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Calvin : a biography /
Bernard Cottret; translated by M. Wallace McDonald.
Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; Edinburgh, Scotland : T & T Clark, 2000.
xv, 376 p. ; 25 cm.
0802842895 (hardcover : alk. paper)
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Grand Rapids, Mich. : W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co.; Edinburgh, Scotland : T & T Clark, 2000.
0802842895 (hardcover : alk. paper)
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Includes bibliographical references (p. 356-364) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter

Chapter One

The Heavens at a Birth: July 10, 1509

    Although the stars do not speak, even in being silent they cry out.


July 10, 1509: "The disposition of the stars in this figure shows that this person should be endowed with good qualities, but that they should be accompanied by several evil characteristics."


Calvin's life was more secular than it seems. The Reformer never aroused the slightest personality cult among his entourage. Theodore Beza, who succeeded him in Geneva, described him with admiration certainly, but without excessive adulation, never sacrificing to the golden legend. As a friend of the dead man, he did not hesitate to celebrate his eminent role as the "champion" of God or to blacken his adversaries. For Beza Calvin was indeed the scourge of all heresies: "There will be found no heresy ancient or revived, or newly founded in our time, which he did not destroy down to its foundations." But his zeal was tempered by the recognition of the faults of the departed. "I do not want to make a man into an angel," he confides in his Life of Calvin , which appeared some months after the Reformer's passing. Yes, Calvin was hot tempered and obstinate, "gloomy and difficult." Beza describes the great man's birth with a careful sobriety: "He was born in Noyon, an ancient and famous town of Picardy, in 1509, on July 10, of a respectable family of middle rank. His father was named Girard Calvin, a man of good understanding and judgment, and therefore in great demand in the houses of the neighboring nobility."

    This is an "emblematic" sentence, "similar to those which open all biographies." In the second version of Calvin's life, completed by Nicolas Colladon, the subject is treated laconically: "Let us be satisfied that, God wanting to be served by him at a certain time, He brought him into the world on the stated day." He clearly wanted to avoid interpreting Calvin's admittedly unique destiny in terms of the stars: "I will therefore commence with his birth, which was on the tenth day of July of the year 1509 -- which I note, not in order to search out in his horoscope the causes of the events of his life, much less the excellent virtues found in him, but simply from regard for history. And indeed, considering that he himself had such a horror of the abuses of judicial astrology ... it would be doing him wrong to give rein to such speculations regarding his character."

    Thus is "judicial astrology" rejected, which in our day is called simply astrology, those predictions which claim to use the position of the stars to forecast the future. The future, according to Calvin, depended only on man himself, or at least on man listening to God. His first admiring biographers likewise found themselves confronted with a particularly arduous task: while maintaining the exceptional, indeed providential character of Calvin's life, they had to reject the techniques used in the cult of saints or the legends of secular heroes. The biography of Calvin revived an ancient genre, the lives of illustrious men. It was located at the necessarily difficult intersection between the biography of a saint and the celebration of a great man. A great man, moreover, is not a lay saint; his private virtues are less significant than his collective importance. From this perspective Calvin's precise influence is difficult to disentangle with accuracy; apart from the impact of his theological work, which is absolutely undeniable, his effect on the society of his time, and in particular on Geneva, is the subject of constant reevaluation. Did these biographers manage in the end to avoid the snare of hagiography? Already in 1567, in a new edition, some accompanying words stated that Calvin's life was that of "a great servant of God," and added that it concerned "a holy man whom Our Lord has received into his glory." The description already smells of the incense of canonization -- all the more because of pious mention of the "falsity of all that the Devil has vomited through his henchmen against the memory" of Calvin. Neither Calvin nor Beza was responsible for these excesses; the refusal of a tomb that can be visited sufficiently marks the Calvinist determination to nip in the bud any temptation to create a cult of saints. No, Calvin fortunately smelled the sulfur too plainly to lend himself to the use of the reliquary.

