The 16th century saw an outpouring of new religious thought in Christian Europe. Marin Luther was the first major Protestant figure to escape the brand of heretic and his success paved the way for other reformers. The Frenchman, John Calvin (1509-1564), was one such reformer. After being exiled from France, Calvin found his refuge in the city of Geneva, Switzerland, to be more than accepting of his religious ideas. Impressions of Calvin are subjective, depending on a person’s like or dislike of theocratic government. In his quest to create the ultimate Godly community in Geneva, Calvin imposed a tediously long list of rules. Here are 10 of Calvin’s strangest outlawed actions, from most tame to most bizarre, all of which can be found in his Geneva Ordinances of 1547. A great translation of the ordinances can be found in Denis R. Janz’s A Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions (Janz 256).
10. Fornication and Adultery
A Loving Couple: ‘Lust’ by Jacques de I’Ange c. 1631-1642
We should not be surprised that Calvin banned fornication and adultery in the city of Geneva. Abstinence, celibacy, and the resistance of desire and pleasure are common themes in most religions. Religions often teach these virtues through mentoring and instruction. That was not enough for Calvin. He set up a tiered system of punishment to keep his Genevese flock in line.
Calvin had two preferred methods of punishment. The first method was the simple fine. The second was imprisonment, with the added insult of an enforced bread and water diet. These punishments were applied to anyone found guilty of fornication or adultery. These punishments will reoccur many times as we descend to number one on the list.
Calvin began his ordinance against sexual sin by stating that anyone who fornicated would be “imprisoned for six days on bread and water, and pay sixty sous amends” (Janz 259). If one of the accused sinners were married, the sin would be labeled as adultery. The punishment for adultery was “nine days on bread and water” and a fine set by the political ruler of Geneva (Janz 259). Though we might expect there to have been loopholes, John Calvin knew the depth of our temptations and prepared his defenses. He decreed that even betrothed couples could be tried for fornication until the day their marriages were “celebrated in church” (Janz 259).
9. Skipping Sermons
Any preacher, pastor, priest, or minister would dream of a full congregation in attendance for each of their sermons. Calvin decided to make this dream into law. As we read through Calvin’s wording in this ordinance, notice the scorn in his tone. He may have written this after a bad experience in church.
Calvin decreed, “Everyone in each house is to come on Sunday” (Janz 257). The only excuse not to go to the sermon was to take care of small children or livestock. If the church of Geneva had a pre-arranged sermon during the middle of the week, “at least one” member of each household in Geneva was required to attend (Janz 257). The fine for missing sermon was three sous, which was a nuisance, but at least it was not prison.
Calvin also made orderliness during church sermons a lawful requirement — this is where tone is important. Calvin stated clearly that churchgoers must be “present when the prayer is begun,” which hints that late-arrivals were common to his sermons (Janz 257). The tone of annoyance, however, comes across most clearly in his order commanding his church community to “pay attention during sermon” (Janz 257). Calvin obviously wished for a more attentive and respectful audience when he wrote his ordinances.
John Waller In the Pillory c. 1732
Swearing, blaspheming, and renouncing God were crimes punishable by fines and prison-time in Calvin’s Geneva. Simple swearing was a lightweight crime. A first-time offence only required meditation on wrongdoing, but “for the second a penalty of five sous; and for the last time put in the pillory for an hour” (Janz 258). The law against swearing was not so bad in Geneva, unless there were repeat offenders.
Renouncing God was a whole different deal. For swearing, Calvin would slap us on the wrist. For renouncing God, Calvin would slap us with shackles. He ordered that the first offence of renouncing God would result in “ten days of bread and water; for the second and third time he is to be punished with some more rigorous corporal punishment” (Janz 258). A safe rule to live by: do not renounce God in a theocracy.
7. Interest Rates
The Bosses of the Senate by Joseph Keppler c. 1889
The Protestant work ethic may apply to the economy, but in Calvin’s Geneva, loaning money for large rates of profit was not accepted. In his ordinance, loaning money and charging anything “greater than 5%” in interest was forbidden (Janz 259). The punishment for breaking this rule was not all that severe. There was no prison time with bread and water. There was no pillory or stockade to humiliate the culprit. The penalty was only “confiscation of the capital sum and of being required to make amends” (Janz 259). Losing money is never enjoyable, but it is preferable to prison and humiliation.
Calvin’s rule of eliminating interest rates above 5 percent makes religious sense; do unto others as you would have them do unto you, good will toward men, etc. This law would root out predatory loans, and make money lending friendly and charitable. Charity cannot always pay the bills, however, so there would be less incentive to invest capitol. Calvin’s rule does not align with the age of capitalism, and his vision of Geneva definitely does not belong in modern Switzerland, known for its banking.
6. Anything Catholic
Portrait of Pope Leo X by Raphael c. 1518-1519
As one of the founders of Protestantism, Calvin can be excused for holding a grudge against Catholicism. For the most part, his rules against Catholicism were tame. His ordinances against Catholicism were mainly fines and public criticisms of Catholic ways.
