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.  Continue reading

Premarital Sex in Calvin’s Geneva

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

Chapter 12 addresses how Geneva approached the period of time between engagement and marriage, including how premarital sex was handled, as well as desertion during the engagement. This post will only address premarital sex.

This time included heightened sexual tension therefore the “Genevan authorities regulated this perilous interval in some detail.” One of the difficulties Geneva ran into was that they treated this period like a marriage except you could not have sex. For example, if an engaged woman slept with someone who was not her spouse to be, it was adultery, not fornication. To get out of an engagement was like getting a divorce. Yet despite all these trappings of marriage, a couple was still supposed to refrain from sex until the wedding day.  Continue reading

The Economics of Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

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

Chapter 11 of the book is devoted to the economics of marriage in Geneva. It is tempting to think this is an area of similarity to 21st century America. However the opening paragraph of the chapter shows that, while there are some similarities, there are also substantial differences.

In sixteenth-century Geneva, as much as today, marriage is not only a union of persons. It was also a merger of properties-land, money, jewelry, clothing, household commodities, social titles, property rents, business interests, and sundry other “real” and “personal” property. When the parties were members of aristocracy or of the ruling class, a marriage could be the occasion for a massive exchange of power, property, and prerogatives that distilled into lengthy written contracts. But even paupers who intended marriage generally made at least token exchanges of property and oral agreements about future transactions.

Today the rich and wealthy probably do something similar to what is described here. However, the lower and middle classes rarely have anything like a written contract concerning financial obligations, etc. before marriage. The reasons are many, but one would be that most of us have little wealth that we bring into marriage. Continue reading

Impediments to Marriage in Calvin’s Geneva

denied-stampI am continuing to work through Kingdon and Witte’s book on marriage in Geneva.

A new concept to me in this book was that of impediments to marriage. It means exactly what it sounds like: reasons that prevent someone from getting married or can be used to annul an engagement or marriage. Chapters 6-9 cover various impediments to marriage. Here they are in my own words:

1. Children who have not reached puberty could not marry.
2. The insane or mentally impaired could not marry.
3. Someone engaged to one person could not marry another.  This was polygamy.
4. Lack of presumed virginity could prevent a marriage.
5. Contagious & incurable disease that would be passed on to the spouse and children could prevent marriage.
6. Men or women incapable of having sex could not marry.
7. Wide disparity in age could also prevent marriage.
8. People too closely related (incest) could not marry.

I am not going to work through all of the material in the book, but I wanted to bring up a few points from the reading. Continue reading

Parental Consent to Marriage in Geneva

Wedding 1

In most cultures parental involvement in a child’s marriage was a given. Children assumed that the approval, especially of the father, was good and in  many cases necessary for a marriage to move forward. Geneva was no different. Eight of the first ten articles in Geneva’s 1546 Marriage Ordinance were devoted to parental consent. The prominence of parental consent issues in this document show the importance of the doctrine to John Calvin. Here is a summary of those eight articles.

1. Any son under twenty and daughter under eighteen years of age had to have the father’s consent to marry. After that age they were free to marry whom they wished though the father’s consent was still desirable. Continue reading

Consent, Coercion, and Conditions to Marriage in Geneva

Marriage certificate

“In Calvin’s Geneva, as much as today, marriage was a contract between a fit man and a fit woman of the age of consent.  It was, of course, much more than a contract: it was a spiritual, social, natural, and economic relationship that could involve many other parties besides the couple. But marriage was never less than a contract. It could not be created unless both the man and woman consented voluntarily to this union.”

So begins Witte and Kingdon’s fourth chapter on marriage in Geneva. In this chapter the authors explore how Geneva dealt with coerced marriages or false promises of marriage that were never fulfilled. Continue reading

Choosing the Right Spouse in Geneva

Courtship

This post is a revision of a post titled “Courtship in Geneva” based on John Witte Jr and Robert Kingdon’s book Sex, Marriage and Family in John Calvin’s Geneva: Volume 1, Courtship, Engagement, and Marriage.  

