Tag Archives: geneva

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.

Advertisements

Advice for Idelette Calvin from a Dying Old Man

In the summer of 1542, a few months after Idelette had arrived in Geneva as the new wife of John Calvin, a friend of Calvin’s lay dying. His name was Ami Porral, and he was the chief magistrate of the city, as well as the one who Calvin had consulted in drawing up the Ecclesiastical Ordinances the year before. Porral was the kind of man who loved to teach and exhort. Calvin visited him before his wife Idelette had a chance to, and they talked about salvation, the resurrection, and church unity.

Calvin recounted, “Whoever called to see him, heard some suitable exhortation; and that you may not suppose it to have been mere talkative vanity, as far as was possible he applied to each individual what was best adapted to his circumstances, and most likely to be of use to him.” Porral directed some extraordinary advice to Calvin and Viret, who visited his bedside each day that week. His advice nearly knocked them over.

John CalvinCalvin says, “We were both of us in a sort of stupor of astonishment; and whenever it recurs to my memory, even yet I grow bewildered. For he spoke in such a way, that it seemed to reflect some discourse by one of ourselves after long and careful meditation… Thence he proceeded to exhort us both, as well regarding the other departments of our charge as ministers, as also to constancy and firmness; and when he discoursed at some length on the future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel, he seemed inspired with the foresight of a prophet. It was wonderful how wisely he spoke to purpose on what concerned the public weal.” The tone of Calvin’s letter shows how sincerely he took to heart this strangely insightful advice from his dying friend. The “future difficulties of the ministers of the Gospel” were to be great indeed, and Calvin no doubt pondered Porral’s words in his heart for many years after.

The second afternoon, when Idelette was able to free herself from household duties, she joined her husband at Porral’s deathbed. Porral’s specific advice for Idelette penetrated her heart as well. Porral “told her to be of good courage whatever might happen, that she ought to consider that she had not been rashly led hither, but brought by the wonderful counsel of God, that she also might serve in the Gospel.”

Idelette de bure calvinThat the dying man chose this topic to encourage Idelette is interesting, because it exposes that she may have been distressed about her move to Geneva and the role it would play in her life (or he may have thought as much, whether or not it was true). At this point, she was eight months pregnant with her third child, feeling like she might be coming down with the flu, still trying to navigate this strange and new city of Geneva, and finding the inhabitants not very welcoming to foreigners. To “be of good courage, whatever might happen,” was probably exactly what she needed to hear. Porral’s encouragement that “she also might serve in the Gospel” shows his desire for her to be a true helpmeet to Calvin, “also” serving Geneva by preaching the Gospel in her work alongside her husband.

Reading over this detailed account in Calvin’s letter, I am struck by how fully the Lord used this man’s dying words to prophetically address specific fears and weaknesses in both John and Idelette Calvin’s lives. John Calvin was young and timid, by his own admission, and shied away from public spectacle whenever he could. Yet here he was exhorted to “constancy and firmness” in every future difficulty that he must take on. Idelette was far away from the home, and family, and religion of her youth, and may well have felt “rashly led” to Geneva. But Porral’s exhortation was to consider that it was by the Lord’s providential counsel that she had been brought here, and that she should courageously serve in the Gospel.

Calvin and Idelette remained at his bedside the rest of the day until he could no longer speak. Since it was getting late, Calvin and Idelette started for home, walking slowly up the dark street, pondering together the unique charges they had been given to carry out. The next morning they found out that Porral had passed away. “Scarcely had we left,” Calvin writes, “when he gave up his pious soul to Christ.”

John Calvin and Hospitality in Geneva

It’s well known that John Calvin the bachelor practiced active hospitality before he was married, and that during the first months of his marriage to Idelette, many guests and boarders enjoyed John and Idelette’s home for both long and short periods of time. Calvin believed that hospitality was not a question of personal preference, but of obedience to the command to show kindness to “strangers within your gates.” Hospitality has “nearly ceased to be properly observed among men,” Calvin writes, “for the ancient hospitality celebrated in histories is unknown to us, and inns now supply the place of accommodation for strangers.” (Calvin, John, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1948), p. 340)

Calvin was especially hospitable to religious refugees, teaching others in his congregation that “no duty can be more pleasing or acceptable to God” than to provide kind hospitality to religious refugees.

