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A Mind of Her Own: 16th-century Radical Women

Rev. Alicia McNary Forsey, Ph.D.

Fifth Earl Morse Wilbur History Colloquium, January, 2003


This paper will offer a brief overview of the context of women’s lives in Europe during the 16th century, with an emphasis on women who were radical in their actions as they worked to change the status quo of their time and place. From peasants to queens, what did it mean to move as a radical? What were the risks? What motivated commitment through action, and how were these women received by society in general? How did class and gender boundaries affect them? All of the women in this paper lived during the 1500’s, save one. That one exception is Julia Butterfly Hill, who will stand as a counterpoint in reference to the 21st-century relevancy of the topic. Without intending to draw direct comparisons across the centuries, or pretending to fully know what any woman’s life was like without standing in her place and time, I am struck by the similarity in tone, commitment, and determination that is evident between radical women of the 16th century and radical women like Julia Butterfly today.

Within the last thirty years, interest in the Radical Reformation, a brief period of history dating from 1517–1579, has increased dramatically. Research now credits the Radical Reformers as leading promoters of ideas that made way for separation of church and state, vocational choice, pacifism, congregational polity, participation of the laity within the institution of the church, and more. These ideas were earlier encouraged through the influence of Renaissance humanists who contributed immeasurably to promoting use of reason, education among common men, the availability of the Bible in the vernacular, access to books and other printed material, movement out of a feudalistic system toward the establishment of a middle class, and the importance of cultivating the self, especially white male heterosexual selves.

Margaret Hall, Associate Professor of History and Women’s and Gender Studies at Amherst College, writes in Queering the Renaissance: “One fact that is well established is that the rise of concepts of identity was so irrevocably tied to being male, above the servant class, and, in practice, of European stock, that pairing the concept to anyone else would have been an oxymoron. The classical, Renaissance, and early modern antecedents of what came to constitute a modern ‘identity’ included a self-affirming public voice (often called ‘citizenship’), an identification with a vocation (e.g., he is a carpenter), personal autonomy, standardly defined in the Renaissance and early modern period as the ability to deploy the labor, reproductive and otherwise, of inferior family members (who, in the more expansive definition of ‘family’ that then prevailed, included women, children, and, at least rhetorically, servants, slaves, and workers) and some measure of bodily self-control, a central attribute of which was the ability to initiate and to definitively refuse sexual intercourse. All these were difficult or impossible to attain for married women, slaves, or servants (and these categories cover the overwhelming majority of all women), and most were ontologically incompatible with what a married woman, a slave, or a servant ‘was.’” Footnote

Class and Gender

Scholars researching the role of women during the Radical Reformation have, within the last three or four decades, met with difficult challenges in their attempts to bring women into their rightful place in history. Women, especially poor women, who lived as Radical Reformers were frequently referred to in 16th-century writing as “the wife, of…” or, “the mother of…” — even when they were martyred with their male relatives for religious convictions that did not fit the orthodoxy of either the Catholics or the Protestants. Just locating a given name can be cause for celebration after a researcher has trudged through archives (some friendly and organized, and some not so friendly), visited graveyards and combed through obscure texts looking for the smallest clue relating to a missing woman — though much may be known about her husband or other male relatives.

All women, queen or peasant, in the 16th century were considered inferior to men, physically and mentally. Regardless of how high up on the class ladder a woman perched, she had to walk a fine line between balancing on the highest rung, or being toppled. Queen Elizabeth managed fairly well in this regard, but the two queens included in this paper were in jeopardy from the minute their husbands died until their own deaths.

Women Without Means

The women most known were from noble or aristocratic families. Poor women were simply invisible. They, for the most part, could not read or write, and probably did not perceive themselves as having power. In their radical determination, they did have power, and they used it — though they were simply doing what they believed to be the will of God.

The archives of cities and church records give us statistical data regarding births, marriages, court proceedings, and deaths. Because of these records, the context of a poor woman’s life is more accessible, but seldom attached to the lives of particular women. The work of the Mennonites, direct descendants of the Anabaptists, has also contributed to current understanding about the lives of women in the 16th century who were among the radical reformers.

