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

Sarah White
Monday, July 27th 2020

“If Sappho is the tenth of the singing Muses / then most divine Olympia is inscribed as the eleventh,” reads a Greek epitaph in honor of “a most learned woman.”[1] This “divine Olympia” was Olympia Morata Grunthler (c. 1526–1555)—one of the earliest female scholars in the Reformed tradition, and among the most accomplished in early Protestant Europe, despite the fact that she died by the age of 30. In this article I will introduce this too-little-remembered Reformation daughter and hopefully convey something of her sparkling personality and wit. In later articles, I intend to explore Olympia’s surviving letters more deeply, particularly focusing on the themes of (1) friendship and exhortation and (2) suffering in fellowship with Christ.

Olympia was deeply influenced by her father, Fulvio Morato, a humanist scholar, gifted teacher, and noted poet. Already connected to the court of Ferrara, Italy, Morato married a woman named Lucrezia, who gave birth to Olympia in 1526 or 1527. Though it’s unclear precisely when he began to identify with the Protestant movement, Morato’s religious beliefs seem to have shifted within a few years of his daughter’s birth; throughout the 1530s, he began lecturing on Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin. Around this time he also befriended a minor Protestant noble named Caelius Secundus Curio, who would become significant in Olympia’s life as well.

Olympia was raised in the court of Ferrara and, in her teen years, she became a companion to Renée de France’s daughter Anna. On Renée’s orders, the two girls studied classical works together in the original Greek and Latin. Educating girls was, on one hand, an expression of court opulence—a way of showing that a household had resources to spare—but it was also a reflection of Renée’s humanist commitments (17). In any case, because of her father’s devoted tutelage, Olympia was highly accomplished in classics even before she joined Anna’s classroom. For example, at the age of 14, Olympia delivered a lecture before an audience of court guests—in Latin—on Cicero’s work Stoic Paradoxes. Besides that performance, Olympia wrote other dialogues in Latin and Greek and evidenced a deep knowledge of Homer. After her companion Anna d’Este’s marriage to a Roman Catholic and departure for France, however, Olympia increasingly fell out of favor in Renée’s court, and she sought solace in the study of philosophy.

In late 1549 or early 1550, after her father’s death, Olympia found a remarkable match in Andreas Grunthler, a young doctor who, like his beloved, had published poetry in Latin and Greek. (Olympia described him to Caelius Secundus Curio—now a father figure to her—as “a man outstanding in philosophy and medicine […] Not even the hatred of a prince or my wretched state could keep him from marrying me. […] How great is my husband’s honesty, how learned in Greek and Latin literature, I prefer you to learn from others rather than from my letters” (107).) In honor of this occasion, Olympia penned a “Wedding Prayer” in Greek verse (181).

In the spring of 1550, when Andreas traveled to Germany to secure a place for his new household, the newlywed Olympia wrote to him, with both genuine anxiety and teasing effervescence:

Nothing more painful or serious could have happened to me [than your leaving]. […] I’m never bothered by as many worries as when you are away. I’m always afraid that you’ll fall or catch cold or break something. And when have I not been afraid of dangers worse than reality? […] I swear by all that’s holy that there is nothing dearer or sweeter to me than you. And I know you feel it too. If I ever change my mind, you’ll be the first to know—just like I used to tell you openly that I had taken a dislike to you! (98-99)

That fall, after Olympia had joined her husband in Augsburg, she wrote to Caelius, blessing the “Father of orphans” who “has also given me as a bride to a man who greatly enjoys my studies.” After settling into his work as a village doctor in Schweinfurt, Germany, Andreas seems to have encouraged Olympia to keep up her biblical and theological studies while she tutored her younger brother, Emilio, who had come to join them. During this time, Olympia translated several Psalms into Greek poetic forms, and Andreas set these to music. During the Schweinfurt years, she also began to also write freely to well-known theologians of the day, like Matthias Flacius Illyricus (from whom she specifically requested an Italian translation of Luther’s works, hoping to encourage embattled Protestants back in Italy) and Melanchthon.

Perhaps most revealing of Olympia’s mindset, though, is her correspondence with her dear friend the likewise bookish, Lavinia della Rovere. In 1550, at 23, Olympia wrote a charming dialogue in which she has Lavinia ask, “You are always poring over books, Olympia. Do you never take a break?” (100). In reply, Olympia defends herself, saying that she doesn’t want to sinfully waste time and, anyway, she doesn’t have anything else to do while her husband is out of town. As the dialogue goes on, however, Olympia confesses that she used to devote herself to the liberal arts, drinking in the praise of others for her accomplishments: “But even as I was exalted to the skies by everyone’s praise, I realized that I lacked all learning and was ignorant.” At that time she had drifted, she claims, into the Epicureanism of the philosopher Lucretius, lacking faith in a personal God until His fatherly presence became clear in her life, and she repented accordingly. This dialogue shouldn’t be read to mean that Olympia rejected the value of liberal studies altogether—her immersion therein remains evident in her biblical poetry, her letters, and even in the rhetorical shape of this dialogue (which is sprinkled with subtle references to Homer). Rather, it shows that Olympia felt a growing desire to orient her intellect toward biblical learning. After all, God “gave me the mind and talent to be so on fire for learning […] For the Omnipotent One is the best of orators” (101-102).

Indeed, although Olympia continued to pass along poems and other learned writings to her friends, by her mid-20s there is a noticeable shift in both her interests and her reading of her past. As she wrote to Caelius, “If I had remained any longer in that court [at Ferrara], it would have been all over for me and my salvation. For while I was there, I was never able to undertake anything high or divine—not even to read the books of either the Old or New Testament” (108). After experiencing disfavor and estrangement at court, and now becoming settled in the less sheltered, everyday practicalities of marriage and village life, she seems to have lost interest in academic attainments for their own sake and gained a deeper hunger for the things of God.

By the time Olympia next wrote a dialogue to share with Lavinia, her thoughts had turned even more from youthful studies toward spiritual consolation. “Seek Christ,” she exhorts her friend; “you will find Him in the books of the Old and New Testament, nor can He be found anywhere else […] Would so many very rich and great promises be in the sacred books unless God wanted to keep them?” (126). Within a year’s time, Olympia herself would have cause to cling to these promises more than ever, as a season of domestic respite gave way to siege and exile.

Read part II.

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] Olympia Morata: The Complete Writings of an Italian Heretic, edited and translated by Holt N. Parker (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 216. The remaining page references in this article are to this work.

Photo of Sarah White
Sarah White
Sarah White (M.Div., Yale Divinity School), lives in western Pennsylvania with her family.
Monday, July 27th 2020

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

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology