They had to be acceptant of all the teachings received by husbands and priests, for they could not read the books which would have allowed them to form their own opinion. Women therefore remained in the most essential way secondary citizens and were deprived of any genuine influence. The “real battle was for the minds of men and that of women would then follow”. 14 Though the women as a whole were not involved in shaping the changes made by the reformation, they were affected by them all the same. Women of the time might only have felt the impact of the actual change in religious rituals.
The act of ‘Childbirth cleansing’ was one such custom, which maintained that the “unclean and dangerous” new mother was “surrounded by all kinds of prohibitions and taboos”15 and should therefore abstain from church services for six weeks and must then attend purification. The ban of this and similar rituals was not always respected and it might seem that even the disbanding of convents was not felt to be a major impact by the contemporary population. With little written evidence to account for the ‘woman on the street’ this is hard to judge.
And although references to the impact of the reformation on women might be found in some writings it is problematic to generalise and apply them to the fate of women in other countries. The reformation was heavily localised, with extremes emerging in Switzerland, Martin Luther providing a focal point in one of Germanys many duchies and the Netherlands being more open than most to female commentary. To emphasise this point one can look at the political turmoil that sparked the reformation in England, not the masses: “The dissolution of monasteries…
were acts undertaken at government level, less out of faith than covetousness”16 Further problematic is the separation of what changes in perception were brought on by economic developments and which might be the result of the protestant reformation. But hindsight and the recent improvements for the female world allow us to judge the impact of the reformation in a way which might not have been possible to the woman of the day. In general the protestant reformation brought an improvement for mothers and wives, it was a step forward for womanhood, not a step back.
This is not due to any increase in independence, for it did not occur. If anything women were more restricted in what they could do and where there could do it. They were tied to the stove, so to speak. But though modern, feminist commentators might judge this a negative development, it is not so. It placed women firmly on the social map and acknowledged the importance of their position. Without this change in perception women would have continued to be understood as an unwanted necessity by men in their dominant positions.
It gave the modern world a healthy understanding of the importance of the woman and paved the way for future feminist developments. Within a hundred years of the beginning of the reformation, female commentary and critique was being more widely tolerated and even accepted. “We will not sit in silence” became the slogan of those days. 17 Change of this dimension cannot be rushed, though it requires events to push the developments forward. The protestant reformation was undoubtedly one of these.
“You make me do what you will; you have full sovereignty here, and I award you, with all my heart, the command in all household matters, reserving my rights in other points. “18 1 Andrew Pettegree, Europe in the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, Malden/Mass. 2002), chapter 5 2 Die Bibel, Trans. Martin Luther, Mose 1:27 (United Bible Society, London and Edinburgh, 1949) (German: “schuf sie, einen Mann und ein Weib”) Translation taken from Good News Bible, American Bible Society, 1994, Genesis 1:27 3 Die Bibel, Trans.
Martin Luther, Mose 2:23 (United Bible Society, London and Edinburgh, 1949) (German: “man wird sie Maennin heissen, darum dass sie com Manne genommen ist. “) Translation taken from Good News Bible, American Bible Society, 1994, Genesis 2:23 4 Martin Luther, Luther’s Work: Volume 1, Edited by Jaroslav Pelikan (Philadelphia 1958), page 202 5 Olwen Hufton, The Prospect Before Her – Volume I: 1500-1800 (London, 1995), page 366 6 Prof. P Matheson, ‘A Reformation for Women? Sin, Grace and Gender in the Writings of Argula von Grumbach’, Scottish Journal of Theology 49 (1996) pages 39-55, page 44
7 Hufton, The Prospect Before Her – Volume I: 1500-1800, page 368 8 Lynn Abrams and Elizabeth Harvey (eds. ), Gender Relations in German History (London, 1996), page 44 9 Jeffery R. Watt, ‘Women and the Consistory in Calvin’s Geneva’ The Sixteenth Century Journal 24 (1996) page 429ff. : Figures date from tenth Consistory, February 16th 1542 – May 29th 1544. 10 Hufton, The Prospect Before Her – Volume I: 1500-1800, page 412 11 Sibylle Harksen, Die Frau im Mittelalter (Leipzig 1974) quoted in Merry E. Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany (New Brunswick, New Jersey 1986), page 2.
12 Wiesner, Working Women in Renaissance Germany, page 45 13 Matheson, Scottish Journal of Theology 49, page 54 14 Hufton, The Prospect Before Her – Volume I: 1500-1800, page 365 15 R. W. Scribner, ‘The Impact of the Reformation on Daily Life’, in: Lyndal Roper (editor), Religion and Culture in Germany (1400-1800) (Leiden, Boston, Koeln, 2001) page 290 16 Hufton, The Prospect Before Her – Volume I: 1500-1800, page 398 17 Hufton, The Prospect Before Her – Volume I: 1500-1800, page 413 18 Martin Luther, Table Talk (London, 1995), paragraph 728.