Peasant women were paid half of what men earned in the fields, though they were expected to do the same work. Men were given a diet that was quite a bit more nutritious than what the women received. An ordinance from south Germany in 1550 specifies that men were to be fed “soup and wine for breakfast, beer, vegetables, and meat at midday, and vegetables and wine at night, while women were to receive only soup and vegetables in the morning, milk and bread at midday, and nothing in the evening.” Footnote The life expectancy for a peasant woman in the early 1500's is given variously, but in the range of 25–29.

Unmarried women without male guardians usually were destitute. If one wasn’t, a male would have been found to be her guardian. Not accepted by society but out of necessity for survival, small groups of women would live together and run a cottage industry, such as spinning. The word spinster goes back to these women. They lived on the margins because they were not under the authority of any males, and were therefore considered suspect and dangerous to society. What kind of example were they setting for women? Women are not supposed to be able to survive amongst themselves alone.

The groups that were considered heretical, or who fell out of favor with the Church, as did the Beguines when they became powerful, risked arrest, trial, prison and possibly execution. It is doubtful that these women remained comfortable in the Church, but certainly they remained God-fearing.

Women of Means

Women who could read and write were usually from families with means, but they were not encouraged to write about anything other than family and household matters. Women who dared to write about the condition of women, or to criticize the status quo, were looked upon with disdain. Demonstrating their intelligence in their writing, they were considered suspect, obnoxious, poor examples of womanhood — even “loose” in their behavior. A threat to society.

Argula von Grumbach

Argula von Grumbach corresponded with Luther and other leading reformers, including radical leaders in Anabaptist circles (Hubmaier and Osiander). She challenged the Catholic establishment to a public debate in 1523, over the persecution of a Lutheran student at the University of Ingolstadt. The Ingolstadt theologians wanted the “silly bag tamed.” Footnote Controversy over the affair increased, and she was threatened with having some of her fingers cut off so that she could no longer write. She was called a “female devil,” a “heretical bitch,” a “shameless whore,” and more. Footnote Her husband was dismissed from his post as administrator at Dietfurt. He was responsible for Argula, since she had no standing of her own. Footnote She went on writing, and seven of her works were published — the first going through 16 editions. Her style is certainly colorful, as when she says that the nobility are “like cows trying to play chess.” Footnote

Commenting on the abuse heaped upon her for stepping out of her role as a woman, Argula says: “I hear that some are so angry with me that they do not know how best to speed my passage from life into death.” Footnote She responds to this sort of reception to her work with statements like “Do not let what is said about me scandalize you; as far as my own person is concerned, I pay no heed to their persecution. It is a joy to me to be reviled for the sake of the holy gospel.” Footnote In a letter to her cousin she says “I beg you not to be vexed if you hear that I am being abused or ridiculed because I confess Christ. Be alarmed only if you hear that I have denied God.” Footnote

Annekan Jans van Briel

Annekan Jans was a widow, a young woman of means with an infant son. She wrote to the Dutch Anabaptist David Joris, who was living in exile, and told him that she saw him as “a prophet of God.” Footnote Joris took her seriously, and began to think of himself as the third David. Footnote She was arrested with her friend Christina Barents, in Rotterdam, for singing hymns in the street. The actual reason for the arrest may have been knowledge on the part of the authorities regarding her financial support of the heretic David Joris.

At age 28, she was executed by drowning. She offered a sum of money and appealed to the crowd gathered to witness her death for someone to raise her infant son, Isaiah. A letter that she left to him became a popular testament to her faith, and was printed several times. The letter includes the following, which is much in keeping with the commitment and determination of other female radical reformers:

Therefore, my child, do not regard the great number, nor walk in their ways. Remove thy foot far from their paths, for they go to hell, as sheep unto death… But where you hear of a poor, simple, cast-off little flock [Luke 12:32] which is despised and rejected by the world, join them; for where you hear of the cross, there is Christ… Flee the shadow of this world; become united with God; fear Him alone, keep His commandments, observe all His words; to do them; write them upon the table of your heart, bind them upon your forehead, speak day and night of His law… Take the fear of the Lord to be your father, and wisdom shall be the mother of your understanding… Be not ashamed to confess Him before men; do not fear men; rather give up your life, than to depart from the truth. If you lose your body, which is earthly, the Lord your God has prepared you a better one in heaven [2 Cor. 5:1]. Footnote

Noble Ruling Women

Noble ruling women with courts and vast holdings who associated with radical individuals and groups appear to have taken religion less seriously than maintaining their own power — but, losing their power would have made it impossible for them to carry significant influence — their ability to change the status quo. Two astute rulers, Queen Bona of Poland and Queen Isabella of Transylvania, exerted a great deal more energy toward ruling than on religious devotion. Bona remained Catholic while aiding and abetting the most radical of reformers. Isabella learned her lessons well, with Bona for a mother and the King of Poland for a father. Isabella’s son, John Sigusmund, was the only Unitarian King in history — to date! Her understanding of the political scene in Europe stretched across the continent, especially among the Jagiellonians and the Hapsburgs.

