Cold Feet in Calvin’s Geneva

Groom Running
I am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva. 

In a previous post I looked at what happens when people get too excited about marriage and up sleeping together before their wedding. As with all periods of history, this problem was common in Geneva. However, there was another issue that Geneva faced that is not a problem in 21st Century America; desertion before marriage. Today an engagement is not binding therefore this is not an issue. If a couple is engaged, it is assumed they will get married. But if they do not wish to get married all they have to do is break off the engagement.  Nothing more is needed. 

However, in Geneva an engagement was almost as binding as a marriage. Someone could not simply say, “I do not want to get married” and then dissolve the engagement. But just as people slept together before marriage in all ages, in all ages men and women get nervous when it comes to finally saying, “I do.” Kingdon and Witte say it like this:

The opposite problem of premarital sex was premarital desertion. Some engaged parties got “cold feet” in anticipation of their marriage and took flight from Geneva, with or without explanation. Others had to be away during their engagement for business, to answer court summons, to visit family or friends, or to serve in the military, and then were detained, imprisoned, sick, or died. Still other engaged parties were whisked away by parents or occasionally by former lovers or spouses who did not want to them to marry their new beloved. This was a day of relatively poor communications and public recording keeping in a city with a transient population. Was desertion an impediment that could break the engagement contract? How long was a deserted party to wait before being free to pursue another? What procedures should be followed to inoculate an innocent party against polygamy charges if the deserter later returned and challenged a second engagement or marriage contract?

The seriousness of desertion was amplified by the seriousness of engagement. It took the equivalent of divorce proceedings to get out of an engagement. Geneva had specific regulations guiding how desertion was handled in their Marriage Ordinance of 1546. Here are the guidelines. I am summarizing and not quoting directly.

1. If an engaged man has disappeared without prior knowledge and it appears that he has done so from bad motives, an attempt is made to contact him and ask him to return and get married by a certain date.

2. If he has not returned by the set date, the church is to proclaim from the pulpit that he must appear. This is to be proclaimed three times, every other week for six consecutive weeks. If at that time he still has not returned the wife is free and the man is “banished for disloyalty.”

3. If he has good reason to be gone, such as business, and informs the wife-to-be of his trip, she is to wait one year before “proceeding against him for his absence.” If a year passes and he has not returned then she can proceed as above. The situation here is a man leaves on business and is gone longer than expected. She tries to contact him, but cannot get in touch with him. She is to wait one year before breaking off the engagement.  The year wait might also have prevented the wife at home from getting excited about another suitor and breaking off the engagement prematurely.

4. The husband was to follow the same procedure, except he did not have to wait a year, unless he had given her permission to depart.

5. If anyone, such as a parent or friend, helps an engaged person escape the city so as to avoid the impending marriage they shall be punished and shall make all efforts to get the engaged person back to Geneva.

Beyond these rules Calvin said very little about desertion. He did allow for a wife to divorce if her husband deserted her citing I Corinthians 7:12-16.  Kingdon and Witte note:

Calvin did allow wives to desert chronically abusive husbands who posed grave threats to their bodies and souls, provided that these women gave adequate notice of their intentions. If Calvin allowed wives to desert in these cases, he doubtless would have condoned it even more readily for fiancees.

Beza, Calvin’s successor at Geneva, made the desertion laws more strict. In particular, he created a greater disparity between how long men had to wait and women had to wait. Some think the longer waiting period for women was to make sure they were not pregnant.

Geneva’s laws regarding desertion do not have much application to current engagements because our engagements are not binding. However, their desertion laws might shed some light on how to handle desertion in marriage. There are differences between engagement and marriage, but what constitutes desertion is hotly debated today. How long does it take before a spouse is considered a deserter? At what point can a marriage be dissolved when one partner has left?  Has the deserted party done what they can to reconcile?  Clarity on questions like these could be aided by looking at how Geneva handled those who ran from their promise to marry.

For example, a denomination or church could define desertion as a man leaving his wife or a wife leaving her husband for a period of one year without good reason. At the point, they are free to divorce. This would give the spouse left behind a clear waiting period. Or they could say that if a man physically abused his wife that qualifies as desertion. Or if a man through sin, such as drunkenness, gambling or other means, plunges his family into financial ruin such that he can no longer provide for her that is desertion.  Or if a husband goes to prison that could be desertion depending upon the circumstances. I am not saying all these ideas are perfect, but we should do more work on defining desertion. Most men leave their wives today for another woman. Therefore they can be charged with adultery, but there are situations where a working definition of desertion,while not solving all issues, would be beneficial.