“I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul.” Erasmus, Paraclesis: or, an Exhortation (1516).
Argula von Grumbach
In 1523, having witnessed a young student at the University of Ingolstadt being charged with heresy for embracing Lutheran theology, Argula von Grumbach came to the defense of this student by writing a letter to the university denouncing the leadership for being hypocritical and greedy. This letter was then published and circulated publicly. The administrators of the university were furious that Argula dared to involve herself in the affairs of the university. Her husband lost his job as administrator, and the family was banned from Dietfurt as a result of her letter writing campaign.
George Hauer, a theologian at the university, responded to Argula’s letter by preaching an angry sermon about the “wretched children of Eve.” Turning specifically to Argula, he denounced her as being a “female desperado,” a “wretched and pathetic daughter of Eve,” an “arrogant devil,” and a “heretical bitch.” Argula refused to back down, and even though she had received death threats, she sent a letter to the city council which included a copy of her original letter to the university in which she tried to clarify the purpose of her original letter. Not only did the theologians at the university want “the silly bag tamed,” her uncle, Adam von Thering was angry that her unladylike behaviour had brought shame on their family’s name and he “wanted her walled up for good.”
The most sustained invective against Argula came in the form of a pseudonymous poem written by “Johannes of Landshut” who was supposedly a student at the university. The poem not only ridiculed Argula for failing to show womanly restraint, it charged her with purposefully deceiving her readers through the twisting of Scripture, and it concludes with a call to put her back in her proper place, and if she does not heed this call, she may face an untimely death: “It’s not a woman’s place to strut/ With the words of God, or lecture men/ But to listen like the Magdalene./ Woman, I give you good advice/…For if for this topic again you head/ Like all your heretic friends, you’re dead.”
Katharina Schutz Zell
Invectives against Katharina Schutz Zell can be seen in her tense relationship with Ludwig Rabus. Rabus succeeded Zell’s husband as pastor of the church in Strasbourg. In 1557, after Rabus abandoned his pastorate, without properly tendering his resignation, for a new position in Ulm, Katharina wrote an open letter to the city of Strasbourg imploring Rabus to explain himself, and to call him out on his hypocrisy. Rabus’ response was dripping with contempt. His letter of response began, “your heathen, unchristian, stinking, lying letter reached me…when I was busy and much laden with preaching.” He characterized her letter as being from the devil and that it slandered a true “servant of Christ.” He accused Katharina of being a troublemaker in the church and of tormenting her husband. Rabus did not apologize for his invectives against her, and instead justifies his tone by pointing out “that one must answer the fool as he deserves.” The invectives went even further, with Rabus calling her “a heretic, Zwinglian, devilish, stinking liar, pharisaic, a false witness, a rumour-monger, inspired by the devil, poisonous, pagan and a fool.”
Marie Dentière took an active role in preaching the Gospel in Geneva, and made it her mission to convince nuns to join the Reformation. She wrote and spoke with authority, and this angered the leadership in Geneva. The pastors in Geneva not only condemned Marie, they, like the university officials at Ingolstadt did to Argula von Grumbach, attempted to punish her through her husband. Beautus Comte, the pastor of the Lausanne church, refused to believe that she was actually the author of her writings, and instead assumed that it was her pastor husband, because he was “not ready to acknowledge that a woman could publish a work of reformed doctrine or that a pastor could collaborate on such a project with his wife.” Even John Calvin called her an ‘unruly woman’ who deserved only contempt for her actions, particularly for her fervent defense of the right of women to speak and proclaim the Gospel.
The most sustained invective against women is John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Written in response to the Catholic Queen on the throne of England, Knox called the Queen a “Jezebel,” a “wicked woman” and a “traitoresse and bastard.” Any woman in a position of political authority was “repugnant to nature.” Woman were not suited to rule because they were “weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish…unconstant, variable, cruel and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.” He pointed to Aristotle, Scripture and the Church Fathers to support his position that “woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him.” If a woman was in a position of authority, it meant that Satan was “president of the counsel” and those who chose to submit themselves to her authority were “slaves of Satan and servants of iniquity” because, “from a corrupt and venomed fountain can spring no wholesome water.”
Some scholars suggest a more sympathetic reading of Knox’s First Blast because it is not so much a treatise about gender as it is a treatise against idolatry. But if that is the case, why does Knox reject “all women from empire and dominion above man”? He also had an opportunity to recant his First Blast when Elizabeth (a Protestant) ascended the throne, but he did not. Instead he attempted to clarify his argument, and suggested that Elizabeth was like Deborah in the Old Testament, called by God, and yet in First Blast he makes it clear that Deborah’s rule (and likewise other unusual examples like Huldah) is like polygamy: just because there are examples of it in Scripture does not make it right, for Christians are called to follow the commands of God, not examples. In fact, Knox called on Elizabeth to admit that she was unfit to rule and that her being Queen was solely because of the gracious patience of God.
Argula von Grumbach, “Letter to the University of Ingolstadt” in Peter Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).
Johannes of Landshut, “A word about the Stauffen woman and her disputativeness (1524)” in Matheson.
Peter Matheson, “Breaking the Silence: Women, Censorship, and the Reformation,” Sixteenth Century Journal XXVII (1996).
Ludwig Rabus, “Letter of Ludwig Rabus to Katharina Schutz Sell (1557)” in Katharina Schutz Zell, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany, ed. Elsie McKee (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).
Marie Dentière, Epistle to Marguerite De Navarre and Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin, ed. Mary McKinley (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).
John Knox, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” in The Works of John Knox, ed. David Lang, vol. IV (New York: AMS Press, 1996).
Susan Felch, “The Rhetoric of Biblical Authority: John Knox and the Question of Women,” Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (1995).
Robert Healey, “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens,” Sixteenth Century Journal XXV, no. 2 (1994).