Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time   of Calvin, Volume 1, 1542-1544Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, Volume 1, 1542-1544
Robert Kingdon
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This critical edition of the Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the time of John Calvin reveals what life was like during the Protestant Reformation in a city where ecclesiastical discipline affected many. These valuable primary source documents -- the great bulk of which have remained unknown to most modern researchers - are of capital importance for study of this seminal period in church history. The details contained within the Geneva Consistory's registers portray a fascinating cross section of society in the first period of the Reformation. If one is interested in religion lived by ordinary people and the reception of Calvin's Reform among the populace, one will find here a veritabe treasure-house. Faithfully preserved through the centuries by the authorities of the Reformed Church of Geneva, these Consistory records have been edited and critically annotated by Thomas A. Lambert and Isabella M. Watt under the direction of Robert M. Kingdon. Translated by M. Wallace McDonald from the French edition of the same work, these noteworthy historical documents are now available in English for the first time.
Volume I documents the activity of the Consistory between 1542 and 1544. Rich in details pertaining to daily life and piety in Geneva, these records from the Consistory's earliest days testify to the immense role played by the church in society at the beginning of the Reformation. Within the first twenty-four monthsof the Consistory's existence, almost 850 people were called to appear from a total population of less than 13,000. Besides the expected pursuit of "paillards," the Consistory heard the cases of drunkards, blasphemers, usurers, wastrels, beggars, dancers, singers of "improper songs," healers, magicians, gamblers and other "evil livers." The Consistory, charged with repressing the beliefs and practices of the old faith, also investigated numerous cases of recidivist Catholics, from those who continued pryaing to Mary and the saints to those who refused Reformed communion. In time such cases would diminish with the promotion and acceptance of Reformed modes of living and worship, but this volume clearly portrays the important period of transition.

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The picture of Calvinism held by the general public is characterized above all by a doctrine and a manner of life. Certainly the doctrine of predestination (or, among those who know the history of the Reformation, of double predestination) plays an important part in Reformed theology. However, some fall into excess in trying to reduce the thought of Calvin to this doctrine alone. Similarly, it is possible to exaggerate the importance of regulation of morals, of Puritanism, among the Reformers. At the same time, discipline is without doubt an essential pillar of Calvin's ecclesiology. For him ecclesiastical discipline is to the church "as the nerves are in a body, uniting the members and keeping each in its place and its proper state." This discipline depends above all on the practice of excommunication. Although in theory the right of excommunication in Geneva always rested in the Seigneurie, which regularly restated its authority, in practice the instrument of excommunication in Geneva was the Consistory.

The privileged position of ecclestiastical discipline in Calvinist thought tends to give importance to the study of the institution designed to impose that discipline. This permits us to see what Calvin meant by discipline. But the interest of the Consistory for Genevan history manifests itself in many other ways. What may be called demographic issues are also significant: the Consistory usually summoned from five to seven percent of the adult population each year. Already in its first 24 months of activity it summoned almost 850 persons, from a total population of less than 13,000. It goes without saying that the number of people thus affected by this body, if one counts the friends and families of those summoned, greatly exceeds this figure. This is an enormous percentage, when it is considered that the Consistory functioned thus year after year.

Is it not clear that an institution with such a position in society merits the attention of historians? The editors of the published works of Calvin responded in the negative. They state: "The sessions of the Consistory were for the most part filled with correctional affairs no longer of great interest." This prejudgment is not found only among these modern scholars; the perception that the Consistory occupied itself only with fornicators goes back to the very beginnings of the Consistory.
On the contrary, speaking of the article concerning fornication in the ordinances for the discipline of rural churches of 1547, J.F. Bergier wrote: "By virtue of this article, the Consistory had to examine numerous cases that are recounted in the Registers of this institution and form the best source for a history of manners, indeed a social history of Geneva." In fact, if these registers recorded only the history of sexual deviancy, we would not have taken the trouble to edit them. Nevertheless, we agree with Bergier: the minutes of the Consistory prove particularly rich for the study of many aspects of daily life.

