Recently a correspondent wrote to ask about the following:
An interesting story: in 1527, the year he was 18, Calvin was arrested, tried, and convicted of homosexual activity. Instead of being executed (per French law at the time), he was branded with a fleur-de-lis on one of his shoulders.
This question is interesting for two reasons: the historical question (is the claim true) and because it illustrates one of the problems of doing history on the internet.
The problem of doing history on the internet is illustrated by two sites. In the first instance it is claimed that Calvin was arrested for and convicted of Sodomy in 1527. In the second in second it is claimed that he was arrested for and convicted of sodomy in 1534.
The first author claims:
In 1551, a Catholic controversialist revealed that the archives of the city of Noyon, Calvin’s birth place, contain the record of a condemnation against Calvin, at age 18, for sodomy. He had by then already received the tonsure. His parents obtained clemency from the bishop, so that instead of being condemned to death as the law demanded, he was branded as a sign of infamy. The Catholic controversialist presented the evidence signed by all the eminent personages of the city. The English scholar Stapleton went there to examine the archives during Calvin’s lifetime, and vouched for the fact. The contemporary German Lutherans spoke of it as an established fact (Schlusselburg, Theologie calvinienne).
For the uninitiated this might seem like a plausible claim. It seems learned. The author cites a 1551 source, the author of which is identified as a “controversialist,” and an apparently modern French secondary work. A search of WorldCat (one of the world’s largest databases of library holdings across the globe) reveals no such title. This is not to say that the work does not exist but it does indicate that a volume with an author with this surname with those words does not appear to be catalogued in the civilized world. UPDATE: It appears that the citation is incorrect. The title is Theologia calvinistarum…. and it is available on Google Books. Thanks to HB reader Phil D. for his help.
Second, and more significantly, the author relies upon a most jaundiced and historically discredited sixteenth-century source, Jerome Bolsec (d. 1584). Bolsec was a former Carmelite monk turned physician, who had vacillated between the Reformation and Rome. He attacked Calvin’s doctrine of predestination during a meeting of the congregation. Bolsec, “a poor theologian technically” and “particularly weak on the history doctrines” (T. H. L. Parker) charged Calvin with making God the author of sin. Absent for the first part of Bolsec’s complaint, Calvin arrived unseen and stood to reply ex tempore for one hour. He replied to Bolsec in print in 1552 with De aeterna dei praedestinatione. Thus, Bolsec is hardly an unbiased witness. His account of Calvin’s life (see below) is notorious for its falsehoods.
Third, and most importantly, our author has his facts wrong. At age 18, Calvin, known for his austerity and devotion to Roman piety, was matriculated in the College de Montaigu (according to Ganoczy, 63–67. See below for bibliographic data), which was known for its strict discipline. Had there been anything like this it would have been noted then and he would have not been able to go on to Orleans and Bourges. Most definitively against this claim, however, is the fact that Calvin was not in Noyon and the registers do not record any such event in 1527.
Second, if anything did happen 1534 is a more likely date. In fact a certain “Iean Cauvin” (the original spelling of Calvin’s surname) was in Noyon in this period. According to the Alister E. McGrath, A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 73–74,
The Noyon archives for 26 May  record that one ‘Iean Cauvin’ was imprisoned for causing a disturbance in church on Trinity Sunday.
He cites Abel LeFranc, La Jeunesse de Calvin (Paris, 1888), 201.
1534. 26 mai. — Me Jean Cauvin est mis in prison, à la porte Corbaut, pour tumulte fait dans l’èglise la veille de la Sainte-Trinitè, fol. 20, vo, èlargi le 3 juin, fol. 21, ro, reis en prison le 5, fol. 22, ro, (Inventaire de Sèzille, à la date).
This person, released on 3 June, was returned to prison two days later. Some Roman apologists have assumed that this “Iean Cauvin” must be the Reformer. McGrath explains:
…the Noyon edicts scrupulously record that the ‘Cauvin’ who was imprisoned possessed an alias—Mudit. [McGrath cites Emile Domergue, Jean Calvin, les hommes et les chases de son temps, 7 vols. (Lausanne, 1899–1927), 7.575] In other words, the Jean Cauvin dict Mudit was carefully distinguished fro the individual of the same name who had featured in the chronicles of that city only a few weeks earlier.
T. H.L. Parker noted this confusion in 1975, citing Emile Domergue’s 1927 correction and explanation of the city records regarding “Un Iean Cauvin, dict Mudit” [John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 31.]. Ganosczy (p. 85) observes that there is ambiguity and doubt regarding the names and imprisonment.
