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The Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century set in motion processes that radically changed European society. The Christian religion was an integral part of daily life in Medieval Europe, and when the Reformers sought to introduce their reforms, the ramifications were felt far beyond the internal world of the Roman Catholic Church. Not all of the Reformers sought the same political ends; Martin Luther, for example, was politically conservative [1], while John Calvin was a radical for his time. It shall be argued that the political impact of the Reformation generally and Calvin's teaching specifically upon the Genevan Republic in the 16th century was to establish a new order of government. After presenting historical context, the argument will be demonstrated with Calvin's rejection of Papal political authority, the status of church and state in Geneva, and the development of laws at odds with traditional Christian teaching, with specific emphasis placed upon adultery and divorce laws.

At the start of the sixteenth century, Geneva was governed by a bishop who acted as prince, and during the early decades of the century, the Swiss Confederation and the House of Savoy contested for control of the city [2]. This dispute reached its conclusion in the 1530s; Swiss Bern successfully defeated the House of Savoy [3], and despite the Bernese intention to acquire Geneva as a 'subject state', the Genevans successfully asserted their liberty [4], and when Calvin first entered the city in 1536, it had recently become a politically independent entity [5]. E. William Monter notes that the origins of Geneva's independence were based in politics, but since 1532, the growing influence of Bern converted the city to Protestantism [6]. The Bernese wished to use the Protestant faith as a common element with which to unite the French speaking western Switzerland [7], and thus upon the secular political foundation of Geneva's revolution was built a structure of government strongly linked with religion. John Calvin, a Frenchman who arrived in Geneva in July 1536 after fleeing the persecution of Protestants by the Catholic monarch in France [8], sought to guide the development of this new order, though the theories he advocated were rarely carried out in the manner he envisaged. The conflict between Calvin and the civil authorities even led to Calvin temporarily parting ways with Geneva in 1538 [9]. He was persuaded to return in 1541 [10] and was a prominent personality in the city until his death in 1564, when Theodore Beza succeeded him and oversaw 16th and early 17th century Geneva in the manner Calvin had established until his own death in 1605 [11].

The most radical and visible manifestation of the new order in Geneva was the break with Papal political authority. The Roman Catholic Church had previously stood as a supreme authority over Catholic Europe, uniting people of various lands and languages [12]. Popes asserted that outside the church, there was no salvation for men's souls, and by extension, this gave them sufficient authority to intervene in political affairs [13]. Papal ecclesiastical law functioned alongside secular law, and the Catholic Church's influence significantly governed everyday European life from an individual's birth to death [14]. The introduction of the Reformation to Geneva totally broke this political system in the city. Before the Reformation, the political changes sought would not have altered this system; the secular political leader would have changed, but the authority and power of the Catholic Church over the city's individuals and society would have remained unaltered. During its struggle for freedom, Geneva made alliances with the Swiss Confederation cities of Bern and Fribourg, but when the two cities came into conflict after the success of the Reformation in attaining power in Bern, Geneva placed its allegiances fully with Bern as it was the stronger city [15]. This was the crucial action that gave Protestantism the position and influence it needed to replace Catholicism as the religion of Geneva. The Pope was no longer Christ's representative on earth for the citizens of Geneva, capable of asserting authority over everyday life and able to appoint and support secular government. In place of the old system stood a new order where authority could be derived directly from God; Calvin wrote that the magistrate's "jurisdiction [is] delegated to them from God" [16]. In previous centuries, Popes had attempted to exercise authority over sovereign kings [17], but with Papal authority no longer acknowledged by Calvin and the Genevans, a whole new order of authority was established with power claimed to derive directly from God. Calvin did possess a desire for the re-unification of Christendom [18], but this did not change the reality that he vehemently accused the Roman Catholic Church of no longer being the true Church or possessing legitimate authority [19] and that a new political order had been established.

In Medieval Europe, the Roman Catholic Church held much political power over state authorities, but in Geneva, a new system of equality between church and state was established. In previous centuries, disgruntled Popes would quarrel with secular kings and even deny sacraments seen as necessary for salvation to the peoples a rebellious king ruled [20], but this threat was not an issue for the Protestant Reformers, voiding any churchly power over the state and leaving the Reformers free to assert a new order of political interaction between church and state. In Geneva, instead of asserting power over civil authorities, the civil authorities asserted power over the church. The Reformed Christian religion was not imposed by missionaries or the Pope; rather, it was accepted as a law through what vaguely resembled a democratic process [21]. In his theorising, Calvin viewed the relationship of church and state as that "of the nature of two intersecting circles" [22]; the two operated in unison but had differing responsibilities. In practice, the civil authorities sought to intervene in churchly matters and conflicted with Calvin on numerous occasions [23]. These disputes involved issues as wide-ranging as the unity of the Swiss Protestants and the doctrine of predestination [24], and in practice, the distinction between church and state was blurred [25], to the point that Hunter called sixteenth century Geneva "a Church as much as it was a State" [26]. Some authors have claimed that Geneva was dominated by Calvin's power and became a ground for "Calvin's experiments" in theocracy [27], but this allegation appears inaccurate due to the opposition Calvin faced in the civil authorities. The old order featured Popes using churchly authority to dictate to secular monarchs; Geneva's new order featured secular officials intervening in ecclesiastical affairs and blurring distinctions to the point that church and state could be seen as one and equal.

