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

Sarah White
Wednesday, November 25th 2020

Imagine being stuck in an unfamiliar city during a plague, threatened with religious persecution, and knowing you would likely die within the year. What sort of care package would you want? Olympia Morata asked for more books.

“There is a great lack of good authors here,”[1] Olympia complained to a correspondent while living as a refugee in Heidelberg. After recovering from a particularly troublesome bout of illness, Olympia made it one of her first tasks to write to Vergerio, a Catholic bishop with Reformation sympathies, with a special request: “please translate into Italian the Latin version […] of Martin Luther’s book titled the Greater Catechism” (167). Olympia believed this book would greatly benefit the beleaguered Italian Protestants back home, and she didn’t shrink from boldly approaching a bishop on their behalf. Olympia also asked around for as many of Calvin’s Bible commentaries as she could get. These requests reflect Olympia’s lifelong love of books and theological learning, but they also suggest something about her attitude toward death. Not assuming her life would be long, or that she would always have access to libraries or the generosity of churchmen, she used what little strength she had to help her fellow believers. It didn’t matter if the attempt was small, or if she didn’t live to see the fruit—she wanted to die as she’d lived, furthering reformation.

Olympia and Andreas Grunthler[2] were living in Heidelberg because Schweinfurt, where they’d settled after their marriage, had been besieged during Germany’s religious wars. In April, 1553, troops of the Margrave of Brandenburg, Albrecht II, barricaded themselves into Schweinfurt and even pillaged the residents. (In fact, part of Andreas’s job as a doctor was to confront the public health threat posed by the 200 soldiers stationed in town.) Meanwhile, Schweinfurt was bombarded by the elector of Saxony and an alliance of other German factions, leading to starvation and then a plague outbreak. In June, the Brandenburg troops vacated, allowing the enemy to pour in and set the city aflame; the Grunthlers barely escaped with their lives, losing most of their library and Olympia’s writings. As they gradually made their way to a new home in Heidelberg, Olympia contracted a severe illness, perhaps tuberculosis. She would not live much longer.

The year before she died, Olympia wrote to a friend, Cherubina Orsini, describing the trials of the past 14 months: “You must thank God with us that He has in His great mercy freed us from the infinite dangers in which we stood […] During a great famine the Lord fed us; we even had enough to give to others” (147). God also healed Andreas from a deadly illness, even though the town pharmacy was emptied due to the war. As for Olympia herself, “God had mercy on me when I was in nearly intolerable pain” from sickness. She goes on to describe the Grunthlers’ harrowing escape from their erstwhile home, as fire inundated the city. Olympia and Andreas literally escaped through the flames, though Andreas was briefly captured twice. Olympia writes that she could do nothing in these anguished moments but pray, “Help me, Lord, through Christ.” When they finally got away, she lost her shoes and had to run barefoot. Recalling the episode, she tells her friend, “I am still amazed when I think about how I covered those ten miles […] The Lord has not abandoned us, although everything had been taken from us.”

Olympia didn’t simply repeat the harrowing story, however — she used her experience to comfort her friend. She urges Cherubina to see that the Lord “does not abandon His people in their difficulties […] although it might be necessary for you to suffer some things for the truth,” in order to be more deeply conformed to Christ. She herself is still weak, she adds, but Christ calls weary sinners to Himself to strengthen and heal them. That healing comes through prayer and the study of Scripture, for “if your body loses its strength when it does not have food, how will our soul be strong if it is not sustained by the Word of God?” (149). The same day she wrote Cherubina, she also wrote a letter to her sister Vittoria, summing up her account of persecution by saying, “I am happier to suffer like this and be a true member of Christ than if I had the whole world […] If only God gives me faith and steadfastness to the end[.]” Here, too, she turns to exhortation, telling her sister, “Make sure a day does not pass without reading with devotion and praying to God through Christ that He will illuminate things for you […] Get up very early” for this purpose (145).

It seems that Olympia continued to struggle from the effects of her escape from Schweinfurt long after the event, even after she and Andreas were relatively secure in Heidelberg. Far from disregarding others, however, Olympia was pressed even more to think of those in need. In another letter, she mentions that she and Andreas expect an old woman from Schweinfurt to arrive soon, “one of the wretched, poor, and wandering citizens” of that city (156); she also asks her correspondent, Dr. Johannes Sinapius, a widower, to send his daughter to the Grunthlers, both to help the weakened Olympia around the house, and so that Olympia can be of some benefit to the motherless girl. She apparently used this time to offer tutoring in classical Greek, too. By this time in Heidelberg, many people were preparing to flee the city because of the threat of plague; Olympia writes that she and Andreas, despite her infirmity, were simply entrusting themselves to God’s care.

The following summer, more than a year after they’d fled as refugees, Olympia began to succumb to her long illness. She wrote to her father figure Caelius Secundus Curio, “there is not an hour in which I am free of fever. Thus I am being snatched away by God, lest I perish with this world” (174). To another friend she wrote, “What will happen with me I don’t know. I commit myself and hand myself over completely to God, and I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ” (174). By late October, 1555, Olympia wrote to Caelius, “you must know that I have lost any hope for a longer life […] in the power of medicines (and I have used so many), there is nothing that can help […] In fact, I don’t know whether this may not be the last letter you will get from me […] Congestion tries to suffocate me day and night. […] But there is still a spirit in my body that remembers all my friends.” She repeats her desire to be “dissolved with Christ”[3] and adds, “The poems which I was able to remember after the destruction of Schweinfurt I am sending […] All my other writings were most. I ask that you please be my Aristarchus[4] and polish them” (177).

Only a small collection of Olympia’s letters are extant. In what survives, her deepest emotions aren’t necessarily on full display. The loss of most of her writings, not to mention the trauma of war and persecution, and years of illness must have weighed even more heavily on her than she reveals in her correspondence, which is always so focused on encouraging others in Christ. But no matter how she might have expressed her grief more privately, her sense of being rooted in Christ—that her life was hidden in Him—shines through clearly. She seemed to expect that persecution, plague, and even death were part of being joined to Him, and these things made her love Him, and His people, more.

After Olympia’s death, Andreas wrote to Caelius Curio in his deep grief: “God afflicts me in every way […] He has at last even taken away my dearest and sweetest wife.” Near death, he adds, Olympia smiled—she told him she dreamed of a place “shining with the clearest and most beautiful light […] full of the most beautiful flowers.” When Andreas told her that she would soon live in that light, she nodded and said, “I am totally happy” (197). She died peacefully a short time later. She hadn’t yet reached her 30th birthday.

As it turned out, Andreas’s time of bereavement didn’t last long. About two months later, both he and Olympia’s brother, Emilio, died of the plague. They are all buried in the graveyard of St. Peter’s Church in Heidelberg.

Read part I. Read part II.

[1] Olympia Morata: The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic, edited and translated by Holt N. Parker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 166. The remaining page references in this article are to this work.

[2] For more on Olympia’s life story and thought, see Part I and Part II of this series.

[3] This line is from a short Latin poem, “Olympia’s Vow,” translated in Holt’s edition as “I long to be dissolved, so great is the confidence of my mind, / and to be with Christ in whom my life flourishes.”

[4] Aristarchus was a librarian of Alexandria who edited Homer and other Greek poets.

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.

Wednesday, November 25th 2020

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

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