Argula von Grumbach (neé von Stauff) (1492-1554?) was a Bavarian noblewoman who, starting in the early 1520s, became involved in the Protestant Reformation debates going on in Germany. She became the first Protestant woman writer, publishing letters and poems promoting and defending Martin Luther as well as his co-worker Philipp Melanchthon and other Protestant groups. She is most known for directly challenging the University of Ingolstadt’s faculty when she wrote a letter to them speaking out against the arrest of a Lutheran student. As one of the few women at the time openly speaking out her views, her writings sparked controversy and often became bestsellers, with tens of thousands of copies of her letters and poems circulating within a few years of their publication.
Argula’s upbringing was in a political and deeply religious household. Education and attendance at university was highly prized. Argula is thought to have learned to read fluently at a very young age. When she was ten her father gave her an expensive and beautifully crafted Koberger Bible in German, despite Franciscan preachers discouraging it, saying Scripture would “only confuse her.” She became an avid studier of the Bible, memorizing the majority of its contents.
At the age of sixteen, Argula joined the court in Munich, where she became a lady-in-waiting to Queen Kunigunde, daughter of the Emperor Frederick III. The Queen was said to have a strong personality herself, passionate about politics and religion. The court as a whole was interested in spiritual affairs, so it is there that Argula’s studies of the Bible could have become a serious endeavor.
Argula’s adolescent life was also marked by tragedy. Both her parents became ill from plague and died in 1509. Her father’s brother, Hieronymus, became her guardian. He was a leading figure at court but ended up disgraced in a political scandal that led to his execution in 1516. Her outrage at this incident is probably what prompted her persistent loathing for violence and coercion throughout her life.
With him Argula had four children, George, Hans Georg, Gottfried and Apollonia. The only child to survive his parents was Gottfried. It seemed that Argula was the one who made all the arrangements for her children’s Protestant educations. Records indicated that Argula took care of many of the financial and business matters of her family even before her husband’s death.
Little is known, also, about the relationship between Argula and her husband, although there have been hints through her writings. She refuted others’ suggestions that she was neglecting her duties as a wife in the poem she wrote in 1524, although she also said ‘May God teach me to understand/ How I should act towards my man’, indicating that it could have been a difficult marriage. Friedrich himself was not a Reformer, remaining in the Old Church. He was put under immense pressure to ‘bring her into line’ during the height of her challenging and letter writing. At one point he was even told he was allowed to disable her so as to prevent her from writing or even strangle her without legal repercussions.
Argula married again in 1533 to Count von Schlick, but he died within two years.
Bavarian authorities had forbade reception of Lutheran ideas at the time, and the city of Ingolstadt enforced that mandate. In 1523, Arsacius Seehofer, the young teacher and former student at the University of Ingolstadt, was arrested for Protestant views and forced to recant. The incident would have occurred quietly, but Argula, outraged over it, wrote what was to become her most successful writing, a letter to the faculty of the university objecting to Seehofer’s arrest and exile. The letter urged the university to follow Scripture, not Roman traditions. It also said she had decided to speak out even though she was a woman because no one else would. An excerpt from her letter as follows:
In the long letter she cited over 80 Scriptures with which she made logical comparisons to the behaviour of the university theologians to argue her case that they were wrong.
Her letter, which was turned into a booklet, provoked a huge reaction, greatly angering the theologians and became nearly an overnight sensation. It went through fourteen editions in two months, and became a bestseller. Argula wrote more letters and copies of the first one to other significant figures like Duke Wilhelm to also argue her case.
Theologians wanted her punished, and her husband lost his position at Dietfurt over the controversy. Argula was also called by many offensive epithets by her critics, especially through the sermons of Professor Hauer who called her things like “shameless whore” and a “female desperado.”
Argula wrote poems in response to the slander of her, such as when a poem apparently written by an Ingoldstadt which attacked her and accused her of being a neglectful wife and mother. The poem was the last of her published works but she continued correspondence with Luther and other Reformers.
Argula was highly controversial and shunned by her family but she also had admirers for her writings. She was praised by a Lutheran preacher Balthasar Hubmaier in nearby Regensburg, who wrote that she "knows more of the divine Word than all of the red hats (canon lawyers and cardinals) ever saw or could conceive of" and compared her heroic women in the Bible.
Even though her challenges to the university were largely ignored and her efforts to promote her Protestant beliefs unsuccessful, Argula was undeterred, and continued writing pamphlets. She did things like traveling alone to Nuremberg, which was unheard of for women, to encourage German princes to accept Reformation principles.