Queen Bona Sforza

Queen Bona of Poland ruled through her husband, Sigusmund Stary. When she left Italy after an incredibly lavish wedding in Naples, she took 26 horse-drawn carriages full of members of her court, tapestries, carpets, paintings and other treasures. Italy came with Bona. Her circle included Italian scholars, theologians, artisans and architects. George Biandrata, one of the most important shapers of early Unitarianism, was her court physician. The influence of the Renaissance on Poland was fostered by the arrival of Bona. Footnote Italian was spoken in the Polish court. She sent to others sermons and manuscripts produced by men of questionable orthodoxy. She sent George Biandrata to Transylvania to serve her daughter, Isabella, as physician and advisor. Her liberality toward the education of her son, who later became the King of Poland, was perhaps not to her advantage. He took to heart his lessons on Calvin, as well as the library he was given permission to keep, which included the works of humanists. The end result was the making of a less lenient king than his father, Sigusmund Stary, who had fewer opinions than his son about the need for orthodoxy.

During Bona’s reign, the geographical boundaries for Poland expanded, but the more distant boundary was cultural — the Ottoman Empire. King Sigusmund addressed the Sultan as “Most serene and powerful prince, our dearly dearly beloved friend and neighbor.” Footnote A treaty of peace was made with Turkey in 1533. Bona had been Queen of Poland for fifteen years by that time. She crossed religious, cultural, political, geographical and gender boundaries, but when her husband died (he was 27 years older than she), Bona’s power started to come undone. Had she been a man, she might have managed, but resentment against her became overt after the death of the King, and she was accused of reckless spending of fortunes, of manipulation, intrigue, and even death by poisoning of her daughter-in-law, who was not her choice for her son, Footnote who became King. No longer protected by the status of her husband, she was made into the other — ridiculed and reduced to a woman expected to maintain the role of dutiful mother to the King. She returned to Italy, but shortly thereafter all of her property was taken from her by Philip of Spain. She died alone and in poverty. Footnote

Queen Isabella Sforza Zapolya

Isabella, as Queen of Transylvania, continued a relationship she must have known as a young girl in the Polish court with Sultan Suleiman and the Ottoman Empire. This connection was one that her father had encouraged, as did her husband, John Zapolya, though she was left a widow shortly after her marriage to him. At any rate, the Ottoman Empire was no stranger to Isabella, as her rule in Transylvania attests. Sultan Suleiman promised to protect her child, John Sigusmund, without a father from the day he was born, if anything should happen to Isabella. He also promised to see that lands she had lost since the death of her husband would be returned to her, and this promise was kept, though it required a threat of war against Ferdinand of Austria on the part of the Sultan. The ties were deep. Gifts were exchanged, and emissaries came and went between Transylvania and the Ottoman Empire. This is documented in the archives of the Ottoman Empire at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. One gift made by Sultan Suleiman to the churches of Transylvania was 1,000 prayer rugs. These became very popular, and are now referred to by collectors as “Transylvanian rugs” or “Bellini rugs,” and occasionally “Lotto rugs.” Two of these rugs were on display in the oblong room of the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul. As of 2003, they are in storage, and not available for viewing. Carpets such as these occasionally appear in the paintings of 16th-century Italian masters, as a symbol of the wealth of the family being depicted.

Isabella knew she was outside of accepted boundaries regarding her relationship with the Turks in general and Sultan Suleiman in particular. She was half Polish and half Italian, and thus was a foreigner in the minds of many of her subjects. Her husband John, a Hungarian, was the one who had belonged, even though he was excommunicated by the Catholic Church for his loyalties to Sultan Suleiman. She was an outsider, subject to constant threats, intrigues, power struggles, and insults of every kind. However, studying the relationship from Turkish historical accounts, it is clear that Isabella maintained her agreements with Sultan Suleiman. He was certainly more trustworthy than Ferdinand of Austria (a Hapsburg), and she was not a stupid woman.

