August Bebel. Woman and Socialism
Woman in the Past

The Reformation.

1. – Luther.

The healthy sensuality of the middle ages found its classic exponent in Luther. We are here not so much concerned with the religious reformer, but with Luther, the man. In regard to all human relations, Luther’s strong, unsophisticated nature clearly manifested itself, and caused him to express freely and without reserve his desire for love and enjoyment. His position as a former Roman clergyman had opened his eyes and had taught him from experience how contrary to all the laws of nature were the lives of monks and nuns. Therefore he roundly condemned the celibacy of priests and monks. Luther says: “Unless specially endowed by a rare, divine grace, a woman can no more dispense with a man, than she can dispense with food, drink, sleep and other natural needs. In the same way a man cannot do without a woman. The cause is that the desire to propagate the race is as deeply implanted by nature as the desire for food and drink. Therefore God has given unto the human body limbs, veins, circulation and all that serves this end. He who opposes this, and will not let nature take her, course, what does he do but seek to prevent nature from being nature, fire from burning, water from moistening, human beings from eating, drinking and sleeping?” In his sermon on marriage, he says: “Just as it is not within my power not to be a man, so it is not in thy power to do without a man, for it is riot free will or advice but a natural necessity that every man must have a woman and that every woman must have a man.” But Luther does not only express himself so strongly in favor of marriage and the necessity of sexual relations, he also expresses himself as opposed to it that the church and marriage should have anything in common. He says in regard to this: “Know that marriage is something extrinsic as any other worldly action. As I may eat, drink, sleep, walk, ride and deal with any heathen, Jew, Turk or heretic, so to one of these I may also become and remain married. Do not observe the laws of fools that forbid such marriages. ... Heathens are men and women, well and wisely created by God, just as well as St. Peter and St. Paul and St. Luke, not to speak of any false and wanton Christian.” Luther furthermore, like other reformers, opposed all restrictions to marriage, and favored permitting divorcees to marry, which was opposed by the church. He says: “in regard to matters of marriage and divorce among us I say, let the jurists dispose of them, and let them be subject to worldly rule, since matrimony is a worldly, extrinsic thing.” In accordance with this view, it was not until the end of the seventeenth century that a religious ceremony was considered essential to a legal marriage among Protestants. Until then the so called conscience marriage sufficed, that is, a marriage founded upon the mutual agreement to regard one another as husband and wife and to live in matrimonial relations with one another. According to German law such marriages were legal. Luther even went so far as to adjudge to the unsatisfied party in a marriage contract — even if the party were the woman-the right to seek satisfaction outside of marriage, “in order to do justice to nature that can not be resisted.”[1] In this matter Luther sets forth opinions that would rouse many of our present day respectable men and women, who always point to Luther in their pious zeal, to vehement indignation. In his treatise “on married life,” II, 146, Jena 1522, he says: “if a healthy woman is joined in wedlock to an impotent man and could not nor would for her honor’s sake openly choose another, she should speak to her husband thus: “See, my dear husband, thou hast deceived me and my young body and endangered my honor and salvation, before God there is no honor between us. Suffer that I maintain a secret marriage with thy brother or closest friend while thou remainest my husband in name. That thy property may not fall heir to strangers; willingly be deceived by me as you have unwillingly deceived me.” It should be the husband’s duty, Luther goes on to say, to consent to such arrangement. “If he will not she has the right to abandon him and go into another country and marry another man. In the same way if a woman will not perform her conjugal duty, the man has the right to seek another woman; only he should first tell his wife.”[2] We see, the opinions set forth by the great reformer are very radical and even immoral, when viewed in the light of our age, abounding with prudery and hypocrisy. But Luther only expressed the popular conceptions of his age. The following is told by Jacob Grimm: “If a man cannot satisfy his wedded wife, let him take her gently upon his back and carry her to his neighbors. There let him set her down softly, without anger or rudeness but upon mutual agreement, and let him appeal to his neighbors to help his wife in her need. If they will not or can not, then let him send her to the nearest fair. There shall she appear, becomingly dressed and adorned, wearing a gold embroidered veil as a token that she may be wooed. If after all she returns from the fair still unsatisfied, then may the devil help her!”

The peasant of the middle age primarily sought marriage for the purpose of having heirs, and if he was unable to beget them himself, being a practical man, he left this pleasure to another without having particular moral scruples about it. The main object was to attain his purpose. We repeat: Man does not control his property, he is controlled by it.

The above quotations from the writings and sermons of Luther are of special importance because the views in regard to marriage expressed in them are diametrically opposed to those maintained by the church to-day. Luther and the other reformers went still further in matters pertaining to marriage but, it must be admitted, for opportunistic reasons, in order to please such sovereigns whose lasting support and good will they sought to win and to maintain. The landgrave of Hessia, Philip I, who was in sympathy with the reformation, had a legal wife, but fell in love with another woman who refused to yield to his entreaties unless he would marry her. It was a delicate case. To become divorced from his wife without good and sufficient reason would imply a great scandal; to be married to two women simultaneously was a shocking occurrence with a Christian sovereign of the newer era, bound to create a still greater scandal. Nevertheless amorous Philip chose the latter alternative. It only was necessary to determine that this step was not in opposition to the teachings of the Bible, and to obtain the consent of the reformers, especially Luther and Melanchton. The landgrave then opened negotiations with Butzer, who consented to the plan and promised to win Luther and Melanchton. Butzer explained his view by pointing out that to have several wives simultaneously was not in conflict with the gospel, since Paul, who had mentioned many who shall not inherit the kingdom of God, had said nothing about those who, have two wives. Paul had decreed that a bishop and his servants should not have more than one wife. If it had been necessary that no man should have more than one wife, he would have stated this and would have forbidden polygamy. Luther and Melanchton declared themselves in accordance with these views and consented to the double marriage, after the landgrave’s wife had also given her consent under the condition “that he should perform his conjugal duty toward her even more than heretofore.”[3] Luther had been previously troubled by the question whether bigamy was permissible when asked to give his consent to the double marriage of Henry VIII of England. That can be seen from a letter which he wrote to the Saxon chancellor Brink in January 1524. In this letter he wrote that on principle he, Luther, could not object to bigamy since it was not in conflict with the Holy Scripture,[4] but that he considered it offensive when occurring among Christians, for there were some things from which Christians should refrain even if they were not forbidden. After the marriage of the landgrave, which actually took place during March 1540, he wrote (April 10) in reply to a letter of appreciation from him: “I am glad that Your Grace is pleased by the advice we have given; but we should prefer to have secrecy maintained. Otherwise the coarse peasants, seeking to follow the example set by the landgrave, might present the same or even better causes, which would give us no end of trouble.”

Melanchton probably had fewer scruples in giving his consent to the double marriage of the landgrave, for he had previously written to Henry VIII, that every sovereign was entitled to introduce polygamy in his realm. But the double marriage of the landgrave caused so much unpleasant notoriety in his country, that in 1541 he had a pamphlet distributed in which polygamy was defended on the ground that it was not in opposition to the Holy Scripture. But conceptions had been greatly modified since the ninth or twelfth century when polygamy was accepted without averse criticism. The double marriage of the landgrave of Hessia was however not the only one that gave offense to wide circles. Such princely double marriages were repeated both in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as will be shown.

When Luther declared the satisfaction of sensual desire to be a law of nature, lie only expressed what his contemporaries thought and what the men claimed as their privilege. By the reformation, which did away with the celibacy of the clergy and abolished the monasteries in the Protestant countries, he gave to hundreds of thousands of men and women the possibility to seek legitimate satisfaction of their natural desires. Hundreds of thousands of others, of course, remained excluded from this possibility by the existing forms of property and the laws founded upon them.

The reformation was the protest of the rising bourgeoisie against the constraint of feudal conditions in church, state and society. This rising bourgeoisie struggled for liberation from the narrow bonds of the guild, the court and the papal anathema; it strove for centralization of the powers of the state, simplification of the extravagant church affairs, and the abolition of the numerous abodes of idle persons, the monasteries.

