December 24, 2003

Libertines in Calvin's Geneva

Bernard Cottret's volume on John Calvin (which I note is no longer available -- more's the pity) continues to impress. He quotes extensively of the kind of day-to-day matters with which Geneva's consistory -- a quasi religious/governmental body composed of four ministers and 20 members of the various elected councils -- dealt. I found this example illuminating:

A case involving women set off the explosion. On Thursday, June 23, 1547, several women appeared before the consistory for having danced. Among them was Francoise Favre, second wife of Ami Perrin. She had already had dealings with the consistory a year before (April 1546), when, refusing to testify against several friends of hers who were guilty of having danced, she stood up to Calvin, thus incurring several days' incarceration. This time she was determined to resist. She calmly refused to be talked to about it and sharply told the elders that it was not for them to admonish her. This noble task belonged at most to her husband. Her "fierce and rebellious words" and "gross blasphemies" cast a certain chill. The next day the pastor Abel Poupin let his anger break out in turn, and Francoise Perrin was ordered imprisoned under the control of the watchman Jean Blanc. Ami Perrin, the poor husband of this unfortunate pleasure seeker, was in France on assigned service, representing his city before Henry II, who succeeded Francis I that spring. Several relatives, including Pierre Tissot and Louis Bernard, interceded for the wife. But it was no use. Excitement mounted in the town, where various vicious rumors against Calvin circulated; a placard written in Geneva dialect was even posted on the pulpit of Saint-Pierre. There Abel Poupin was described bluntly as a "big lard-belly," while the venerable pastors appeared as "fucking renegade priests" who, barely quit of their "monkeries," intended to "blow smoke in the eyes" of everyone. In the middle of all this Ami Perrin returned from his journey in September; he hurried to the Council "in great anger." He displayed his afflction, and played the grand seigneur, greeting the august assembly nobly. Putting one leg forward, he exclaimed,

Most honored lords!

I understand that you are considering imprisoning my father-in-law and my wife. My father-in-law is old, my wife is ill; by imprisoning them you will shorten their days, to my great regret, which I have not deserved from you and which would be to give me poor recompense for the services I have done you. Therefore I beg you not to imprison them. If they have done wrong I will bring them here to make such amends that you will have reason to be content. I pray you to grant me this, since if you put them in prison God will aid me to avenge myself for it.

But they remained cold to the supplications of poor Perrin. It was a time of repression. The author of the placard posted in Saint-Pierre against Calvin was also arrested. Jacques Gruet admitted his crime under torture. He was immediately executed at the end of July. A strange person, this Gruet, whose materialist arguments could be validly considered a declaration of atheism. His papers reveal original thoughts abounding in denials of Christianity. "If I want to dance, leap, lead a joyful life, what business is it of the law?" Or again, "The world had no beginning and will have no end." "The one who was called Christ, who said he was the son of God, why did he endure his passion?" "I believe that when a man is dead there is no hope of his living." And so on. Calvin tore into Gruet, and his writings were publicly burned in a joyful auto-de-fe in 1550. Was Gruet an atheist? Probably. But he was also Gruet, a companion of the Favres and Perrins, Gruet the Genevan, exasperated by Calvin and the moral order he incarnated, against and opposed to everything. Many Genevan families, including many leading ones, endured more and more restively the supervision of the great man. ... They adopted the revealing title of "Children of Geneva." They were maliciously called "libertines," the title under which they have passed to posterity.

"If I want to dance, leap, lead a joyful life, what business is it of the law?" I think that quote stands for both Gruet and Francoise Perrin.

I'll add that I am sympathetic, if not entirely in accord, with some of Calvin's theological ideas and interpretations. When I read the Institutes and some of his sermons a few years back, I found an engaging intelligence. Pity that the power of the state came to be a substitute for argument.

Posted by Ideofact at December 24, 2003 12:23 AM

Actually, it seems that the English translation is still available:

Posted by: kristine at December 25, 2003 12:14 PM