Olympia Morata Grunthler: Woman, Scholar, Reformer, part II

Sarah White
Wednesday, September 23rd 2020

As detailed in Part I of this series, Olympia Morata (c. 1526–1555) grew up in Ferrara, Italy, in the court of Protestant sympathizer Renèe de France, where she became proficient in Greek and Latin classics alongside Renèe’s daughter, Anna. After Anna’s marriage and Olympia’s subsequent estrangement from court, Olympia found joy in her marriage to a physician named Andreas Grunthler, settling with him in Germany. From there, Olympia kept up a lively correspondence with girlhood friends.

In Part II, I will focus on two examples from Olympia’s letters which highlight her attitudes about friendship and Christian exhortation—things that went together naturally in her mind. What should Christian friends talk about in uncertain, weighty times, especially when their connection is sustained over a vast distance?[1] Olympia’s correspondence with these two women suggests that the most important thing friends can do is to talk about and encourage one another from the Word of God.

Consoling Lavinia

The first letter is a dialogue Olympia composed, in the early 1550s, to her close friend and frequent correspondent Lavinia della Rovere. Lavinia was five years older and married—unhappily, it seems—to an Italian soldier. Lavinia had been a frequent visitor to the court of Ferrara, and given their common religious sympathies and scholarly interests, it’s not surprising that she and Olympia formed a bond.

This dialogue was written in consolatio form. The genre traces back to antiquity, ranging from personal letters to more extended philosophical treatments of the subject of grief (for example, Seneca’s Ad Marciam and Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy).[2] Christian consolation literature adapted classical themes, with an emphasis on death as the result of sin and the urgency of repentance and preparation for a godly death. It’s not necessary to be versed in the rhetorical themes and structure of consolation writings in order to grasp Olympia’s aims. In fact, though the structure is formal and the topic melancholy, there’s a trace of fun in Olympia’s effort: she knows that Lavinia is familiar with these classical tropes and delights in their shared appreciation; one can imagine Lavinia, in turn, shaking her head with a knowing smile at Olympia’s latest creative effort.

In the dialogue, Olympia calls herself Theophila (“she who loves God”), and Lavinia is Philotima (“she who loves honor”). (Since these names can sound confusingly similar, I’ll refer to them as Olympia and Lavinia throughout—keeping in mind that it’s a fictional dialogue in which Olympia portrays Lavinia’s thoughts as she imagines them.)

First, Olympia has Lavinia complain that she’s saddened by her husband’s frequent absences from home—she expected greater happiness from her marriage. Olympia opens her response by observing that the exchange of advice is an important part of Christian friendship (citing Cicero’s On Friendship 91,[3] advice should be given “freely but not cruelly” and received “patiently and not grudgingly”), and since Lavinia is dear to her, she’ll offer advice all the more boldly.[4]

Olympia tells Lavinia that if she’d been studying Scripture more diligently, she would have a different outlook on human life—namely, that things generally don’t turn out the way we expect. For example, Scripture teaches that even the most exemplary wives—those who got married primarily in order to serve God—suffered many difficult things. Women should seek to serve God in marriage by “being good to their husbands, educating their children in holiness and piety (or if not children, then those whom God had committed to them)[5], [and] imbuing them with the religion of Christ[.]” If serving God wasn’t Lavinia’s primary goal in getting married, Olympia rebukes her friend, then “it’s no wonder if everything hasn’t turned out perfectly for you” (120)!

In the next part of the dialogue, Olympia has Lavinia admit that her attitude about marriage has been more worldly than pious. However, Lavinia points out that even in the case of biblical heroines like Queen Esther and Abigail, God granted wealth and honor alongside piety. Olympia acknowledges this; God distributes His gifts as He chooses, and we can’t judge why—we only know that He does everything for our benefit. Esther, she points out, didn’t set out to be queen, and her situation brought many spiritual griefs with it; Abigail, too, suffered many things despite her privileges as David’s wife. The point is that “If you look only at the splendor and outward form of their lives, you don’t see the labor and worry as well” (123). When we focus on our own troubles, we always compare ourselves to those whose lives appear to be going better, and we envy them accordingly. Instead, we should think of those who have suffered affliction—not least Our Lord Himself!—and consider that holier people than ourselves have suffered worse than we endure.

Olympia further argues that nobody who tries to serve God in her life is going to have it easy: “No, the Devil will do everything in his power to destroy that person utterly: now one thing, now another […] There is no one who merely wishes to live piously in Christ who does not endure the bitterest griefs,” whether these take the form of sickness, poverty, dissension between friends, or “crucifixions of the spirit.” Above all else, life is short. Because of that, we should be focusing more on eternity: “You will never be able to be happy here. You will never have anything, though you have tried everything, in which you can rest except in God. Death must be faced” (125).

