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La Réforme en France et en Italie

Philip Benedict
Silvana Seidel Menchi
Alain Tallon

Session VII. Les églises du refuge et les lieux d’exil

Calvin and discipline among French and Italians

Robert M. Kingdon

Texte intégral

1John Calvin is a figure who ties together in important ways the Reformations in France and Italy. His theology, particularly as summarized in his Institutes, was widely adopted among Protestants in both countries. He helped arrange projects supported by them in both countries. The first Protestant translation of the Bible into French, for example, was financed by Waldensians, many of them living in Savoy, and published in Neuchâtel in French Switzerland. He worked with secular leaders possessing political clout to advance the Protestant cause in both countries, for example with Renée de France, the duchess of Ferrara in Italy and with members of the Bourbon and Coligny families in France. If he was more successful in France than in Italy, it may be because he was French himself and had gained some knowledge of how the French government operated. But it may also be because local circumstances were different enough to cause local outcomes to be different. In this paper I want to examine how he tried to implement one of his key doctrines among both the French and the Italians. This is the doctrine of discipline. It was the doctrine, it seems to me, that most sharply distinguished Calvinists from other types of Protestants in the sixteenth century. It was far more important to them than to Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Anglicans. Only a few groups of Anabaptists came close to Calvinists in their emphasis on discipline, and they had very little influence outside their own communities.

  • 1 See T. A. Lambert in introduction to Registres du Consistoire de Genève au temps de Calvin, T. A. (...)

2The importance of discipline in Calvin’s own career became evident when he returned to Geneva in 1541. He bargained hard on the conditions of his return, and insisted above all on two things: catechesis, to see to it that everyone in the community accepted true Christian belief, as freshly defined by Protestants, and discipline, administered by an ecclesiastical institution, to see to it that every one behaved in a truly Christian manner. He immediately set to work to implement these two requirements. His demand for catechesis was incorporated into a catechism he drafted himself, a revision of an earlier one he had prepared during his first stay in Geneva, and turned over to his colleagues for use in the local parish churches. His demand for discipline was incorporated into a set of ecclesiastical ordinances he personally drafted as a sort of constitution for the Reformed Church of Geneva, and then persuaded the governing councils of Geneva to adopt as law. Among its provisions was one calling for the creation of a new institution called the Consistory designed to maintain discipline. It was made up of all the pastors employed by the city and a group of twelve lay elders, representing the city’s councils, elected every year in the annual elections in which members of most of the city’s institutions were selected. Its presiding officer was one of the four syndics Geneva elected every year as its chief executives. Calvin accepted an important role in its proceedings as the leader of the group of pastors who made up one of its benches. He almost always attended its weekly sessions, unless he was out of town or ill. And he delivered most of the admonitions or remonstrances, the public scoldings before the Consistory that concluded most of its cases and constituted its most frequently administered kind of punishment. Calvin also fought for additional powers for the Consistory, above all its power to excommunicate sinners guilty of serious or repeated misbehavior, without any possibility of appeal to other organs of the city government. At one point, he and the other ministers even threatened to resign and leave the city if they did not win their way on this point. They won. This Consistory became a remarkably intrusive institution in Calvin’s Geneva. We estimate that between six and seven per cent of the entire adult population appeared before it every year from the beginning1.

3The argument that I wish to develop in this paper is that this emphasis on discipline was a considerable attraction to the many people who adopted the Calvinist version of the Christian faith, and that this attraction was revealed in the many steps they took to create and administer disciplinary institutions. That includes both the French and Italians that are the subject of this symposium, but it also includes many of other nationalities.

4But first let me observe that the word discipline itself came to have at least two meanings among early Calvinists. It could mean not only the actual control of human behavior. It could mean also the structure of institutions designed to control that behavior and implement other programs of the church. Thus both the French and Scottish Reformed churches, when they first organized themselves formally, adopted two basic documents: one was a Confession that defined their most important beliefs; the other was a Discipline that described their institutional structure.

  • 2 See G. S. Sunshine, Reforming French Protestantism: The Development of Huguenot Ecclesiastical Ins (...)
  • 3 This argument is more fully developed by M. W. Bruening, in Calvinism’s First Battleground: Confli (...)