    From the side of his adversaries, Jérôme Bolsec insisted on Calvin's Picard origins, calling him "John Calvin of Noyon, a man among all others who were ever in the world ambitious, presumptuous, arrogant, cruel, malicious, vengeful, and above all ignorant." But regarding the birth itself, he remained reticent: "Of his birth in the town of Noyon, in Picardy, in the year 1509, I will say nothing more." Bolsec preferred to enlarge on two subjects: John's father, Girard Cauvin, who had been "a most execrable blasphemer of God," and his son, the well-known Reformer, who had been "surprised in or convicted of the sin of sodomy" and branded with a hot iron, in lieu of being burned at the stake as he seemingly deserved. The highly polemical, indeed frankly hateful text of Bolsec contents itself with inverting the traditional saints' lives: "Bolsec says nothing about Calvin's horoscope, but there are found in him the three pivotal themes of the entire controversy: Calvin's debauched youth and judicial branding, the botched resurrection, and the death `while invoking the devils'; these three facts constitute in essentials ... the reversed pattern of a saint's life."

    Astrology, on the other hand, later provided a magistrate of Bordeaux, Florimond de Raemond, with weighty arguments when he attempted at the beginning of the seventeenth century to explain the "birth of heresy": "This man, who was the author of so many evils, was born at Noyon in Picardy on July 10, 1509, an unfortunate day, being the birthday of our prolonged miseries."

    Raemond thus described the ill-omened Calvin's map of the sky: "First, Saturn in the house of the Virgin shows that he would be a man of eminent learning, but learning badly based.... Mercury, in the house of the sun, promised him a strong memory, and the ability to put things down well in writing ... since although Mercury was combust, this would not prevent him from having this good quality, which was also promised him by the heart of the Lion, located due south, the heart being the seat of understanding and prudence...."

    These excellent qualities were unfortunately squandered. If in fact his co-religionaries saw in him, according to Raemond, a "second Saint Paul" the "Scorpion in the ascendant" decided that he could not "hold rank and station in the true church." It was a pity. The saint and the heretic maintain a state of kinship in Raemond's work; the defender of Satan and the friend of God, good and evil approach and recede from each other in a complementary relationship within the secret network of convergences traced by the stars. It is written in the heavens.

    Raemond clearly feared that evil thoughts would be imputed to him in turn. Astrology cannot substitute for Providence: "I am not however one of those who wish curiously to subject our destinies, our fortunes, and our birth to celestial influences, knowing well that the church, our mistress and conductress, reproves and condemns these opinions."

    God is the competitor of the stars. The God of Calvin, more than any other, broke with the pretensions of "judicial astrology." In 1549 the Reformer explained: "There has been for a long time a foolish desire to judge everything that may happen to men by the stars, and to inquire there and take counsel concerning what one should do."

    This rejection shows its importance when compared to the tremendous "astrological anxiety" that marked the sixteenth century. No golden legend existed for the life of Calvin. The destiny of the Reformer took on none of the traits of the marvelous proper to the lives of saints. It entailed nothing miraculous -- just the intimate sense of a calling which came to assume a sacred character. In the end Calvinist hagiography remained limited. Thus the pastor Charles Drelincourt, in the seventeenth century, despite the admiration, indeed the veneration that the personality of Calvin inspired in him, concluded his study in measured terms by calling the Reformer "A great man, whom God inspired extraordinarily for the illustration of his truth."

    Calvin's vocation was certainly "extraordinary" -- under the theologian's pen the word carries a very strong sense. The "extraordinary" providence of God, without being equivalent to a miracle, which is accorded, often and no doubt wrongly, a spectacular quality, perceptibly approaches it. The "extraordinary" character of a vocation or an event -- this is a miracle without prodigy or spectacle, the direct intervention of God in the course of history.

    Calvin's vocation, his intimate sense of a mission which surpassed in importance the common destiny of men, was therefore not accompanied by any visible stigma. The outcome of this evolution is clearly found in the work of François Guizot in the nineteenth century. The former Protestant minister of Louis-Philippe had a plan at the end of his life for an illuminating tetralogy. Besides Calvin, his Lives of Four Great French Christians in the beginning would have included Saint Louis, Duplessis-Mornay, and Vincent de Paul. Guizot's Calvin apparently lacked warmth; he aroused "admiration" more than "sympathy." Could the laicization of his personality be better demonstrated?

Noyon, Provincial Homeland

John Calvin's attachment to his native town of Noyon appears undeniable; the mature man reserved for it the name of "homeland," patria in his Latin correspondence. In November 1552, learning of the destruction of his town by the Spaniards, he let his bitterness appear: "I have outlived my country, something I could never have believed. The town where I was born has been entirely destroyed by fire." Some years later, learning of the sack of Saint-Quentin, he unburdened himself similarly in a letter to Melanchthon: "Hardly a day's march separates this town from Noyon.... If the news that is spread is correct, this will be the second time that I will outlive my country" (September 1557).