Luther represented these endeavors of the bourgeoisie upon the, religious field. When he stood for the freedom of marriage, it was the bourgeois marriage that was realized only in our day by the civil marriage laws, and the freedom of migration and freedom of choice in trade and domicile. We will see to what extent the position of woman was modified by these changes. During the reformation this change of development had not yet been reached. While on the one hand the reformation made marriage possible for many people, on the other hand free sexual intercourse was subjected to the most bitter persecution. While the Catholic clergy had maintained a certain tolerance toward sexual excess, the Protestant clergy, having been provided for itself, declaimed against it with redoubled zeal. War was waged against the public brothels that were declared to be the devil’s dens. Prostitutes were persecuted as daughters of Satan, and every woman who had “fallen” was considered a paragon of wickedness and was subjected to relentless persecution. The merry, life loving townsman of the middle ages became a bigoted, austere, sombre philistine, who lived miserly that his later clay bourgeois descendants might live all the more extravagantly. The honorable citizen with his stiff cravat, his narrow intellectual horizon, his severe but hypocritical morality, became the prototype of society. Legitimate wives who had not favored the sensuality tolerated by the Catholicism of the middle ages, were generally better pleased by the Puritan spirit of Protestantism. But other causes that had an unfavorable influence on conditions in Germany generally, also influenced the position of women unfavorably.

2. — Results of the Reformation — The Thirty Years’ War.

Transformations in the conditions of production, exchange and finance, that were brought about especially by the discovery of America, and the discovery of the passage to India, resulted in a great social reaction for Germany. Germany ceased to be the center of European commerce. The German trades and manufactures declined. At the same time the religious reformation had destroyed the political unity of the nation. Under the cloak of the reformation, the German princes sought to emancipate themselves from imperial rule. On the other hand, these princes oppressed the nobility and favored the cities to serve their own ends. Some of the cities voluntarily placed themselves under the rule of the princes, driven to this step by conditions that were steadily growing worse. The bourgeoisie upon seeing their income threatened, tried to make the restrictions that were intended to guard them against undesirable competition more and more rigorous, and the princes willingly conceded their demands. The ossification of conditions increased, but the general impoverishment increased likewise.

Another result of the reformation were the religious struggles and persecution s-used by the princes to serve their own political and economic ends-that raged in Germany with some interruptions for over a century, and finally ended with its complete exhaustion at the end of the ‘Thirty Years’ War. Germany had become a vast field of corpses and ruins. Entire countries and provinces had been devastated, hundreds of cities and thousands of villages partly or completely destroyed, and many of them had been wiped from the surface of the earth forever. In many places the population had been reduced to a third, a fourth, a fifth, even an eighth or a tenth of its original number. Such was the case in Nuremberg, and in the entire Franconian province. In this utmost need, in order to increase the population in the depopulated towns and villages, the unusual measure was occasionally resorted to of permitting one man to have two wives. Men had been decimated by the wars, but there was a superabundance of women. On the 14th of February 165o, the Franconian district council at Nuremberg decreed that “men under 60 should not be admitted into monasteries”; it furthermore decreed that “those clergymen who were not members of an order should become married.” Moreover, “every man should be permitted to wed two wives, but the men should be frequently reminded and exhorted from the pulpits to employ good judgment and discretion, that a married man who ventured to maintain two wives should not only provide well for both of them, but should also endeavor to avoid ill feeling between them.” So even the pulpits were employed to make propaganda for the double marriage and to lay down rules of conduct for the men.