5The Discipline adopted at the founding synod of the French Reformed Church in Paris in 1559, was not drafted by Calvin himself, but was written in close consultation with him and was thoroughly Calvinist in tone. The presiding officer of the synod was François de Morel who had recently arrived from Geneva where he had served briefly as a minister. The other primary drafter of the document was Antoine de la Roche Chandieu, a faithful disciple of Calvin in frequent touch with him. It could obviously not simply replicate the ecclesiastical ordinances which Calvin had drafted for Geneva, since they were intended for a small city-state, not an entire kingdom. There were also non-Genevan sources upon which the French could and did rely, most notably those developed by Pierre Viret and others in the Pays de Vaud, a French-speaking part of Switzerland under the control of Bern, which was considerably bigger than Geneva2. The spread of this discipline in France was considerably assisted by events in the Pays de Vaud. The Bernese, who were Zwinglian in their theological orientation, did not approve of discipline of the Calvinist type. In 1558, they threw out of their territories Viret and a number of others who had been trying to introduce Calvinist discipline. Most of these people moved to France, and that meant French Protestantism was being organized by men thoroughly committed to discipline3.

  • 4 See P. Chareyre, Le Consistoire de Nimes, 1561-1685, Ph. D. dissertation at the Université Paul Va (...)
  • 5 G. Peyrot, Influenze franco-ginevrine nella formazione delle discipline ecclesiastiche valdesi all (...)

6The discipline created for the French Reformed Church was built around a hierarchy of elected representative assemblies. At the top was a national synod covering the entire kingdom. At a lower level were provincial synods covering entire provinces. At an even lower level were colloquies covering smaller areas. In individual towns and cities there were local churches. Each was directed by one or more local ministers who preached and conducted services. They would be assisted by elected lay elders and deacons. There would also be a local consistory, made up of the minister and elders as in Geneva, sometimes including the deacons. It would rarely exercise the kind of power displayed by the Geneva Consistory, since it rarely had the kind of support from local government that Geneva’s Consistory enjoyed, and it usually found itself in competition with Catholic parishes in the same community. But it would try and could succeed to the degree the members of the local Protestant community were willing to accept its direction. Few records survive of these local French consistories, and those that do tend to be fragmentary. But a number do, more than I had realized until recently, and they are being carefully inventoried by Raymond Mentzer. And there are a few relatively extensive survivals, most obviously in Nîmes, where they are being examined by Philippe Chareyre and other scholars4. Italian Protestants knew of these French disciplines and tried to imitate them, specifically the Genevan ecclesiastical ordinances and the French national discipline. This was particularly true of the Waldensians in the alpine valleys governed by the duchy of Savoy. They held a number of synods between 1526 and 1565. Especially after 1559, these assemblies considered possibilities of establishing discipline among themselves. Giorgio Peyrot examined this process in an important article published back in 19595. Of course it could be argued that the Waldensians were more French than Italian, even if they lived in areas now regarded as parts of Italy. And the subsequent brutal suppression by the Savoyard state kept the institutions they established from becoming very durable.

  • 6 A. Perrenoud, La population de Genève, xvie-xixe siècles, Geneva, 1979, p. 42.

7To study the reactions of Italians who were more clearly Italian, it is worth examining those who settled in Geneva. The Reformation in Geneva was shaped in fundamental ways by refugees. They really took over control of the city. From a pre-Reformation population of about 10,000, the city may have declined, following the expulsion of the prince-bishop who had been ruler of Geneva and a large number of his supporters, in the mid-1530s. After the arrival and establishment of Calvin, it more than doubled in size, to about 22,000 by the early 1560’s. In later years it declined somewhat to stabilize at about 17,0006. Much of this dramatic increase came from an influx of refugees, most of them from France. They really took over the city, although an old guard of sympathetic local citizens retained formal control of the government. All but one of the new Protestant pastors came from France. So did almost all of the printers and publishers who set up shop in the city. So did a good number of the jurists and notaries who gave legal guidance to the community. And there were many others. The most prominent of these refugees, of course, was John Calvin, and his status as a refugee affected his career in all sorts of ways. There were also, however, a significant number of refugees from other countries, above all from Italy. The biggest influx of French refugees arrived in the 1550’s, and came from virtually every part of France, including the area around Paris, not just from provinces bordering Geneva. The largest number of Italians arrived in the same decade. A significant group of English and Scots arrived after 1553, seeking escape from the persecutions of Mary Tudor, but almost all of them returned to Britain after the accession of Elizabeth I, in 1558. Smaller groups of Flemings, Germans, and east Europeans also arrived, although usually for brief periods of time.

