The Wild Spitting Nuns of Pre-Reformation Geneva

The events leading up to the Reformation in Geneva before Calvin’s arrival are wild—and so very medieval. As individual Swiss territories were evaluating Zwingli’s message of Reformation and voting on whether they would adopt it or not, a fire-headed evangelist by the name of William Farel took the reformation message into the far corners of Switzerland, and warmed the cool alpine climate with the crackling flames of the gospel. He was known for his passionate speeches, bold blatancy, and for leaving a piqued mob of papists behind him wherever he went. In fact, he was almost injured by an enraged throng of women who had taken his fiery gospel message as a personal attack, and they turned on him with an artillery of shoes, rocks, books, and whatever they could get their hands on. Once he threw an enraged priest into the lake; at another time, he was thrown into the lake.

Nun  Geneva’s Catholic women were a vicious bunch, and heartily involved in the fight to keep the Reformation out of Geneva. Sister Jeanne, a young nun from a convent in Geneva, scribbled a sprightly collection of stories about the cat-fights that her fellow nuns engaged in against both protestant ministers and protestant women. In one of these stories, the Catholics armed themselves against the Protestants, and both lined up, ready to fight if the other made a move.

The wives of the [Catholics] assembled, saying, that if it happens that our husbands fight against those infidels, et us also make war and kill their heretic wives, so that the race may be exterminated. In this assembly of women there were a good seven hundred children of twelve to fifteen years, firmly decided to do a good deed with their mothers: the women carried stones in their laps, and most of the children carried little rapiers… others stones in their breast, hat, and bonnet. (Jussie, Le Levain du Calvinisme, pp. 54-55; cf. pp.70-72, quoted in Jane Dempsey Douglass, “Women and the Continental Reformation,” p. 310-311)

As the day progressed, one Catholic man was mortally wounded. That was all the Catholic women needed to instigate their own war against the Protestant ladies. They ran after one Lutheran man’s wife and almost caught her, saying, “As the beginning of our war, let’s throw this b____ into the Rhone!” She slipped out of their grasp and made it into her home safely, but the Catholic women proceeded to tear everything out of her shop below her home. Meanwhile, the Catholic nuns were praying for the victory of the Catholic women, and prayed even more heartily after someone came and warned them that, if the Catholics lost, the nuns would be forced to get married. The day ended with very little more bloodshed, and the Catholics and Protestants agreed to live peaceably with each other for the time being.  In all of this account, Sister Jeanne never depicted the Protestant women as being violent, and though it would have been easy for her to have embellished her colorful stories with more violence, she does not seem to have done so.

Nun and Books  Other stories Sister Jeanne told are about various occasions when Lutheran women visited the Convent to preach and teach the nuns about the true gospel. According to Sister Jeanne, however, these women spewed “venom” and “detestable words,” and the nuns bolted and barred the door in their faces. Marie d’Entiere, a former abbess who was married, now occupied herself with “meddling with preaching, and perverting people of devotion.” According to Sister Jeanne, she said to the nuns,

O poor creatures! If only you knew that it is good to be with a handsome husband, and how agreeable it is to God. I lived for a long time in that darkness and hypocrisy where you are, but God alone made me understand the abuse of my pitiful life, and I came to the true light of truth… Thanks to God alone I have five handsome children, and I live salutarily. (Jussie, Le Levain du Calvinisme, p. 164, quoted in Jane Dempsey Douglass, “Women and the Continental Reformation,” in Religion and Sexism, p. 312)

As a sign of their rapt attention to these words, Sister Jeanne and her friends spit on Marie d’Entiere.

Sister Jeanne reported that other Protestant ladies who visited the convent to “meddle in preaching” to the nuns “perverted” Holy Scripture by giving a sermon on marriage in the early church, listing all the apostles who were married, and quoting Paul’s words on the two becoming one flesh. I will leave it up to you to judge whether this was really the sum total that these ladies had to say in their testimony of the gospel, or if this is merely what Sister Jeanne hated the most about these “sermons,” seeing as her entire life was dedicated to believing virginity was recommended by the Scriptures. Sister Jeanne’s entire view of the Protestant position seems to be that the Protestants despised the Sacrament, hated icons and pictures, and praised marriage. Protestant women protested Catholic feast days by doing their laundry and knitting in their front windows so that everyone on the street could see that they were working and not celebrating the feast. In spite of all this Protestant “witnessing” by women, only one nun sister was able to be convinced to leave the convent and join the Protestants. When Farel and Viret visited the convent, Sister Jeanne shrieked and howled that she was asked to leave the room. She continued to pound on the walls and put up such a successful filibuster that Farel forgot what he was going to say, and none of the nuns could have heard him over Sister Jeanne’s cacophony anyway. Image

Researchers remind us that, though Sister Jeanne’s journal was the result of a limited experience, it still provides an interesting picture of women during the Reformation—on both sides of the theological issues, but especially concerned by the doctrinal issues that were closest to home: virginity vs. marriage.

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