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Was the protestant reformation a revolution? The case of Geneva*

  • Robert M. Kingdon (a1)


The problem which I wish to consider is the problem of deciding whether the protestant reformation was a revolution. The problem should be of interest to a number of different scholars. There is no obvious reason, however, why it should interest those who define themselves primarily as ecclesiastical historians. I believe, however, that there is an ecclesiastical dimension to this problem and that earlier work upon it is flawed by a failure to recognize that fact. I see these flaws even in the work which has most stimulated my own recent thinking on the problem. This is the work of a number of modern english historians and above all a book published by that great english contribution to the american community of historians, Lawrence Stone, titled The Causes of the English Revolution, 1529–1642. I found particularly useful Stone’s lengthy analysis of the phenomenon of revolution, borrowing extensively from the recent work of political scientists, sociologists, and other behavioral scientists. And I found persuasive his application of that analysis to the puritan revolution. I found his ultimate conclusion, however, ‘that the crisis in England in the seventeenth century is the first “Great Revolution” in the history of the world,’ to be nonsense. It is nonsense partly because he has ignored the illumination which can be shed on this topic by a consideration of ecclesiastical history. I shall argue that the protestant reformation of the early sixteenth century was also a revolution, anticipating Stone’s by more than a hundred years. And I shall seek to demonstrate this argument with evidence drawn from ecclesiastical history.



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This essay is a revised version of one originally published in Robert M. Kingdon (ed) Transition and Revolution: Problems and Issues of European Renaissance and Reformation History (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Burgess Publishing Company, 1974). This version is published with the permission of the Burgess Company.



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1 New York 1972. Originally published in London 1972.

2 p 147, italics mine.

3 On the history of the word revolution, see Arendt, Hannah, On Revolution (New York 1965) cap 1 esp pp 3440 ; Ellul, Jacques, Autopsie de la révolution (Paris 1969) pp 51-2.

4 For example du Plessis-Mornay, Philippe, Remonstrance aux Estats pour la paix of 1576, repr Mémoires et Correspondance de Duplessis-Momay, 2 (Paris 1824) p 75 , in speaking of the evils brought to France by the catholic league, says: ‘Les villes, qui de neutralité seront venues à liberté, de ceste liberté viendront à une licence populaire, de la licence retomberont à la tyrannie de quelqu’ung, et toutes les semaines par sedition auront nouvelles revolutions.’ An even earlier example, drawn from a 1525 description of the revolt of the Comuneros in Spain is cited by Elliott, [J.H.], [‘Revolution and Continuity in Early Modern Europe,’], PP no 42 (1969) p 40 .

5 Neumann, Sigmund, ‘The International Civil War,’ World Politics, 1 (1948-9) p 333, n 1 , quoted and used by Stone p 48.

6 Elliott p 55.

7 A good introduction to the early history of Geneva is supplied by the symposium volume edited by Martin, [Paul-E.], Histoire de Genève [des origines a 1798] (Geneva 1951). A fine guide to more intensive studies is supplied by Geisendorf, Paul-F., Bibliographie raisonnée de l’histoire de Genève, vol 43 in the series Mémoires et documents [publiés par la Société d’histoire et d’archéologie de Genève] (Geneva 1966). An important recent contribution to our knowledge of medieval genevan ecclesiastical history is provided by Binz, [Louis], [Vie religieuse et réforme ecclésiastique dans le diocèse de Genève pendant le grand schisme et la crise conciliare (1378-1450)], first of a projected two volumes, published as vol 46 in the same series (Geneva 1973). For an excellent introduction in english to the history of Geneva during the reformation, see Monter, [E. William], [Calvin’s Geneva] (New York 1967).

8 An interesting contemporary description of pre-reformation Geneva is provided by Bonivard, [François], [Advis et devis de l’ancienne et nouvelle police de Genève.] … (Geneva 1865). An excerpt, translated by Raymond A. Mentzer, Jr., is appended to the Burgess Press version of this essay. See also Binz, , part 2 of the Martin, Histoire de Genève, and vol 1 of Naef, [Henri], [Les origines de la Réforme à Genève] (Geneva/Paris 1936).

9 See Naef, 1, pp 22-5, for a careful estimate that there were four to five hundred clergymen resident in Geneva. See Monter p 2, for an estimate that the total population in 1537 was 10,300.

10 See Chaponnière, J.-J. and Sordet, L., Des hopitaux de Geneève avant la réformation, vol III/2 in Mémoires et documents (1844).

11 See Naef, 1, cap 5, section 1.

12 There is an excellent but unfortunately incomplete account of these changes in Naef, 2 (Geneva 1968), published posthumously, carrying the story only to 1534, without any documentation for the period 1532-1534. To complete this narrative, the best accounts remain those of Gautier, Jean-Antoine, Histoire de Genève des origines à l’année 1691, 9 vols (Geneva 1896-1914), esp vol 2 (1501-1537), and Roget, [Amédée], [Histoire du peuple de Genève depuis la Réforme jusqu’à l’escalade,] 7 vols (Geneva 1870-1883) which covers the period 1536-1567. See also the contemporary accounts of Roset, Michel, Les chroniques de Genève, ed by Fazy, Henri (Geneva 1894) and de Jussie, Jeanne, Le levain du calvinisme ou commencement de l’hérésie de Genève, ed Grivel, Ad.-C. (Geneva 1865). Excerpts from both of these chronicles translated into english by Raymond A. Mentzer, Jr. can be found following the Burgess Press version of this essay. I have been told that the Grivel edition of the Jeanne de Jussie chronicle is based on an inferior manuscript and that a new edition is consequently needed.

