Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

Kingdon and WitteI am going to repost, with some revisions, my blog series on Kingdon and Witte’s excellent work: Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Vol 1.  There were supposed to be two more volumes, but Robert Kingdon died. I am not sure the status of the next two books. We cannot nor should we adopt all the specifics of pastoral care in Geneva. However, in our age where moral formation through pastoral care is an afterthought, books like these are of great value. The sheep wander off cliffs regularly while pastors waste their time or better yet push them. This books gives a way godly shepherds cared for their sheep in the a specific time and place. And while we cannot adopt all the particulars, the principles do not change.  And the subject of marriage, children, and sex is never boring and always relevant. 

What pops in your mind when you think of John Calvin? Austere reformer? Man who had Servetus killed? A man who taught that evil, black doctrine of predestination? Or do you think of a man who protected women and children and sought to reform marriage? This latter picture is the one painted by this book. I think most people will find me weird for loving this book so much. But I did. As a pastor I am always looking for different perspectives on pastoral care. This book is a great picture of pastoral theology and care in action during a specific time period. This book is supposed to be the first of three volumes on Sex, Marriage, and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva. I sincerely hope they get the other two written. This one focused on pastoral counsel up to and including the wedding. The next volume will focus on marriage and children. The final volume will focus on divorce, desertion, abuse, and widows/widowers.

The value of this book is found in the specific cases that are presented to give the reader insight into how the reformation of marriage worked itself out in Geneva. During John Calvin’s time in Geneva there were two main courts which governed the lives of the citizens of Geneva. There was the main civil court called the Small Council. Then there was the church court called the Consistory, which is the focus of this book. The Consistory was a group of around twenty-four men with twelve being the pastors of the city and twelve being elected men who came from various governing agencies in Geneva. The Consistory met every Thursday and kept pretty detailed case records. Thus we have actual records of how the pastors in Geneva tried to handle complex cases, such as adultery, fornication, brothels, rape, polygamy, false promises of marriage, lying about financial data, overbearing parents, etc. The authors make extensive use of these records. They also mine Calvin’s letters, commentaries, sermons, consilia, polemical writings, as well as Beza’s (Calvin’s successor) writings for data pertaining to the issues of courtship, engagement, and marriage. Also in 1546 Calvin help draft a marriage ordinance, which set the boundaries. All in all this gives us a pretty good picture of how these particular subjects were approached by one of the most important men in church history in one of the most important cities in the Reformation.

Here are some notes that I found interesting.  In subsequent posts I will address  specific issues.

Sexual immorality was just as big a problem then as it is now. Fornication, adultery, rape, multiple wives, incest, sex for money,  prostitution, men leaving their wives, men beating their wives, etc. It is all there, but unlike today where so many churches ignore or minimize sexual sin, in Geneva they attempted to deal with it. They worked to create social structures that dampened the enthusiasm for immorality or cut it off at the source. Two examples will show this effort. First, one man was running a brothel. He and his wife were kicked out of town and told that if they came back they would be whipped. Second, once you were engaged you had six weeks to marry. If you were slower than that the Consistory would call you in and ask why. If you had no legitimate reason they would force you to get married. This was designed to shorten the time when fornication between an engaged couple would be most likely.

Secret marriages were one of the main things that the men in Geneva tried to stamp out. I did not realize how big a problem this was. One of the reasons was the Roman Catholic view of marriage as an unbreakable sacrament that began with sex. So two young people fall in love and secretly say marriage vows. Then they can have sex without guilt and once they have sex then they are bound for life. This created problems with sexual immorality with young people getting “married”  who later seriously regretted their choice. Geneva tried to stamp this out by forbidding secret marriages. All promises to marry had to be made publicly with several witnesses. For the marriage to move forward there had to be consent (see below).