    Calvin, who was saddened on hearing in his Genevan refuge of the ravages falling on his Picard homeland, was not at all a rootless man. The cosmopolitanism of his thought and the international character of his enterprise harked back in him to a French passion: the taste for universality, that utopia of clarity and transparency that found in his language its point of attachment. Down to the end Calvin remained a man of a native soil, and of a childhood -- of which we know practically nothing because of his reticence. The religious troubles, the Protestant desacralization of places, and finally the instinctive resistance this secretive character felt to writing about himself partly explain this aloofness. It was not until 1888 that anyone devoted a book to the Reformer's youth. This gospel of youth, despite patches of shadow and certain inaccuracies, depended on documentation that has in part disappeared, destroyed by the ravages of the First World War.

    The nineteenth century returned his psychological depth to Calvin by invoking anew, under cover of historical accuracy, a disavowed spirit of locale. In 1897 an article, at once modest and erudite, was published in the Bulletin de l'Société l'Histoire du Protestantisme Français entitled "The House Where Calvin Was Born, in Noyon." It undertook to show that a "portion of the house where he saw the light survives." From then on it was permissible to meditate: "Thanks to this one can contemplate at least a few points in the family horizon to which the eyes of the child John Calvin were accustomed, and climb the same steps that he must often have climbed and descended."

    The house where Calvin was born, restored in the twentieth century after the terrible suffering of the Great War, enables us to realize the Reformer's attachment to his town. The family home was located in the parish of Sainte-Godeberte. It was by the grain market, between the Rue des Porcelets and the Rue Fromentière. The grain market was, along with the cathedral, one of the nerve centers of the episcopal city, divided between its ecclesiastical vocation and its bourgeois aspirations. The important agricultural market of Noyon provided an outlet for the villages of the Santerre through the Oise Valley. But Noyon, episcopal seat of the Vermandois, also played a significant administrative role in the secular world. "Merchants were numerous in Noyon, more or less powerful according to the guild to which they belonged. Outstanding in importance were the grain merchants who ruled over the wheat market and the merchants of wool and linen. A notable position was also held by the tanners and tawers established on the banks of the Verse and the Versette." Young Jean Cauvin was baptized on July 10 at Sainte-Godeberte. His godfather, Jean des Vatines, was a canon of the cathedral.

    The name "Calvin" is a later corruption of "Cauvin," derived from the Latin "Calvinus." The Cauvin family was of modest origin, a family of Picard watermen and artisans, for whom the windings of the Oise formed the entire horizon. The family's anchorage had been the village of Pont-l'Évêque, near Noyon. The grandfather of our Calvin practiced the trade of cooper there, in the waning of the Middle Ages. This honest craftsman had several sons. One, Richard, became established as a locksmith in the Auxerrois quarter in Paris. He must have founded a family there, since Jacques Cauvin, a cousin of our Calvin, practiced the same trade in the Rue du Renard. Another son, Girard, father of John Calvin, was established in his own right in Noyon in 1481. Rising one by one through all the degrees of provincial respectability, he achieved the bourgeoisie of the town in 1497.

    The rise of the family was directly linked to the protection of a powerful ecclesiastical lord, Charles d'Hangest, bishop of Noyon from 1501 on, following the recommendation of Louis XII. In 1525, when he had only three more years to live, Charles d'Hangest ceded his office to his nephew, Jean d'Hangest. Lacking sons, why not transmit his bishopric to a nephew? Girard Cauvin, apostolic notary, figures among the drafters of this document.

