There is one woman’s name on the famous Reformation Wall in Geneva. She is Marie Dentiere, and she has become a somewhat controversial figure in the story of the reformation. Some have labeled her an early feminist and suggest she was a nuisance to Calvin. Others see a bold and passionate woman who used the means available to her to spread the gospel, and who ended up writing the preface to one of Calvin’s books as a result.
Marie was a French noblewoman who joined an Augustinian convent in her mid-twenties. In the convent she studied some of Luther’s writings, and as a result, left the convent within three years of her arrival. Soon after, Marie met and married another monastical escapee, Simon Robert, who was active in the reformation movement. Together they moved on a pastoral assignment to Valais, where William Farel was a missionary at the time. This was the first time a married couple, not just a solo pastor, had accepted a pastoral assignment for the French reformed church, and people began to take notice of Marie’s active involvement in many aspects of the ministry. She learned Hebrew and Latin, and helped her husband translate a Bible. She also accompanied her husband on many of his evangelistic trips. Eventually, her husband, Simon, died. She married her husband’s good friend, Antoine Froment, and together they moved to Geneva.
Marie’s personal mission was evangelism, particularly evangelism of women. She visited a convent early in Geneva’s reformation, where she tried to persuade the nuns to leave the Catholic faith, join the reformation, and start a family. Marie was acquainted with the sister of the King of France, Marguerite de Navarre, to whom she wrote a strong letter encouraging her and all women to study the Bible themselves, and to use what means were available to women for spreading the Word:
“For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth. And even though we are not permitted to preach in public in congregations and churches, we are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity.”
Though her letter was addressed to Marguerite, her tone indicated that she wanted, and expected, her letter to be spread to many women all across Europe “and principally for the poor little women wanting to know and understand the truth, who do not know what path, what way to take, in order that from now on they be not internally tormented and afflicted, but rather that they be joyful, consoled, and led to follow the truth, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ.” Her letter was later published by a printer in Geneva.
Because Marie had left the convent and found new spiritual life in being able to study the Bible and apply its meaning to her own life, she desired that all women take up this master-tool available to them. In her letter Marie also mentioned her “little daughter” who is perhaps not so little because she had just authored a Hebrew grammar curriculum to instruct other “little” girls in the interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. Marie hoped that Marguerite’s daughter will find it useful, “For as you well know, the female sex is more shameful than the other, and not without cause. For until now, Scripture has been so hidden from them. No one dared say a word about it, and it seemed that women should not read or hear anything in the Holy Scriptures. That is the main reason, my Lady, that has moved me to write to you, hoping in God that henceforth women will not be so scorned as in the past.” Marie didn’t push against the Biblical restrictions on women teaching in reformed churches, but merely desired that women take up all the opportunities that the reformation made available to them.
“Therefore, if God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by His Holy Scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write, speak, and declare it to one another because of the defamers of truth? Ah, it would be too bold to try to stop them, and it would be too foolish for us to hide the talent that God has given us, God who will give us the grace to persevere to the end.”
She knew that her words would not be accepted by everyone.
“Some might be upset because this is said by a woman, believing that this is not appropriate for her, since woman is made for pleasure. But I pray you to be not offended; you must not think that I do this from hatred or from rancor. I do this only to edify my neighbor, seeing him in such great, horrible darkness… No man could be able to expose it enough. How, therefore, will a woman do it?”
She desired to dispel the myth that women were made only for sensual enjoyment, and didn’t have brains to think and study. She resisted those who said, “It is not up to women to know [Scripture]… but they should just believe without questioning anything.” She continued, “[the Catholics] just want us to give pleasure, as is our custom, to do our work, spin on the distaff, live as women before us did, like our neighbors.” She countered, “Do we have two gospels, one for men and another for women? One for the wise and another for fools? Are we not one in our Lord?”
Marie also authored one of the first eyewitness histories of the reformation in Geneva. She wrote under the guise of a masculine merchant. Her perspective was not exactly chronological, but she put great care into interpreting the various events from a spiritual point of view. She drew metaphorical parallels between the exodus of Israel from Egypt, and the exodus of Geneva from Catholicism. She wrote this history to encourage fellow protestants in their sufferings, much as the Israelites had suffered at the hands of the Egyptians, and her message was to “hope against all hope.”
However, this remarkable lady wasn’t without her vices. On several occasions, Marie Dentiere made herself a nuisance to the reformers of Geneva, possibly because of her public lectures on street corners and in taverns, where her audience was usually men. Her message was allegedly that of the reformation, and she seemed to support all that the the reformers were doing, but historians say that it was her manner of delivery and her chosen audience that called her message into question. On several occasions, Farel said she was corrupting her husband and indicated that she seemed to be the leader in their marriage. Calvin mentioned her in a letter to Farel (Marie is called “the wife of Froment” here).
