The Roman Catholic Church currently projects itself as the champion of family life and values.
Rome assumes that no-one recalls how this male dominated, universal church, once persuaded women that celibacy was so much more desirable than child-bearing that marriage and family life suffered a disastrous downgrade prior to the Reformation. Esteem for marriage ebbed lower than at any time since Christ. From being considered undesirable it became, in the eyes of many, defiled and distasteful.
The collapse of Communism and the long peace have provided scholars with the opportunity to examine the visitation records held in many European archives. For the last 20 years historians have been poring over the minutiae of myriads of musty tomes and deciphers seas of difficult hand-written Latin. The full horror of Rome's "forbidding to marry" doctrine has at last been revealed.
Protestants have always known that cloistered women, reliant on male priests for the sacraments of mass and confession, were physically, emotionally and sexually abused. They also know that priests and nuns lived openly together and paid their local bishop concubinage and cradle tax for their sin, Rome thus enriching herself on the lust of her own men and the degradation of her own women.
But this recent examination of family records across Europe has shown us much more. We now know that Rome's avarice rose in parallel with steady, century upon century, dowry inflation. Continual wars had depleted the number of eligible men and impoverished them. Records show, time after time, Rome setting entry endowments to cloisters just below current dowry costs. Europe's unwanted women folk were swallowed up wholesale into convents. Rome was complicit in cheating these disadvantaged women of their full inheritance. A girl's future as nun or a wife was already settled by the age of six. Forty percent of all women were single, representing a quarry of pure gold for Rome.
Only rarely did the anguished protest of an incarcerated nun reach the outside world, such as Emmeline de Ramstein's cry from a Basel convent to, "show the world that her parents had forced her entry and that she had never consented". Hardly any such pitiful voices reach us first hand. But at last some are reaching us through the sanitized records of their persecutors. These reveal the immense scale of this forced imprisonment.
Visitation records show that many nuns tried to be virtuous and it was their priests that depraved them. Rome had duped multitudes into believing that celibacy was superior to marriage. This belief was unshakeable amongst women however foul their confessors. Heartfelt protest against Rome's depravity, combined with unflinching unbelief in the superiority of celibacy, resulted in some nuns having cautionary visions. Once men began to give credence to their ravings, Rome suppressed their voices and burnt their bodies.
Progression from heretic to witch was a small once in an Inquisitor's mind as nuns claimed to be able to use spells and curses. This was no doubt intended initially to earn status and get the preying priests off their backs. Convents were perceived as witch's covens.
Conversely depraved nuns soon reduced convents to "public bordellos". Abbesses took nuns and lovers out on picnics, while sewers "ran" with aborted foetuses and nuns cells echoed the cries of growing infants. Records show that when Rome closed such cloisters, redistributing the dissolute nuns to respectable institutions, it resulted in the immediate spread of the contagion. "Literature and disciplinary records" now prove that truth of the traditional protestant contention, "that the vast majority of the nuns sexual partners were priests".
Even so, not all priests reveled in immortality. Some were tortured by it. "I am entangled," wrote one, "I cannot live without a wife (but) I am not permitted a wife … I am forced to live a publicly disgraceful life, to the shame of my soul and honour, and to the damnation of many … How shall I preach … when my own whore goes to church … and my own bastards sit before my eyes?"
Rome enshrined the desirability of celibacy in canon law. This skewed civil law, further downgrading marriage and family life. Some women saw the rottenness of Rome and took to living in aesthetic sects to maintain purity but they still insisted celibacy was the spiritual ideal and many viewed sexual relations in Christian marriage as impure. Rome burned them also.
Prof Weisner of Wisconsin discovered frequent instances of married women who had already consummated their marriage forcing "husbands to accept vows of chastity" whilst continuing to live "with them in spiritual marriage".
A link between prostitutes and nuns has emerged. Both were independent of parents and family with their own financial and social status, and since priests and nuns sometimes owned brothels before the days of state control, reformed or needy prostitutes would often enter nunneries. Ensuring prostitute shortages sometimes led to vicious attacks on innocent nuns. Conversely when dowries ran out, impoverished nuns were simply passed across from nunnery to brothel, with only the most resolute preferring begging.
Men fantasized about marriage to incarcerated women. A whole genre of nun pornography arose before the Reformation. With the Inquisition's publications of the Malleus Maleficorum in 1484, the idea arose that women could make pacts with the devil to have power to seduce men or worse render them incapable. That men's minds were filled with eroticism was not now their own responsibility but that of witches. And where better for witches to conceal themselves than in the anonymity of convents? As a result, in war or pestilence, the convent became the symbol of a town or city's shame. Innocent maidens were torn from their beds and brutalized by both townspeople and invading armies alike, to atone for a perceived divine judgment or to purify a new governing regime. At such times men of low birth would seize high born nuns, expecting the courts to allot them their inheritance.