8Many of these new arrivals became bourgeois of the city, either by invitation because of services they could render the city, or on payment of sums of money that were sometimes quite substantial. This entitled them to become members of the councils that governed the city, excepting only the Small Council of native-born citizens that provided executive leadership to the government. The rising political power of the newcomers became more and more obvious, and provoked more and more complaint from a group of native old-timers who called themselves the children of Geneva. Argument between these factions came to focus primarily around the Consistory and its powers, above all its claims to an exclusive right to excommunicate stubborn sinners. That argument came to a climax in 1555, in a riot provoked by the children of Geneva and brutally suppressed by the party supporting Calvin and the Consistory. From then on the party supporting Calvin ruled without question and the Consistory’s power to excommunicate without any possibility of appeal was unchallenged. This was a signal victory for the refugees.

  • 7 J. Olson, Calvin and Social Welfare: Deacons and the Bourse française, Selinsgrove (Pa.), 1979.

9All of the refugees from France were assimilated into the ecclesiastical structure of the Reformed Church. The only place in which they maintained independence was in the administration of charity. A large bourse française was established to meet the needs of the poor among the French refugees, funded by substantial gifts from among those refugees, administered by a group of deacons they selected7. But their residences were scattered about the city, they were expected to attend worship services in the parish churches serving the areas in which they resided, they were expected to send their children to catechism in those same parish churches. And all were subject to the discipline of the city’s Consistory, subject to call to its weekly meetings.

10The refugees of other nationalities were permitted to organize churches that conducted services in their own languages. In Calvin’s lifetime, that meant the Italians and the English, but the English only met briefly, for the period of the Marian exile, while the Italians met for the rest of the century and well into succeeding times. There had been occasional Protestant preaching in Italian in Geneva from at least 1542, when the eloquent ex-Capuchin friar Bernardino Ochino had delivered a sermon. But a formally organized Italian church was created only in November of 1551, when a petition to organize such a church was presented to the city’s governing Small Council by John Calvin, backed up on the same day by a delegation of Italian refugees led by Gasparo Caracciolo of Naples, always called the marquis of Vico by the Genevans. Caracciolo came from a tremendously powerful and wealthy Neapolitan noble family, related to the even more powerful family of the Carafa. His greatuncle Gian Pietro Carafa had recently become a cardinal-inquisitor charged with suppressing heresy, and was leader of the most militant anti-heretical party within the Roman curia. He was to become Pope Paul IV. Caracciolo’s conversion to Protestantism and his decision to settle in Geneva were great coups for Calvin and his fellow ministers, and they tried to make the most of them. The petition presented by Calvin and the Italians was granted, a parish church was assigned to their part-time use, twice succeeded in following years by other buildings. They were invited to select their own leader, and within the following year, 1552, installed Count Massimiliano Martinengo of Brescia as their minister. He served until his death in 1557. After a brief interim, he was succeeded in 1561 by Niccolo Balbani of Lucca, one of a number of prominent Lucchese who had settled in Geneva. Balbani, who like Calvin had been educated as a lawyer rather than a theologian, served until his death in 1587.

  • 8 B. Croce, Vita di avventure di fede e di passione, Bari, 1936, p. 237-242.

11To assist their minister, the Italian church created a collegio of eight laymen. Four of them were deacons, charged with raising, maintaining, and using a sizable Italian borso to meet the needs of the Italian poor among them. The other four were seniori or elders, and one of them was Caracciolo8. I have not found much information about these seniori and what they did, but I assume their primary duty was to maintain discipline. That was the primary duty of elders in all early Calvinist churches. They clearly did not, however, have exclusive responsibility for maintaining discipline within the Italian community. Italians were not exempt from discipline applied throughout Geneva by the city’s Consistory. That becomes evident in examination of the Registers of the Consistory, now in the process of being edited by a group of scholars I have assembled. There were not many Italians summoned in the years covered by the three volumes we have already edited and published. But Italians do in fact become frequent in later years, particularly after 1560. That may be in part because Caracciolo joined the city’s Consistory as an elder in 1560, thus becoming elder of both the Italian church and the municipal church, and continued in that capacity for a number of further years. Most of the cases involving Italians are routine cases of the same kind as those involving non-Italians. They are cases of marital disfunction, petty criminality, and fornication. A few of them involve misbelief, even heresy. This reflects the arrival in Geneva of a number of notorious Italian anti-Trinitarians, most notably Matteo Gribaldi and Valentin Gentillet. They were harshly attacked by Calvin. Gentillet was subject to a full trial by the city’s courts. They were all driven out of the city in one way or another. But they were a fairly small percentage of the Italian community.

