For many years of my life, October 31st was a day for storytelling. No not ghost stories. But a story about a man in a black robe who had the audacity to deface church property—the story of Martin Luther. If you don’t know it or need a quick refresher, here’s some playmobile acting it out.
I feel the same way about this story as you might feel about the Lion King or Harry Potter. It belongs to the mythology of my childhood. I have memorized the moments of suspense, the characters feel like old friends, and I can’t wait for the hero to conquer his insecurities and kick some ass. The thing is, the cast of this story is a bit too much like the cast of every pre-Wonder Woman action film—too many dudes.
Well it’s been 500 years since this story began and I think it’s time to add some diversity to the casting call. So here are three women who did not sit down and shut up during the Protestant Reformation and deserve to be remembered, celebrated, and debated just as much as Luther.
Marie Dentière (1495-1561) – Switzerland
Marie’s conversion to Protestantism made her a refugee immediately. She fled her convent home in Belgium and made her way to Strasbourg and then onto Geneva—a Protestant stronghold. But she did not flee quietly. Marie wrote a book that she hoped would land in the hands of the (Catholic) King of France, and the chances were pretty good, because she addressed it to his (Protestant-sympathizing) sister Marguerite de Navarre. In the book, Marie didn’t stick to appropriate ladies topics, like charity and housekeeping, oh no, she stirred up as much trouble as she could: laying corruption charges against the Catholic clergy, attacking Catholic doctrines of salvation, and challenging popular superstition. Marie also marched over to her neighbourhood convent (the Poor Clares) and encouraged all the nuns to follow her example—run away, get married, and live free of Catholic guilt! Marie often preached publicly in Geneva, much to chagrin of John Calvin, who once called her out for overstepping her womanly role. Marie was fearless, audacious, and determined. She wasn’t afraid to ask the sister of the king to commit treason or to encourage nuns to break their sacred vows, AND she certainly wasn’t going to let John Calvin shut her up. Marie’s contribution to the Reformation was finally recognized in 2002, when her name was added to the Wall of the Reformers in Geneva, one of the city’s most visited monuments.
Katharina Zell (1498-1562) – Germany
Katharina was an unlikely hero of the Reformation. She wasn’t noble or well-educated and she wasn’t a nun. When she was in her early twenties, she heard a man named Matthew Zell preaching Martin Luther’s ideas. Katharina was a committed Catholic who was super involved in her local parish, but she thought these new ideas made a lot of sense. After converting, Katharina didn’t abandon her church, instead she started teaching anyone who would listen. She hosted women’s discussion groups in her home and started reading the bible in a language she could understand (German). Her priest was obviously outraged. Who did she think she was taking his job?! Katharina eventually married Matthew and began writing about the holiness of marriage. She argued that marriage is a partnership based on mutual love and a commitment to serving Christ and the community together. These were radical ideas in a time when the church was preaching celibacy as the highest calling and marriage was seen as a compromise for the weak-willed.
Katharina also preached publicly and her husband was totally on board. He described her as an “assistant minister” which by sixteenth-century standards, is as radical as saying “I consider my dishwasher a colleague.” Katharina published several works, including an explanation of the Lord’s prayer, meditations on the Psalms, and a foreword to a new German hymn book. Despite all this good work in support of the Reformation, some (male) Reformers disagreed with her outspoken approach and accused her of being a heretic inspired by the devil. Katharina didn’t let this get her down. She continued to preach, write, and advocate for the powerless in her city. She certainly didn’t get the public respect she deserved in her life time. But maybe, if you could go back and ask some of the quieter voices in the Strasbourg reformation movement, they might mumble in reply: “She invited me into her home when I was lost and after a hearty dinner, she lit some candles, cracked open a German Bible, and changed my life with the love and forgiveness of Christ.”
Charlotte (Arbaleste) Duplessis-Mornay (1550-1606) – France
In 1584, Charlotte Arbaleste, a Protestant woman did not sit quietly in her pew when her pastor told her that her hair style was too promiscuous for church. Charlotte gathered her biblical evidence and confronted the leaders of her church. “Not that your ideas aren’t good and holy and everything,” she told the all-male council, “but they are by no means superior to the word of God, and there is no Biblical basis to ban women from wearing curled hair to church.” Charlotte used the principles of the protestant Reformation to hold her church leaders accountable. Going back to the Bible and tossing out extraneous rules was a key point for Luther and his buddies. Charlotte knew it and took the initiative to keep her church on track. Even if you think hairstyles aren’t that important, remember that hair is closely tied to identity. So rules about hairstyles are symbolic of the ways institutions, like the church, used tradition to control women and their bodies. The Reformation was all about letting those sorts of traditions go and getting back to the basics: God, grace, faith, Christ, and scripture.
Women have long refused to sit down and shut up, even during the Protestant Reformation. So next time you hear a story about smart dudes saying smart things, ask yourself. Where are the women?
- Atkinson, James. “Reform.” In Introduction to the History of Christianity. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.
- McKee, Elsie. “Volume Editor’s Introduction.” Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
- McKinley, Mary B. “Marie Dentière: An Outspoken Reformer Enters the French Literary Canon.” Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 37, no. 2 (2006): 401-412.
- Wiesner-Hanks, Merry. Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge University Press: New York, 2008.