Certainly, the Consistory saw the pursuit of "paillards" - from simple fornicators to repeat adulterers - as an integral part of its work; in its origin, it was inspired by the tribunal matrimonial of Bern and replaced the bishop's courts, which occupied themselves with questions involving the sacraments, particularly marriage. Therefore, the Consistory was expected above all to determine the validity of promises of marriage. As throughout Europe, the Genevans of the sixteenth century customarily had sexual relations immediately after the promise of marriage, before the ecclesiastical ceremony took place. Pregnancy often resulting, the promise had special importance in law. If one party complained that the other had not held to its word, the Consistory held a hearing to decide whether there was a broken promise, in which case the parties were generally required to marry, or a promise falsely claimed, in which case they were guilty of fornication. In the latter case, these minutes teach us about clandestine sexuality in Geneva; in the former, they furnish us with fascinating information about the manner of choosing a spouse, even among the lower levels of society which are often so difficult to examine. Already, the first pages of this volume depict for us a precious scene where, according to Pernet Du Puys, he and Clauda Du Bouloz had gone walking on the Mont du Salève, near Geneva. In descending, agreeing well together, they stopped to drink in the village of Collonges-sous-Salève. The young man affirmed that, satisfied with their day together, they drank a glass "in the name of marriage," in this period a widespread method of exchanging promises of marriage. The woman, however, admits that she drank a glass, but not "in the name of marriage," because she did not have the consent of her family. They appealed to the Consistory to determine whether the marriage should take place or not. This is a typical example where the testimony of the two parties gives us interesting information about the method of courting and the formation of couples in the sixteenth century.
From its first days, the Consistory investigated a gamut of cases much more varied than merely promises of marriage and sexual crimes. Throughout the period of John Calvin's ministry, beginning already in the period contained in the present volume, the Consistory investigated drunkards, blasphemers, usurers, wastrels, beggars, dancers, singers of "improper songs," healers, magicians, gamblers, and other "evil livers." As we read the whole of these registers, an entire canvas of popular culture unrolls before our eyes. Clearly it is most often concerned with deviant behavior of a commonplace sort. Even when it involves more unusual behavior, the reactions of those involved give us a detailed image of what was perceived as normal. In short, as Bergier affirms, it is an excellent source for the study of society.

There are, however, some aspects that merit fuller treatment. For the historian of religion, these minutes of the Consistory are particularly useful. This is not because they clarify the thought of Calvin. If the spirit of the great reformer permeates these registers, his voice is never heard; their interest resides elsewhere. If, however, one is interested in the religion lived by ordinary people and in the reception of the Reform among the populace, he will find here a veritable treasure-house. The Consistory was charged with repressing the practices and beliefs of the old faith and introducing those of the Reform. To this end the Consistory examined those suspected of attachment to the church of Rome as well as those who neglected their duties - principally those whose attendance at sermons did not demonstrate an ardent zeal for the Reformation.
Genevans accused of "papist" sympathies manifested an astonishing diversity of practices and beliefs of the old church during the first years of the functioning of the Consistory. It is seen that they continued to pray to the saints and the Virgin Mary, that they prayed for the dead, that they fasted on Friday and during Lent, that they refused to take Reformed Communion, that they read Books of Hours and, sometimes, took advantage of the proximity of Catholic districts to leave the city to attend Mass. Sometimes the persistence of Catholic beliefs stemmed from deliberate and informed refusal to accept the Reform; sometimes it is only ignorance that speaks. But for whatever reason, in the course of years the strength of both causes dims, and one finds fewer and fewer recidivist Catholics before the Consistory. In this first volume, however, such cases form a great part of the work of the Consistory. The recidivists most devoted to the old faith - people such as Jane Bonna called Pertenne, Jaques Symond, and Bartholomée d’Orsières -make only brief appearances. More numerous are people like Pernete Du Pain, who reported having said the Ave Maria "sometimes through ignorance."