    What do we know of Girard Cauvin that is not already confused with old wives' tales or with legend? Jacques Desmay, vicar-general of Rouen, came to Noyon to preach during Lent in 1614. During his stay he assembled the material for Remarks on the Life of John Calvin Drawn from the Registers of Noyon, His Birthplace (1621). Therein he deplored the libertinism of Calvin's father, "a sly man, of a sharp and crafty nature, skilled in chicanery, but a great rascal." The elder Calvin was led by his artful place-seeking "to neglect his domestic affairs and to manage poorly the fortune his skill advanced him to, being much employed by Messire Charles d'Hangest and Messire Jean d'Hangest, uncle and nephew, bishops of Noyon." Still another belated portrait of Girard Cauvin has been preserved. Jacques Le Vasseur, at the beginning of the seventeenth century, celebrated in the man an "ardent spirit, among the most skilled in the finest practice and algebra of the law." But more specifically: "He inserted himself everywhere and intrigued actively in affairs, for which he was sought out and with which he was finally entrusted, everyone wanting to be served by a man so skilled in such fencing, who lacked neither diligence nor invention. He therefore became apostolic notary, procurator fiscal of the county, scribe in the church court, secretary of the bishop, and prosecutor of the chapter.... In short, he embraced so much that he burdened himself for the rest of his life."

    One embraces so as to hold better. But he who embraces too much burdens himself in his turn. What true credit should be given to these belated testimonies, bordering on proverbs, where stereotypes of men of law, wily and dishonest, overshadow the elements of proof?

    Girard Cauvin certainly showed the exterior signs of success and of an honest bourgeois competence, rendered still more evident by the modesty of his origins. He had married as his first wife Jeanne Le Franc, the daughter of a former innkeeper of Cambrai, made wealthy in business. Pretty and devout, Calvin's mother undoubtedly habituated her son early to those pious exercises that later incurred the sarcasms of his Treatise on Relics . She died in 1515, leaving behind her an orphan still of a tender age.

    It was therefore in a respectable bourgeois provincial milieu that Calvin saw the light of day. His father Girard had mounted one by one all the steps of respectability; a simple town clerk, then recognized by the episcopal court, he had been an agent fiscal , episcopal secretary, and finally procurator of the cathedral chapter. He lived a laborious life and embarked upon a judicial career, in the service of the clergy -- who finally condemned him and turned against him. Girard died in 1531 in a state of excommunication as a result of his quarrels with the chapter. It was a struggle even to have him rest in consecrated ground. As for Charles, Calvin's older brother who took holy orders, he departed in his turn five years later, refusing the sacraments of the church that had tormented the last moments of their father's life. Little enough is known, however, about Calvin's two other brothers, Antoine and François. François undoubtedly died at an early age; Antoine was to go to Geneva, where his wife's levity earned him the reputation of a cuckold. To these four sons must be added two daughters, issue of a second marriage. Marie later rejoined her brother in Geneva, but hardly even the name of the second is known.

    Linked to the church by its financial ties, the Cauvin family certainly could, according to Émile Doumergue's formula, "be clerical in its appearance and its functions" while revealing itself to be "extremely anti-clerical in its acts and its spirit." In the spring of 1521 the young Calvin received his first ecclesiastical benefice, part of the revenue of La Gésine, the name of one of the altars of the cathedral; he received several barrels of wheat per year. This picturesque name, La Gésine, commemorated the nativity, or more precisely the confinement of Our Lady. In 1527 there was added the cure of Saint-Martin de Martheville, eight leagues from Noyon, finally exchanged two years later for that of Pont-l'Évêque. In 1529 La Gésine descended to Antoine, John's younger brother, but in 1531 Calvin recovered this benefice. Tiring of simony and nepotism, Calvin officially renounced his church revenues in 1534.

    The year of his first ecclesiastical benefice, 1521, apparently corresponds to a cutting of ties. Calvin was barely twelve years old. According to a recent hypothesis, the year of grace 1521 may have marked his departure for Paris and the Collège de la Marche. The date ordinarily accepted is 1523. Whether it was 1521 or 1523 matters little (see app. 1 below). Calvin was provided with ecclesiastical benefices as he was preparing to undertake his active studies in Paris; moreover, he profited from the aristocratic protection of the family of Hangest. The young man must have followed the Monmor children, the companions of his childhood studies -- Joachim, seigneur de Moyencourt, and Yves, seigneur d'Ivoys -- to Paris. It is undoubtedly necessary to add a third Hangest, Claude, the future dedicatory of the commentary on Seneca's De clementia . Louis d'Hangest, seigneur de Monmor and former grand equerry of Anne de Bretagne, was none other than the bishop of Noyon's brother. Did this noble protection weigh on the personality of the young Calvin? One may think that he owed to it in part his humanist formation, and also his haughty character, more inclined to voluntary friendships than to cronyism.