Isabella’s willingness to transgress boundaries of religion and culture was during a time when Christians in other parts of Europe were busy killing each other over differing views on the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity.

Isabella is credited for her contribution to what is thought to be the first edict of universal religious tolerance within Western Christianity. Earl Morse Wilbur claims that this edict was only to promote harmony between Catholics and Lutherans. Footnote This view, given Isabella’s wider concerns, may not be an accurate accounting of her ability to consider peaceful coexistence between people of differing faiths. It may be obvious that the overt reason for the edict was to maintain harmony between Catholics and Lutherans, but it may also be too simplistic to think that what meets the eye is not founded on a broader, deeper understanding of the possibilities for people with different beliefs to live in harmony. The edict reads in part:

Everyone might hold the faith of his choice, together with the new rites or the former ones, without offence to any… the adherents of the new religion should do nothing to injure those of the old.

In a proclamation of religious toleration by Sultan Mehemmed Han, issued in April, 1478, in the encampment at the citadel of Dratch, one of the statements reads:

I order that the said persons and their churches shall not be interfered with and troubled; …the people of my country shall never attack or hurt them; their lives and goods, their churches and the people from without they introduce in my country are also protected.

Isabella was accused of being brought back to Transylvania out of exile (escorted by Ottoman troops) only because Sultan Suleiman demanded that Ferdinand return her property and lands, not because of the will of her people. Her life was constantly disrupted by threats and unstable footing in her own court, as well as with Western rulers. She was resented for showing favoritism to the Polish members of her court. She never remarried, and thus kept the Sultan’s protection during her lifetime.

Women and the Inquisitions

Much of what is known about women with no means comes from the transcripts of trials. And it is sometimes difficult to discern whether they were being tried for heresy, for challenging the status quo, or for witchcraft. The Protestant Inquisitions and the Catholic Inquisitions did not spare women from interrogation, prison, torture and death. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed, the Protestant Inquisitions were as cruel as the Catholic Inquisitions. Death for women was every bit as gruesome as the deaths of the men. Representatives of the church passed judgment, and the civil authorities carried out the punishment. In this system, we can see churchmen and secular officials cooperating to maintain the status quo in ridding society of undesirables and becoming richer in the process, as they frequently seized the property of the accused, even when children and/or other relatives were in need of it.

Noble and aristocratic women who moved in radical circles received more leniency from Inquisitors than women with little or no means, but since they held large estates, and homes that could accommodate sizeable groups of religious refugees — and since they could afford to offer aid to those who were fleeing persecution, it was convenient for the authorities to banish such a woman (a more acceptable punishment than death), and take her resources away, leaving her penniless. Still, women of means who wanted to help a radical religious group were usually members of the group, and it was God’s will to share what one had and to help those in need.

What constituted a crime serious enough to be called before the Inquisitors? The list is long, but included on it are: Denying the Orthodox Doctrine of the Trinity, or saying that Jesus is not co-eternal and co-divine with God; re-baptizing a true believer; being caught in the company of banned groups; spreading false doctrine; owning or reading books on the Roman Catholic index of forbidden texts; and more. Annekan Jans and her friend Christina were arrested in the streets of Rotterdam for singing hymns. Annekan was a woman of means who supported David Joris, a Dutch Anabaptist who had fled from persecution and was living under an assumed name in another city. If the authorities wanted to arrest someone, there would be some crime to warrant their doing so, even singing in the streets. Female Anabaptists in Augsburg notified others about where a secret meeting was going to take place by walking through the market place with a basket of fruit or vegetables. The way the goods were arranged would signal which meeting place was designated. If caught, they were branded on both cheeks and banished from the city. Women who engaged in sexual relationships with women were vulnerable to being charged with a serious crime. “In 1552, female homosexuality was explicitly listed as a capital crime in Germany.” Footnote Women who dressed like men in order to live freer lives were also subject to severe punishment Footnote  — “…attitudes toward female homosexuality stemmed in large part from misunderstandings about female anatomy.” Footnote

Clothing Options

Getting around as a female was no small task, and 16th-century clothing not only brought attention to a woman if she went where she did not belong — it was inconvenient.

