Monday, November 26, 2012

Crime and Punishment in Calvin's Geneva between February 1562 and February 1563 (Theonomy Applied)

In an article titled Crime and Punishment in Calvin's Geneva, 1562, E. William Monter chronicles via Geneva's archives most of the trials and punishments recorded during John Calvin's stay in Geneva between February 1562 and February 1563, shortly before his death in 1564.

According to Monter, in 1562 Geneva was a large city, with statistics suggesting a population of between 18,000 and 20,000 inhabitants. About half of these inhabitants recently came to Geneva from France seeking refuge from religious persecution.[1]

During this time, 
John Calvin was then at the pinnacle of his authority, his local enemies long since gone if not quite forgotten ... Geneva at this moment was a city bustling with activity, its presses churning out large amounts of Reformed propaganda, its very name famous throughout Europe.[2]
A small number of the 1562 cases concern Calvin's local enemies, as well as the French Wars of Religion (which commenced that year).[3]

What is most interesting is that much of this law code reflects the law code in the Old Testament. For example, the archives show a criminalization of certain offenses against the first table of the law (i.e., blasphemy, witchcraft, and heresy), and capital punishment for witchcraft, rape, sodomy, and homicide. 

If Calvin was not a theonomist – as many falsely allege – then one wonders how such laws could be in effect "at the pinnacle of his authority." 

In addition, despite the fact that many slander biblical civil law as something that naturally results in a bloodbath, this did not occur  as we can see from the small number of capital punishments (and not even all of those capital punishments are based on biblical law). 

Trials and Punishments in Calvin's Geneva between 
February 1562 and February 1563


  • 39 for extra-marital sex (adultery, rape, but usually plain fornication)
  • 40 for theft or receiving stolen goods
  • 21 for professional infractions 
    (By butchers [7], by merchants [4], by bakers [3], by innkeepers [3], by millers [2], by a wineseller [1], by a printer [1]. The printer created an unlicensed version of Calvin's Institutes.)
  • 17 for "arrogance" or "rebellion" towards authority figures, which includes preachers, parents, and public officials
  • 11 for witchcraft
  • 8 for slander
  • 6 for fraud
  • 6 for crimes by the guet or night watch
  • 5 for homicide
  • 5 for assault and battery
  • 4 for blasphemy or cursing
  • 4 for returning after banishment from Geneva
  • 3 for associating with the Perrinists (political enemies of Calvin, banished since 1555, but who still lived closeby) 
  • 3 for heresy
  • 2 for usury
  • 2 for sodomy
  • 20 that "defy attempts at easy classification, many of them (but not all) for relatively trivial causes"[4]


Capital punishments:

  • 2 women for witchcraft 
  • 3 for homicide
  • 3 men for raping children
  • 2 for sodomy
  • 3 for theft (either for several thefts or large sums)
  • 1 goldsmith for counterfeiting (beheading)

Permanent Banishments:

  • 5 for witchcraft
  • 2 for heresy (1 for Anabaptism, another for Catholicism)
  • 2 for treason (one aided in selling Catholics gunpowder, another, a mason, worked without permission for Catholics)
  • 4 for returning from previous banishments
  • 2 (a couple) for having an "incurably riotous household"[5]
  • 3 for adultery (this included one of Geneva's first Reformation preachers, Antoine Froment)
  • 6 for fornication
  • 5 for theft (1 was for stealing in France during the civil war)
  • 1 for fraud
  • 2 for slander

Milder Punishments: 
  • Most common punishments:
  • fines (by far the greatest fine was the very large sum of a hundred ├ęcus required of the printer who made an unlicensed version of Calvin's Institutes; half went to the Hospital deacons, and the other half went to Calvin's brother Antoine)
  • temporary imprisonment on bread and water (the normal amount of time for those convicted of fornication was three days)
  • Some form of public penance (a common punishment)
  • Public whipping (such as for theft)
  • Exposure in the stocks (such as for theft) (Examples: 2 hours in the stocks for a woman "who threw her child down in the street and cursed him"[6], and 3 hours in the stocks for a man who insulted his mother)
  • Public recantations. For example:
  • Swearing might require recanting publicly in front of city hall while holding a taper
  • Of the 18 accused of "arrogance" and "rebellion," some had to make public recantations in the same manner as those convicted of swearing
  • Public recantation was part of the punishment of a man convicted of assault and battery. When he joked about the recantation, he had to both make another public repentance and spend three hours in the stocks.
  • Judges issued bonnes remonstrances to a man and his mother-in-law for quarreling regularly and loudly, and prohibited the mother-in-law from dining at his house 
  • A sentence of three hours in the stocks and a prohibition from wearing swords was given to three men convicted of negligence of night watch duty
  • A year of catechism lessons was required of a miller unwilling to confess to professional infractions, despite undergoing imprisonment in irons
  • Public penance and attendance of Sunday sermons for a year was required of a Savoyard peasant who voluntarily turned himself in for accidentally running over and killing a child with a cart five years previously. (The child's parents did not sue.)

In addition, there are the following arrests where the suspects were eventeually released:

  • 2 peasants arrested for selling cabbages at a rate that was suspiciously low
  • A woman was arrested for using a cooking pot to answer a call of nature (for doing so out of necessity instead of out of malice, she was let go with bonnes remonstrances)
  • 2 Catholic peasants arrested for accusing the Genevan pastors at a market for high prices (released with bonnes remonstrances)[7]


[1] E. William Monter, "Crime and Punishment in Calvin's Geneva, 1562," in Articles on Calvin and Calvinism: Volume 3: Calvin's Work in Geneva, ed., Richard C. Gamble (New York: Garland Publishing, Inc., 1992), 272.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid., 273.
[5] Ibid., 274.
[6] Ibid.
[7] All aforementioned trials, punishments, and arrests from Ibid., 273-275. 

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