Argula von Grumbach
Tranlation Tony Dickinson
In this Reformation anniversary year, Pierre Olivier Léchot offers us the rediscovery of a reforming feminist contemporary of Luther, a pioneer, indeed: Argula von Grumbach
The first years of the Reformation in Germany were a period of profound transformations in society. Among them the role which some women took in spreading the Reformers’ message has to be mentioned. The life of Argula von Grumbach is an eloquent example of this. Born in 1492, she was the offspring of an aristocratic Bavarian family. It is known that as a child she read a Bible in German which her father had given her – she maintained later that the monks in his entourage tried to dissuade her. In 1516 she married Friedrich von Grumbach, a nobleman from Lower Franconia who served the Dukes of Bavaria. Very soon she was in contact with the representatives of the Reformation in their region, such as Andreas Osiander of Nuremberg, and she seems to have kept up a correspondence with Luther himself. In 1523, the university of Ingolstadt compelled a young master, Arsacius Seehofer, to repudiate publicly the teaching of Luther to which he had adhered since a stay in Wittenberg. Argula von Grumbach then took up her pen to defend the young man. Her text was very soon published anonymously – some thought that it was the work of her friend, the Nuremberg Reformer, Andreas Osiander. The latter attempted at any rate to justify a woman’s taking up her pen: “in these last days”, close to the end of the world, the Bible was no longer the sole prerogative of the learned, but could be interpreted “by many others, young and old, men and women”. In her publisher’s eyes, what was going on in Germany was nothing other than the fulfilment of the prophecy of Joel 2:28: “Your sons and your daughters will prophesy, your old men will have dreams and your young people visions.” The letter which the young woman addressed to the university of Ingolstadt in defence of Seehofer confirmed this conviction that the extraordinary times which the Christian faith was going through allowed women to preach. In this way, like a second Judith, von Grumbach gave herself permission to instruct the priests, basing herself on Scripture alone: she reckoned that the word of Christ regarding sincere confession was not addressed only to men and therefore allowed her to invalidate the Pauline injunction that women should keep silence in gatherings. Indeed the religious situation in the Germany of the 1520s was in her view an exceptional state which insisted that every person called by God speak out on behalf of the Gospel. Like Balaam’s donkey speaking in the place of the prophet (Numbers 22:21-35), von Grumbach thought that she was called to preach since the prophets of her day, the priests, no longer knew how to proclaim the Gospel. What she wrote was a real success with the public and went through fifteen impressions in one year. But there were doubts about the reactions which such outspokenness must engender. Von Grumbach succeeded in having a few pamphlets printed but met only a little support, even among the Reformers. In 1530 however she paid a visit to Luther, who kept all his sympathy, but soon she imposed on herself a long silence, under pressure, no doubt, from her husband. Widowed for the first time in 1529/30, she remarried in 1533, but her husband passed away soon afterwards, quickly followed to the tomb by most of their children. She continued nonetheless to keep up a wide correspondence and died at an advanced age, probably around 1568. Today the Argula von Grumbach prize of the Protestant Church of Bavaria rewards progress on behalf of the equality of the sexes.