The Gentle Genevans: Reversing The Myth Of The Persecution Of Witches In Calvin’s Geneva

An old and tenacious legend insists that Calvin’s Geneva—the largest and most important city in the Jura region–was terribly severe in its persecution of witches. Hugh Trevor-Roper, the most recent exponent of this belief, declared that “In Geneva, which before had been free from witch-trials, Calvin introduced a new reign of terror; in the 60 years after his coming, 150 witches were burnt.”1 Both of his assumptions are mistaken. The time has come to replace such super-annuated legends about Genevan witchcraft with the authentic history of witch trials in post-Reformation Geneva—a fascinating encounter between the Calvinist system and a tenacious set of indigenous beliefs about witchcraft, which ended with Calvinism reshaping folk beliefs to eliminate what it considered superstitions and emphasize what it considered serious moral deviations. This authentic history is little known, because the Genevans themselves have never examined their own witch trials thoroughly; even a fairly recent attempt to portray Calvin has an anxiety-ridden almost pathological witch-finder never provoked any Genevan response.2

As we have already seen, there is no reason to suppose that Calvin himself played an important role in Geneva’s witch trials even though he believed in the reality of the maleficia of witchcraft; we know that theoretical debates about witchcraft republished in sixteenth-century Geneva, including a vernacular translation of the most important attack on witch hunting; and we know that witch trials were being held in Geneva by 1495, more than 40 years before Calvin 1st first set foot in the city.3 But two other points must also be emphasized in any attempt to explain the history of witchcraft in post-Reformation Geneva. The first is that, geographically and economically, if not ideologically, Geneva was intimately connected with the Duchy of Savoy. And Savoy was notoriously one the greatest centers of witchcraft in all of Christendom. Lambert Daneau, in his essay on witches printed at Geneva in 1574, was eloquent on the subject…4

…Over a century later, Pierre Bayle continued to claim that Savoy was a center of witchcraft; and although the history of witchcraft of the Duchy is incomplete, it is certain that witches from Savoyard hamlets near Geneva were still being condemned and executed as late as 1715.5

…Another important point is that pre-Reformation Geneva had experienced a terrifying form of diabolical activity, a special type of witchcraft. A conspiracy of plague-spreaders (engraisseurs or bouters de peste) was discovered in Geneva in 1530, involving the master of the plague hospital and his wife, the hospital barber and his family, and even the priest who served as the almoner at the hospital.8 They confessed that they had all given themselves to the Devil, who in exchange had taught them to prepare quintessence of plague (at least one conspirator gave a detailed recipe for it) which they used to kill people in order to obtain their clothing and personal effects. This conspiracy—which preceded by exactly a century the Milan panic immortalized by Manzoni in The Betrothed—is the earliest by by no means the only, example of its kind in the vicinity of Savoy. The next panic of this type, in 1545, was triggered by a confession at Thonon, on the south shore of Lake Geneva. A severe panic broke out in the Savoyard capital Chambéry, in 1577, when special vigilante patrols were permitted to shoot suspects on sight.9 Another panic involving engraisseurs erupted on the north shore of Lake Geneva in 1613. In the dreadful business of discovering and punishing these conspiracies of engraisseurs, Geneva was no better and no worse than her neighbors, but her records are better preserved, and when she did find such conspiracies, the ringleaders were often Savoyards. In the greatest Geneva engraisseur panic, in 1571, at least five women from Facuigny (an Alpine district near southeastern Lake Geneva) were burned and another six more were banished, together with many other Savoyards.

…Geneva’s archives preserve traces of almost five hundred witch trials, spanning almost a century and a half after Calvin’s arrival. We know that these records, like any other European government of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, are incomplete, and that records of additional Genevan witch trials have been permanently lost.

…If we eliminate the plague-spreading panic of 1545, Geneva preserves more than fifty witch trials, an average of 1.7 per year. The distribution is more uneven; there is a peculiar gap of between 1547 and 1557, with clumps of preserved trials on either side; and the late 1560s were remarkably full of witch trials, more so than any other decade in the Republic’s history.

…The remarkable thing about ordinary witch trials in Geneva (as opposed to the “extraordinary” kind against suspected engraisseurs) is the unusual mildness displayed by legal authorities. While over 40 percent of engraisseurs were killed, often after very hasty trials and sometimes even without confessions,17 only about 20 percent of all other witchcraft suspects were executed. This is a surprising statistic but a fairly solid one: apart from plague-spreading panics, four out of every five people tried for witchcraft in Geneva escaped with their lives.

NOTES

1. Hugh Trevor-Roper, “The Persecution of Witches,” Horizon (Nov. 1959), p. 59….
2. Oskar Pfister, Calvins Eingriesen in die Hexer und Hexenprozesse von Penny 1545 nach seiner Bedeutung für Geschichte und Gegenwart (Zürich, 1947)….
3. See above, Ch. 1, nn. 11, 36, 39.
4. Daneau, Les Sorciers, 2nd ed. (Geneva, 1579), 10.
5. See trials of Jeanne and Claudine Grow of Avully (and hamlet only five miles from Geneva_. sentenced, respectively, to death and banishment on 17 Sept. 1715….

8. See below Ch. 4, pp. 92f, for the first post-Reformation preserved trial at Protestant Neuchâtel….
9. Burnier, 1:435–39, who notes the the same order to shoot suspects on sight was given in Paris in 1581.

17. Two men were put to death during the 1545 panic although they never confessed…Equally significant, however, is the case of Bernarde Guilt (P.C. 1/402) who repudiated her confession as the pure product of torture and was sentenced only to banishment.

E. William Monter,Witchcraft in France and Switzerland: The Borderlands During the Reformation (Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London, 1976), 42–49.

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3 comments

  1. “at least one conspirator gave a detailed recipe for it” – Do we know whether this “Quintessence of Plague” would actually have been able to spread Plague – Would they have harvested body fluids from Plague victims, for instance, or would it have been plain mumbo jumbo?

    • Anthony,

      I’m not an epidemiologist nor a physician. The plague was spread through contact (the definition of “contagious”), however. As long as the “engreassing” matter contained live cultures, then presumably yes. Given that some successfully used it to murder people in hospital, where they had access to bodily fluids, some conspirators seem to have had live cultures.

      Certainly it was a reasonable concern given that the plague wiped out, in just a few years in the 14th century, more people than died in WWII.

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