    The succession to Charles d'Hangest in the bishopric of Noyon was not without conflicts. His nephew Jean d'Hangest, despite the recriminations of the chapter, insisted on sporting a superb beard. Confronted with the hostility of the canons, the good bishop ended by departing for Rome, where he accumulated debts. But this effervescent pilosity barely impeded the unleashing of smothered passions against the heretics. On January 16, 1534, Bishop d'Hangest addressed the chapter:

    To the deans and chapter:

Because I am informed that these vicious unfortunates multiply more and more and that the scandal grows bigger and more terrible and moreover very close to us, and because the king admonishes us to do what is required by our position, I ask you to hold a procession next Thursday more honorable, if possible, than those preceding, and for my part I engage myself to be found there on the said day doing my duty, with the aid of the Creator, and may He hold you in his holy protection.


Copyright © 1995 Editions Jean-Claude Lattès.

Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Choice on 2001-06-01:
Cottret, chair of the Department of Humanities at Versailles Saint-Quentin University in France, is a prolific author of historical studies on early modern religion and politics. His study of Calvin received rave reviews when it appeared in French in 1995. This translation by McDonald does a fine job of conveying Cottret's linguistic and historical writing skills. Cottret succeeds admirably in his goal "to reclaim the intelligibility of a man in his time" within the context of what he calls the "history of faith." Throughout this very readable and informative book, Calvin is celebrated not only as one of the major religious figures of the modern period but also as a creative genius of French language and thought. Cottret's historical and theological description of Calvin and his work is solid and perceptive of Calvin's pastoral concerns. The volume is enhanced by seven appendixes with descriptions (the medieval French university system, Genevan governance by the Small Council) and chronologies (of Calvin's youth, the establishment of Calvinism in France, Calvin's sermons, the French royal repression of Calvinism, and the Sorbonne's anti-Reformation decrees). Up-to-date and multilingual bibliography. General readers and all academic levels. C. Lindberg Boston University
Appeared in Library Journal on 2000-10-01:
Cottret (literature, Versailles-Saint-Quentin Univ.) has chronicled the life and thought of John Calvin with an acumen that should be emulated by future biographers. The reformer is shown to be a more complex figure than he is usually given credit for, as seen in his ambivalent feelings toward the Eucharist, his respect for the Jewish (Old Testament) Law, and his natural distrust of the free investigation that characterized so much of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin's doctrine of predestination, often viewed as uncompromisingly grim and merciless, actually evolved in response to an even more grim and merciless theology of fear. Much space is devoted to Calvin's activities and administration in Geneva, his reviling the Anabaptist movement more than the Catholic Church itself, and such controversies as the burning of Michael Servetus. What emerges is a historian's Calvin, stripped of devotional trappings, who can be respected if not revered, criticized if not condemned. This scholarly biography, first published in France in 1995, is very accessible and highly recommended for all libraries.DLoren Rosson III, Nashua P.L., NH (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
This item was reviewed in:
Booklist, October 2000
Library Journal, October 2000
Reference & Research Book News, February 2001
Choice, June 2001
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Table of Contents
Introduction: John Calvin, an Unfinished Portraitp. ix
Youth of a Reformer
The Heavens at a Birth: July 10, 1509p. 3
Dwarfs Perched on the Shoulders of Giantsp. 25
To Be Twenty-One in 1530p. 53
The Most Dreadful Popish Mass: 1533-34p. 71
The Lovers of Jesus Christ: 1535-36p. 89
Organization and Resistance
From Basel to Geneva: 1536-38p. 107
Geneva or Strasbourg? 1538-41p. 132
Geneva, a City of God? The Middle Years of the Centuryp. 157
The Somber Years: 1547-55p. 182
The Trail of the Heretics: Bolsec, Servetus, Castelliop. 205
To Thee the Gloryp. 234
Calvin the Polemicistp. 265
Calvin the Preacherp. 288
The Institutes of the Christian Religionp. 309
Calvin, French Writerp. 326
Conclusion: Saint Luther, Saint Calvin, Saint Janseniusp. 343
The Youth of Calvinp. 348
The University System in Francep. 349
The Small Councilp. 350
Chronology of the Establishment of Calvinism in Francep. 351
Chronology of Royal Repressionp. 352
Decrees of the Sorbonne, 1543p. 353
List of Sermonsp. 354
Select Bibliographyp. 356
Indexp. 365
Table of Contents provided by Syndetics. All Rights Reserved.

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