Luther's marriage service
Rome's "forbidding to marry" doctrine had made black universally white by the eve of the Reformation. Everyone accepted that "unmarried virgins and continent widows were always spiritually superior to wives and mothers and marriage was a debased state in comparison with the life of the cloister". So when Reformation came it was indeed Glorious. In 1522 Martin Luther published his On the Estate of Marriage regretting how "marriage has universally fallen into awful disrepute". By 1524 Luther introduced a newly reformed marriage service in Wittenberg which soon spread with the Reformation. He loaded it with corrective Scripture and stressed marriage to be "a far different thing" to what Rome had made it.
Katherine Von Bora
Luther witnessed to marriage's high estate by wedding liberated nun Katherine Von Bora in a small private ceremony on the 13th June 1525 and again publicly on the 27th Katherine bore him many children and looked after many more rescued orphans in a fine Reformation witness to family life.
|The marriage of Martin Luther and Katherine Von Bora|
Of minor noble descent, Katherine had been placed in a feeder convent school at the age of five when her mother died and her father remarried. She entered the convent four years later. As Luther preached around Saxony, born again monks were simply waling away from their monasteries. But the nuns of Katherine's convent, already seriously doubting Rome through Reformation writings that had been smuggled in, wished for freedom but had no such choice. On 4th April 1523, Leonhard Koppe, Alderman of Torgau, risked the death penalty prescribed in both canon and civil law, be spiriting his own daughter, Katherine, and ten others out of their nunnery, in empty herring barrels loaded onto his cart. Once across the boarder from hostile Ducal Saxony to reformed Electoral Saxony three of the nuns returned home. Luther received the other eight and circulated his 1523 Open Letter to Leonhard Koppe, Why Nuns Leave Cloisters with God's Blessings. He satisfactorily placed all eight of Katherine's friends in Protestant homes, finding many "eligible bachelors". The death knell of nunneries was sounded.
In England the suppression of nunneries went ahead under Henry VIII using the same legislation as for monasteries. Some abbesses responded to Gospel light and commissioners would arrive to find nunneries deserted, eventually locating the nuns already living free in nearby villages. Recalcitrant, crabby nuns were turned out without pensions from decaying buildings. A few fled to their orders abroad, to return briefly in Bloody Mary's reign. Henry's overall success in suppressing, at a stroke, both monasteries and nunneries, is usually attributed to his avarice in seizing land, lead from roofs, and brass from bells. English nuns were generally from less noble families than their continental sisters, and only got a pension of £3 per annum "roughly equivalent to an unskilled labourer" if they went quietly. Even so the nun's longevity caused the bill to exceed the value of Henry's nunnery seizures.
But Henry's much impugned brutality avoided the muddle on the Continent. There, many nuns from entrenched old Romanist families formidably resisted the Reformation. The authorities forcibly ejected the nuns' monkish confessors and conversion sermons were arranged. The nuns declared war. One "Abbess Mathilde Willen and her nuns used smoke bombs made of old fur and rags to drive the preacher out … The Dominican prioress of St Margaret's in Strasbourg, Ursula Bock, set up dummies in the choir and behind the grille while a few aged nuns gave them an appearance of animation during the hours when Protestant preachers were talking". Protestant ministers found themselves hearing confessions, inserting Reformation doctrine as best they could. Heartened, Rome determined to hang on to its convents. Resistance by powerful abbesses served her cause. Word of dramatic events such as the theatrical last stand, after a prolonged wrangle, of Abbess Caritas Pirckheimer of Saint Clara nunnery in Nuremberg soon spread, when tearful nuns were publicly disrobed and paraded in secular clothes at the nunnery's emotional closure.
Prof Lyndal Roper of London University has studied the suppression of the nunneries in the key German reformation town of Augsburg. In the 1520's Augsburg's Reformed town Council, in contrast to Henry VIII, assumed Gospel preaching would be irresistible and in a couple of decades the city's nunneries would empty spontaneously. There was an initial rich Gospel harvest. True conversions opened the prospect of marriage thereby relieving the Council of expensive pension provision. This, however, concentrated together the most militant nuns who as wily business women and tough negotiators were firmly set against the gospel and spoiling for a long term fight.
Prof Roper uncovered the financial clout of Augsburg nunneries. One solution was forcible asset seizures. This proved inefficient and legally hazardous. A Council Gospel preacher was appointed to break down the nun's resolve. Despite turning up with "mayor and retinue" he merely succeeded in strengthening it. The end result was that only four of seven nunneries were shut, at inordinate cost in money and time and with bitter acrimony. When the Counter Reformation came the surviving nunneries soon bloomed again. Perhaps Henry VIII's decidedness, avaricious or not, better served the Reformation?