But once the promises were made they were very, very difficult to break. They took their oaths seriously. So again a young man falls in love with a young woman. At her parent’s house he promises to marry her and she accepts with consent from the parents. They usually raise a glass of wine in a toast. At that point they are technically engaged. If he decides two weeks later he no longer likes the girl, the oath still stood. The Consistory often forced couples to marry because they had promised to even if later they wanted to go back on their promise.

Consent was of paramount importance in Geneva when a couple wished to marry.  This consent involved three parties, the couple, the father/guardian (see below), and the community, including both church and civil authorities. All groups had to agree that there was no impediment to the marriage. The couple had their marriage publicly approved by getting banns signed by the local civil authority. A bann was a public announcement of the intent of the couple to marry. The banns were then read for three consecutive Sundays from the pulpit of the the couple’s church. By the time the couple got to their vows their marriage had approved by father/guardian, the civil authorities, the church authorities, and any member of the community had had ample opportunity to bring objections. Even before the internet, if there was problem the authorities usually found out before the wedding. For example, often a man would try to marry a woman when he was already engaged to someone in another town. This was a serious offense and though he sometimes got away with it, usually he didn’t.

This issue of consent also meant that promises to marry made under coercion were invalid. For example, during the Reformation men would promise to rescue women from Catholic cities if they would promise to marry them in return. The Consistory would not hold the woman to her promise because it was made under coercion. There had to be complete freedom in making a promise of marriage.

Men under the age of 20 and women under the age of 18 had to get their father or guardian’s consent to marry. However, a father or guardian could not force a child under those ages to marry a certain person nor could they withhold the dowry if the child refused to marry whom the father or guardian wanted. The child had freedom to refuse and if the father tried to force the marriage the child could appeal to the Consistory. At the same time, the father’s consent was very important even for an older child.  The Consistory would often encourage even those children over 18 and 20 to get their parent’s blessing.

Polygamy was a big problem. Why? Men and women would leave their Roman Catholic spouses in other countries and come to Geneva claiming to be single. If that person then married in Geneva they were a polygamist. This was a serious offense in Geneva. The only way a remarriage could happen would be if there was proof of an actual divorce. This was also one reason why a person had to wait one year after moving to Geneva before they could marry.

If you could not physically have sex you could not get married.  There was no marriage of the heart only. If you could not have sex the Lord had made you a eunuch (Matthew 19:12).  If you went to battle and lost your man parts, you could not marry. But if something happened physically after marriage the vows still held.

There was a lot of discussion about marrying relatives, incest. That is strange to us, but the Roman Catholics had an extensive list of relatives you could not marry. The Fourth Lateran Council of 1215 had reduced the list, but since that time the list had slowly grown. By the time of the Reformation, the list of who you could not marry based on blood was long. When you add to this the list of spiritual barriers the Roman Catholics had for marriage it could be almost impossible to find someone to marry, especially in one of the many small towns that dotted Europe at the time. The reformers greatly reduced this list. They only refused marriage to the closest of relatives based on Leviticus 18 and they reduced the spiritual barriers as well. This freed up people to get married.

The Consistory and pastors in Geneva would encourage people to marry within their same age group, economic class, and social status. But they would not forbid marriages that jumped over these barriers. They thought they were often unwise, but did not forbid them.

Finally, the Consistory worked hard to help women. Men who beat their wives were punished more and more severely as the years went by in Geneva. Pastors worked to create laws that kept women from being coerced into marriages either by harsh fathers or unscrupulous suitors. Geneva tried to created an environment where women who got pregnant out of wedlock could be helped either by marriage or by the father paying for the care of the child. Rape was a very serious offense. Often the Consistory would not even hear rape cases, but would send them straight to the Small Council for civil punishment.

I will stop there, but there was more fascinating information about impediments to marriage, the financial impact of marriages, and the wedding ceremony. I hope to get to some of these in the future.

2 thoughts on “Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

  1. Pingback: Marriage in Medieval Canon Law | Singing & Slaying
  2. Pingback: Sex, Procreation, and Historical Context | Singing & Slaying

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