Olympia Morata

Women in Church History

Scholar, Refugee, and Daughter of the Reformation

Olympia Morata was born in 1526 or 1527 to a university instructor in the Italian city of Ferrara. She was blessed with a father who took the time to personally educate his children and also employed language tutors for the young girl. With her natural intellectual abilities, Olympia thrived; she was fluent in Latin and Greek and had authored pieces on classical poetry and rhetoric by the time she was a teenager. She also worked as a companion to a young Italian duchess, spending happy years discussing books together.

Although Olympia’s father was associated with the short-lived Italian Reformation, Olympia did not always love God’s Word. Dismissal from her court position prompted her to rethink her priorities. She later reflected, “Even as I was exalted to the skies by everyone’s praise, I realized that I lacked all learning and that I was ignorant.” As a young adult, she began applying herself to the Scriptures and to Reformed theology. Her newfound rootedness in Christ sustained her through the devastating loss of her father. Not long after, she married a German reformer named Andrew Grunthler who was studying at the university. Life was becoming dangerous for Italian Protestants by this time, so together the couple traveled over the Alps and settled in Germany, where Olympia became familiar with more of Luther’s writings and circulated them to friends back in Italy. While her husband worked as a village doctor, Olympia spent her time educating her little brother, who had accompanied them, and even corresponded with theologians like Philip Melanchthon. She also composed poems in Greek, including some translations of the Psalms which drew praise from literary circles across Europe.

The family’s life was not free of sorrows, however. For one, it seems that Olympia and her husband were unable to have children. All we know of this was what she wrote, slightly cryptically, to a friend: “The children [poems] I bore on the very day and hour I received your letter, I am sending to you…I have borne no other children, and so far have no expectation of bearing any.”

An even more pressing burden was that war was beginning to sweep Europe. Olympia’s village of Schweinfurt was under siege, soon ravaged by famine and disease. In June, 1554, the town was set ablaze, and Olympia and her family were forced to flee by night, without any money. Perhaps most agonizing for her was the loss of her writings, most of which were destroyed in the fire. 

She and Andrew undertook a prolonged and dangerous search for refuge. By the time they reached the Protestant-friendly Palatinate region of Germany, Olympia was ill with both malaria and tuberculosis. After a brief interval of being cared for by a Calvinist duke’s family, she and Andrew made the final leg of their journey, to the city of Heidelberg. Here Olympia enjoyed a respite from illness and could immerse herself in study once again. She received an unheard-of honor for a woman of the time—an invitation to teach Greek at the University of Heidelberg. She turned it down, probably due to her physical frailty, and perhaps because such recognition was no longer attractive to her. Instead, she found consolation in Scripture and loved to encourage her family and friends with the Word. Thanks to her youthful connection with the court of Ferrara, she was even able to advocate long-distance for persecuted Protestants. Though her childhood friend, Duchess Anna, was then a Roman Catholic, she heeded Olympia’s pleading letters and spoke out against religious persecution.

Sadly, refugee wanderings had taken too great a toll on Olympia. Still weakened by past illnesses, she could not withstand an outbreak of the plague in 1555. Before she reached the age of 30, she died peacefully with her husband at her side. 

Olympia’s story is a sorrowful one, not least because it was so short. With her lively intellect and eager pen, who knows what she might have contributed to the Protestant cause, had she lived? But, as senseless as it appears to us, we know that God had numbered her days exactly. Her brief life can remind us of some powerful truths. First, though we may not see our works destroyed by fire, we have no guarantee that our most cherished efforts will outlast us. At the same time, we can be assured that exertions for the gospel never go to waste in the hands of our God. Second, Olympia’s war-torn world seems far removed from us, but it is always worth remembering that long-ago sisters in the faith risked displacement and death for the teachings we take for granted. Finally, Olympia didn’t allow distance and limited means to stop her from having what effect she could on behalf of the suffering church. Her untiring devotion to the truth can encourage us, no matter what our talents or sphere of influence.

If you enjoy learning about the sixteenth century, check out the recent book Reformation Women by Rebecca Van Doodewaard, whose chapter on Olympia Morata inspired this article. Simonetta Carr has also written a kids’ biography of Olympia for the Chosen Daughters series. 

Mrs. Sarah White
(PCA member residing in PA)

Jean Henri Merle d’Aubigne

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