In a story especially apropos for the year of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, Katharina: Deliverance follows the story of Katharina Von Bora, from her entrance into a convent at the age of five to her marriage to Martin Luther at the age of twenty-six. When her father remarries, the unwanted child is sent away to the cloister where she grows to adulthood under the strict rules of the silent Cistercian order. But the convent’s way of life is soon to be challenged. Martin Luther’s inflammatory writings are spreading throughout Germany, even being smuggled into the convent for the eager nuns to read.
With a group of other nuns, Katharina von Bora makes the decision to abandon the life she knows and flee the convent. Luther aids the nuns in their escape and, once they are all safe in Wittenburg, strives to find them shelter…and husbands. Katharina lodges with the town clerk for a few months and then moves to the home of the Cranachs. A burgeoning romance develops between the former nun and Jerome Baumgarten, a former student of Luther’s. But when Jerome leaves Wittenburg to seek his parents’ approval for the match, he disappears from the scene permanently, and Katharina is left to wait and grieve. Feeling responsible for her fate, Luther encourages a second match between Katharina and one of his colleagues, Kaspar Glatz, but she is disgusted by him and refuses him in no uncertain terms.
The horrors of the Peasants’ War, and Luther’s lack of diplomacy which leads in part to the tragedy, provide a solemn backdrop to Katharina’s life in the Cranach household. Caught between the justifiable anger of the starving peasants and the God-given authority of the tyrannical aristocracy, Luther encourages the rulers to show charity and the peasants to submit, but he seems to only draw anger from both sides. Katharina and the rest of the burghers in Wittenburg can only watch and wait and hope that the atrocities occurring in other castles and cities will not enter their town.
Luther is portrayed as a public figure at first–it seems that Katharina perceives him more as a symbol of the Reformation than as a flesh-and-blood man. I loved the choice the author made to wait to provide a physical description of Luther until Katharina begins to look at him differently–to think that perhaps he is a man she could marry. She has told her friend Eva that, “He is a good man, who, if some of his wilder impulses can be contained, may yet become great.” And finally, she realizes, with the urging of her friends the Cranachs, that perhaps she is just the one to contain him, to provide the assistance he needs to change to world.
In the Author’s Note, Skea draws attention to the lack of historical evidence surrounding Katharina’s life. There are very few details we know for certain. Much of the heroine’s character must be deduced from Luther’s own letters. Skea has tried her best to fill in the monumental gaps, and in my assessment, she does a convincing job. The sixteenth century world comes alive with her spare prose, provoking many interesting questions: how would a nun feel when entering the real world after such a restrictive life? What is the responsibility of a man when his ideas are taken farther than he intended?
Skea also draws attention to the role of women in the sixteenth century in a refreshing way. Without creating an anachronistically modern heroine, she shows how Katharina (by speaking her mind in the company of men) flouted convention, providing a spirited picture of the young woman who would eventually become Luther’s “my lord Katie” and set the pattern for Protestant marriages.