In short, Olympia uses the traditional consolatio form to remind Lavinia that Scripture should inform our expectations and goals for our lives; that God, not earthly pleasures or status, should be our aim in everything; that we deceive ourselves with our covetous assumptions about others’ lives; that God superintends our lives exactly as He chooses; and that the Christian pilgrimage is unavoidably hard. With all that in mind, the reality of death should be embraced sooner rather than later. Paradoxically, this will make us happier people, as it reframes our expectations and enables us to orient our lives more realistically.

Olympia closes the dialogue by assuring her friend that if she desires to grow in faith, the Holy Spirit will surely accomplish this in her, leading to greater tranquility of mind. She also closes with a characteristic note of humor:

Philotima: Stay here just a little longer.

Theophila: I’ve got to go home and take care of things there. For when the housewife’s away, ‘what shouldn’t happen happens faster than what should.’[6] I’ll visit you again soon. (126)

Exhorting Anna

A few years later, in July, 1555, Olympia wrote to her old schoolmate, Anna d’Este, who’d married into the staunchly Catholic Guise family of France. In this letter, there’s a heavier tone of melancholy: “You know how closely we lived together for all those years […] and how we shared the study of letters, which rightly ought to increase more and more a mutual kindness between us.” Olympia implies that there’s been a fork in the path they once shared and that, in fact, their bond isn’t what it used to be. She goes on, “[T]he one thing I most desire is for you to apply yourself seriously to the study of [Scripture], which alone can unite you with God and console you in all the miseries of this life” (169). Olympia views Scripture not just as a beneficial resource, but as the means through which a believer grows in communion with God. Shifting to her own testimony, she observes that after leaving the “idolatry” of Italy behind, “God changed my soul wondrously” through Scripture. Nowadays she focuses her mind and energies on divine study instead of worldly subjects—”I wish over and over for you, greatest lady, to think on [the Scriptures] too. Nothing, believe me, is stable here below” besides Christ. It’s not enough, she adds, to just acknowledge who Christ is—one must exercise true faith in Him, even confessing Him before enemies. On this basis, Olympia then exhorts Anna to intercede for Protestants who are being killed for Christ’s sake in France (something her politically advantageous marriage made possible). Touchingly, she closes with the promise to send Christian writings if Anna wishes to learn more, because Olympia’s “greatest wish is that you will be a sharer in the same eternal joys” (170). If that happens, she suggests, then their youthful bond will become something far deeper and more lasting.

This briefer, more pointed, and sadder letter echoes the dialogue to Lavinia in a number of ways. Olympia’s and Anna’s friendship is founded on their shared studies; Olympia urges her friend to do as she’s done and shift her focus from worldly subjects to Scripture, which alone can transform her soul and give stability in this life. However, it’s evident that Olympia doubts whether Anna shares her seriousness about Scripture (something she takes for granted in her friendship with Lavinia) and whether Anna understands that faith in Christ is more than a superficial knowledge; it’s what “unites [us] to God” and thus worth dying for. The muted desperation of this letter contrasts with the lighter moments worked into the earlier dialogue; with remarkable concision, Olympia is fighting both for her friend’s soul and the survival of the church.

These stylistically distinct letters reflect a constant theme in Olympia’s correspondence—the importance of seeking God in His Word and finding one’s stability there in a shifting, dangerous world. This stance helps a believer face death honestly and with hope. Olympia believed there was nothing more important for Christian friends to discuss, no matter what the specific challenges of their lives or the distance between them.

Read part I.

Read part III.

Sarah White lives in the Appalachian foothills with her husband and her Basset Hound. She holds degrees from Yale Divinity School and Saint Louis University.


[1] In Olympia’s letters, there are frequent references to the guesswork, delay, and anxiety involved in sending a letter to a distant friend. Since there was no regular postal service, this usually meant handing a letter to a trusted acquaintance who happened to be heading to the general area where one’s correspondent lived, and sometimes writing in haste when such an opportunity opened up.

[2] Ronald Rittgers has argued that the consolation genre was especially characteristic of the Reformation period and ought to be further studied—see his “The Age of Reform as an Age of Consolation,” in Church History 86:3 (September 2017): 607–642.

[3] In a slightly different translation: “Well, then, if it is true that to give and receive advice—the former with freedom and yet without bitterness, the latter with patience and without irritation—is peculiarly appropriate to genuine friendship, it is no less true that there can be nothing more utterly subversive of friendship than flattery, adulation, and base compliance.”

[4] Olympia Morata: The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic, 119. The remaining page references in this article are to this work.

[5] Olympia and Andreas didn’t have children of their own, but Olympia helped raise and tutor her little brother Emilio; she also seems to have taught other children and to have been interested in the subject of pedagogy in general.

[6] The “housewife” quote is a reference to Amphitryon, a play by the ancient Latin playwright Plautus.

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Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Wednesday, September 23rd 2020

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

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