“I do not owe you obedience and I will not obey you … I am in a good, pious, blessed, honourable, free, spiritual estate, wherein both my body and soul are well cared for … I want to stay here … I have given myself to God with full knowledge and awareness in eternal chastity here to serve him … No one of the world can sway me.” – Anna Wurm to her brother, 1524.

Anna Wurm’s brother, motivated both by financial interests and his passion for the new Reformed theology, wanted her out of the Strasbourg convent in which she had dwelt for over a decade. Anna obviously disagreed. It was a drama played out countless times in the 16th century as convents were closed and thousands of women returned into the world – some happily, but many others unwillingly.

Anna’s conflict with her brother provides a small but illuminating window into what had been and what was to come in Reformation-formed societies: a world in which unmarried women would no longer have any space in which to live in acceptable and even honoured ways, a world in which women would no longer have a role in public life, and one from which the feminine expression of the transcendent would be rigorously banished.

Not, perhaps, the most politic observation as we begin a year of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the 95 Theses and undoubtedly countless conversations about the impact of the event.

For many years, the narrative on the Reformation and women has maintained that it must have been all good news. How could it not be? After all, Martin Luther and others had emphasised the freedom of the individual Christian believer, encouraged Bible reading and, therefore, literacy for all and, of course, had elevated and celebrated marriage. This, we are assured, was progress.

Perhaps not. As has been the case with many historical narratives and assumptions, the certainty that the Reformation produced net gains for women has been upended in recent decades. A survey of the large and continually growing body of research reveals wide agreement that is, in fact, 180 degrees away from the former view.

​How to continue reading…

This article appears in the Catholic Herald magazine - to read it in full subscribe to our digital edition from just 30p a week

The Catholic Herald is your essential weekly guide to the Catholic world; latest news, incisive opinion, expert analysis and spiritual reflection