  • 9 R. M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva, Cambridge (Mass.), 1995, p. 163.
  • 10 For some information on his career in Geneva, see C. Borgeaud, L’Académie de Calvin, 1559-1798, Ge (...)

12The election of Caracciolo in 1560 as an elder sitting in the city’s Consistory was a better reflection of the temper of the Italian community and its commitment to discipline. It required a change in Genevan law, since up until then election to the Consistory had been limited to native-born citizens. But the law was changed early in 1560, and only a few weeks later Caracciolo was elected9. One suspects the law was changed in order to make his election possible. It may reflect a conviction within the Italian community that their own elders could no longer maintain internal discipline, that they needed outside help. His election, incidentally, was soon followed by the election of a British resident, a Scottish scholar named Henry Scrimger who was in Geneva partly to act as an agent for a wealthy German Calvinist sympathiser, Ulrich Fugger. Unlike Caracciolo, Scrimger did not become very active in the Consistory and served for only a year10.

  • 11 See Archives d’État de Genève, Registres du Consistoire, vol. 20, fols. 164164v., and vol. 21, fol (...)

13One particularly revealing case involving an Italian called before the Consistory occurred in 1563, when Regulo Benedetti of Lucca was summoned. He had arrived in Geneva back in 1559. His move to Geneva with his family and business seems to have been made possible by the advance of a substantial amount of cash, half of which he had promised to pay back. There seems to have been some question as to whether this advance was a loan or an investment. Now he was asking members of the Italian church for even more money, to purchase silk he needed for his business. When they balked, he became angry. He was summoned before the elders of the Italian church and questioned about the matter. That made him even angrier. He stopped attending services in the Italian church, and was attacked by its minister, Balbani, as a «mocker of God and his word». Since Balbani happened to be one of his creditors, that made him even angrier. At several times during these proceedings, Benedetti appeared before the city Consistory and Caracciolo was asked to provide more information and summon witnesses. The Consistory succeeded in smoothing the problem over, persuading Benedetti to apologize and start attending church again11. Resolution of the financial problems that had provoked the argument was apparently left to the Italian elders. This provides a neat example of how the two groups of elders could cooperate in establishing discipline.

14We can conclude, I think, that both the French and Italians followed Calvin in emphasizing discipline. If we know less about discipline among the Italians, it is because they found fewer opportunities to create communities in which discipline could be established. But there is evidence of Italian commitment to discipline that worked itself even into theology.

  • 12 For more information on these publications, see J. P. Donnelly and R. M. Kingdon, A Bibliography o (...)
  • 13 For a fuller discussion, see R. M. Kingdon, Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Marks of the True Church (...)