During Calvin's time in Geneva, new standards in law were introduced. Although the legal and political systems operate separately in modern Western society, the Genevan Republic was so small that almost every public action was politicised [28]. The effective head of Genevan sovereignity was a group of twenty-five men known as the Small Council, and it was regularly involved in the civil and criminal legal proceedings of the city, even possessing the power to pronounce and execute capital punishment [29]. Below the Small Council were other government institutions relating to the dispensation of justice; not only was the legal system intertwined with the government, but it operated as a part of it rather than as a politically neutral body [30]. An example of this can be found in divorce cases: a judicial body known as the Consistory would hear cases of marital breakdown but final resolution was made by the Small Council upon receipt of a formal report by the Consistory [31]. This was a significantly different system to that practiced in Pre-Reformation Geneva, which operated in line with Roman Catholic Church canon law. Marital cases were heard in the court of a bishop, and unless it could be established that a marriage was not valid, the marriage was seen to be irrevocable and only concluded when one partner died [32]. As shall be shown, not only did Geneva break with the traditional practice of law, it also established a new order of divorce laws.

The treatment of marital issues such as adultery and divorce was starkly different to the Catholic model. During the Reformation, a series of Genevan cases in Calvin's lifetime established a new position permitting divorce in cases of adultery and desertion, and this Reformed position was codified by Theodore Beza after Calvin's death [33]. Beza argued that adultery and desertion were both legitimate grounds for divorce, and he also gave the parties – at least the innocent party – the right to remarry [34]. In practice, Beza's theories were accepted, and so was capital punishment for those guilty of adultery. Calvin himself had argued that death was sanctioned by the Old Testament, but it was only explicitly legally described in 1566, two years after he died [35]. The standards established for execution of adulterers revealed another departure from the old order, with the legal code stating that if the male was married and the female unmarried, they both received twelve days in prison; if solely the female was married, she received death, while the male only did if he were a servant; and if both parties were married, they both received death [36]. Despite the clearly unequal nature of the first two provisions of the law, its punishment for the most severe form of adultery in the third provision is notable for its equal punishment of both men and women and was a significant step towards legal gender neutrality [37]. Another change from traditional understanding can be found in the actual executions themselves; females were sentenced to harsher deaths than males despite the Medieval belief that women were weaker and thus should be punished more mildly [38]. The old order had been abandoned on many levels; the Protestant Reformers in Geneva had begun to take steps towards more equal gender treatment in the law, and although divorce remained difficult and required strong justification [39], it had become legally possible in Geneva, in stark contrast to Catholic Europe.

The political impact of the Protestant Reformation generally and John Calvin specifically upon the Genevan Republic in the sixteenth century was significant. It signalled a break with the past political order that gave the Pope authority over secular governments and established a new system whereby God was seen as the direct source of authority in independent Geneva. Instead of the Roman Catholic Church dominating the state, the Genevan Reformers established a new order where the state and church operated on an equal basis, to the point where they blurred into one body. This new order established laws that operated within the church-state political system, and the Reformers began a process of establishing gender equality and instituted legal, Biblical divorce, at odds with the old order of Catholicism. The Reformers did not simply alter the system of previous generations; their political impact was such that a new order was established.

[1] Michael Walzer, The Revolution of the Saints: A Study in the Origins of Radical Politics (London: Wei Denfeld and Nicolson, 1966), 23.

[2] E. William Monter, Calvin's Geneva (Huntington, NY: Robert E. Krieger Publishing, 1975), 40.

[3] Monter, Calvin's Geneva., p. 55.

[4] Wilhelm Oechsli, History of Switzerland 1499-1914, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1922), 149.

[5] Monter, Calvin's Geneva, 22.

[6] Monter, Calvin's Geneva, 49-50.

[7] Oechsli, History of Switzerland, 139, 149.

[8] Ibid., 152-154.

[9] A. Mitchell Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin: A Modern Interpretation, 2nd ed. (London: James Clarke and Co., 1950), 196.

[10] Monter, Calvin's Geneva, 71.

[11] Ibid., 194-195.

[12] Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin, 192.

[13] J. M. Roberts, The Penguin History of Europe (London: Penguin Books, 1997), 186.

[14] Ibid., 256.

[15] Dieter Fahrni, An Outline History of Switzerland, p. 35.

[16] John Calvin, trans. John Allen, Institutes of the Christian Religion; in George L. Mosse, Calvinism: Authoritarian or Democratic?, 5.

[17] Roberts, Penguin History of Europe, 190.

[18] Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin, 164.

[19] Ibid., 152.

[20] Roberts, Penguin History of Europe, 190.

[21] Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin, 191.

[22] Ibid., 194.

[23] Ibid., 196; also Monter, Calvin's Geneva, 128.

[24] Monter, Calvin's Geneva, 128.

[25] Ibid., 140.

[26] Hunter, The Teaching of Calvin, 191.

[27] E. William Monter, Studies in Genevan Government (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1964), features the phrase "Calvin's experiments" on page 5 (though his later book, Calvin's Geneva, acknowledges the difficulties Calvin encountered), and Oeschli spoke of Calvin "subjecting Geneva to his iron-handed discipline" (History of Switzerland, 162).

[28] Monter, Studies in Genevan Government, 57.

[29] Monter, Calvin's Geneva, 145.

[30] Descriptions of governmental structure can be found in Monter, Calvin's Geneva, 145, 150-151 and Robert M. Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce in Calvin's Geneva (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 11-14.

[31] Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce, 16.

[32] Ibid., 7-8.

[33] Ibid., 166.

[34] Ibid., 171-172.

[35] Ibid. 116.

[36] Ibid., 117.

[37] See note 36.

[38] Roberts, Penguin History of Europe, 261.

[39] Kingdon, Adultery and Divorce, 175.

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