Katherine von Bora, the wife of Martin Luther, was known for her astute management of the Luther household, including the family finances. Luther affectionately called her his “housewife of the heart,” “Madame Doctor,” “Mrs. Brewmaster” and “Madame Sow-Marketer in Wittenberg.” She was also the woman Luther complimented when he described his favorite book of the Bible, the book of Galatians, as “my Katie von Bora.” But what about other women, people like Katherine Zell, Wibrandis Rosenblatt and Vittoria Colonna?
Katherine Zell came to believe Luther’s tracts about the doctrine of justification by faith. In 1523 she married Matthew Zell, who had introduced the Reformation to the city of Strasbourg, France. When her husband was excommunicated by the bishop, she wrote such a strong letter of protest to the bishop that it caused the bishop to complain to the Strasbourg city council. She was actively involved in providing for various people who were forced by the religious authorities to leave their territory, accommodating eighty of them in the parsonage at various times and writing letters of comfort to their wives.
After the Peasants’ War of 1525, she was once again at the forefront, dealing with refugees who were fleeing the retribution of the princes who had defeated the peasants. Katherine Zell and Lucas Hackfurt fed and housed thousands of these peasants. She published one of the first hymnals ever published in Strasbourg, and she traveled extensively with her husband, even spending time with Luther in Wittenberg. When some questioned her marriage to Matthew Zell, she wrote, “You remind me that the Apostle Paul told women to be silent in the church. I would remind you of the word of this same apostle that in Christ there is no longer male nor female and of the prophecy of Joel: ‘I will pour forth my spirit upon all flesh and your sons and your daughters will prophesy.’ I do not pretend to be John the Baptist rebuking the Pharisees…. I aspire only to be Balaam’s ass, castigating his master.”
Wibrandis Rosenblatt married Ludwig Keller, a humanist and early Protestant, who died two years later. Then she married Oecolampadius, the Reformer from Basel, who died less than three years later. She married Capito, another reformer, in 1532, who died from the plague in 1541, when she married Martin Bucer, still another reformer. During the years of her four marriages, Wibrandis took care of financial matters, managed the family and supported each husband, carrying out challenges at least as demanding as those her husbands faced.
Vittoria Colonna was a Catholic woman of the Italian nobility who never became a Protestant, but who realized that her own church needed reform. In the 1530s she supported the Capuchins, one of the new orders committed to reformation, wrote and published poetry with spiritual themes that supported reforming ideas, and drew on the counsel of Cardinal Reginald Pole, who worked with her for reform within Catholicism.
Vergerio, the Catholic bishop of Capodistria, wrote to Colonna in 1540, summing up her reforming attitude (as well as that of Zell and Rosenblatt), “If God will raise up spirits of this kind and of both sexes … who will wake us up from the sleep that burdened our eyes, then our minds would be kindled toward the knowledge of the way and service of God, more than all the ink of the whole world used to write about reformations and more than all the ideas that one would conceive.”