Stealing Communion Bread in Reformation Geneva

The development and refinement of the doctrine of transsubstantiation in the 12th and 13th centuries, culiminating in the creation of the Corpus Christi feast in 1264, resulted in a dramatically heightened focus on the eucharist. This had two obvious consequences: first it made it more desirable to steal the host and, second, it made it more important to protect the host from theft. The laity, convinced of the power inherent in the host, found many uses for it. For example, peasants would secret away some of the communion bread and put it in the animal stalls to protect their cattle and pigs from the plague (Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, p. 79). Obviously, there is a vast literature on the subject and I don’t want to get lost in the Middle Ages. If you’re interested, check out Miri Rubin’s excellent and readable Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture.


In Reformation Geneva, of course, things were a bit different, but we still come across various mentions of people carrying off the communion bread. The authorities were worried about stealing for somewhat different reasons. For the Reformed, of course, the bread is bread, not the actual body of Christ. When they saw people stealing the bread, they worried about "idolatry," that is they worred that people were stealing the bread because they believed that the bread had special powers and, in particular, that they believed that it was the body of Christ. Why people were still stealing the bread is a thornier question.

In most cases, we don’t actually know. In 1547, Jeanne de Fernex was accused of carrying off some of the bread. Michel Naveta saw her take it in her hand and hide it "in her breast." When Naveta asked her why, she said she couldn’t really say, but she always took half home and brought it to her nursemaid. Her reasons are unclear, but it’s worth noting that the witness also said that she abstained from taking the wine, which suggest that she had not been fully converted to the Reform (Consistoire III, p. 80-81, 94). We’ve found several others who carried off the bread. One woman, an innkeeper of the Bear Inn, admitted that she had not been to the communion service in years, but said that her husband always brought half home for her. Why, she didn’t say, nor did several others we came across (see Consistoire II, p. 267-68 and note 927 for several examples from the years 1541 to 1551). Let me add a few more I’ve discovered since, some of which add the odd interesting detail.

The daughter of goldsmith Hippolyte Revit was caught carrying off the bread, which she explained she did in order to prove to her father that she had, indeed, gone to communion (Consistoire 13, f. 30, 43, 44; 31 March, 28 April, 5 May 1558). An amusing incident regarding the control of the communion bread took place that same communion. Jean Dauphin (Dalphin, etc) was excommunicated, but participated in communion anyway. He said that "he saw a man lifting up the communion bread and he thought it was being presented to him, so he approached to take it and took it" (Consistoire 13, f. 36). It was not uncommon for people to be unable to name and recognize their pastors, but most likely the man who gave the bread to Dauphin was a lay officiant assigned to distribute the bread. These men were often Consistory members, though not always. Usually they were well-known men in the city, but of course in a city of perhaps 20,000 by this time, Dauphin certainly couldn’t know everyone.

A few years later, Pierre Joly said he had taken some of the bread to bring home to his father who was sick. So somewhat like the innkeeper of the Bear, the idea was to bring the bread to a family member who could not be present in person. Joly in fact presented himself to the layman who was distributing the bread, Claude Chiccand, and asked outright to be allowed to bring some home to his father. The Joly family servant pointed out that this should be allowed because in the past they had given bread to be taken to "his mother" when she was sick. It’s not clear who "his mother" was. It seems in fact that it was neither the mother of Pierre Joly or the servant. When the servant testified, he said that Espin Guillonet had told him that when Guillonet’s wife was sick, he had taken some home to her. Of course, the Consistory then wanted to talk to Guillonet who testified that one time after communion was over, he was lingering in the church and saw "children and everyone jump on it (se jettoyt dessus) and someone gave him some [bread] and he took some home for his wife who was sick to cheer her up (pour la resjouir)." He sternly denied that there was any "superstition" involved and held to the story that it was simply to cheer her up (Consistoire 17, f. 207v-208, 209v, 214v).

Guillonet’s testimony is particularly interesting. We know there are a lot of details we don’t know about how communion was celebrated in Geneva, but it’s nevertheless surprising to imagine hungry people throwing themselves on the communion table to eat the leftover bread, especially in the context of a still very Catholic France on Geneva’s border. Other reports had already reached the Consistory. A bit earlier the Consistory received a report that once the celebration of communion was done, "everyone jumps at the plate to have some of the bread." Again, this appears to have been simple hunger and, in a huge departure from Catholic practice, the Consistory actually decided that people should be allowed to eat this bread. They did, however, want to protect the dignity of the ritual, so they stipulated that nobody touch the bread until it had been removed from the communion table and then people should be allowed to have it and carry it off. So they seem to have been untroubled by the scene as long as they felt assured that people merely wanted to eat the bread which, outside of the ritual, was just like any other bread (Consistoire 17, f. 204).

