Magisterial Women Writers by Heather Thiessen

The Protestant Reformation (or Reformations) in Europe had ambiguous results for women; sacred text and religious debate became more accessible to more people, including women, but women’s roles were more exclusively confined to the domestic sphere. Gone was the escape route of monasticism for Protestant women.

Nevertheless, at the dawn of the magisterial reformation, a window opened for women writers, through which we catch a glimpse of these magisterial women reformer’s passion, religious conviction, and courage.

  • Katharina Schütz Zell (1497-1562), of Strasbourg, married to a former priest, became a “pamphleteer,” encouraging the wives of beleaguered reformers, and defending the clergy’s right to marry in an incendiary letter published in 1524. The city council of Strasbourg took a dim view of her activity, and forbade further publications by Zell. Nevertheless, she did publish further writings, including hymns, psalms, and even other pamphlets; her publications appeared as late as 1557, long after her contemporaries had ceased to write publicly. She was also reported to have officiated at the funeral of a Schwenkfeldian woman, whose husband had turned to Katharina when he learned that no regular minister would handle the funeral without an announcement of the woman’s “apostasy,” something her grieving husband would not countenance. (The story appears in Rosemary Radford Ruether, Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Traditions (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1974)

  • Marie Dentière (1495-1561), orignally from Geneva, was a close contemporary of Zell’s, and sojourned for a time in Strasbourg after leaving the Augustinian monastery in which she had been a religious, and possibly prioress. She returned to Geneva, as the wife of pastor Simon Robert; later, widowed with two small children, she remarried Antoine Froment, a follower of William Farel’s. She appears in others’ accounts of the period as someone who was not shy about sharing her opinions, regardless of their congeniality to the audience. Dentière reportedly preached to the nuns of a nearby monastery in an effort to persuade them to the reformed life. Her writings include pamphlets on God’s protection of the City of Geneva, a lengthy letter to Marguerite of Navarre criticizing the Genevan Christians who opposed Farel and Calvin, and a collection of writings addressed to women.

  • Argula von Grumbach (1492-1556) became a bestselling author with her scathing critique of the University of Ingolstadt’s arrest of young student, Arsacius Seehofer, for espousing the theological views of Luther and Melanchthon. She pursued the cause to the meetings of the city council, and later to the Reichstag. “Much as Catherine of Siena had done two centuries earlier at a time of church crisis, Argula felt empowered and indeed obliged to speak out against abuses. The first pamphlet was followed by seven other writings. Matheson estimates that 30,000 copies of her eight writings were circulating throughout the Holy Roman Empire within two years.” (Larissa Juliet Taylor, “Peter Matheson, ‘Breaking the Silence: Women, Censorship, and the Reformation,’ Sixteenth Century Journal27 (1996) 97-109) Her official correspondents never gave her a direct response, and did encourage her husband, Friedrich, to forcibly prevent her public expression of further views. This, despite losing his sinecure over the controversy, he declined to do.

    The period of the Reformation (or Reformations) challenged European society to accommodate a greater degree of difference, around fundamental matters, than had hitherto been thought possible. In that light, perhaps the last word should go to Olympia Fulvia Morata(1526-1555), an ill-fated Italian humanist scholar and representative of reformation thought, whose short life reflected the hazards of the period. In one of her poems, “To Eutychus Pontanus Gallus,” she writes:

    Never did the same thing please the hearts of all,
    and never did Zeus grant the same mind to all.
    Castor is a horse-tamer, but Polydeuces is good with his fist,
    both the offspring of the same bird.
    And I, though born female, have left feminine things,
    yarn, shuttle, loom-threads, and work-baskets.
    I admire the flowery meadow of the Muses,
    and the pleasant choruses of twin-peaked Parnassus.
    Other women perhaps delight in other things.
    These are my glory, these my delight.

Read More . . .

A brief biography of Katharina Zell

excerpts from Elsie McKee, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in 16th-century Germany

A biography of Marie Dentière with additional source links at Other Women’s Voices

Biography and source links for Argula von Grumbach at Other Women’s Voices

Biography and source links for Olympia Fulvia Morata at Other Women’s Voices


The Women’s Center at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary


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