13 See Kingdon, [Robert M.], ‘Social Welfare [in Calvin’s Geneva,’] AHR, 76 (1971) pp 5069 .

14 See [Ioannis] Calvini Opera [quae supersunt omnia], ed by Baum, Cunitz, & Reuss, 21 (Brunswick 1879) cols 201-2, for the full text of this decision of 21 May 1536.

15 See the excellent study of Bergier, Jean-François, ‘Salaires des pasteurs de Genève au XVIe siècle,’ in Mélanges [d’histoire du XVIe siècle offerts à Henri] Meylan, vol 43 in Bibliothèque historique vaudoise (Lausanne 1970) pp 159-78. The salaries consisted of both payments in cash and large allocations of grain and wine from the municipal supplies.

16 There are lists of all the pastors employed by the city in each year from 1542 on, in Roget at the end of each volume.

17 Le livre des bourgeois de l’ancienne république de Genève, ed by Alfred L. Covelle (Geneva 1897) p 266, two variant entries for 25 December 1559. For the distinction between the status of citizen and that of bourgeois, see Bonivard p 25. On the significance of the appointment of foreigners as pastors, see Monter esp pp 126, 221.

18 Records of many of these consultations can be found in the Annales Calviniani in vol 21 of the Calvini Opera. Several of them are discussed further in Kingdon, Robert M., Geneva and the Coming of the Wars of Religion in France, 1555-1563 (Geneva 1956) for example pp 34-5.

19 There is a good recent critical edition of these ordinances by Bergier, Jean-François in the Registres de la Compagnie des pasteurs de Genève, au temps de Calvin, 1, 1546-1553 (Geneva 1964) pp 113 . There is an english translation, without most of the critical apparatus, in The Register of the Company of Pastors of Geneva in the Time of Calvin, ed and trans by Philip E. Hughes (Grand Rapids, Mich, 1966) and a fresh translation of some of them by Raymond A. Mentzer, Jr., appended to my essay in the Burgess volume.

20 For a full critical edition of the rather casual records of this body, see the Registres de la Compagnie des pasteurs de Genèue, au temps de Calvin, 1546-1564, 1 and 2, ed by R.-M. Kingdon and J.-F. Bergier (Geneva 1962-1964); 3, 1565-1574, ed by Oliver Fatio and Olivier Labarthe (Geneva 1969); 4, 1575-1582, ed by Olivier Labarthe and Bernard Lescaze (Geneva 1974).

21 There are several examples of dismissals discussed in Kingdon, Robert M., Geneva and the Consolidation of the French Protestant Movement, 1564-1572 (Geneva/Madison, Wisconsin 1967) cap 1 .

22 The standard account is Borgeaud, Charles, Histoire de l’Université de Genève, vol 1, L’Académie de Calvin, 1559-1798 (Geneva 1900).

23 William Monter, E., Studies in Genevan Government (1536-1605) (Geneva 1964) pp 25 et seq.

84 See Kingdon, Robert M., ‘The Control of Morals in Calvin’s Geneva,’ in Buck, Lawrence P. and Zophy, Jonathan W., The Social History of the Reformation (Columbus 1972) pp 316 , and the works there cited, particularly Köhler, [Walther], [Zürcher Ehegericht und Genfer Konsistorium,] 2 (Leipzig 1942). The registers of the consistory have never been edited and merit further study.

26 For statistics of the dramatic increase in excommunications following Calvin’s definitive triumph in 1555, see Köhler p 614, n 544.

26 See Robert M. Kingdon, ‘The Deacons of the Reformed Church in Calvin’s Geneva,’ in Mélanges Meylan, pp 81-90; also Kingdon, ‘Social Welfare’ and the works there cited, particularly Gautier, Léon, L’Hôpital Général de Genève de 1535 à 1545 et l’Hospice Général de 1869 à 1914 (Geneva 1914).

27 Holborn, Hajo, A History of Modern Germany: the Reformation (New York 1959) makes a special point of noting the remnants of episcopal powers in the free imperial cities for example pp 23, 183. See also Moeller, Bernd, Reichsstadt und Reformation (Gütersloh 1962) also in french translation (Geneva 1966), and english (Philadelphia 1972).

28 See Bascapè, Giacomo C., ‘L’assistenza e la beneficenza a Milano dall’alto medioevo alla fine della dinastia Sforzesca,’ part 4 in Storia di Milano, vol 8 (Milan 1957) esp pp 405 et seq re establishment in 1456 of the Ospedale Maggiore.

29 For example the two convents of St. Clara and St. Catherine in Nuremberg. See Strauss, Gerald, Nuremberg in the Sixteenth Century (New York 1966) pp 158, 178.

30 For a useful summary, see Dickens, A.G., The English Reformation (New York 1964) cap 7 .

31 For example in Württemberg. See Estes, James M., ‘Johannes Brenz and the Problem of Ecclesiastical Discipline,’ Church History, 41 (1972) pp 464-79. See also Köhler.

* This essay is a revised version of one originally published in Robert M. Kingdon (ed) Transition and Revolution: Problems and Issues of European Renaissance and Reformation History (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Burgess Publishing Company, 1974). This version is published with the permission of the Burgess Company.

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