Engagement, Marriage, and Consent in Calvin’s Geneva

Coerced marriages were a big problem in John Calvin’s Geneva. The laws in Geneva were designed to make sure both parties consented freely to the marriage. Here were the rules Geneva set down to make sure engagements were not coerced.

First, all engagements were to be initiated by a “sober proposal” from the man in front of at least two witnesses of “good reputation.” “Engagements made in secret, qualified with onerous conditions, or procured by coercion were automatically annulled.” “Engagements procured through trickery, ‘surprise,’ or made frivolously, as when merely touching glasses when drinking together, could be annulled on petition by either party.”  They took this so seriously that if a man promised to rescue a woman from a bad situation if she married him, such as an abusive father or being in Roman Catholic city,  she could have that promise annulled because it was coerced.

Second, the consent of the parents or guardians was needed or desired. Men under twenty and women under eighteen had to have their parents’ consent. Adult children could proceed without the parents’ consent, but, “it would be more fitting for them to let themselves always be governed by the advice of their fathers.”

Third, though the parents’ consent was important it was not a substitute for the consent of the children. “Parents could not, on the pain of imprisonment, coerce their children into unwanted engagements or marriages, or withhold consent or payment of dowry until the child chose a favorite partner…Children confronting a negligent or excessively strict father, could have him compelled to give a dowry in support of their marriage.

Fourth, “the consent of the broader state and church community also played a part.” Here is how that worked. When a couple got engaged they went to the magistrate and got a “banns” which was a public announcement of the couple’s intention to marry. Their pastor would then announce this impending marriage from the pulpit for three consecutive Sundays.

Such widespread notice was an open invitation for fellow parishioners and citizens alike to approve the match or voice their objections.  Any objections to the engagement could be raised at this point. But all such objections had to be voiced privately to the Consistory, and only by citizens or by persons of good reputation…those who objected in an untimely or improper manner could be sued for defamation by the couple or their parents. 

What can we learn from this particular arrangement in Calvin’s Geneva? Is this just a relic of an older age that cannot speak to the 21st century? We cannot imitate Calvin’s Geneva. But we can learn from it.

First, the interaction between the different parties involved is commendable. The state and the church expected the individuals, their families, their friends, their fellow citizens, and their fellow church members to all have a hand in approving or disapproving the marriage. This is in sharp contrast to today’s culture where most engagements are made with little outside consultation. Marriages are not private affairs. They impact all the parties involved to greater and lesser degrees. Therefore all parties should have some say. These laws support the notion put forward by Steven Ozment that men were primarily seen in their social relationships during the Middle Ages and Reformation.

Second, though these groups were involved none of them had final say. All parties were subject to certain rules that guided whether or not the marriage could take place.  There was a recognition of the need for checks and balances. No person or group should function as a tyrant over another.

Third, only those of “good reputation” could have a say. Notice that when a couple got engaged or when a complaint was brought before the Consistory only those of good reputation could be witnesses. A man who was known liar, cheat, adulterer, or traitor could not have a voice in the couple’s choice. This was one way the couple was protected from vengeful attacks upon their character. (The other way the couple was protected was that all accusations were to be brought privately and if they were found to be false those bearing false witness could be imprisoned or pay a fine.) This law also provided incentive for men to keep their reputations clean if they wanted to have any say in who their friends or family members married.

Finally, all of this consent may seem like a lot of trouble. But that is only because our culture easily breaks promises. In Geneva, “the strong presumption was that engagement contracts, once properly made, could not be broken.” Once a man promised to marry a lady and she promised to marry him it was set. Therefore everyone involved was to make every effort to be honest and to bring out into the open any potential problems. In our culture not only are engagements broken with regularity but marriage vows are as well. When promises are so easily broken it is not surprising that they are not made “reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.” (Book of Common Prayer)