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  • Sex, Marriage, and Family Life in John Calvin's Geneva. Vol. 1, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage
  • Jeannine E. Olson
John Witte and Robert M. Kingdon. Sex, Marriage, and Family Life in John Calvin's Geneva. Vol. 1, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage. Religion, Marriage, and Family. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2005. xxxii + 512 pp. index. tbls. $32. ISBN: 0-8028-4803-6.

Sex, Marriage, and Family Life in John Calvin's Geneva is projected to be a three-volume work. This first volume covers laws and customs in Geneva surrounding engagement, the abbreviated period between engagement and marriage, [End Page 1234] and the marriage ceremony itself during the era of John Calvin (1536-64) and Theodore Beza (d. 1605), but this limited timespan is extended by setting the sixteenth century in historical context. Chapters are logically and systematically organized to cover medieval precedents, the departure from these precedents by the new laws of reformed Geneva, and the rationale for these new laws based on biblical precedent; on natural, Roman, and customary law; and on John Calvin's opinion on what is right in a given case.

Much work on Calvin is done predominately on the basis of his published works. One of the chief attributes of this volume is that it marries theory and practice. After considering the theoretical in biblical commentaries, tracts, and sermons by Calvin and Beza, chapters on a given topic include examples of specific cases brought before the Consistory (church court and disciplinary body) and before the city council (ruling, executive, and judicial committee) of Geneva. These chapters conclude with transcriptions and translations of the original documents discussed earlier in each chapter.

The authors point out changes in Genevan marital laws from the canon law of the medieval Catholic Church with regard, for instance, to the degrees of relationship that precluded marriage of distant cousins in the medieval past to first cousins in Calvin's Geneva. On the other hand, the authors point out those areas in which Calvin and Geneva retained medieval practices, especially those that dated from earlier times, such as laws precluding incest, for instance. For Calvin, earlier was not necessarily better, however, and all that is described in the Bible was not to be emulated. He is quick to condemn polygamy, incest, and marriage to spouses of different religious convictions by some of the patriarchs of the Hebrew Bible. Calvin was convinced that polygamy led to endless jealousy and rancor.

The findings of Witte and Kingdon in the past have application to the present: the covenantal nature of marriage, the complexities of helping a friend find a prospective spouse, as Calvin attempted for Pierre Viret, and the importance of money and property to a marriage, for instance. Witte and Kingdon devote considerable attention to the financial implications of marriage, the resources that families brought to the marriages of their children in early modern times, the rights that the new husband and wife had over these resources, and the eventual division of these resources when one spouse died or on those rare occasions when a marriage dissolved. The authors cover in rich detail the arrangements made by early modern people to protect the financial solvency of a married couple and the heritage of their children through the marriage contract, the dowry, and the marriage portion. The wisdom and complexity of these arrangements are explained clearly for the modern reader who might be inclined to think, from a twenty-first-century perspective, that marriage contracts between loving couples betray trust. Calvin, on the contrary, lawyer that he was, felt that agreements made in advance and in writing avoided future conflict.

There is so much good to be said about this book: the teamwork that such a project entailed, the thoroughness and clarity of the text, the indices contained in each volume rather than being reserved for the end. Scholars will appreciate the [End Page 1235] transcriptions of primary source documents in this book, many from original manuscript sources, painstaking to read from the handwritten original. These are translated into English from French and Latin, much of the Latin translated by John Patrick Donnelly. The use of selections from the Consistory...


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Archived 2009
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