Clothing options, especially in France and England, were governed by sumptuary laws. Henry VIII brought these laws into use due to his own wanting to know the status of a person without having to inquire. These laws were elaborate in descriptions about what may be worn by royalty, members of court, wives of knights, wives of landed gentry and so on — from colors to types of sleeves, lengths of skirts, closures, fabrics and collars. A maidservant who was given a dress so worn out that her mistress no longer would wear it was placed in a difficult position. She could wear it and be accused of putting on airs by women who knew her place in society, or she might wear it and be reprimanded for breaking the dress code.

Garments once worn by women of means may be viewed in museums. Not so when it comes to clothing worn by the poor. One peasant’s dress from 16th-century Europe was preserved by mistake. The woman wearing it died in a bog containing preservative elements that saved the garment for around 400 years. From that dress, and paintings of peasant women, we know that peasant women wore wool dresses that had several components so that they could be adapted to various weather conditions.

Generally Accepted Beliefs of Radical Reforming Women

What did the majority of the radical reformers believe? Almost all of them believed in the imminent Second Coming of Christ. They believed that when they died, they were going to a better place. They believed what the Bible says, as they understood the Bible. They believed that if they lived exemplary lives, doing their utmost to model their lives after the life of Jesus, they would be among the chosen. The radicals who were executed feared recanting more than anything, because if they recanted they would not be saved.

Since the majority of the women we can call the most radical of their day were Anabaptists, it is generally true (but not always) that they followed the basic tenets of the Anabaptists. Though not accepted across the board by all Anabaptist groups, the belief most common among them was that a person should not be baptized until he or she understood the commitment that was being made. In matters of doctrine, the Anabaptists considered Scripture the only authority. The majority tended to be pacifists, and would organize their activities in accord with separation of church and state, refuse to take oaths, reject capital punishment, shun those among themselves who did not respect the agreements of the larger community (usually after three warnings), share their worldly goods, celebrate the Lord’s Supper (taking the cup and the bread), and anticipate the Second Coming.

Women who traveled in radical reforming circles in the 16th century often knew scripture, or large parts of it, by heart. They memorized it in a way that integrated it into their hearts, or, to put it another way, they became the word. There was no profound disconnection between how these women acted and what they believed. In trials against them, their answers to the questions put to them were frequently quotes from scripture. Even women who could not read or write had memorized large portions of the Bible, and knew how to call upon passages from it to defend their position. The interrogators frequently remarked on the skill of these women in learning the Bible, and wondered how they did it. They were compelled to do it. They answered first to God, then to their religious community or husband, depending on which religious community they belonged to.


Some Anabaptist groups allowed a woman to divorce her husband if he would not also adhere to the Anabaptist faith. Swiss Anabaptist males could be banned from the community for the sin of wife beating. Footnote Then too, there are records of men divorcing their wives for being arrested as Anabaptists. In one case, the court heard the husband’s charges, which included his complaints about his wife being imprisoned for her Anabaptist affiliation, leaving him to care for their seven children. Officials asked the wife to appear and tell her side of the story. She, Adelheit Schwarz of Watt, refused, saying “she wished to be obedient to God, and not to the earthly authorities.” Footnote

Anabaptists did find happiness in marriage, too. When separated due to imprisonment, husband and wife were allowed to correspond. “Jeronimus Segerzoon and his wife Liskin were imprisoned separately at Antwerp in 1551. Both were tortured, and both suffered death. The husband wrote: My beloved lamb, …I thank the Lord that you have lived with me so faultlessly. I wish I might lie in prison for you on bread and water for a year, that I might die for you ten deaths. If only I could help you with my tears. Be at peace. I have written this letter with tears when I learned how you have been afflicted…” Footnote

The Role of Wife to Clergy

Katharina Schütz Zell

Anabaptists were the most numerous of the radicals, and also the most persecuted. Katharina Schütz Zell, married to a major Protestant reformer in Strasbourg, is quoted as saying to the new minister of her deceased husband’s church: “You behave as if you have been brought up by savages in a jungle. The Anabaptists are pursued as by a hunter with dogs chasing wild boars. Yet the Anabaptists accept Christ in all essentials as we do. They have borne witness to their faith in misery, prison, fire, and water. You young fellows tread on the graves of the first fathers of this church in Strasbourg and punish all who disagree with you, but faith cannot be forced.” Footnote

