calvin, the genevan consistory, and the family: who knew?

“The Consistory is for fornicators, and I am no fornicator,” replied the Purse-Maker and former Anabaptist Jane Pignier to a direct question from Consistory member John Calvin in December, 1544 (1). Perhaps she was not, but the Consistory took note of her frequent association with Benoite Jacon, wife of Pierre Amyaux, who admitted adultery to the Consistory exactly one week previous. Benoite claimed that givine charity to one’s Christian brothers included “living with all men and that they are all her husbands,” and that she received by direct revelation from the Holy Spirit himself that fornication is not wrong.(2) When the Consistory summoned Jane Pignier, formerly imprisoned and subsequently banished from Geneva for Anabaptism, to inquire whether she now intends to “live according to the consent and union of the church of Geneva,” they could not pass up the opportunity to question her relationship with the promiscuous Madame Benoite Jacon. Such was their mandate.

The Consistory was the most important institution in Geneva for preservign the family. Prior to the Reformation in Geneva, the lifestyle of merchants resulted in an organized guild of prostitutes whose solicitation, though supervised by the city government, was encouraged.(3) Though Geneva was in decline, its prosperity was largely due to four annual trade fairs which brought merchants from as far away as Northern Italy.(4) Though these visiting merchants fueled the prostitution industry in Geneva, eventually some Saxon merchants began bringing Lutheran pamphlets and other literature which stirred feeling of Reformation and tilled the Genevan soil even before the arrival of William Farel from Bern. With the arrival of the Reformation in Geneva, the only approved lifestyle was the nuclear family: husband, wife, children, and some domestic servants if they could be afforded. Men and women were both strongly encouraged to marry once of appropriate age.(5)

The Consistory oversaw a vast array of cases. In the early years, however, it was primarily concerned with religious practices.(6) It was not until after the Reformation had gained a solid footing in Geneva that the Consistory turned its fullest attention to other matters. Among those important matters was their fervent desire to uphold the institutions of marriage and family. In its attempt to preserve the family and bring reconciliation between husband and wife, reconciliation which was often forced on the couple, the Consistory worked diligently and occasionally used the harshest means at is disposal to emphasize the importance of the family. The Consistory, however, had no power to punish beyond that of excommunication, so it often referred unrepentant cases to the city courts for trial and sentencing if blatant immorality was judged by the Consistory to be the cause of the rift. The Consistory, however, saw its purpose as corrective, not punitive. If punishment was needed, the Council took jurisdiction.(7)

All issues of a sexual nature were particularly important to the Consistory becuase they were all viewed as threats to the family. Fornication, homosexuality, and adultery were especially threatening.(8) Sexual offenses which threatened the institutions of marriage and family were treated quite harshly, sometimes even punished by death.(9) In spite of these harsh responses, the motive was to preserve and nurture the family. In cases where children were involved, the Consistory showed surprising care and compassion for the children, and also for unwed mothers.

[footnotes to follow]

More to come…


2 Comments Add yours

  1. Renee says:

    This is very interesting. This is a part of Calvin’s life that I have not heard about.

  2. Paul says:

    It really is fascinating, isn\’t it? I think the same woman I mentioned in the first paragraph, Benoite Jacon, was the same woman who went to Calvin\’s home saying that God told her to be his wife as well as all those other men. Then she wouldn\’t leave until he \”did his duty.\” He just had her arrested.

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