I know very little about this week’s historical figure, but what I do know compels me to share! As a student of religious reform, I’m often reminded that the grand narrative of The Reformation is still very powerful. One aspect of this narrative is that Protestantism liberated women from the repressive confines of Catholicism by doing away with nunneries (spoiler alert: Protestant majority and Catholic majority societies alike continue(d) repressing women). Historians in recent decades have challenged this notion, but it remains a prevalent idea that effectively assigns progressiveness to one way of believing and backwardness to another. A fruitful way of complicating this narrative (at least in the academy) has been to consider the words and actions of Catholic nuns in Protestant locales. One such woman was Katherine Rem, an early 16th century nun in Augsburg’s Katherine convent.
A devout Catholic nun from one of the quintessential Lutheran cities, Katherine found herself within a socio-religious climate that was increasingly hostile to Catholicism and its representatives. In 1523, Katherine wrote a letter to her brother that showcases her own perspective. In her letter, Katherine affirmed that, although inhabitants of the town were increasingly adopting Lutheranism, she would not be joining them. She chastised the recipient, her own brother, both for converting to Lutheranism himself, and for encouraging Katherine and her niece (his daughter, one of Katherine’s fellow nuns) to follow suit (which would have meant breaking their vows). Katherine declined to follow the path down which her male kinsman was leading her. The letter is rich in language and metaphor straight from Scripture—Katherine knew her Bible and her own mind, and she was not going to convert. She was certainly not going to abandon her vocation; rather, she defended it, going as far as to denounce her brother’s conversion as wicked folly.
Aside from her correspondence, I am not aware of other sources that offer more insight into Katherine’s life. Nonetheless, it appears that Katherine was a woman with the courage of her convictions. She neither bent to shifting socio-religious mores in her locale, nor obediently complied with the wishes of her close male relative. Her devotion to her vocation reminds us that studying historical change requires that we be suspicious of truths presumed to be self-evident.
Merry Wiesner Hanks and Monica Chojnacka. Ages of Woman, Ages of Man: Sources in European Social History, 1400-1750 (London: Routledge, 2014), 239-243.