“Therefore, whatever man you meet who needs your aid, you have no reason to refuse to help him. Say, ‘He is a stranger;’ but the Lord has given him a mark that ought to be familiar to you, by virtue of the fact that He forbids you to despise your own flesh (Isa. 58:7, Vg.). Say, ‘He is contemptible and worthless;’ but the Lord shows him to be one to who He has deigned to give the beauty of His image. Say that you owe nothing for any service of his; but God, as it were, has put him in his own place in order that you may recognize toward him the many and great benefits with which God has bound you to Himself. Say that he does not deserve even your least effort for his sake; but the image of God, which recommends him to you, is worthy of your giving yourself and all your possessions.” (Calvin, John, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2 vols., ed. John T. McNeill (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 3.7.6.)

Calvin’s preaching on hospitality influenced more than his own home and congregation. During Calvin’s years in Geneva, the city’s population more than doubled! Most were refugees looking for a place to safely raise their families, and with Geneva being just a few miles from the border of anti-Protestant France, Geneva was a practical and nurturing “city of refuge.” We find numerous letters of Calvin’s inviting his friends and friends of friends to Geneva. He loved having all his friends near him, and he loved adding people he had not met yet to his circle of friends.

One modern-day visitor to Geneva described some of the homes from Calvin’s era that still carry a visible mark of the incredible hospitality the Genevans practiced during the reformation. With the streets in Geneva narrowly winding in a tightly-cramped city and the surrounding gardens being very small, there was no place to expand a house’s square footage, but up! So roofs were literally lifted off these homes and another floor or two was added onto the upper story in order to accommodate more guests. The roof was then put back on the highest story, and the house was twice as accommodating than before. Like a high water-mark in a river, these homes show a high point in Geneva’s history. (Rev. Mark Englund-Krieger, “Report to the Presbytery, May 22, 2012,” on Carlisle Executive Presbyter, <http://markekrieger.blogspot.com/2012/05/report-to-presbytery-may-22-2012.html> accessed on June 16, 2012.)

Calvin was also known to have established the “5% rule” amongst local businessmen in order to obtain loans for foreign refugees in Geneva. He personally requested that banks loan refugees what the refugees would need to start a life and a business in Geneva, and to only charge them 5% interest, with no increases. This request was not a civil or pastoral command, but more of a challenge and encouragement to the business owners of Geneva. As a result of this wise “hospitable” strategy of Calvin’s, the city’s economy boomed, bringing in more still more merchants and business owners.

John Calvin and Idelette DeBure

A few years ago I was looking for information on John Calvin’s family. Specifically, on his wife Idelette. There was so little material, and what there was, was spread thinly over Calvin’s biographies, like butter over too much bread.

Image

So I began a research project that has extended into two years so far, and which I expect to continue for at least another year. Some of my findings have been unexpected: glimpses into the heart of a man who greatly influenced Christianity and yet who was so human that he overate when he was distressed about a piffle between his housekeeper and his brother, and so loving that he wrote hundreds of letters his childhood friends for his entire life.

Image

And Idelette, the mysterious lady who captured Calvin’s heart and served the Lord as a  worthy companion to her husband in Geneva, and whose dying words were centered on the resurrection of Christ, this lady has dropped many fascinating clues about her life. She shows up at the end of Calvin’s letters, sending her greetings to his friends. She is found at the deathbed of an elderly pastor, who uses his dying words to encourage her in her newlywed life of ministry alongside her husband, that she should not fear what Geneva would hold for her.

My research on John and Idelette is almost completed, but there is still much to write in order to turn it into an enchanting biography worthy of publication. My next project is to work through Calvin’s commentaries to glean out every reference to family, marriage, children, and women, and to work his eloquence on those topics into the story I’ve already written about Mr. and Mrs. Calvin.

This blog will be my training ground. I plan to put scraps from my book on this blog to see what people think of what I’ve written so far. It will also serve as accountability for my writing: for I will try to always post a portion of what I’ve written each day after I write it.