Report on Study Visit: Katharina von Bora 1499-1999

By Jeanette Smith


Background:  In Fall 1995/Spring 1996 I visited several cities in the U.S. and Germany to pursue my sabbatical project, a bibliography of works by and about Katharina von Bora, Martin Luther's wife.  Katharina, who lived from 1499 to 1552, was a partner in one of history's most controversial marriages, and is one of the most well-known and interesting women of the sixteenth century.  Her life is yet very relevant today.  In the five hundred years since her birth, hundreds of popular and scholarly books and articles have been written with Katharina, not her famous husband, as the main subject.


Like her husband, Katharina was satirized, vilified, sentimentalized, and idealized.  Through five centuries, she has been portrayed very differently according to the values of each time period, and in this century feminists have claimed her for their own.  Katharina is a good example of how women's sense of themselves changed during the Renaissance, even if little changed in their social condition. 


I accumulated items for the bibliography through searches in electronic databases, notably the OCLC WorldCat, an international online catalog of books owned by libraries throughout the world, and then in electronic and card catalogs at a variety of seminary, university, special, and other types of libraries.  I traveled to seminaries in Chicago, St. Paul, and St. Louis, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin, the Deutsche Bucherei in Leipzig, and Lutherhalle and the Evangelisches Predigerseminar in Lutherstadt Wittenberg to track down rare primary sources of information.


I also carried on an extensive correspondence with archives in Germany, Denmark, and Poland, and located seven of Katharina's eight letters (the eighth, formerly located in a bank vault in Lutherstadt Wittenberg has been missing since WWII) and an inscription in what may be her own handwriting.  Interestingly, two of the letters are in the Statens Arkiver Rigsarkivet in Denmark, and the inscribed book is at Torun University in Poland.


As the bibliography grew, the differing attitudes of each century toward Katharina became apparent, and I began to write a historiographical essay as well as continuing to collect the items for the bibliography.  When I returned from Germany I entered the "What the OCLC Online Union Catalog Means to Me" contest celebrating OCLC's 25th anniversary, and my essay about my sabbatical experiences was one of five national winners ($500 award).  The essay was published in the OCLC Newsletter (July/August 1996), a book entitled What the OCLC Online Union Catalog Means to Me  (OCLC, 1997), and the Journal of Library Administration (volume 25, numbers 2/3, 1998). 


The bibliography, which covers sources from the sixteenth century to December 1998, was published (with Petra Wittig, the librarian at Lutherhalle) as a part of the catalog of an exhibition at Lutherhalle Wittenberg celebrating the 500th anniversary of Katharina's birth, and also as part of a larger book containing essays commemorating Katharina.  Both the catalog and the book are entitled Katharina von Bora: die Lutherin (Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt, 1999).  Only the scholarly citations are included in this catalog.  A part of my historiographical essay will be published as an article entitled "Katharina von Bora Through Five Centuries" in the October 1999 Sixteenth Century Journal.



Recent trip:  Because 1999 was the 500th anniversary of Katharina's birth, a spate of publication has occurred this year, and Dr. Martin Treu, the director of Lutherhalle, agreed that I should continue collecting items for my comprehensive bibliography through at least December 1999.  I also wanted to enlarge and enhance my essay with the latest in Katharina scholarship.  Of course, I also wanted to attend the 1999 Katharina exhibition at Lutherhalle, which contained artifacts and documents gathered from many museums and archives internationally, which will never be available in one place again.  I applied for and was fortunate enough to receive a study award (DM 2.004) from the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst, which enabled me to make my second trip to Germany. 


After a visit to the Stadtgeschichtliches Museum in Leipzig, which owns the original Luther wedding ring and a portrait of Katharina by the Lucas Cranach workshop, I arrived at the Evangelisches Predigerseminar in Lutherstadt Wittenberg on August 30 and stayed there until September 10.  I was greeted very warmly as a friend and colleague by the people I had worked with last time, the director of Lutherhalle, the Lutherhalle librarian, the director of the seminary and his wife (Dr. and Mrs. Peter Freybe), and the former seminary librarian (Erika Schulz), who returned to Wittenberg at this time to attend the exhibit with me.


