Argula von Grumbach née von Stauff (1492-1563?) is one of my favourite women in history. Not only was she incredible brave and slightly sassy, but her story also teaches us about the way history can sometimes be arranged in such a way that women are forgotten. Argula’s life stands as a testimony to how easily women can be written out of history.
But let’s start at the beginning. Argula von Grumbach was born in Bavaria in 1492. She was orphaned when she was only ten and grew up in the court of the Duke of Bavaria. There she was given the basic education provided to all girls at this time, meaning she was only taught to read and write in her native German. When she was 24, Argula married Friedrich von Grumbach. Friedrich was also from an impoverished noble house and supplemented his income by working as one a local prefect to the Duke.
Argula was 28 when Luther started publishing his treatises before completing his German translation of the New Testament in 1522. However, despite being geographically close to Luther, a huge divide lay between the two – Luther’s works were banned in Bavaria. However, Argula being Argula managed to get her hands on some of Luther’s work and quickly began reading everything she could find by him and other Reformers. Then, again in typical Argula style, she started writing to Luther and his friends!
As a result of her avid reading, sometime between 1520-1523 Argula became convinced of Luther’s teaching – justification through faith alone – and was unknowingly about to start her career as a ‘heretical author’ as a result.
In 1523, an eighteen-year-old ex-student-turned-teacher at the Univeristy of Ingolstadt was arrested for his protestant views. In fact, Arsacius Seehofer had been arrested three times for his beliefs and was now facing execution. He narrowly escaped this punishment because of his noble lineage and was instead forced to recant his beliefs.
This outraged Argula. To begin with, she went to see Andreas Osiander, an evangelical minister, to see what he planned to do on behalf of Seehofer and the Church in Bavaria. Then, realising Osiander intended to do nothing, Argula decided she would have to take his place.
Argula put her pen to paper and wrote to the University of Ingolstadt not only defending Seehofer but the teachings of Luther and Melanchthon as well. She anticipated that they would refute her because of her gender, so, quoting Matthew 10 and Luke 9, Argula argued that if men would not speak up, she must, otherwise her silence was equal to denying Christ. To make her position clear, Argula finished her letter with these lines:
“I send you not a woman’s ranting, but the Word of God. I write as a member of the Church of Christ against which the gates of hell shall not prevail, as they will against the Church of Rome. God give us grace that we may all be blessed. Amen.”
But Argula was not content to leave it there. This letter became her manifesto and Argula also sent it to the Duke of Bavaria and his magistrates.
She received no formal reply to her letters. Though it would perhaps be easier for us to think that this was some form of administrative oversight or simply the government not wanting to engage with another Reformer, it is clear that they didn’t engage with Argula because she was a woman. Being a Lutheran was bad, but a Lutheran woman was so beneath contempt that they didn’t even reply. Instead, they mocked her from afar.
For example, one student at the Univeristy wrote and published a satirical defamatory poem addressed to Argula. Hidden under the guise of humour, the venom of the words and their misogynistic undertone still reads clearly today. Entitled “A word about the Stauffen woman and her disputativeness” the 150 lines of rhyming couplets were authored by the anonymous ‘John’. One section reads:
“You are a creature wild and saucy,
yet think yourself so very brainy
…To salvage your honour from this take
Discard your pride, your vain opinions
and instead take up your spindle;
and edging make or knit a bonnet”.
His point is clear – Argula was a woman, ergo her place was in the home. Her involvement in religious-political affairs went against the natural order and was an example of her working out of her own pride.
But Argula was not one to take such humiliation lying down. Oh no! As Derek Wilson writes, “ridicule did not work because she was always ready with jibes of her own.” Argula responded in kind with 240 lines of rhyming couplets which directly referenced her right to speak into religious affairs despite her gender. She writes:
"He tells me to mind my knitting. To obey my man indeed is fitting, but if he drives me from God’s word…Home and child we must forsake, when God’s honor is at stake"
Argula agrees with ‘John’ was this is not the place for a woman, but she argues that men are doing such a bad job of things that she is being forced to take the wheel. Now, it was her duty as a Christian, which superseded any limitations on her gender, to argue on behalf of reform.
Needless to say, this did not go down well. While no public punishment followed these events, rumour had it that the Duke had left Argula to the discipline of her husband, permitting him to chop off her fingers if need be. The rumour went as far as to suggest that if Friedrich strangled her, he would not face any legal action. These rumours might sound far-fetched to us today, but sadly they are a reflection of Argula’s reality. Argula’s husband was fired from his position and was left with little income, a wife and four children to support. We know from her letters that Argula bore the brunt of her husband's anger as she references the domestic abuse she suffered in letters to her family. In one such letter written in 1523, Argula condemned her cousin for doing nothing to help her despite knowing that her husband had locked her up. In the same year she also wrote: “I hear that some are so angry with me that they do not know how best to speed my passage from life into death”.
Despite this abuse, Argula continued to plead the Protestant case both in the public domain and through her writing for the next seven years. While her letter-writing career spanned only a year (1523-24) an estimated 29,000 copies of her pamphlets were in circulation on the eve of the Peasants War in 1524, meaning she was, in the words of Roland Bainton, “the most famous female Lutheran and bestselling pamphleteer.”
As the sole Reformer in Bavaria at the time, she gained the attention and support of Luther and fellow Reformers. Luther wrote to others of her bravery in the face of the power of the Duke of Bavaria and the abuse of her husband. The two continued maintained their correspondence and friendship even though they only met once in secret when Argula attended the diet of Augsburg in 1530.
Shortly after this meeting, Argula’s husband died, marking the end of her public career as a Reformer. Argula remarried two years later in 1532, only to be widowed once again the following year. Now, living in her inherited estates in Bohemia, Argula dedicated her time to the Protestant education of her children and the care of the estates they would inherit.
