Katherine Rem

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.


Katherine Rem

Anne Askew


[A woodcut of the execution of Anne Askew and other religious dissenters. Accessed 15 January 2016. This image is in the Public Domain.]

This week’s historical hottie is probably familiar to those who know a bit about early modern British history (I’m looking at you, Tudors fans). I’ve found that students in tutorials, especially those interested in gender dynamics, enjoy learning about her, so I’m featuring Anne Askew here today.

Anne was born into a noble family in 1521. In her mid teens, Anne’s father arranged her marriage to the betrothed of her recently deceased sister. Anne, an increasingly radical Protestant, thus found herself married to a Catholic husband. Though Anne’s youth and gender might lead one to believe that she yielded to her father and husband, she and her husband couldn’t reconcile their beliefs and their marriage. They had two children, but then separated, and Anne worked toward a divorce. She was, and remains, known by her maiden name.

In either 1544 or 1545, Anne moved to London. Her unorthodox beliefs led to her investigation by London’s quest (the commission dealing with heresy). This investigation did not end in punishment, but she was interrogated much more seriously by king’s council in 1546. Anne was imprisoned, first in Newgate, and then in the Tower of London. She refused to recant, and was condemned to die.

As if often the case in religious trials (in the early modern Christian context), her interrogators would have preferred that she recant and name names in order to escape execution. In Anne’s case, her family’s close connection to Henry’s court led to her extensive questioning under torture about which women at court held radical beliefs. Anne refused to incriminate any other women, despite the presence of other radicals in Henry’s court, including his wife, Katherine Parr. Normally, Anne’s standing sentence of death and her position in English society would have exempted her from torture. After being tortured, Anne was allowed time to convalesce and recant. She did not, and was subsequently burned as a heretic. She was twenty-five.

People who die for their beliefs tend to inspire, and there is nothing inherently wrong with this. But we must be cautious when reading about such figures. In Anne’s case, authors John Bale and John Foxe both adopted her as a Protestant martyr. Now, both of these authors were male, and their individual views and agendas informed their respecting framing of Anne. For Bale, Anne was a physically weak and pious woman who exemplified femininised virtues like chastity and obedience. For Foxe, she was more rebellious, but since she was driven by Protestant piety, this was laudable. In either depiction, Anne’s words and actions are mediated by men. Even recent scholarship, which casts doubt on the factual accuracy of these accounts (especially Bale’s), is necessarily informed by them. This is equally true of this post.

It’s also important to remember Anne’s status in society. Although it did not protect her from investigation, torture and execution, the degree to which contemporaries seem to have accepted her separation from her husband, as well as her reputation for piety and learning, were almost certainly informed by assumptions about status.

Despite these issues, Anne Askew knew her own mind. She refused to live with the husband chosen by her father. She held fast to her radical beliefs, even when it led her to the rack and the stake. In short, those parts of her life about which we are the most certain demonstrate that she was, to a greater or lesser degree, a rebel. 



Thomas S. Freeman and Sarah Elizabeth Wall, “Racking the Body, Shaping the Text: The Account of Anne Askew in Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs,” Renaissance Quarterly 54, no. 4 (Winter 2001): 1165-1196.

Diane Watt, “Askew , Anne (c.1521–1546),” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004, http://www.oxforddnb.com.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/view/article/798, accessed 15 Jan 2016, accessed 15 January 2015.


Anne Askew