One last mention of someone eating the communion bread outside of church is particularly amusing Pierre Desvignes had been barred from communion, but he "publicly yelled allowed in the middle of the road and on the bridge" that though he had been told he couldn’t take communion, he planned to eat the communion bread anyway. More clever than your average excommunicant, though, he didn’t bother with the hassle of sneaking into church or having an accomplice smuggle some bread out. He shortcut the whole system. Knowing that the baker Jean Papillier was to supply the bread for communion that time, he apparently went to his place of business and simply had Papillier’s daughter give him some bread from the lot that was destined for the church. Needless to say, the Consistory did not admire his ingenuity and declared him to be a "bad boy, making fun of everyone and insulting everyone who passes by their house." They decided the father should take him by the hospital, that is the poor house, to be switched (Consistoire 19, f. 28).

We could probably find other cases, perhaps many others. But one of the things that jumps out is that there is little evidence that people were taking the communion bread for the purpose of "magic" (always a troublesome word). In the cases of people carrying the bread to a family member who was sick and needed cheering, there may have been a "superstition" (as the Consistory saw it) behind the action. Taken at face value, though, it seems more innocuous than that — a simple desire to let the family member share in an important ritual.

Calvin Complains about Ruffians and Swallows at Church

We have many references to people misbehaving at sermon, and this is the least of them, but typical enough and fun as well. It’s also not the only time I’ve seen complaints about birds in church, but here we have both.

On June 27, 1552 (R.C. 46, f. 229v–230), Calvin came before the city council to address a handful of issues. He asked the council to authorise a church visitation and for them to do something about the infighting between two teachers (pedagogues) at the school and their disobedience to the schoolmaster. And then he turned to some problems during sermon:

Item du bruyt que les rufians font au sermon, tant qu’il empechent l’audience…

Also, regarding the noise that ruffians make at sermon, such that they disturb the audience…


The Council decided to take action on all items, and on this specific issue resolved:

Et quant au bruyt des rufians, que l’on commande au guedz qu’il soyent aux sermons et que pendant le sermon, il en aye ung à la grande port, l’aultre à l’aultre, qu’il facent taire les rufians. Et que l’on dye au compteroleur qu’il face estouper [DFM: boucher] que les arondelles n’entrent au temple. Et les rufians soyent notés. And as for the noise from ruffians, the watchmen shall be ordered to go to church and during the sermon, one be stationed at the main door and the other one at the other [door] and that they make the ruffians be quiet. And that one tell the conteroleur [person charged with maintaining the city buildings] that he stop up the holes so that the swallows don’t come into the church. And the [names of the] ruffians be noted.

Spectator “sport” in Reformation Geneva

Of course we know that there were only two really good spectator activities in sixteenth-century Geneva: sermons and executions. Good a preacher as Pierre Viret may have been (he had the reputation of being the most eloquent preacher), it could not compare with the drama of a good execution. We know executions were popular because of complaints about overcrowding at the execution grounds (Champel) as we read in the minutes of the city council from 1559:

Champel. It is spoken here of Champel Square which is too small for the multitude of people who go watch when justice is done. Champel. Icy est parlé de la place de Champel
qui est trop petite pour la multitude des gens qui vont veoir quant on fait justice [RC 55, f. 26 (30 March 1559)].

But of course, you couldn’t always count on a good execution close to home, so you might have to go on a road trip in order to take in the spectacle. Thus in 1552, three people were reprimanded because they were in the habit of catcalling to passersby and the Consistory worried that fights would break out of they didn’t reign in the catcallers (“sont en custume de faire bruyt contre les passans et est dangier que pour cela il ne s’en engendre des desbas et scandalles”). The three accused admitted to the charges and said that they had, indeed, called to “Jacques-Nicolas [Vulliet] and others who were going a league away to Archamps to see a woman burn” (Jacques-Nycollas que à austres qu’estient aller voir une lieux loingt, assavoir Herchant, bruslé une femme) [R.Consist. 7, p. 118; 7 April 1552].

Nothing like a good bit of family entertainment to convince people to walk a league just for a bit of clean entertainment!

