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Feminine Threads: Reformation Marriages

In Feminine Threads (review still coming!), Diana Lynn Severance gives a profile of the marriages of a number of the reformers of the continental Protestant reformations. Here are the things that struck me:

  1. The reformers wrote poetry to their wives. Heinrich Bullinger even spoke of worshipping his wife!
  2. The reformers praised their wives primarily for their modesty, gentleness and productivity.
  3. When looking for a wife, the reformers’ foremost conception was of wife as helpmate and companion, someone with whom to share life’s journey. A desirable trait that comes up several times is the ability to withstand the hardships that came with being married to a reformer.
  4. They weren’t only pragmatic. Many of them mention their wives’ sense of humour and the joy they brought to their lives, intellectually as well as physically.

What interested me out of this was how little ‘lead, protect, provide’ is on view here. Though the reformers spoke about being head of and nourishing their wives, they were looking for women who were strong and capable, not for needy or wayward women or those in need of protection.

The flip side of that is that they were looking for women who were low maintenance in their own needs but willing to look after their husbands’. For example, Calvin included ‘interested in my health’ as part of his criteria for a wife! There’s very little in their writings about marriage being an opportunity for the reformer husband to love or serve his wife.

A summary? The reformers’ marriages were characterised by celebrating their wives and treating them as equals. However, the language of giving themselves up for their wives is absent.

Categories: Woman Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

2 replies

  1. I’d rather there was doings in their marriages than (mere) writings. Do we have any external accounts on how they fared?

  2. Not a lot, Andy. Every now and then there’s a tidbit from someone who stayed in a reformer’s home commenting on what it was like. The few pieces of data we have tend to be about the warmth of the home, because the wife is so hospitable; or the harmony between the husband and the wife, because the wife is obedient / attentive to her husband’s needs.

    But remember their writings are linked to practice. Writing poetry is an act, for example. Commenting about your wife’s sense of humor reveals a certain dynamic in the marriage.

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