Some years are good history years. 1492 was a very good year for Spain. Ferdinand of Aragon had married Isabella of Castile back in 1469 when they were just teenagers; by 1492 they had unified Spain, paving the way for Spanish meddling in Europe, the Middle East, and New Worlds to the west. But 1492 was not a good year for the Moors of Spain, whose Alhambra fell, ending the occupation of much of Spain begun centuries earlier when Islamic hordes swarm-ed across the straits of Gibraltar, looting, killing, burning churches in the name of the Prophet, threatening all of Europe. 1492 was not a good year for native Americans, either, for the European invasion of the New World had begun, which would finish the great kingdoms of the Aztecs, Incas, Mayas with their wretched slavery, human sacrifices, and other assorted abominations. But it was a good year for various European future non-conformists who would find refuge in the Northern forests of what would be known as America.
It was also a good year for the von Stauffs, a minor noble family of the Beratz-hausen area of Germany which lay to the northwest of Regensburg. The von Staufs had long resisted the centralization efforts of Albrecht of Bavaria under the influence of internationalists loyal to Rome. The von Staufs were independent noblemen, accountable only to the Emperor, an ever present threat to centralization. Ehrenfels Castle, the home of the von Stauffs, was razed almost completely by the internationalists in 1492, whose center was the University of Ingolstadt. But that was not good news, of course.
But there was good news: a baby girl was born to the von Stauffs in 1492 and named Argula, famous for a few letters she wrote that nobody answered, but most everybody in Europe read. Keepers of obscure facts know her as Argula Von Grumbach. Her main handicap was she was born a woman, even though of noble birth. Her enemies pecked constantly at that sore spot.
[Note. Much of the following material is from Peter Matheson, Argula von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation. 1995, Edinburgh, Scotland. Hence, the Anglicized spelling and punctuation. Direct quotations are from this work, unless otherwise indicated. We hope that interest in this early voice for Reformation will result in the discovery of her lost letters and other important information. There are some online sites, but the sparse information on these is mostly derived from Matteson’s work.]
Her father gave her a rare Bible when she was very young, but the Jesuits knew best about such things and warned her to never read it. Being an obedient girl, she heeded the warning.
A model Catholic girl, she prayed to God, to Jesus, to Mary, to the saints. She spent two years with the court at Munich as a lady-in-waiting to the Queen. One of her companions was the future Duke Wilhelm to whom she would write one of her letters.
The plague took both parents in 1509 and her uncle and Duke Wilhelm both pledged to watch over her. But her uncle Hieronymus von Stauff was tortured and executed in 1516; her brother died in 1521. About the time her uncle was executed she was married off to Friedrich von Grumbach, who had a little income and provided some security. She educated their four children in Reformation ideas. Von Grumbach died in 1530. He seems to be somewhat of a pitiful figure who was accused of not being able to tame his “silly bag.” No one was, but he was deprived of his post as administrator of Dietfurt as punishment. Then, as now, political incorrectness could cost plenty.
We do not know when she began to pick up Lutheran ideas, but the very breezes blew these ideas into Bavaria, to the chagrin of the internationalists who warn-ed that they would lead to individualism, anarchy, church divisions, and rebellion of women against their husbands and the decrees of the church. Sermons began to be preached against Luther and those who followed him. Dark threats of sword and fire often accompanied these sermons.
Lutheran books and pamphlets were everywhere. Argula had second thoughts about the Jesuits and found in the Bible things that amazed and delighted her. A new world has been discovered in America and was beginning to be explored. Likewise, new intellectual and spiritual vistas were being opened in Christen-dom, never to be closed again.
Such a woman would not be ignored [She brashly advised Luther on marriage and the weaning of children]; and she even received a letter from John Eck, chancellor of the university, asking for money! She was more Lutheran than Zwing-lian, but she did try to mediate between them over the Lord’s Supper. She travelled a bit in the area bounded by Ingolstadt, Regensburg and Würzburg.
How does one predict the defining moment of a person’s life? These moments usually come without warning, like Esau before a bowl of red stew.
To Argula it came in 1522. Arsacius Seehofer was an eighteen year old student at Ingolstadt. He had been to Wittenburg, attended lectures and came home with the writings of Luther and Melanchthon. The recent mandate forbidding Luther-an ideas was obviously being ignored by student groups studying Erasmus and the Apostle Paul.
Seehofer was arrested and blasphemous material was found in his home. Protests were tamped down with more arrests. The university and the court offered Seehofer a compromise: renounce his errors and he would escape death and be “only” confined to the Ettal monastery. On September 7, 1522, holding a New Testament he tearfully promised to avoid all Lutheran ideas in the future. There were rumbles of protest, but threats quieted the people.
