- Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin's Geneva. Volume 1: Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage
John Witte and Robert Kingdon have compiled a very interesting and useful collection of primary sources pertaining to marriage in Calvin's Geneva. They have culled fascinating information on marriage and the control of matrimony from an impressive variety of documents, including excerpts from sermons, biblical commentaries, statutes, legal memoranda, and correspondence. Almost all the correspondence and normative literature reproduced in this volume was authored by Calvin, though the editors have also included a number of important pieces written by Theodore Beza, Calvin's successor as the leading pastor in Geneva. Of particular interest are excerpts from the registers of the Consistory, a quasi-tribunal that was comprised of the city's pastors and elders and had jurisdiction over a wide range of moral issues, including marriage disputes. Having founded the Consistory in 1541, Calvin religiously attended its weekly meetings and profoundly shaped its agenda until his death in 1564. The selected Consistory records date from 1546, 1552, and 1557, sample years that corresponded respectively to the appearance of Calvin's Marriage Ordinance, growing opposition to Calvin among some native Genevans, and the summit of Calvin's power following his defeat of Ami Perrin and the so-called "Children of Geneva."
The fourteen chapters are organized around a variety of topics, including courtship, parental consent to marry, polygamy, incestuous unions, religiously mixed marriages, and proper wedding ceremonies. For each chapter, the editors provide a useful overview of the issues involved and detailed background to the documents they have chosen. Denying that marriage is a sacrament, Protestants introduced several significant changes in the control of matrimony: the reduction in the number of impediments to marry (based on consanguinity, affinity, or the spiritual ties of godparentage), the rejection of clerical celibacy, the compulsory publication of the banns, mandatory parental consent for the marriages of minors, and the possibility of divorce for adultery or desertion.
In handling disputed marriage engagements, which were much more common than divorce cases, Calvin and the Consistory were interested above all in establishing whether couples had freely and unconditionally promised to marry each other. They declared null any engagement involving coercion, be it from parents, the other party, or anyone else. Marriage promises required parental permission for males under twenty and females under eighteen, and the Consistory even nullified an engagement because of the opposition of a [End Page 326] party's Catholic mother, who lived outside Geneva's jurisdiction. Some may be surprised that Calvin and the Consistory viewed engagements that had been freely and properly made as binding, occasionally obliging couples to go through with the wedding even though both now wanted to be released from the bond. Notwithstanding biblical examples to the contrary, Calvin expressed strong opposition to marriages between people of widely disparate ages, aptly seen in his great consternation when, at 69, his friend Guillaume Farel married a woman less than half his age.
Calvin revealed the limited grounds for divorce in a letter in which he informed an unidentified Protestant woman that she must continue living with her physically abusive Catholic husband unless her life was actually in danger. Calvin's call for simplicity both in weddings, which were celebrated during the church service, and in postnuptial celebrations was reflected in a big controversy over dancing that allegedly occurred at a wedding feast in 1546, resulting in the arrest of several people, his nemesis Perrin among them.
All told, the documents from Calvin's Geneva that are reproduced here are very well chosen, eloquently translated, and deftly analyzed. This volume should be of great interest to anyone interested in the history of marriage and of the Reformation.