Child of Geneva or Child of God

One of my oldest and dearest friends from sixteenth-century Geneva is a character named Jacques Simond. In one of my articles [“Cette loi ne durera guère” in the Bulletin de la Soc. d’Hist. de Genève, 1995–96], I wrote a brief “spiritual biography” of Simond. I originally came across him because I thought he represented the sort of person who basically went along with the Reform, but had just one reservation. In his case, as a merchant who traveled the dangerous roads, full of brigands from demobilized armies, he thought it prudent to pray to the Virgin while out on the roads. As it turned out, though, he was actually one of Geneva’s most reluctant Reformed.

Called before the Consistory in 1552 regarding comments he made about Jerome Bolsec, an opponent of Calvin’s doctrine of election (predestination), he was also accused of having said that he himself was a “child of Geneva, not of God” (enfant de Geneve, non point de Dieu) [R.Consist. 7, p. 2]. It’s a curious assertion from a man who, though opposed to the Reform, was deeply religious. What could it mean?

First of all, the Enfants de Genève were the successors of the old youth confraternity that predated the Reform and was essentially a military company, but also essential to the identity of native Genevans. The phrase “enfant de Genève” could have the specific meaning of being a member of the confraternity, or the general meaning of being a native of Geneva, but even in the general sense it always had an emotional connection to old guard Geneva. In short, Simond was identifying himself as a native of Geneva, but choosing a terminology that called up an august and decidely non-French and therefore non-Calvinist past. For Simond, what was important, was to be a citizen, a bourgeois of Geneva. A bourgeois is, by definition, a person who has joined the “commune” (the association of all bourgeois) and sworn a mutual defense pact to the other bourgeois, to the commune. In other words, one has sworn allegiance and committed to the commune as a primary allegiance. The commune is not the same as the city or the city government. It is the association of the bourgeois and though the distinction was becoming less clear by the sixteenth century, it was not lost on any good bourgeois. So Simond was frequently reprimanded for his religious beliefs, but because he was a native-born bourgeois and because he consistently reiterated his loyalty and submission to the commune, his religious differences were tolerated for years. This stuck in the craw of the pastors, but because the councillors still had a sense of the priority of the bourgeoisie, they could not drum a loyal bourgeois out of the community. As such, Simond was not only not banished, but was allowed to retain his position on the Council of Sixty until his dying day.

Meanwhile, the phrase “enfants de Dieu” was a commonplace of Reformed writing to refer to the Reformed and in particular the children of God suffering persecution in France. When the city council of Strasbourg found out there was a preacher in Metz stirring up the population against the Reformed, they wrote to the city council of Metz saying that “these are tribulation, calamities and quarrels that the rabid Satan puts before the children of God in order to divert them from his doctrine and knowledge” (ce sont des tribulations, calamitez et fascheries que l’enragé Sathan oppose aux enfants de Dieu pour les destourner de sa doctrine et connoissance) [Calvini Opera, vol 11, col. 525]. In his preface to the Olivetan Bible, Calvin wrote

“But by knowledge of the Gospel, we are made children of God, brothers of Jesus Christ, fellow citizens of the saints, citizens of the kingdom of heaven.” “Mais par la connaissance de l’Évangile, nous sommes faits enfants de Dieu, frères de Jésus-Christ, combourgeois des saints, citoyens du royaume des cieux, héritiers de Dieu….” [Jean Calvin and Guillaume Farel, “La vraie piété”: divers traités de Jean Calvin et Confession de foi de Guillaume Farel, ed. by Irena Backus and Claire Chimelli (Geneva: Labor et Fides, 1986), p. 32]

Combourgeois des saints! Here we have a stark contrast to Simond’s communal identity as a bourgeois of Geneva. Calvin, the rootless refugee, was not surprisingly attracted to a bourgeoisie of the saints, but less so to the classic communal identity.

A week later [R.Consist. 7, p. 6], we find out that Simond was responding to people who, seeing Bolsec “merely” banished for opposing Calvin said they wished that the “enfants de Dieu” (Reformed) living under the papacy had it so good, to which Simond retorted that they were not the children of God, but of the Devil, and that he, Simond, was a child of Geneva. This gives us the context. So Simond, wishing not to separate himself from God, but from Calvin and his followers (children of the Devil, as it turns out), decided to underscore which community he belonged to, namely not the one Calvin belonged to, but the one to which Simond himself and his father and his sons had all belonged to by virtue of birth and oath. He was, thus, a child of Geneva, not a child of God.

Andrew Beattie, A Cultural History of the Alps (review)

I bought this book because it came up in a Google Books search. That’s a first for me and, I think it was a mistake. Not that it’s a bad book, but it’s not the book I wanted. The search showed great promise — it returned a result showing that there was a chapter entitled "There be Dragons" and I expected more information on ancient and medieval perceptions of the high mountains.