The authorities, however, had not reckoned with Argula. You couldn’t tamp down this spirited Bavarian noblewoman. She knew that the fires of persecution were being lit in surrounding areas. She travelled to Nuremburg to see Osiander who was reported as being impressed with her knowledge of Scripture.
Two weeks after See-hofer’s recantation, Argula wrote her first and most famous letter to the university. On the same day, September 20, 1523, she sent a second letter to Prince Duke Wilhelm. The fat was in the fire, for her first letter was printed and went through fourteen editions in two months and was read throughout Europe. This places Argula among the foremost of the Reformation pamphleteers, the first wo-man to make use of the printing press to spread her ideas. The letter was never answered but she was called a “female desperado,” “a wretched and pathetic daughter of Eve,” an “arrogant devil,” an “arrogant fool,” an “heretical bitch,” a “shameless whore,” and other delicacies.
The pain she knew at the birth of her children was compared to Mary’s painless birthing of Jesus. Mary was surrounded by angels, but Argula was surrounded by screaming women. She wrote to Luther who sent her letter to Spalatin in Nuremberg with instructions to greet and comfort her. Luther said that all the pigs in Bavaria were gathered at the University of Ingolstadt.
The theologians were furious that the unlearned were saying that Argula knew more of the Bible than the theologians did. That was impossible, for she had not been to school. Besides, theologians were men and she was a woman. Hence, she could not be a theologian.
Other letters were to the Council of Ingolstadt, to Johann of Simmern; to Fred-erick the Wise; to Adam Von Thering; to the People of Regensburg.
Argula knew that her greatest handicap was in being born a woman. She cautions the University about ignoring her letter as the “chit-chat” of women. By her own testimony, after the Seehofer event:
I suppressed my inclinations; heavy of heart, I did nothing. Because Paul says in 1 Timothy 2: “the wo-men should keep silence, and should not speak in church.” But now that I cannot see any man who is up to it, who is either willing or able to speak, I am constrained by the saying: “Whoever confesses me”, as I said above. And I claim for myself Isaiah 3: “I will send children to be their princes; and women or those who are womanish, shall rule over them”. And Isaiah 29: “Those who err will know knowledge in their spirit, and those who mutter will teach the law.” And Ezekiel 20: “I raise up my hand against them to scatter them. They never followed my judgments, they rejected my commandments, and their eyes were on the idols of their fathers. Therefore I gave them commandments, but no good ones; and judgments by which they could never live.” And Psalm 9: “You have or-dained praise out of the mouth of children and infants at the breast, on account of your enemies.” And Luke 10: “Jesus re-joiced in the Spirit, and said: ‘Father, I give you thanks, that you have hidden these things from the wise, and revealed them to the little ones”. Jeremiah 3: “They will all know God, from the least to the greatest”. John 6, and Isaiah 54: “They will all be taught of God.” Paul in I Corinthians 12: “No one can say ‘Jesus’, without the spirit of God” just as the Lord says of the confession of Peter in Matthew 16: “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my heavenly Father”.
There is no evidence in the present record that Argula ever pretended to be a prophet, a public teacher, or an officer of the church. Although she knew the Bible thoroughly, indicated by her extensive quotations, her favorite passage was Matt-hew 10, from which the greatest number of her quotations were taken.
Matthew 10 records the commissioning of the Twelve to whom Christ gave power against unclean spirits and over all diseases and sicknesses in order to send them to the nation of Israel. Although this seems a rather narrow commission, Matt-hew wrote his gospel to the Jew and the Gospel was to go to the Jew first. There is certainly in Matthew 10 the portent of a much greater commission that would be given the Apostles after the resurrection of Christ that would send them to the whole world.
At first glance, it might seem presumptuous for a woman born in 1492, even though of German nobility, to presume to appropriate this commission to herself in a contest with the learned doctors of the University. It was certainly understood by them to be presumptuous, but this writer has a different take on it.
Argula took the place of a child of God, an infant at the breast, a fool, and a little one. She considered herself a confessor, a witness to the doctrine of the Apostles. She was not interested in introducing new doctrines or new offices but simply that the University teach and govern according to the rule of the Apostles and Christ Himself. This is what she found so offensive about the Seehofer matter.
Seehofer was compelled under threat of death to deny all the works of Luther. Holding a New Testament in his hand, he had to denounce everything that Luther did. She wrote:
How in God’s name can you and your university expect to prevail, when you deploy such foolish violence against the word of God; when you force someone to hold the holy Gospel in their hands for the very purpose of denying it, as you did in the case of Arsacius Seehofer? When you confront him with an oath and declaration such as this, and use imprisonment and even the threat of the stake to force him to deny Christ and his word?
“Yes, when I reflect on this my heart and all my limbs tremble. What do Luther or Melanchthon teach you but the word of God? You condemn them without having refuted them.