All this, it can be objected, informs us only about a minority. On the one hand, we could answer that it was always an important minority during this first period. On the other hand, the Consistory did not limit itself to investigating inveterate recidivists, but interrogated hundreds of persons about their prayers, their attendance at ceremonies, their understanding of preaching, and their knowledge of Reformed doctrines. And since they posed such questions to almost all who appeared before the Consistory, not merely to those accused of offenses of faith, this gives us better access to the general population than one would think at first glance. Thus, besides those neo-Catholics who, despite their protestations, despised a Communion where the bread did not change into flesh, one finds Genevans like Pierre Rugoz. This poorly taught shearer could pray only in Latin and said that "sometimes he invokes Our Lady." However, he insisted "that God does not come in the hands of priests. And that he does not have great devotion to feasts [or] the abuses of candles or of foods or of invocation of saints."
This is only one example drawn more or less at random from this first volume, which is full of information about Genevan piety in the first period of the Reformation. It is this which distinguishes this period most in comparison with the registers from twenty (or even five) years later; the hundreds of interrogations on the subject of the prayers of the Genevans already disappear almost entirely in the second volume of the Consistory registers. The decrease in accounts of such interrogations is possibly due to the increase of knowledge in the populace. However, the break is so clear, so clean that we are inclined to think that the change in secretary after the first volume also plays a role, because in the last analysis it was the scribe who decided what details merited recording. For whatever reason, the present volume is particularly useful for the study of popular piety.

We have mentioned that besides questions touching the reception of the Reform, the Consistory occupied itself with disputed promises of marriage. The Consistory also watched over the private life of couples. The best-known cases are those where there is a question of adultery. The Reform introduced an innovation, divorce with permission to remarry. The first well-documented divorce, that of Pierre and Benoite Ameaux, began before the Consistory during our period.

Less celebrated but much more common are the investigations of couples who did not desire a divorce but got along badly together, who had a "bad household," as one said at the time. The complaints of the husband and the wife, as well as the testimony of the servants and neighbors, say much about the behavior of couples and also about the expectations of society.

Besides problems in the bosom of the family, the Consistory concerned itself also with discord in society. In Geneva, as in France and Scotland, the Consistory (the kirk in Scotland) wished to eliminate ill will from society not only from fear of social disorder, but also to avoid profaning Communion. Thus the dizainiers, men assigned to watch over a quarter of the city, were required "to know those in their dizaines who bear ill will against each other, so that they can be reconciled before receiving the Holy Communion of Our Lord." Genevans who feared to present themselves for Communion with a troubled heart often abstained without the intervention of the authorities rather than put themselves in danger of inviting the wrath of God. If their absence was noted, the Consistory summoned them to learn whether some anger troubled them. If so, the Consistory tried to reconcile them.
Naturally, these disputes occurred not only between husband and wife, but also between father and son, father-in-law and son-in-law, mistress and maid, and among brothers, sisters, friends, neighbors, business associates, etc. For the historian, the role of the Consistory permits us to examine the social fabric over a remarkable range. Certainly, these are not peaceful relations, at least at the moment when we observe them. Nevertheless, the complaints of the parties and the decisions of the Consistory furnish us with a very rich picture of what was expected of a neighbor, a friend, or a family member. It must be added that the Consistory showed itself effective in these matters. Even inveterate enemies like the brothers Curtet or Pierre Tissot and his family ended by being reconciled in a more or less formal ceremony where the parties swore to forget all resentment and shook hands or, sometimes, embraced.

Arbitration of disputes, surveillance of morals, repression of the vestiges of the Catholic cult and introduction of a Reformed mode of living, resolution of matrimonial cases: this is a general sketch of the activity of the Consistory between 1542 and 1544. In conclusion it must be added that in outlining these generalizations, one passes by in silence many interesting cases, such as that of Jana Bossey. After having overturned a bottle of oil, she tried to drown herself out of fear of her husband's anger and, apparently, worry over certain debts. Her deposition gives us a rare doorway into the mental processes of a depressed woman of the sixteenth century. Or likewise one can study a particular profession, the way of dating events of one's life or remembering them, the extent of the social network of servants, or some other question that the editors have not thought of and do not even know how to pose. Indeed, the editors have been inspired by precisely this possibility - that researchers could use this text for purposes not yet imagined. We hope that reading it will transmit to them a little of the satisfaction and pleasure we have had in preparing this edition.

    Excerpted from Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, Volume 1, 1542-1544 by Robert M. Kingdon, general editor; Thomas A. Lambert & Isabella M. Watt, editors; M. Wallace McDonald, translator.
    Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2000
    All rights reserved