I was attracted to sixteenth-century history because it was an era when records for studying normal people were relatively good, and yet it was far enough away that thought patterns are often surprising and illuminating. I first got really hooked by reading travelogues that spoke of people with blue skin or even faces in their chests and no heads. The further one got from Europe, the stranger people got in medieval travelogues like Mandeville’s Travels and in accounts from the Age of Exploration. Further reading led me to understand that all peripheral spaces gave free reign to the imagination, and that for most of European history, the mountains were among those peripheral spaces — places that stood outside the normal order and where anything was possible.

A Cultural History of the Alps is a far more general book, divided into three parts. The first part is essentially a political history of the Alps from antiquity to the present, from pre-history to Hannibal’s crossing, to the battles of World War I. The last part is mostly about tourism and travel in the Alps. The middle part is what I was after — a history of the perception of mountains. This section, however, breezes over the early history to arrive as quickly as possible at Rousseau, Wordsworth, Byron and Shelley. We know, of course, that Roussea and the Romantics in general were instrumental in effecting the birth of modern attitudes toward mountains and mountain people. Before the eighteenth century, the mountains were to be avoided. They were places of poverty, hardship, ignorance and, yes, dragons (and giants, wild men, werewolves and more). Mountain people were ignorant and heathen, knowing neither manners nor religion (as we have seen). The Enlightenment valorised rational, orderly gardens, not craggy peaks and wild spaces.

The Romantics, though, under the inspiration of Rousseau, saw the wild spaces of the mountains as sublime and a countervailing force to the corrupting influences of civilization. The people of the mountains became the local counterpart to the noble savage. Rousseau devotees like Shelley toured Europe with La Nouvelle Heloïse in their packs, revisiting the sacred, wild spaces mentioned by Rousseau. Beattie also spends a great deal of time on the Nazis and their perception of the mountains. Of course, for those of us who are mountaineers, we are well aware of the stories of the first ascent of the North Face of the Matterhorn by the Schmid brothers and the North Face of the Eiger by Heckmair, Harrer, Vörg and Kasperek. For historians, the story of the new thinking on mountains that came with Rousseau and Romanticism is also well-known. I had not realized the role that Wordsworth played in bringing attention to the Alps in Britain, but overall, I was disappointed to see this book dominated by well-known characters.

Again, this doesn’t make it a bad book, but it is not the book that I was looking for and it’s unlikely that it’s the book that most historians would be looking for. It is aimed more, I would say, at a popular audience both in content (focus on just the most major players and lots on Nazis) and in format (no footnotes, lightly sourced). Beattie recommends Robert MacFarlane’s Mountains of the Mind (Grant Books, 2003) as his source on "how mountains in all parts of the world have been perceived in different eras, from medieval times to the present." That may be the book I’m looking for, but the description and reviews on Amazon make me think not. I imagine there must be something from a French or Swiss historian, but I don’t know it… yet.

The Laughter of Monarchs (a brief quote from Mark Twain)

This doesn’t have anything to do with Geneva this time, except for the fact that in the 1530s Geneva overthrew its prince and became an independent city state and republic. Genevans henceforth retained a deep and abiding distrust of monarchs. So on the occasion of a certain royal wedding and much fawning by those of a certain democratic republic on the other side of the ocean (a republic that once launched a war of independence to rid itself of monarchy, I might add), I feel compelled to quote a passage from the letters of Mark Twain from 1889.

In 1889, Twain had completed A Connecticut Yankee and it was ready for publication when the Brazilian monarchy crumbled and collapsed. Twain took the opportunity to write the following to Sylvester Baxter, of the Boston Herald:

Dear Mr Baxter,

Another throne has gone down and I swim in oceans of satisfaction. I wish I might live fifty years longer; I believe I should really see the thrones of Europe selling at auction for old iron…. It is enough to make a graven image laugh, to see apparently rational people, away down here in this wholesome and merciless slaughter-day for shams, still mouthing empty reverence for those moss-backed frauds and scoundrelisms, hereditary kingship and so-called “nobility.” It is enough to make the monarchs and nobles themselves laugh – and in private they do; there can be no question about that. I think there is only one funnier thing, and that is the spectacle of these bastard Americans… offering cash, encumbered by themselves, for rotten caracases [sic] and stolen titles.[1]

So much for selling at auction for old iron.

1. (Mark Twain, Mark Twain’s Letters, ed. by Albert Bigelow Paine, vol. II, pp. 519-520, Harper and Brothers, New York and London, 1917).