High expectations were placed on the first wives of clergy to serve as a helpmate to their husbands, a good mother and able manager of the household. The lives of this new kind of family were being closely followed, since these women and men had stepped over a boundary and were now serving as examples of another way of perceiving the institution of marriage. Katharina Zell, who went against both the church and civil authorities when she was expected to do anything other than uphold what she understood to be the will of God, maintained an exemplary life in her role as wife. Her understanding of Scripture led her to advocate strongly for people in need, never turning anyone away because they were not of her faith. During the Peasant’s War of 1525, Katharina organized aid within the city of Strasbourg, with a population of 25,000, for approximately 3,000 displaced, destitute and defeated — many of them Anabaptists. Strasbourg at that time had an ordinance against giving assistance to “foreigners.” A foreigner was anyone who was not a citizen of the city of Strasbourg. She circumvented the ordinance and, with the help of like-minded residents of Strasbourg, set up a system of housing, meals and medical assistance.

Her husband Matthew agreed with the stances she took, which led to talk among the clergy in Strasbourg that he had been softened by his wife. Matthew’s colleagues also thought that he had been far too liberal in welcoming individuals of questionable orthodoxy into his home. Entertaining Calvin was one thing, but Michael Servetus and men of his kind were another matter. Katharina expressed profound dismay about the execution of Servetus in 1553. Matthew had died in 1548. After the eulogy, Katharina delivered an address “…feeding the allegation that she aspired to be Dr. Katrina.” Footnote She continued to serve those in need, including a friend who, diagnosed with leprosy, was denied the right to have anyone in his family tend to him. She went to live with a nephew who was in an institution for syphilitics. Appalled at the treatment of the patients and the sloth of the managers, she took a list of demands for changes to the town council. After getting rid of the managers, most of the maids, the bad food and the mercury cure “which makes martyrs out of patients,” Footnote she added, “get rid of the savage dog which mangles all the cats.” Footnote

Her work brought her the charge of being a disturber of the peace of the church. To this charge she responded: “A disturber of the peace am I? Yes indeed, of my own peace. Do you call this disturbing the peace that instead of spending my time in frivolous amusements I have visited the plague infested and carried out the dead? I have visited those in prison and under sentence of death. Often for three days and three nights I have neither eaten nor slept. I have never mounted the pulpit, but I have done more than any minister in visiting those in misery. Is this disturbing the peace of the church?” Footnote

Wibrandis Rosenblatt

Among the seven clergymen who were the first to marry and then be excommunicated in Strasbourg, Wolfgang Capito was the matchmaker, never allowing one of his colleagues to go for very long without a wife. One woman, Wibrandis Rosenblatt, was married four times — each time to a leading Protestant reformer. She went from husband to husband as they died. This was not uncommon. A year into her second marriage, her husband (urged by Capito to marry) wrote to Capito: “My wife is what I always wanted and I wish for no other. She is not contentious, garrulous, or a gadabout, but looks after the household. She is too simple to be proud and too discrete to be condemned.” Footnote

Katherine von Bora

Library shelves sag under the weight of the works of Luther, but nothing, save perhaps one letter, can be found from the pen of his wife, Katherine von Bora. She had been a cloistered nun, learned Latin and discovered the writings of Luther while in the convent. She began writing to him, and he eventually suggested that she and her like-minded sisters escape the convent. Luther sent a trusted merchant into what was then enemy territory, with a wagon full of herring barrels. Katherine and eight other nuns were spirited out of the convent — probably in the back of the wagon and not in the herring barrels, though women escaping a convent in herring barrels certainly makes for a great story. Free, she announced that there were only two men she would consider marrying, and one of these was Luther. The other was not available. The life of Katherine von Bora from her own telling of her story would have been a marvelous contribution to history. We know from the writings of Martin Luther that Katherine was a creative, resourceful, intelligent woman with a good education and a mind of her own.


Convents were not places for poor women. A fee had to be paid in order to gain admittance, and additional sums could be charged if a woman became ill or required care beyond the usual. The best convents admitted women from a higher social status. Perhaps they were from a noble or aristocratic family, but one without enough wealth to marry more than one daughter into an advantageous situation. Families with titles were not open to the possibility of marriage beneath a daughter’s level (even impoverished nobles or aristocrats) and thus sending her off to a convent was a solution to the problem. Many women in convents were not there out of religious zeal. They were there because their families needed to get them out of the way of social climbing, or maintaining reputation. No wonder that, when Martin Luther began advocating marriage for clergy, many women in convents found hope in his message. The convents varied greatly as far as quality, but many women gained an education, including Latin, in the convents that they would never have received if they had married or stayed within the confines of family.