Did Christ teach you so, or his apostles prophets, or evangelists…nowhere in the Bible do I find that Christ, or his apostles, or his prophets put people in prison, burnt or murdered them, or sent them into exile….”
“A disputation is easily won when one argues with force, not Scripture. As far as I can see that means that the hangman is accounted the most learned…. Are you not ashamed that [Seehofer] had to deny all the writings of Martin, who put the New Testament into German, simply following the text? That means that the holy Gospel and the Epistles and the story of the Apostles, and so on are all dismissed by you as heresy.”
Argula’s last writing of record was to reply to one “Johannes of Lanzhut” who had written a scurrilous poem attacking her and the Reformation. The true author is anonymous, but shows literary skill in invective and insult and some knowledge of Reformation theology, which is lampooned. To cite Matheson, “It is hard to believe that he believed the accusations spread in this…poem. It is a particularly ugly piece of work….” Her morals are attacked. She is addressed in the familiar second person singular, used for children and social inferior. “One can imagine it being read out aloud in university, court and church circles, and gaining a rousing, sniggering reception … Luther makes what must be a reference to it in a letter to Spalatin on 18 June 1524.”
After accusing her of sexual fascination with Luther, Melanchthon, and the “curly haired” Arsacius, he dwells upon her pain in childbirth, reminds her that it was Eve that led Adam astray, and exhorts her to follow Paul’s advice to stay at home and “Discard your pride, your vain opinions And instead take up your spindle; An edging make; or knit a bonnet. It’s not a woman’s place to strut with words of God, or lecture men.”
This piece of work ends with a crude reference to the “most learned” referred to above, the “scholar” that wins all arguments:
So let this pupil calm you down.
For if this topic again you head
Like all your heretic friends, you’re dead.
Argula’s reply was devastating. It was printed along with Johannes’ tidbit and circulated.
This free student of Ingolstadt
Is not so free as he would prate
Cloaking his name in terms ornate.
Christ warns us, frank and free,
That evildoers, whoever they be
Will always hate the light of day.
My friend, abandon, pray, your shame
And if an honest Christian man you be,
Let Ingolstadt see you openly.
Choose any day which you prefer
Explain to me if I have erred.
If you produce the word of God
I’ll follow, an obedient child, your nod
I’ll come to you without complaint
To praise and honour God’s great name
Whom now so coarsely you defile ….
As Christ commands me, Matthew Ten,
Do not fear all those men
Who take your body, naught else harm
Fear rather God, of him I warn
With power over body and soul.
Her verse reveals a soul that has received the engrafted word which is able to save the soul. It breathes the Scripture that is quoted or referenced throughout. She shows from many Old and New Testament Scriptures how the Spirit is given to all members of the church, and all are called to be witnesses of the Apostles’ Doctrine and rule. She excoriates the greed of the rulers of the church. She cites the examples of Judith who opposed Holofernes and saved Israel, Deborah, and Jael, reminding Christians of their common duty to bear witness to the gospel preached by Jesus and the Apostles.
As far as we know (unless we count Johannes of Lanzhut), no attempt was made to answer her arguments, to pastor her soul. Instead of bread she was given a spindle; instead of water she was warned of bloodshed; instead of the bounty of Canaan, she was told to knit a bonnet. Because she presumed to sit at the feet of Christ with Mary as His disciple, she was told to mind her housework with Martha.
But this fine Master of the sentences
Would teach me my domestic duties!
These duties I carry out day by day
How could I forget them, pray?
Though Christ tells me – I hear his voice –
To hear his word is the very best choice.
Why wasn’t the blood of Argula shed? There were a great many women who were martyred for the Gospel’s sake in the days of the Reformation. Did the popularity of her writings cause her enemies to back off, not wanting to make her a martyr? Did powerful people intercede for her? Perhaps we cannot know. It is an old saying that if you throw a rock into a pack of dogs, the one who yelps is the one who was hit. Argula did set the dogs to yelping.
She said it best, perhaps, in her letter to her noble relative, Adam von Thering:
No one should criticize us for doing what God has commanded us to do…. I vowed at baptism to believe in God, to confess him and to renounce the Devil and all his illusions…. What doctor has made a greater vow in baptism than I have? Which pope, or emperor, or prince? And so every day I pray God for grace to be able to fulfil the vow that was made on my behalf by my godfather. Now that I have come to understand this, having been instructed in the Christian faith, I have accepted and affirmed it, and so it is confirmed by faith…. Therefore do not be astonished, my dear lord and cousin, that I confess God; for whoever does not confess God is no Christian, though he be baptized a thousand times. Each individual must give an account of himself at the Last Judgment.”
To “hear the voice of Christ,” to “believe in God, to confess him and to renounce the Devil and all his illusions….” What more is there for a faithful witness?