A Dwarf’s Life in Sixteenth-Century Geneva

I’ve never done a search for information on dwarves in sixteenth-century Geneva and I’m not sure how much one would find in the Council and Consistory registers, but I did recently come across this illuminating tidbit from the life of Michel Die, a dwarf living in Geneva in 1550.

Michel Dye, from Arsena, dwarf. This dwarf entered here [the Council chambers] and said that Robert de La Marche, Marshal of France, would happily take him into his service. And because of this, he would like to go there and would like permission to do so, which he asked for and requested.

Regarding this, the request made on the part of the said Lord Marshal was discussed. And regarding all of this, it was decided that since the said boy, who is neither citizen nor bourgeois of this city, but is from Arsena and asks for permission, that permission be given him and that we write to the Lord Marshal copious recommendations and that he not require the said dwarf to change religion, but that he treat him humanely.

Michel Dye, de Arsena, nain. Icy est entré ce nain qu’a proposé commen Robert de La Marche, Mareschal de France, le auroit volontier à son service. Et pour ce y desireroit y aller, de quoy toutesfois il vouldroit avoir licence, laquelle il a demandee et requise.

Surquoy est esté parlé de la requeste fete de la part dudit sieur mareschal. Et sus le tout est arresté que puysque ledit garson, qui n’est ny citoyen ny bourgois de ceste cité, mais est de Arsena et demande licence, que licence luy est donnee et que l’on escripve audit sieur mareschal les r[ecommandati]ons bien amples et qu’il ne contrenne point ledit nain à changer de religion, mais qu’il le traicte humainement. [RC 45, f. 75v (25 août 1550)].

Somewhat later, in the Consistory (R.Consist. V, p. 271), we find the Lord François Paquet questioned regarding “nain” or “nein” which was sold to the Marshal Robert IV de La Marck, duc de Bouillon, for the substantial sum of 12,000 florins. That the affair concerned the rich banker Legier Mestrezat and François Paquet, a diplomat who became interpreter for the king of France. Given the people involved and the massive sum of money, we took the “nain” in question to be a “nant” (nans, namp) which is a security or collateral (for example: “But when our cousin from Britany well and loyally gave us the sum that my predecessors had loaned him against the nant of the city of Brest…”; Chron. de Flandres, cited in Godefroy, Dictionnaire). The passage above throws our reading into question, but even so we have troubling imagining that a even a duke and a Marshal of France could have taken such a liking to a teenage dwarf that he would have paid a 12,000 florin finders fee! So barring additional evidence, we stick to our reading that the 12,000 florins concerned a financial instrument, an IOU for a debt that was purchased as a sort of banking transaction, the way mortgages are purchased in modern-day America perhaps.

As for Michel Die, we know nothing of his fate and can only hope that, as the Geneva Council wished, the Marshal of France treated him humanely.

John Muir, Antoine Saunier and the Perception of Mountains in Past Times

I recently had the chance to visit Twenty Hill Hollow and environs with a couple dozen Yosemite naturalists, following in the footsteps of John Muir. It was in and around Twenty Hill Hollow that Muir spent much of his first year and a half in California and he dubbed that "delightful Hollow" the "Merced Yosemite of the plain" for its staggering scenic beauty. It’s difficult for us to imagine what it could mean for something to be a Yosemite of the plain and indeed, that seems to have been the case for most of Muir’s contemporaries. Muir lamented that traveler accounts of California were mostly written by "literary racers who annually make a trial of their speed here" as they race past jewels like Twenty Hill Hollow on their way to the more staggering attractions of "Yosemite, Geysers and Big Trees." Muir, on the other hand, considered the whole of the Central Valley, from Siskiyou to San Diego to be "a grander Yosemite than that to which they are going." He almost dismissively labels the incomparable Valley (another Muir label) "Yosemite the less" [Muir, “Twenty Hill Hollow,” Overland Monthly, vol. 9, n. 1, July, 1872, pp. 80-81; republished as Chapter 9 of A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Sea].

