By Simonetta Carr

Argula Von Grumbach – When the Stones Cry Out

The news of the trial of young Arsacius Seehofer circulated quickly through Ingolstadt, Germany. He was a student at the town’s university, accused of following evangelical beliefs. The year was 1523, two years after the Diet of Worms. Martin Luther, still outlawed, had just published a German translation of the New Testament that was selling like hotcakes. Overtaken by these rapid developments, exponents of the Roman Catholic Church tried to contain the damage. Arsacius, an easy target, was forced to deny his newly-found convictions in an abusive mock trial, then sent off indefinitely to a Benedictine monastery in Ettal, about 160 miles south of Ingolstadt.

An Unlikely Defender

            Argula Von Grumbach (492-1554), a 31-year old mother of four, listened to the news with apprehension and outrage. How could they even call it a trial? On what did they base their accusations? What’s more, she wondered why no one had come to the student’s defense. If the men were silent, she had to speak out.

            In a move which was unprecedented in her day, she challenged by writing the university’s faculty, which included the famed John Eck who had disputed with Luther in 1517. She suggested the trial be held in German, allowing the community to participate, and that Scriptures were held as the only standard. She even offered to appear before the faculty in person to defend Seehofer and his convictions.

            Quite predictably, her letter was dismissed. News of her challenge, however, began to spread. In Nuremberg, some Lutheran friends of Argula decided to print her letter, which had to be reprinted fourteen times in a single year. In the meantime, she wrote seven more pamphlets on similar pressing issues. Between 1523 and 1524, about 29,000 copies of her writings were distributed in Germany – an impressive number at that time.

            Her gender played an undoubted role in this wave of notoriety, as the wounds to the mighty university faculty were all the more conspicuous when inflicted by a woman. She was compared to Deborah, Judith, and the women who accompanied Jesus.

            Argula knew her limitations. She was not trying to become a Reformation “star.” She described herself as a humble writer, one of the foolish the Lord had made wise. Being a woman, she didn’t have the kind of theological training the faculty had received. She didn’t know biblical languages and could only quote the Coburg Bible her father gave her as a child, and Luther’s recent translation. For these and other reasons, she didn’t insist on an inherited right to speak, but rather on her responsibility as a Christian. “Let the stones cry out today!”[1] she wrote in a poem.

            Before writing, she sought the advice of friends, particularly the Lutheran Andreas Osiander who, “quite astonished how well read and familiar with the Bible”[2] she was, encouraged her to act on her convictions.

            She must have counted the cost. Her husband, the knight Friedrich von Grumbach, was a loyal Roman Catholic and her action might have repercussions on her children. Besides, the threats the faculty had hurled against Seehofer could have easily have turned against her. As she was writing, the Roman Catholic Church was circulating pamphlets hailing the news of the first executions of Lutherans at Brussels. Still, she was ready to face death, if that was God’s will.

When Silence is Not an Option

            Her dismay was largely caused by the general indifference to God’s Word. While the church based its judgments on traditions and papal decrees, few seemed willing to compare their claims with the Scriptures she had read and loved from youth. Her letters to the Bavarian princes and the city councils of Ingolstadt and Regensburg contained bold exhortations to stand for the truth.

            She was quite disappointed by both clergy and nobility, both equally selfish and corrupt, and by their casual dismissal of any idea that contrasted their mindsets. The local preacher, the learned Georg Hauer, whom she didn’t mention by name, exemplified this attitude by crying out against Lutherans, Kentzer, Kentzer! (“Heretic, heretic”), without attempting to engage with Luther’s writings and compare them with Scriptures. “I could say that much myself, no doubt,” she said, “and I have never been to university!”[3]

            She was also appalled by the use of force in imposing religious convictions, which are a matter of conscience. If she was wrong, she was willing to be instructed, as long as it was done “by writing, and not by violence, prison, or the stake.”[4]

            But if persecution had to come, “if Christians are to martyred in this town, just as they were in Jerusalem … even if I were dead already,” she said, “the word of God would not be wiped out, for it abides forever. I am persuaded too, that if I am given grace to suffer death for his name, many hearts would be awakened.”[5]

Facing the Music

            Argula was not martyred, nor threatened with death, but persecuted in other ways, perhaps equally painful, as most of her town and a large part of Germany turned against her. References to her gender were prominent in the insults she endured, not only in person, but in writings. The clearest example of these is found in an anonymous satirical poem published in nearby Landshut, which concluded with the scurrilous suggestion that she might have been overtaken by young Seehofer’s good looks. “Are you in heat, perhaps/For this eighteen-year-old chap?”

            Even her relatives rose against her, since she had sullied her family’s honor. The most vocal was her high-ranking cousin, Adam von Thering, recipient of one of her letters, who suggested her husband should wall her up - a practice not uncommon for unruly Bavarian wives. If he was not up to the task, a relative should step in. Argula replied he should not worry about that. “He [Friedrich] is doing far too much to persecute Christ in me.”[6]

            What she meant is not clear, but we can only imagine her husband’s distress when, due to her actions, he lost his respected and well-paid position as guardian of Dietfurt (a high-ranking governor). Once again, she felt her loyalty to Christ and his word was to trump any other allegiance. “May God teach me to understand/How to conduct myself toward my man,” she wrote in a 556-line reply to the insulting poem from Landshut. “But should he ever wish to force me/From God’s word, compel or coerce me/I should think that counts for nought.”[7]

            Friedrich must not have been too oppositional, however, given that he allowed their children (Georg, Hans-Jörg, Appolonia, and Gottfried) to be tutored by Lutheran sympathizers. Argula leaned on these tutors to play a fatherly role when her husband died in 1530.

Aftermath

Argula limited her public writings to the crucial years when she felt compelled to protest. After 1524, she limited her advice to personal visits and private correspondence. Her most noticeable intervention was at the 1530 Diet of Augsburg, where she promoted harmony between the differing Protestant views of the Lord’s Supper. She remarried in 1533, but her husband died three years later.

            As for Seehofer, he escaped from the Ettal monastery, went on to Wittenberg, and served as teacher and Lutheran pastor until his death.



[1] Peter Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach, Cascade Books, Eugene, Oregon, 2013, p. 47.

[2] Ibid, p. 49

[3] Ibid, p. 45.

[4] Ibid, p. 53.

[5] Ibid, p. 69.

[6] Ibid, p. 77.

[7] Ibid, p. 93.

 


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