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Module Forum: Germany in the Age of the Reformation (HI242)

Module Forum: Germany in the Age of the Reformation (HI242) The Reformation enhanced Women's Position: YES

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  1. With a view to our debate in week 7, collect your arguments and evidence in favour of the proposition here (by replying to this message):

  2. Arguments for the reformation enhancing women’s position in German society seem mainly to be rooted in Luther’s advocacy of marriage and the value he places on childbearing and family life, with Steven Ozment claiming that ‘struck by their contemporaries’ casual demeaning of women, marriage, and family life, humanists, reform Catholics, and Protestants rose to their defense’. We can look at his pamphlets, correspondence, table talks and sermons to see such opinions, and the impact they had on women. For example, in his sermon on the estate of marriage, Luther emphasizes that the implication made by many that women are a necessary evil is mistaken, and that, given their creation by God, any such statement is blasphemy. He preaches that wives should be respected and loved in the same way that they should respect and love their husbands. There is a tone of equality throughout the sermon, with adultery being cited as the only legitimate reason that ‘one person may leave the other’, implying that such standards should be for both sexes. This sense of equality also spread to literacy and education to an extent, due to the principle of universal priesthood and the encouragement to read the scripture for oneself. Furthermore, in both his oral and written dissections of the Bible, Luther often emphasizes the importance of women, their unique qualities, and the role they played both in the old and new testaments. For example, praising the ‘great, excellent, unconquerable strength’ of Mary Magdalene, the character and role of the Virgin Mary, and many more.

  3. The protestant Reformation increased the value of women as wives and mothers, meaning they now received more recognition for long-held roles and must be treated as their husband’s moral equal. Similarly, evangelism forbade husbands from using violence against their wives and held them partly responsible for misconducts their wives committed, lessening the ability for men to scapegoat their wives. Luther paid particular attention to the woman as a mother, referring to the ‘outstanding glory of motherhood’, which he saw as bringing women closer to God, as carrying, birthing and raising children was seen by Luther to be highly pleasing to God. In this, and other walks of life, protestant theology gave women more agency in their religiosity. In exonerating women whose children did not survive birth, telling them that this was neither their fault, nor a punishment, Lutheran philosophy provided solace to the many women who experienced losing a child. Similarly, Protestantism attempted to ease the fear of the very real chance of death in childbirth. Whilst catholic theology tended to imply that death was in some way retributive, Protestantism encouraged women to have faith in God’s will and to understand that if they die, they do so ‘in noble work and obedience to God’, which no doubt provided comfort in a time when salvation was so important.

  4. The Reformation debate allowed some women to have important voices on both sides. Most notably, Argula Von Grumbach, an ally of Luther and Melanchthon, achieved widespread circulation of her letters and poems, often in appealing to other women who could sometimes be neglected from the wider debate. Equally, from the other side, abbess Caritas Pirckheimer was able to deploy her humanist learning to prevent the closure of her convent, which while a small point, demonstrates that increasing literacy and scriptural ‘purity’ allowed different social groups to engage in religious debate.

  5. Reformation thinkers held a different attitude towards divorce than their Catholic counterparts. Traditional medieval Catholic divorce rules dedicated that divorce could only be granted on the grounds of adultery and even then it only meant that you were divorced from your married partners bed and table. There was no separation and remarriage was out of the question. Lutheran theologians such as Luther, Johannes Brenz  and Bugenhagen allowed for divorce to be granted as a complete separation of legal ties and for people to remarry. The reasons for granting divorce varied, with adultery and various physical illnesses that affect sexual fulfillment cited as poetinal requirements. This in some ways liberated women and men from unhappy and unfaithful marriages, which before they would not have had any autonomy over. This empowers women to say know to a cheating husband which they would have been powerless to do so before hand.

  6. To say that reformation ideas concerning marriage and divorce did not have a positive impact on the position of women in society would be to ignore how strict the patriarchal Catholic system was before the 1520s. Lutheran understandings of divorce granted both husbands and wives more autonomy in unhappy marriages, with separation requirements going beyond just adultery. Ozment argues that the idea of inferiority of women was firmly grounded in the church where such theories ‘gained religious sanction and popular currency’, thus the anticlericalism and break from Catholic doctrines forced theories of women to be reassessed. We see this in Luther’s table talks and personal letters, where women, although in a somewhat misogynistic tone, are seen as more than just evil daughters of Eve. The Reformation seems to bring a moral shift in gender relations- the importance of women in marriage is more fervent, there is a decline in women entering nunneries across Europe, and the universalism of sola fide and sola scriptura allowed women such as Katharina Schutz to assert religious ideas in a once impenetrable masculine sphere. While these may not be grand feminist breakthroughs in theory or in practice to the modern eye, in the contemporary, the Reformation’s shifting effect in gender relations ought not be overlooked.

  7. Evidence that the Reformation enhanced the position of women in the spiritual world is abundant. Luther and Calvin both agreed that all Christians are the elect creatures of God and as such are entirely equal in the eyes of the lord. The move to discuss theological concepts in lay German allowed those who did not speak Latin (a disproportional number of women) to take part in spiritual debates. Another tenet of the Reformation, the introduction of printing, gave women a voice which was previously silenced by a patriarchal hierarchy in universities, courts, and pulpits.

    However, concerns that this equality made absolutely no difference “as far as the earthly kingdom is concerned” (as Calvin himself put it) ignores how, as we have proved time again in this seminar, the role of religion in the post-Medieval period was holistic. Improvements in the spiritual allowed women such as Angrula von Grumbach to write about the issues which she believed essential. These movements in equality led to improvements, albeit limited, in marriage and divorce, as others above have discussed.

    Moreover, ambiguities here can be explained as the Reformation represented transition between the medieval misogynist influence and the Protestant social levelling period. Radical ideas inspired by the Reformation are seen by writers such as Charlotte Pizan, who wrote that that a law whereby a man would be executed for raping a woman would be "fitting, just and holy”. The Reformation was a pivotal middle step towards modernity which set forward in the direction which would ultimately enlighten the position of women.