Sketch of Twenty Hill Hollow by John Muir
Sketch of Twenty Hill Hollow by John Muir (Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

In reading this account and in taking in the beauty of Twenty Hill Hollow, I couldn’t but be struck by the fact that already in Muir’s day, the captivating beauty of the plains was lost to most people. In in the sixteenth century the beauty of Twenty Hill Hollow would have immediately struck most people, whereas the beauty of craggy Yosemite would have been more elusive. The pleasure of a green verdant field is, I think, deeply encoded in the human character and that immediate pleasure is always there, but as remarkable sites, tourist attractions and scenes of iconic beauty, we mostly prefer mountains in our times. On the one hand, this shift, it strikes me, is a measure of the degree to which we moderns have conquered nature, despite the occasional violent reminders of nature’s power. We no longer fear mountains and the ferocious creatures that live there. As far as I can see, the only creatures that most hikers truly seem to fear these days are giardia and e. coli. Muir’s comments also remind me that most of us are so distant from the pressing annual need for a successful crop that we don’t have the visceral and emotional response to a fertile plain that would have been the normal reaction for most of human history. Muir was fast becoming rare in his appreciation of the plain, though not in his appreciation of the mountain. He arrived in Twenty Hill Hollow only a decade after the formation of what was probably the first mountaineering club in the world, the Alpine Club, founded in Britain in 1857. Love of the mountains was beginning to replace a love of the plains in the Western mind.

The Ordre & maniere d’enseigner en la Ville de Geneve au College avec la description de la Ville de Geneve is reprinted in E.A. Betant, Notice sur le Collège de Rive (Geneva: Fick, 1866). The work is not paginated, but the Description de la Ville constitutes the final part.

All of this put in mind a prospectus for the Genevan schools, published anonymously in 1538, though almost certainly from the pen of Antoine Saunier, then recently hired to take over the schools in the wake of the Reformation. Under Theodore Beza, first rector of the Académie de Genève, founded in 1559, Geneva would become a center for Reformed learning, but that was still many years away when Saunier set to the task of attracting students. In addition to the fact that Geneva did not have a reputation as a center of learning, Saunier feared people’s perception of the city itself. Geneva had the misfortune to find itself not on a great and fertile plain, but in among the foothills of the Alps. The rolling and sometimes craggy hills of the Salève and the Jura chain, give way on a clear day to a view of Mount Blanc itself, towering 4437 meters (14,557 feet) above Geneva and Lac Léman. Today, for most students, this would be a selling point: a bustling city, center of trade and international fairs, nestled in among mountains with skiing, climbing and hiking close at hand. Saunier didn’t expect Geneva’s location to sell many foreigners on study in Geneva.

He began his sales pitch by detailing the curriculum, focussed on learning Latin, Greek and Hebrew. He hoped that as students progressed, the school would add instruction in rhetoric and dialectic. He detailed the spiritual training his students would receive and enumerated the many opportunities to hear sermons in Geneva: five times on Sunday and twice each weekday. But then at the end, he felt the need to include a description of the city of Geneva, fearing that those who knew the city only by rumor would not want to send their children there:

Mais il nous a semblé bon d’ayder en cest endroit à gens qui ne cognoissent pas les pais & lieux: lesquels imaginans en eulx-mesmes que Geneve soit quelque ville hideuse & quasi inhabitable, estant entre des rochiers steriles & desers, plus enserree que bastie, ont horreur mesme d’en approcher. But it seems good to us at this point to help people who do not know the region and the place, who, imagining that Geneva is some sort of hideous city, almost uninhabitable, being surrounded by sterile and deserted rocks, more enclosed than built, are afraid even to draw near.

He says that he will not belabor her antiquity and renown, for it is well-attested and easy to verify.

Seulement nostre intention est de monstre oultre ladicte situation, combien elle a de commodité tant en aisance de vivres, qu’en air bien temperé & aussi en trafiques & train de marchandise Our only intention is to show aside from her location, how comodious she is, both in plenty of foodstuffs and in temperate air and also in the traffic and commerce of merchandise.

He goes on to describe the Rhône Bridge, formerly of stone, but now of wood and housing many mills and says that Geneva does not lack for beautiful buildings. The streets are broad and well-maintained and there are several well-apportioned public squares. He says there is ample residential space to house the population, which must be considered a bit disingenuous given that one third of all houses were razed only a few years earlier when the city needed to clear the ramparts to defend against new foes in the aftermath of achieving independence from the duke of Savoy. The author also notes that the main street has roofs over the walkways such that one stays covered and dry even in a rainstorm, glossing over just how frequent these are when weather backs up against the Alps and hovers over Geneva. Then he answers parents’ true fears:

Davantage ladicte ville n’est point à mespriser quand à son assiette. Car combien qu’elle soit environnee d’un continuel circuit de montaignes, neantmoins elle a de toutes pars grand pais de plaine estendue en forme de quelque grand theatre. Et la montaigne qui semble en estre le plus pres en est loing d’une lieue de Savoye. Et se n’est point des plus haultes, sinon par sa grand rondeur elle abuse la veue. Icelle montaigne prend son commencement environ l’Orient d’hyver, mais en tirant vers le Mydi elle va en abaissant petit à petit tellement que ce qui suyt jusques au destroit du Rhosne (lequel on dict le pertuis de l’Ecluse) n’est que moennement elevé audessus de la vallee.