Some families kept a tradition of always having at least one member in a convent. Conrad Grebel’s family, an influential family in Zürich, kept to such a practice until 1523, when the nuns began to renounce the order. Footnote

Girls were usually taken to convents at an early age, as young as nine years old. Of course there were truly devout women in convents, but they certainly must have had their faith tested by those who were there because there was, in the eyes of their families, no other place to be.

Keeping History Relevant

It is not uncommon for a student of history, including myself, to admire a particular figure in a way that begs imitation. If the example to be followed can be translated into ways that are relevant to current times, it is positive to find a role model. However, one can meet up with some difficulties as well, because what worked in the 16th century may not work now. The leap between the centuries is too vast to make without a great deal of consideration and reflection.

Among the qualities translatable into relevancy for today is a sense of commitment, a willingness to risk comfort, and an ability to challenge the status quo when necessary — hopefully without being thrown into prison or getting killed. The trappings may have changed, but the underlying truths have not. We still must exercise caution in following the ways of the many, if we are to be the voice for social change. We still need to educate ourselves toward knowing how to articulate what we believe and then act on what we say in a way that leaves no disconnection between our actions and our words. Hypocrites are not effective workers for social change.

Julia Butterfly made the decision to live from her strengths — for a higher good than herself — after being in a car accident. She began a search for what she called her own sacred, and found it in the ancient redwoods about 230 miles north of San Francisco. Here a group of people had organized to save the trees from being cut down by Pacific Lumber Company. These trees are the tallest living things in our world, and live to be 1,000 to 3,000 years old. One tree that was blue-marked for cutting was 180–200 feet tall, and came to be known by the name of “Luna.” Julia lived near the top of Luna for two years — through windy storms while giant branches were being blown off the trees around her, through ice and rain, on a small canvas-covered platform. After Pacific Lumber agreed to save Luna and the surrounding area, plus give $50,000 for research to Humbolt State University, Julia climbed down. Now she says, “Go search for your sacred. If you are wondering what you should do next, you have yet to find your sacred.” Footnote Knowing what is sacred and moving in the world without excuses is a common trait of the radical women who lived in the 16th century. They, like Julia and others today, were dedicated to eliminating the abuses of the status quo, and sought justice for the poor, the afflicted, and the despised who have no voice in society. Julia is, by her own definition, the face and the voice of the ancient redwoods, who cannot speak for themselves. Concerned with addressing the “profound disconnection between action and spirit,” Footnote Julia puts it simply: “What would the divine do in this moment? The divine wouldn’t cut down a tree for a paper plate and throw it away.” Footnote

Julia has been abused and ridiculed on account of her activist work in trying to save ancient redwoods. She has been called every name in the book, and is hated by many men (and their families) who believe they lost their jobs in the lumber industry because of her. While she was living in the branches of Luna, men came in a helicopter to frighten her, and threats were directed at her by other means. These were serious. One young man was killed while trying to save a redwood.

Like Argula von Grumbach and other 16th-century radical women, Julia looks for no approval or disapproval for her actions. She moves on “divine imperatives” and says, “We cannot be attached to outcome. We must do the service for the sake of service, for the sake of love, for the sake of beauty.” Footnote

She, like her 16th-century Foremothers, was subjected to the pain of knowing that other human beings hated her, wished she was dead, and tried to kill what she loved. Men with chainsaws attacked Luna after Julia climbed down from her branches. Pacific Lumber quickly designed metal stays to try to hold the tree up through windstorms, but the future of Luna is uncertain.

It appears that the future of all living beings is uncertain, unless we learn how to keep our feet to the path of love — unless we all become the voice for living beings who cannot speak for themselves, or cannot be heard because they have been relegated to the despised, and are rejected by the world.

Copyright 2006–2012 Alicia McNary Forsey.  Last edited on Sunday 22 April 2012.

Michael Servetus: A Radical for All Times • A Mind of Her Own • McCarthy's Ghost • Lyn Cox • James Leach • Paul McLain • Barbara Meyers
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