At one point in history, this is where Argula’s story ended. Her duties as a mother forced her out of action where she remained until she died in 1554 – as reported by a local chronicle. However, historians have since discovered that Argula was alive and up to her old tricks as late as 1563!
In May 1563, 40 years after her entrance into the Reform movement, the Duke of Bavaria reported that he had once again imprisoned the “old Staufferin” for circulating Protestant literature and drawing people away from Catholic church services to private gatherings in her household. The City Council said that she was because she was just an “enfeebled old lady” they would have “pity on her age and stupidity”.
Argula von Grumbach was a strong and loud voice for the Reformation in Bavaria – indeed she was the only voice for the Reformation in Bavaria! But history almost forgot about her. Despite her best efforts, Argula’s family remained embarrassed by her activities and attempted to write them out of history. In fact, it was only forty years ago that Argula’s contribution to the Reformation was rediscovered.
The efforts to erase Argula’s name from history very nearly worked. So, Argula von Grumbach leaves us asking an important question: How many others have been forgotten? Throughout history, the voices of women have been the hardest voices to hear. How many, like Argula, were silenced by their families and the authorities? How many other voices have we lost?
Argula reminds us of the uncomfortable reality that women are all to easily forgotten by history - even when that woman was a prolific author and outspoken aristocrat. Indeed, Stjerna goes as far as to argue that had Argula “been a man, the past centuries would have recognised her as one of the important personalities of the German Reformation”.
 Peter Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach: A Woman's Voice In The Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), pp. 163-168.
 Peter Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach: A Woman's Voice In The Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995), pp. 163-168.
 Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation, 1st edn (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2016), p.115.
 This translation chosen because it has successfully translated the rhyme giving it the full effect. Roland Bainton, Women Of The Reformation: In Germany And Italy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p.104.
 Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation, 1st edn (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2016), p.114.
 Kirsi Stjerna, Women And The Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p.78.
 Kirsi Stjerna, Women And The Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), pp.72-73.
 Roland Bainton, Women Of The Reformation: In Germany And Italy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), p.108.
 Kirsi Stjerna, Women And The Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009), p.73.
Where does this belong in the curriculum?World History perhaps looking at Religious, Cultural and Social History.
BibliographyCaroline Taylor, Argula von Grumbach -The Reformer History Almost Forgot – Not Just Wives and Mothers: The Women of Church History (wordpress.com)
Derek Wilson, Mrs Luther And Her Sisters: Women In The Reformation, 1st edn (Oxford: Lion Hudson, 2016)
Kirsi Stjerna, Women And The Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2009)
Peter Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach: A Woman's Voice In The Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995)
Roland Bainton, Women Of The Reformation: In Germany And Italy (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007)
Caroline Taylor is a History graduate researching women in the history of the Christian Church. She specialises in the Medieval Church but also explored the Early Church and the Reformation too. She lives in South Wales, UK and writes over at Not Just Wives and Mothers.
Women of the Reformation
The Reformation swept through Europe in the first half of the 16th century. What began as an attempt by theologians to reform the existing Catholic Church, soon spiralled into a movement of huge theological debate, resulting in great cultural change, political division and war. The end result was a divided Christian Church that we now understand to be the Catholic Church and the Protestant Church.
When people think about the Reformation, they tend to think about the ‘big names’ of Reformation theology like Martin Luther, John Calvin, William Farel, Martin Bucer and Huldrych Zwingli. And what do all of these figures have in common? They’re all men. Historians and Christians alike view the Reformation almost exclusively from the viewpoint of the male Reformers. This is shown most clearly in the Reformation Wall monument in Geneva. Created in the early 20th century, the wall spans over 100 meters depicting the names and figures of the Reformation. Not one woman is represented.
In 2018 I wanted to address this by writing my final year History dissertation on the women of the Reformation. I was assigned a Professor who specialised in this time period as my supervisor. During our first meeting he informed me that, in his informed opinion, this topic could only be a paragraph, not even a chapter of my dissertation because what would I write about? The women of the Reformation were “just wives and mothers”. I left that meeting, applied for a new supervisor and wrote my original dissertation as planned. But as I researched my dissertation it became clear that this Professor was not alone in his belief.
To get women into the history curriculum faces systemic barriers at present, but it also faces barriers from the past, mainly that women’s voices, works, and ideas are harder to know than those of men. Dr. Bettany Hughes suggested that only 0.5% of history is written about women. Historian, Aparna Basu proclaimed, “The only women who found a place in traditional history text books were either women who successfully performed male roles or whom great men loved.” It is no wonder that teachers teach his-story… it’s the only one out there!
History was written largely by men and about men. Even when women wrote histories, they wrote about men. The field of history focused on politics, diplomacy, business, and the military: the essential absence of women in these areas would have made a women’s history impossible. The relatively new desire to write social history from the bottom up created space for a branch of history about women and the opportunity to find the voices of women from the past.
The history curriculum in schools is insufficient in their representation of women’s contribution to past events. This blog aims to address that. While teachers want to include women’s history, they have not had access to the training, modeling, and resources to do it effectively. Women make up fifty percent of the global population, and yet are in a small fraction of events discussed in school. Women’s choices have been harrowing, infamous, and monumental, and yet their stories are so rarely associated with mainstream history. Ask your average high school graduate, or even college graduate, to name 20 significant men in history and the list flows easily. Ask that same person to name 20 women and the names drag, if they come at all. This case in point leaves us with conclusions like, “women did not do as much” or “women’s stories were not recorded.” These assertions justify our own indifference to the history of half the human race, and could not be further from the truth.