“I am now going to give you a humorous story. The wife of Froment lately came to this place. She declaimed through all the shops, and at almost all the cross-roads, against long garments. When she knew that I was aware of it, she excused herself by alleging that she had said with a smile, that we were either unbecomingly clothed, to the great detriment of the Church, or that you taught what was erroneous, when you said that false prophets could be distinguished by their long vestments. When I was rebutting so stale a calumny, she began to ascribe even to the Holy Spirit what she had directed against us. What is the meaning, said she, of that passage of the Gospel, “They will come to you in long garments?” I replied, that I did not know where that sentence was to be found, unless, perhaps, it might occur in the gospel of the Manichaeans; for the passage of Luke 20:45, is as follows: “Beware of the Scribes, who desire to walk in long robes,” but not, “They will come to you,” etc., which she had interpolated from Matthew 7:15. Feeling that she was closely pressed, she complained of our tyranny, because there was not a general license of prating about everything. I dealt with the woman as I should have done. She immediately proceeded to the widow of Michael, who gave her a hospitable reception, sharing with her not only her table, but her bed, because she maligned the ministers. I leave these wounds untouched, because they appear to me incurable until the Lord apply His hand.”
It is hard to know exactly what Calvin though of her “ministry” on the street corners, but it is obvious that he disagreed with her interpretation of this specific passage of the Bible. It also seems that he didn’t think highly of her loud mannerisms. Perhaps it didn’t seem appropriate for a lady to give herself such a public platform, so open to derision or debate. The fact that she maligned the ministers and retorted when Calvin tried to correct her is also unfortunate. Others (men, mostly) who maligned the Genevan ministers were usually taken to the authorities and asked to publicly apologize, but Calvin seemed to think that nothing more was needed in her case. Perhaps he realized that God was working on her in other ways. This must have been true, because the most interesting aspect of their relationship occurred fifteen years later, when Calvin asked Marie Dentiere to write the preface of his sermon on women’s apparel. Marie agreed, and exhorted women to shun the womanly vices of covetousness and materialism, especially in elaborate dress and makeup.
“You will find that those who are the most concerned about adorning their bodies, are little concerned that their spirits be adorned with true, solid virtues. As for us, we should not seek the ornament of garments, but of good behavior. As for women, who are in that regard more covetous than men, may they understand that too much daring has always been associated with immodesty; likewise, on the contrary, simplicity in clothes has always been a mark of chastity and continence.”
At the very end of her preface, she introduced Calvin and the passage he preached on, with this:
“Let us listen to the Apostle speaking to Timothy and to the man who preached publicly about that passage, a man who because of the purity of his teachings deserves to be heard among all the ministers and faithful pastors in Europe today.” In both her “Epistle” to Marguerite and this “Preface” to Calvin’s sermon, Marie included a subtle mention of her husband by including the word “froment,” which meant “wheat” but was also her husband’s last name. Some believe this to be an acknowledgment that her husband helped in authoring each of these publications.
Throughout Marie’s years in Geneva, she often spoke in favor of the reformers. When Calvin and Farel were kicked out of Geneva after their initial unsuccessful attempt at establishing the reformation in that city, Marie was one of the prominent citizens who wrote and spoke in their defense. She mentioned Calvin and Farel several times in her letter to Marguerite, affectionately referring to them as “exiles” who “don’t care or worry about pleasing anyone but their Lord and master, serving, honoring, and valuing Him.”
From these two interactions, we cannot guess very much about what Calvin thought of Marie, though many recent female writers hold that Calvin conspicuously ignored her throughout his ministry, because she was a woman behaving outside of her proper role. However, there is little evidence for this. Calvin disagreed with her teaching on long robes because she was quoting a verse improperly in order to prove her point. He took the time to stop and correct her. Her “maligning of the ministers” was certainly a serious offense in 16th century Geneva, but he treated her gently, and trusted that she would change, which seems to have been the case. When she was asked to write the preface to his sermon, she freely spoke her opinion, drawing what she believed to be Scriptural application. No doubt she had always retained great influence over the women of Geneva, and her preface to this sermon would probably increase the sermon’s readership among women. Historian McKinley suggests that the heat of the battle for the reformation had drawn Calvin’s and Marie’s goals into closer proximity. The persecution of their French brothers and sisters was increasing, and both Calvin and Marie desired to strengthen the reformation movement.