Women had a most significant impact upon the Reformation, and the social changes that came about in turn changed the place and role of women in the centuries to follow. Two groups of women had decisive impact upon the Reformation – the royal women, and the wives of the Reformers.
In 16th Century Europe, 85% of the population were peasants living in villages of less than 100 people, 10% were Middle Class: merchants, tradesmen, townsmen, and the remaining 5% were either the Nobility or Clergy. Most of the wealth and power was concentrated in the latter. The average life span was 30 for men and 24 for women; anyone who reached 40 was considered old. Women had an average of 6 or 7 children, if they survived childbirth in an unsanitary age, and 40-50% of the children would die before the age of 12…About 10% of the men would never marry. About 12% of the women found themselves in convents – and often unwillingly – as that was a good way to get rid of unwanted female children…
Royal women had much to do with shaping the events of the Reformation era. One needs only consider Henry the 8th and his six wives (and the politics behind them); or Catherine de Medici and her daughters Elizabeth of Valois; and Marguerite of Valois; or Mary Tudor; Elizabeth I; and Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots to know that these women shaped history. But there are others too. Marquerite of Navarre and Jeanne d’Albret; who served the Huguenot cause in France, or Charlotte of Bourbon and Louise de Coligny in the Netherlands.
The other group of women who impacted that era and the centuries to come were the wives of the Reformers. The Renaissance church was filled with immorality at every level and celibacy contributed to this. But as the reformers married – the pastoral home became a model for society and gradually changed the culture of Europe. It is argued that the modern concept of marriage (based on mutual love rather than property) and the breakdown of parentally arranged unions came about as the result of the Reformation. We owe a tremendous debt to the wives of the Reformers. [A few quick examples are below]
Katharine Von Bora (Wife of Martin Luther) (1498-1552) A former nun, who escaped a Convent and arrived in Wittenberg in a wagonload of nuns. Martin Luther tried several times to marry her off – as he had done with the rest. But one courtship ended when his family found out she was a former nun. Another she refused because she did not like him. Finally she told Martin it was him, or Amsdorf (a committed bachelor)! Martin surprised everyone when (after consulting his parents who were overjoyed), he suddenly married Katie (who was 18 years younger) in 1525. Their 21 years of marriage life had some delightful surprises for Martin, much of it recorded in his Table Talk. Her quick tongue, humor, and stubbornness matched his. They had six children, four of whom survived childhood. She managed his home (actually the former monastery) which was frequently full of students, had a large garden and livestock, fished and farmed, and ran a brewery, and managed their money, as well as taking care of their extended household. Martin called her “My Lord Katie”. When he died suddenly in 1546, she soon found herself a refugee as armies turned her farm into a battlefield. She herself died as a result of a carriage accident…
Elizabeth Silverstein (First wife of Martin Bucer ) ( – 1541) An ex-nun, they married in 1522, and soon paid the penalty with his being forced to flee to Stasburg in exile. Their home was quite happy and constantly showing hospitality – in a city that was always packed with refugees. Martin Bucer was quite a match-maker encouraging his fellow reformers to marry – including Calvin and Capito. They had 13 children, of which only one survived the plague of 1541, which also brought about her death. Knowing she was dying, she called Willibrandis Rosenblatt (Capito) whose husband had also recently died and asked her to marry Martin and take care of him.
Idelette de Bure (first wife of 1} Jean Strodeur, first wife of 2}John Calvin) ( -1549) When John Calvin decided to marry, he put together a committee in Strasburg (where he had gone in exile from Geneva) to find him a wife. Their attempts failed several times. Finally he noticed the widow with 3 children of a former Anabaptist he had converted. Their marriage would last nine years, though they both were frequently ill. Further complications arose from family members of his that did not like her, producing periods of family strife. One child of theirs died while an infant and she miscarried another. In the process, Calvin, who spoke little of his married life, was deeply touched. Their relationship softened his heart as a pastor. When she died, he did not remarry, though he would return to Geneva for fifteen more years of reforming work. [One can read about Anna Reinhart (wife of Ulrich Zwingli), Wilibrandis Rosenblatt (the merry widow) and many others]