Depuis cest endroit-là qui tend à l’Occident, la dicte ville du costé du Septentrion[al] a le regard vers la montaigne du Jura qu’on appelle maintenant le mont Sainct-Claude. Apres vient une montaigne quelque peu plus basse, tirant vers l’Orient, laquelle neantmoins approchant du pied des Alpes s’eleve plus haut. Mais cela est loing de Geneve.

Tant y a qu’il n’y a nulle montaigne (excepté celle que nous avons premierement descripte) qui n’en soit eslongnee de trois lieues pour le moins, qui vallent sept milles d’Italie ou plus."

Furthermore, the city is not to be scoffed at regarding its location. For even though she is surrounded by a continual circle of mountains, she nevertheless has everywhere in the surrounding countryside an extended plain in the form of a great theater. And the mountain that seems to be the closest [the Salève] is a Savoy league* away. And it is not among the highest peaks, though by its great round form, it ruins the view. This mountain starts in the Winter Orient [east-northeast] and runs to the Midi [south], decreasing little by little until the Rhône Narrows (which is called the Pertuis de l’Ecluse) and rises only moderately above the valley [roughly 1000 meters].

From that point, moving to the Occident [west], to the Septentrional [north] the city looks toward the Jura mountain which we now call Mount Saint-Claude. After that comes a mountain a bit lower, going toward the Orient [east], which increases in height as it extends toward the foot of the Alps. But this is far from Geneva.

Be that as it may, there is no mountain (except the first one we described) which is closer than three leagues at the least, which is seven Italian miles or more.

*The "common league" or "great mile" of Savoie was 2500 trabucs, or 7,706 meters [Pierre Charbonnier, Les anciennes mesures locales du Centre-Est, d’après les tables de conversion (2005), p. 321].

Having managed to downplay the proximity of Geneva to any mountains save the one that ruins the view, he goes on to sing the praises of the lake (Lac Léman) and the many benefits it provides the city. Finally we get to a long description of the fertile farmland surrounding Geneva with its vines and fruit trees and other crops. Then, anticipating Muir’s praises of Twenty Hill Hollow, he writes:

Oultre la grand fertilité, il y a pareillement de la plaisance qui n’est pas petite & principalement quant à la commoditié de si belle veue que cest cité a de toutes pars, mais specialement du costé de Midi et soleil couchant. De quelles parties, incontinent qu’on est sorty de la porte, il se present devant les yeux tous endroits une plaine longue & large de troys lieue de Savoye, ou ung peu d’avantage. Et tellement se presente qu’on la peut tout ensemble distinctement contempler d’une veue comme qui seroit monté en une haulte tour qui est propre à espier et faire le guet.

In addition to the great fertility, there is also a not inconsiderable pleasure, principally from the handsomeness* of such a beautiful view that this city has everywhere, especially to the Midi [south] and sunset [west]. From those parts, as soon as one exits the gates, there appears before the eyes everywhere a long, wide plain of three leagues of Savoy or a bit more. And it appears such that you can take in the whole of it in a single view as though you had climbed a high tower, perfect for looking out and keeping the watch.

*commodité is translated in the Cotgrave dictionary (1611) as utility, benefit, ease, handsomeness and several related terms.

Keep in mind, that on a clear day, looking to the south beyond this plain, one sees Mount Blanc, which to Saunier would have detracted, not added, to the view. He closes his description of the city by noting that none of the city gates has an "ill smell" (apparently speaking metaphorically, in the sense of ill repute) because they are all frequented by people, horses and carts.

Mait tout incontinent à la sortie de chacune d’icelles, il se monstre ung beau plain pais & descouvert, qui n’est aucunement infect de boue ou d’autre ordure. Mesme il y a pour la plus grand part un pasturage et preirie spacieuse dont l’usage est commun. But as soon as one has left through any of these [gates], there appears before you beautiful flat and open country, free of mud and other dirt. There is even in large part pasture and prairie for common use.