Still, there is nothing here to suggest that Calvin was charged with sodomy in 1534 and branded with the fleur-de-lys so whence the claim of the second writer? Irena Backus, Life Writing in Reformation Europe: Lives of Reformers by Friends, Disciples, and Foes (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008), 159, explains:
As has been shown by other sixteenth- and particularly seventeenth-century Catholic biographies of the Reformer, Bolsec’s account of Calvin’s youth conflates at least two people from Noyon called Jean Cauvin. [fn 116 says, “Cf. also Théophile Dufour, ‘Calviniana’ in [no editor], Mélanges offerts à M. Émile Picot, member de l’Institut, par ses amis et élèves (Paris: Librarie Damascène Morgand, 1913), pp. 1–16, esp. pp. 13–16] To this conflation, he adds a certain amount of rumour and fiction, intending to give his reader a full portrait of Calvin’s iniquitous youth, the hallmark of any heretic.
Bolsec further claims that Calvin himself was convicted of sodomy as a young cleric in Noyon, a crime for which he would have been burned at the stake had the sentence not been commuted at the last moment to branding with a fleur-de-lys on the shoulder. Under the weight of this opprobrium, Calvin, according to our biographer, sold his benefices and left for Germany and Ferrara. In fact, as is well documented by the same Le Vasseur [Jacques Le Vasseur, Annales de l’Eglise de Noyon jadis dite de Vermand, ou le troisiesme liure des Antiquitez, Chroniques ou plustost Histoire de la Cathedrale de Noyon. Par M. Iacques le Vasseur, docteur en theologie de la Facult´ de Paris, doyen et chanoine deladite Eglise, 2 vols. (Paris: Sara, 1633), 2.90], a certain Jean Cauvin, Roman Catholic vicar of Noyon, was deprived of his livings for refusing to abandon his dissolute lifestyle. The description might have well suited young Calvin were it not for the date, Janusary 1553; Calvin had been well and truly settled in Geneva since 1541 (ibid, 160).
Backus further explains that, according to Le Vasseur, “no records of banding exist in connection with any of the Noyon clergy of the 1530s. Indeed, this claim about the Reformer had already been exposed as false in 1583 by Jean-Papire Masson (ibid, 160).
In short, the Calvin imprisoned in Noyon, in 1534, was not the Protestant Reformer. The Calvin branded as a punishment for refusing to repent of sodomy was a Roman priest and not the Protestant Reformer and further this has been known since the 16th century. That old, centuries discredited myths are apparently gaining new life illustrates one of the dangers of learning via the internet.
The republication, on the internet, of these old, scurrilous, long-discredited, stories about Calvin the Reformers presents an opportunity to learn again the value of developing one’s critical faculties and historical acumen. The irony is that, with the rise of the internet, the need for the critical reading of texts has never been greater and the need comes when, perhaps, our ability to exercise such faculties has never been so diminished.
Without access to the registers of Noyon or sixteenth-century French church histories of Noyon, it might be difficult to sort out the claims about Calvin the Reformer but there are some clues embedded in the misleading, online sources cited above. One clue is that in 1551 a “Catholic controversialist” made this claim about Calvin. A critical, historically-minded reader should ask who that writer was. This would drive one back to reputable biographies of Calvin such as
- T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975).
- Bruce Gordon, Calvin (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009).
- Alexandre Ganoczy, The Young Calvin, trans. David Foxgrover and Wade Provo (Edinburgh: T & T Clark Ltd., 1987).
In those biographies one would read about Bolsec’s complaints and perhaps noted that Bolsec was the biographer in question. This would lead to other sources such as Backus’ excellent account [I am grateful to my colleague Ryan Glomsrud for pointing me to this work] of the history behind Bolsec’s biography of Calvin.
A critical, as distinct from credulous, reading of these claims would also cause one to wonder about the plausibility of the claim that Calvin was convicted of deviant sexual behavior in 1527 and to doubt the notion that, in 1534, a man regarded as a notorious Protestant would have not have received the prescribed penalty. What motive would the authorities have had for such clemency?
The instance of these republished allegations presents an interesting test case. We have the citation of apparently impressive authorities, two fellows with the same or similar names in the same town at the same time. As has been noted, there is also a certain predisposition on the part of some (perhaps many) to believe that Calvin was a moral monster. These things are challenges for the casual reader and serious student alike. As we have seen, however, with patience, and diligence, such obstacles can be overcome.