Question: What do 16th century nuns and the fight for women’s rights have in common?
Answer: More than you think.
Dr. Austra Reinis, professor of religious studies at Missouri State University, dove into this anomaly during her 14-month sabbatical project in Germany.
The nuns fight for women’s rights
In the early 16th century, Martin Luther changed the course of Christianity with his 95 Theses, initiating the Protestant Reformation.
The ruler of Electoral Saxony, John the Steadfast, who agreed with Luther, wished to shut down monastic establishments. One of these was located in Brehna, Germany.
Nuns split into two camps. Some agreed with Luther. Others wished convent life to continue as before.
“To see how women’s choices were limited in the days of the Reformation helps us appreciate the freedom we have today to make our own choices,” Reinis said.
For the nuns who disagreed with Luther, his ideas brought fear and uncertainty. But they chose to stand up for their convictions. They wrote letters to the neighboring ruler, Princess Margarethe of Anhalt, asking her for advice and assistance.
Those who agreed with Luther wrote letters to the ruler saying they wished their convent to be turned into a Lutheran community.
Ultimately, in Brehna and elsewhere, rulers who were trying to close convents were forced to reconsider and alter, sometimes abandon, their plans.
“It is inspiring for women of today to see that women 500 years ago were trying to make the most of their lives, even within their limited rights,” Reinis said.
Church and state
Reinis also points out how important it is to have separation of church and state in the modern day.
“In the days of the Reformation, rulers decided what the correct religion was,” she said. “We are very fortunate today in America that no one can prohibit the practice of a religion, and that we have the freedom to create our own religious spaces.”
Ultimately, Reinis points out that studying history brings life to the people who lived hundreds of years ago. It also helps us understand how the past led to the present.
“People want to know who they are and where they came from,” Reinis said, quoting historian Jennifer Vannette.
Reinis’ article about the nuns in Brehna will be published in “Reports of the Association for the History of the Region of Anhalt,” a German periodical.