced to enter a convent, her "Babylonische Gefenknis" (Babylonian captivity), how she had found that the monastic life was com-batting her "nature" rather than advancing her salvation, and how the abbess had tried to break her resistance through all sorts of humiliations and disciplinary actions. …

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