The exhibit contained manuscript letters from Katharina to Hans von Taubenheim (April 28, 1539) and to King Christian II of Denmark (October 6, 1550).  Another notable document exhibited was the manuscript Rechnungsbuch des Klosters Nimbschen (1511), a census of the Marienthron Convent in Nimbschen (where Katharina was a Cistercian nun), which contains her name.  Many other important documents, and many portraits of her painted over the centuries by the Cranach workshop and many other artists, were exhibited with a detailed commentary on her life and significance.  The seminary librarian was a very helpful guide to many aspects of the exhibit.  I pored over the exhibit many times while I was there.  It alone was worth the trip.    


I visited several times with the director of Lutherhalle and the Lutherhalle librarian, and added many new items to my bibliography from their new online catalog (the last time I was there they still had a card catalog).  When the librarian asked me how I had found so many sources for the first version of the bibliography, I told her about the OCLC WorldCat, and I helped her find some information about it on the Internet.  From the director of Lutherhalle I also learned about some new or resuscitated controversies in Katharina studies, such as a disagreement about exactly in which rural area she was born (Lippendorf or Hirschfeld), exactly which house she died in in Torgau, and whether her nickname among the university students of the time was "Catherine of Alexandria" or "Catherine of Siena."


Since locating recent scholarly works is fairly easy with OCLC and article indexes, I felt that to use my time wisely, a high priority was to locate the local history publications about Katharina that may never make it on to OCLC or even into libraries, and the new publications in honor of the 500th birthday celebration.   I visited many bookstores and found many items that way.  I also collected citations for ephemeral publications for various Katharina exhibitions and events, and was fortunate to find that the wife of the director of the seminary had kept a huge Katharina scrapbook with many brochures and newspaper clippings.  I interviewed several people concerning the many Katharina festivities of this year in Lutherstadt Wittenberg and the surrounding area.  In addition to the exhibit at Lutherhalle, there were also Katharina exhibits in Torgau and Grimma, and other various events throughout Germany.


During my sabbatical trip, my colleagues and I traced Katharina's footsteps in a circuit of many small towns and rural areas around Leipzig: Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Brehna (where she went to a convent school), Saale (near Schkortleben), Kieritzch, Neukieritzch, Nimbschen, Grimma, and Torgau.


On this trip several colleagues and I went on a second Katharina-journey, and we explored two of the same towns in more detail.  We saw the Luther monument and the new Katharina von Bora Kirche (1998) in Neukieritzch and the Luther medallions in the church in Kieritzch.  This was near the area of Lippendorf where most sources say she was born and near Zölsdorf where the Luthers owned a farm.  Another day I went to Torgau, the town where Katharina died several months after fleeing Wittenberg during the plague and suffering injuries in an accident on the road.  I had also been to Torgau before very briefly, and this time was able to spend more time at the Stadtkirche St. Marien, the church where she is buried, and at the museum in the house where most researchers think she died.


As with my previous work, it will take some to time to organize the additions to my bibliography and essay.  A copy of the pre-print of the first Katharina bibliography is enclosed.  I will send a copy of my article in Sixteenth Century Journal and a copy of my final results when they are completed.  My colleagues and friends in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, other German friends, and other people in the U.S. and Canada interested in Katharina von Bora are also interested in the results.  After my first trip, they asked "When are you coming again?"  Now after the second trip, they also want to know when I am coming again.


I regularly correspond with several people from Lutherhalle and the seminary, and I am in email contact with other German friends and colleagues.  Before I left Germany I visited my friend Elisabeth Schneider who is the principal of a school in Wetzlar.  My excellent relationship and continuing contact with my German friends and colleagues has been made possible by the generous study award from the DAAD.  Thank you very much for this honor and for making my second study trip possible.