15A place I find that is in the writings of Peter Martyr Vermigli, one of the most influential theologians created by the Protestant Reformation. Specifically, I find it in his writings on the notae or marks of the true church. One of the running debates during the period of the Reformation was an argument over what constituted the marks of a true church, of how one could find among competing institutions the one that most truly incorporated the intentions of the Almighty God. Catholics side-stepped this argument at the Council of Trent, but their polemical theologians, including men like Robert Bellarmine, prepared lists of fifteen or more marks of the true church, including an uninterrupted history from the time of the apostles, rule by bishops who inherited the authority of the apostles, the custody of miracles, and others. The earliest Protestants insisted that there were only two marks of a true church: the teaching of true doctrine and the correct administration of sacraments. In any group in which one found these two characteristics one found a true church, no matter how large it was, how it was governed, what its local history was. This formula was incorporated into the Confession of Augsburg of 1530, in its article VII, and thus became and remains official Lutheran doctrine. From an early period, however, there were Protestants who argued that there must be a third mark of a true church, the mark of discipline. For a church to be truly Christian it was not enough for it to adopt true belief; it must also inculcate proper behavior. Calvin himself did not advance this argument. In the succeeding editions of his Institutes, he instead incorporated a formula that is really Lutheran. But many of his disciples and associates insisted on a three-mark formula including discipline. That included the theologians who drafted several of the official Confessions of Reformed churches, including the Scottish Confession and the Belgic Confession. That made it binding on the Scottish and Dutch Reformed churches. And some worked the theory out in even more detail. One of them was Peter Martyr Vermigli. He developed the three-mark theory in Biblical commentaries he delivered as sermons in both Oxford, on I Corinthians, and in Zurich, on I Kings, which were then published in Zurich. They were then collected by his admirers in a set of Loci communes first published in London in 1576, and then in fuller editions elsewhere12. This collection was arranged into the same arrangement of topics as Calvin’s Institutes, and widely used with the Institutes all over Europe and perhaps even in America, as manuals for the training of several generations of Reformed ministers. Vermigli’s endorsement of a three-mark definition of the true church must surely have been influential13.

16There is some irony in the fact that this definition came from Vermigli and not from Calvin. No one had been more influential than Calvin in actually creating a disciplined church, and yet he had been reluctant to endorse this ideal in his theology. Vermigli had never been involved in actual church building, except perhaps in Lucca, and the communities in which he had been active later did not adopt full discipline. Strasbourg, England, and Zurich, all restricted the exercise of discipline to secular governments and were not willing to entrust it to ecclesiastical institutions in which clergymen wielded considerable power. To the extent that Vermigli represents Italian Reformed thought, however, we can conclude that a commitment to discipline was even greater among Italians than among French, that a system that found its greatest concrete expression in Calvin’s Geneva found its greatest theoretical defense in Vermigli’s writings.


1 See T. A. Lambert in introduction to Registres du Consistoire de Genève au temps de Calvin, T. A. Lambert and I. M. Watt (ed.), I, Geneva, 1996, p. xiii.

2 See G. S. Sunshine, Reforming French Protestantism: The Development of Huguenot Ecclesiastical Institutions, 1557-1572, Kirksville (Mo.), 2003, especially chapters 2 and 3.

3 This argument is more fully developed by M. W. Bruening, in Calvinism’s First Battleground: Conflict and Reform in the Pays de Vaud, 1528-1559, Dordrecht, 2005.

4 See P. Chareyre, Le Consistoire de Nimes, 1561-1685, Ph. D. dissertation at the Université Paul Valéry, Montpellier, 1987, inter alia.

5 G. Peyrot, Influenze franco-ginevrine nella formazione delle discipline ecclesiastiche valdesi alla meta del xvi secolo, in D. Cantimori (ed.), Ginevra e l’Italia, Florence, 1959, p. 215-285.

6 A. Perrenoud, La population de Genève, xvie-xixe siècles, Geneva, 1979, p. 42.

7 J. Olson, Calvin and Social Welfare: Deacons and the Bourse française, Selinsgrove (Pa.), 1979.

8 B. Croce, Vita di avventure di fede e di passione, Bari, 1936, p. 237-242.

9 R. M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin’s Geneva, Cambridge (Mass.), 1995, p. 163.

10 For some information on his career in Geneva, see C. Borgeaud, L’Académie de Calvin, 1559-1798, Geneva, 1900, p. 73-78.

11 See Archives d’État de Genève, Registres du Consistoire, vol. 20, fols. 164164v., and vol. 21, fols. 8v (24 February 1564), and 13 (2 March 1564). I am indebted to T. A. Lambert for calling this case to my attention.

12 For more information on these publications, see J. P. Donnelly and R. M. Kingdon, A Bibliography of the Works of Peter Martyr Vermigli, Kirksville (Mo.), 1990, items II, p. 11 s., XI, p. 82 s., XIII, p. 98 s.

13 For a fuller discussion, see R. M. Kingdon, Peter Martyr Vermigli and the Marks of the True Church in Continuity and Discontinuity in Church History: essays presented to George Huntston Williams, Leiden, 1979, p. 198-214.

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