Commerce and industry almost came to a standstill during this long period; in many instances they were almost completely destroyed and picked up but very gradually. A large portion of the population had become demoralized and brutalized and disaccustomed to all regular work. During the wars, troops of mercenary soldiers had crossed Germany from one end to the other, plundering, destroying, ravishing and murdering, a terror alike to friend and foe. After the wars countless numbers of beggars, robbers and vagabonds maintained the population in constant terror and made commerce and all traffic difficult or impossible. To the female sex especially it was a time of great suffering. In this period of dissoluteness the contempt of woman had increased to the utmost, and the general condition of unemployment weighed most heavily upon her shoulders. Like the male vagabonds, thousands of women populated the highways and forests and filled the alms-houses and prisons. All these sufferings were still increased by the forcible expulsion of numerous peasant families by the greedy nobility. Since the reformation the nobility had become more and more subjected to princely rule, and by holding court and military positions their dependence on the princes had constantly increased. Now they tried to reimburse themselves for the losses sustained through the princes by robbing the peasants. To the princes, on the other hand. the reformation offered the desired excuse to acquire the property of the church, which they proceeded to do on a large scale. Prince August of Saxony, for instance, had, at the end of the sixteenth century, acquired no less than 300 ecclesiastical estates.[5] His brothers and cousins, the other Protestant sovereigns, above all those of the House of Hohenzollern, did likewise. The nobility followed their example by appropriating the remaining communal property, and by driving both free peasants and serfs from hearth and home and taking possession of their estates. The unsuccessful peasant revolts during the sixteenth century gave them the desired pretext for such action, and after the attempt had once succeeded, new pretexts were constantly found to continue this forcible method. Various schemes and distortions of justice were resorted to, made easy by the Roman law which had been established in Germany in the meantime, to increase the property of the nobility by forcing the peasants to sell theirs at lowest prices, or by simply expropriating them. Entire villages and the farms of entire districts were usurped in this manner. To quote just a few examples: Of 12,543 knightly peasant estates which still existed in the province of Mecklenburg during the Thirty Years’ War, only 1,213 remained in the year 1848. In the province of Pomerania 12,000 farms were abandoned since 1628. The transformations in the methods of farming that took place during the seventeenth century gave a further impulse to the nobility to expropriate the peasants and to transform the last remnants of communal property into their private estates. The rotation of crops had been introduced, which provided for changes in the cultivation of the soil in definite periods of time. Tilled land was occasionally transformed into pasture which favored cattle-breeding and made it possible to diminish the number of workers.

In the cities conditions were not much better than in the country. Formerly women had been permitted to acquire the title of master-workman and to employ journeymen and apprentices without any opposition from the male craftsmen. They were even compelled to join the guilds to force them to meet the same conditions of competition. So there were independent women workers among the linen-weavers, the cloth-weavers, the carpet-weavers and tailors. There were female gold-smiths, girdle-makers, harness-makers, etc. We find women employed as furriers in Frankfort and the Silesian cities; as bakers in the cities along the Rhine, as girdle-makers and embroiders of coats of arms in Cologne and Strassburg; as harness-makers in Bremen; as cloth-shearers in Frankfort “as tanners in Nuremberg; as gold-smiths in Cologne.”[6] But as the circumstances of the craftsmen grew more and more unfavorable, a sentiment of ill will against the female competitors arose. In France, women were excluded from the trades at the close of the fourteenth century; in Germany, not until the close of the seventeenth century. At first they were forbidden to become master-workmen – with the exception of widows – later on they were also excluded from becoming assistants. Protestantism, by abolishing the ostentatious Catholic cult, had seriously injured or entirely destroyed a number of artistic crafts, and these were the very crafts in which many women had been employed. The confiscation and secularization of church property resulted in a decline of charitable work, and widows and orphans were the main sufferers.

The general economic decline that manifested itself during the sixteenth century, as a result of all the enumerated causes, and lasted through the seventeenth century, caused the marriage laws to become more and more severe. Journeymen and people employed in menial service (men and maid servants) were prohibited entirely from marrying, unless they could prove that there was no danger of their future families becoming a burden to the community in which they lived. Marriages contracted in opposition to the legal premises were punished frequently severely, sometimes barbarously. According to Bavarian law, for instance, the penalties were imprisonment and public flogging. Illegal marriages, that became more frequent as the marriage laws became more severe, were subjected to especially violent persecution. All minds were ruled by the prevailing fear of over-population, and to diminish the numbers of beggars and vagabonds, the various rulers enacted one law upon another, and each was more severe than the preceding one.


1. Dr. Carl Hagen – “Germany’s Literary and Religious Conditions during the Reformation.”

2. Dr. Carl Hagen.

3. John Janssen – “History of the German People.”

4. This is true and can be explained from the fact that the Bible had its origin at a time when polygamy prevailed both among the Eastern and Western people; but in the sixteenth century it nevertheless was in direct opposition to custom.

5. John Janssen – “History of the German People.”

6. Dr. Carl Buecher – “The Woman Question in the Middle Age.”