The first of his rules against Catholicism was a ban on “paternosters or idols for adoration;” those found guilty were first brought before the church council, and then to the political lord (Janz 258). The same treatment was given to “those who have been on pilgrimages” and “those who have attended [Catholic] mass” (Janz 258). While Calvin remained vague and unclear on how these people were to be punished, he stated that the political rulers of Geneva had the perfect right of “chastising by means of prison or otherwise, or punishing by extraordinary fines” (Janz 258). Calvin and the church council seemed to usually prefer verbal chastisement of Catholics, but the last quote reminds us that the nobility could do whatever they wished.
5. Fighting and Feuding
Congressional Pugilists c. 1798
We can all appreciate a friendly environment. Most modern countries have laws against open brawling and fighting. Calvin’s Geneva had a similar policy, but just much more specific.
Calvin stated that it was forbidden to “cause noise or dispute,” and anyone who “causes sedition or assembling to make or support quarrels” was to be punished (Janz 259). Similar to the rules against Catholicism, the description of the punishment remained vague. Calvin did, however, warn that there would be “rigorous penalties” (Janz 259).
The shocking thing about this law is not that it bans fighting. It makes perfect sense for brawling and feuding to be curtailed. What is peculiar about this law is what is missing. This is one of the least punishing of Calvin’s laws. Where is the imprisonment with bread and water? It seems that fighting was less sinful than swearing in the eyes of John Calvin.
4. Gambling and Gaming
The Cardsharps by Caravaggio c. 1594
If we want to play a game in Calvin’s Geneva, we need to make sure our game of choice meets some specific requirements. Anything that is “dissolute” or is “played for gold or silver” is not allowed (Janz 259). More restrictions of our potential games can be found by examining the word "dissolute." Merriam-Webster defines dissolute as that which is morally questionable and is often associated with drunkenness. Unfortunately, that means that we would find no drinking games or casinos in Geneva. No Cards Against Humanity, either.
The penalty for breaking this rule is similar to the penalty of charging interest rates over five percent. Gambling and immoral games, however, were a worse crime than usury, in Calvin’s opinion. If we were caught gambling or gaming in Geneva, the penalty would be “five sous and loss of the sum staked” (Janz 259). Have fun finding a fun game to play, Geneva!
3. Unresolved Arguments
Etching by W. Herbert c. 1770
Whether this rule is brilliant or diabolical, the result is the same — tedium. According to Calvin, no minister could leave an argument unresolved. If a minister came across a disagreement, then it was his duty to resolve it, “and if he is unable to prevail, he will remand them to the consistory” (Janz 259). Consistory is just a fancy way to say church council. For visualization, if we were to get into an argument in Calvin’s Geneva, and we were unlucky enough to be spotted by a minister, we would be required to solve our differences on the spot, lest the city’s council decide our argument for us.
This was either the greatest law of all time or the worst. On the one hand, the law required people to think before they argue. On the other, the Genevan consistory would always be holding trials, for human beings are always arguing. When this ordinance was in effect, people must have fled into the shadows at the first sight of a minister. It is a strange mental image, indeed.
2. Drinking and Drunkenness
Seven Men Carousing in an Inn c. 1635
First, we were worried when games and gambling were outlawed in Geneva, but now is time for terror. Tragically, Calvin had an ordinance targeting alcoholic beverages. Are we prepared? This may cause some cringing.
Under the penalty of three sous, Calvin decreed an end to “treating of one another to drinks” (Janz 259). Yes, Calvin banned friendly gatherings of people drinking alcohol in the comfort of their homes. Taverns were still open in Geneva, but they were not allowed to serve customers while the sermon was being preached. We may now be thinking that a good time could still be had at the taverns, but we would be wrong. The taverns in Calvin’s Geneva would be filled only with people acting like designated drivers (of horses, of course), for “there are to be no carousings, under penalty of ten sous” (Janz 259).
1. Song and Dance
Dance at Molenbeek by Peter Brueghel the younger (1564-1638)
If there was hope for John Calvin’s Geneva, now it is gone. Yes, the section header is right — dancing and singing were punishable offences in Calvin’s city. The punishment for breaking this ordinance was rather severe, but the most interesting thing about this ordinance is Calvin’s wording.
People in Calvin’s Geneva were banned from singing songs that were “unworthy, dissolute or outrageous” and by no means could they “spin wildly round in the dance” (Janz 259). Our enjoyment of imagining such a dance will be immediately dampened at the penalty imposed on dancers and singers in Geneva. If one of us breaks this ordinance, “he is to be imprisoned for three days, and then sent to the consistory” (Janz 259). That is undoubtedly a harsh punishment for the harmless and enjoyable acts of singing and dancing. About all there is left to do in Geneva is meditation, church, and wonderment over a long list of things banned by John Calvin.
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