Marriage was done differently 500 years ago than it is today. Today many, if not most marriages are arranged by the two parties with little consideration of what their parents or other adults might think of the proposed spouse. Often the path that leads to marriage is taken by the two parties alone. There is very little parental instruction to the young people on how to proceed. From the youngest years dating dominates our interaction with the opposite sex and usually our closest advisers are peers. This usually means that the choice of a marriage partner is driven by a fluttering heart or an excited body instead of reason, discretion, and prudence.

But it has not always been so.  In John Calvin’s time romantic interaction with the opposite sex was supposed to be reserved for when a person could physically and financially marry. When a couple began to seriously consider marriage they were usually overseen by their parents or guardians. In the third chapter of Witte and Kingdon’s book they explore this process of courtship in Geneva.

In Geneva, courtship did not take an exact shape. Calvin gave a few courtship rules such as no sexy dressing, unsupervised trips, overnight stays, dancing, “ribald letters,” and premarital sex. But as to the exact way a courtship worked out there were no strict rules. The parents were involved. There had to be free consent of both parties. There parties were to be honest about their financial state. But the details of courtship were a matter of wisdom. “While the Bible said a great deal about the sins of fornication, it said little about the ethics of courtship.” Since Scripture is largely silent on the specifics of courtship, so was Calvin. This is an important point for modern courtship advocates. I believe courtship is the model most rooted in Scriptural principles. There are general guidelines, which should govern courtship. However, the specifics should be left up to the parents, couple, and church. Those specifics will flex from family to family, community to community, and age to age. To say, “This is how courtship must be done” is to go further than Scripture.

While how a couple courted was left vague, who they courted was not. There were two issues. First, who could they legally and biblically marry. There were “conditions, experiences, or relationships past or present [that] disqualified [certain parties] from courtship and marriage.” It was forbidden for certain people to marry certain other people and in some cases people could not get married at all. This idea is explored in later chapters of the book.

Second, a potential spouse’s moral, physical, and socio-economic status were to be evaluated.  Christians were expected to think through these factors before pursuing marriage. A potential spouse’s moral character was most important when determining whether or not to marry. A person with moral failings, such as laziness, a bad reputation, or sexual immorality should not be pursued. Someone of a different class should not be pursued either. An educated man should not pursue an uneducated woman. A rich woman should not consent to marry a poor man. The elders at Geneva would not have necessarily forbidden such a marriage, but they would have strongly counselled against it. They felt marrying in the same class would give the couple the greatest chance of success. Reformers were especially wary of young men marrying rich widows. All of this backs up what Steven Ozment says about the Reformation approach to marriage.

While moral and class issues played a large role in courtship, Calvin did not ignore the physical side of it either.

Physical beauty was thus properly part of the natural calculus of courtship and marriage, Calvin believed. It was not ‘wrong for women to look at men.” Nor was it ‘ wrong for men to regard beauty in their choice of wives’…It was thus essential to Calvin that couples spend some time together before considering marriage…If there was no natural and mutual attraction, there was no use for a couple to go forward toward marriage. Accordingly, Calvin opposed the late medieval tradition of arranged or child marriages, sight unseen.

The authors conclude the chapter with this,

A strong pro-marriage ethic and culture was the new norm of Reformation Geneva…One key to a strong marriage, Calvin insisted, was picking the right mate-a person of ample piety, modesty, and virtue especially, of comparable social, economic, and educational status as well. A mate’s physical beauty could play a part…but spiritual beauty was the salient issue.

There is one funny anecdote in the chapter. Calvin was a bachelor for quite some time. In fact, he had all but given up getting married when someone suggested an Anabaptist widow named Idellette, whom he eventually married. Calvin’s good friend Farel wrote to him saying that she was an excellent wife, filled with all godly virtue and to his surprise she was pretty as well. Was Farel surprised that such a godly woman could be so pretty? Or was he surprised that a man like Calvin could land such a pretty woman? I am betting on the latter, but unfortunately we do not know.