Luther: Rebel with a (Woman's) Cause

Ever the reformer, Luther couldn't resist using his last will and testament to take a final stab at perceived corruption and advance his vision for a better way. The final target of his reforming efforts, however, was not the contemporary church and her doctrine or ways, but contemporary law in his native Saxony. That law, embodied in a text called the Sachsenspiegel which can be traced to the high medieval period, prohibited wives from inheriting their husband's house or possessions, thus rendering them financially dependent on the proper heirs (the man's children or closest blood relative). Luther had in fact criticized the law on this score some years before he completed his will. He noted in 1538 that wives were effectively reduced to the status of servants by the law, being turned out of the house upon their husbands' deaths with little more than the clothes on their backs and their knitting accessories. When Luther finally got around to writing his will in January of 1542, he made good on such earlier criticism of the law by purposefully flouting it and leaving everything he owned to his wife Katie.

Luther nearly missed the opportunity to thus agitate for change by virtue of his expressed reluctance to ever make a will. When his close friend Philip Melanchthon made his will in 1539, Luther expressed his own intent not to bother. "I have no intention of making a will," he stated, but went on to verbally appoint Katie his "universal heiress" and, somewhat contradictorily, to leave his library to his children in the hopes that by reading books they would realize they were "not smarter than their forebears." Whether Luther's hesitancy to actually write a will reflected preoccupation with other matters, distaste for such busywork, or sensitivity to the illegal character of naming Katie his "heiress" remains uncertain.

Regardless, by 1542 he had changed his mind -- perhaps because his property had increased substantially within those three years. In 1540 Martin and Katie had purchased the farm where Katie grew up from her brother Hans, who had inherited the same from their parents but couldn't afford to keep it up. The following year they had purchased a house in Dobien, a small town nearby to Wittenberg. And, of course, there was their rather large house in Wittenberg itself. The former Augustinian monastery, gifted to Martin and Katie as a wedding present from the Elector in 1525, served not only as the Luther family residence but also as a student dormitory, a bed and breakfast for visiting friends, a hospice for the ill, and a local homeless shelter. Luther apparently judged it irresponsible not to make his intentions for his belongings more definite -- albeit illegal -- at this stage.

Thus Luther put pen to paper, and entrusted everything he owned to his "beloved and faithful housewife Katherine as an endowment (or whatever one can call it) for her lifetime, which she will be at liberty to manage according to her pleasure and to her best interest." Luther expressed the greatest possible confidence in his wife in the balance of his will, noting his certainty that she would employ her inheritance to the "use and betterment" of their children, "since they are her flesh and blood whom she carried under her heart." He placed no stipulations whatsoever on her maintenance of his belongings, noting that even if "she would remarry" he was sure -- and wished "herewith to have such confidence expressed" -- that she would put the property to good use and provide for their children.

Of course, Luther was well aware that his will lacked legal force by virtue of its disregard for inheritance laws. He therefore included in the text a plea to the Elector of Saxony to honor his testamentary intentions: "I hereby also humbly beg my most gracious lord, Duke John Frederick, elector, etc., that his electoral grace will graciously protect and administer such a gift or endowment."

His gamble paid off. Shortly after the Reformer's death four years later, the Elector acknowledged and enforced Luther's will, all the while noting it to be "deficient in refinements and formalities which the laws require." Katie outlived Martin by six years, and retained ownership of all that he had left her during that time. Incidentally, she also remained unmarried.

One small gesture of civil disobedience and husbandly expression of confidence in (a) woman, one giant leap for womankind.