With a brief summary of his main points, Saunier ends his sales pitch. Saunier’s love of the plain perhaps matched Muir’s. But Muir was a singular soul who could appreciate both purple mountains majesty and the beauty of the plain, fruited or not. In the twenty-first century, most of us tend to share the sensibilities of the "literary racers" that Muir denigrated. Saunier, however, was writing for another crowd, one that could only see the beauty in the fruited plain, but saw little to appreciate or admire even in the gentle round mountains rising slowly above the Genevan plain. Even in the early nineteenth century, this mountain that ruined the view, the Salève, figures in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It is on the craggy slopes of the Salève that Dr. Frankenstein, lodged at the foot of the mountain awaiting the opening of the city gates in the morning, first sees his monster when the Salève is lit by a flash of lightning. Though by Shelley’s day the times were changing — humans had stood on top of Mont Blanc — it was not by accident that the monster first appears in the mountains above Geneva rather than on the plains.

Saunier was, of course hardly alone in his preference for plains over mountains. Chaucer had earlier written (cited in Simmler, p. XXV):

Ther is at the west ende of Itaile,
Down at the root of Vesuvius the colde,
A lusty playn, abundaunt of vitaile.

The cold mountain and the lusty plain. That was the view that predominated. In past times, when most people saw mountains, they saw hardship, poverty, danger and baleful forces. Learned authors of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries still affirmed confidently that in the high mountains of Western Europe lurked dragons and Wild Men. The latter was a character much like Saskwatch in modern popular myth, with the difference that no learned man of the Middle Ages would have doubted that the Wild Man of the mountains existed and posed a danger to those who would hazard the high passes alone [See Richard Bernheimer, Wild Men in the Middle Ages: A Study in Art, Sentiment, and Demonology (Cambridge, Mass., 1952)].

Aside from the demonic forces that inhabited the mountains, the main reason for their ugliness was simply the hardship of the cold mountain. Fernand Braudel, perhaps the greatest historian of the twentieth century, writes [Braudel, Mediterranean, vol. I, p. 43] of medieval and early-modern mountain culture in the Mediterranean basin (including the Alpes, Pyrennees, Atlas mountains and others):

Life there is possible, but not easy. On the slopes where farm animals can hardly be used at all, the work is difficult. The stony fields must be cleared by hand, the earth has to be prevented from slipping down hill…. It is painful work and never-ending; as soon as it stops, the mountain reverts to a wilderness.

Right-thinking people avoided the mountains and sought the plains. According to a Catalan proverb, "Always go down, never go up" (ibid, p. 44). Think how different that is from the self-help motivational claptrap foisted upon us in our age that counsels "Always go up, never go down."

In the period Braudel focuses on, which includes that in which Saunier was writing, the mountains had become even less hospitable. The favorable climate of the High Middle Ages began to give way in about 1150 to cooler weather, noticeable after 1250 when famines reappear in Europe, and especially after 1580 when things cooled significantly. This cooler and wetter weather devastated mountain economies with shorter growing seasons, persistent fungus in Switzerland that destroyed crops and outbreaks of disease, most notably the Black Death which hit weakened populations and killed perhaps one third of all Western Europeans. Cooler and wetter weather lowered the maximum elevation of arable land by hundreds of meters. This meant that even the low mountains became places of misery and extreme poverty. Glaciers advanced and forced some populations out of their mountain valleys. They were seen as animated, demonic beings. In Argentière, just up the valley from Chamonix, the local curé performed an annual exorcism of the glacier. Now miles outside of town, by the late eighteenth-century it threatened structures in the village but, thanks to the apparently effective exorcisms of the priests, the village was saved in the end. Still, it was only through the power of the Church Thaumaturge that the malificent forces of the mountains could be held in check.

Shakespeare had his own view of who dwelt, or should dwell, in the mountains. In Twelfth Night (Act IV, scene I), Olivia screams:

"Ungracious wretch!
Fit for the mountains and the barbarous caves,
Where manners ne’er were preach’d. Out of my sight!"

The mountains are the place without manners and, though the context is not religious, without preaching. The context could have been religious though. Braudel (ibid., p. 34), writes "The mountains are, as a rule, a world apart from civilizations… Their history is to have none." The mountains were where the Moslems of Aragon, Granada and Valencia and the Waldensiens of the Lubéron both held on against the Catholic Church. After the initial violent persecution that killed many, the Cathars in France became a small sect of mountain herdsmen. And in later years the hill towns of the Lubéron were home to foxes, wolves, boars and, that other beastly creature in the French mind, Protestants (ibid). In the sixteenth century, one commentator lamented that though the hill people were "cristianos viejos" and "in their veins runs not one drop of heathen blood" nevertheless "for lack of instruction and following the oppression to which they have been subjected, they are so ignorant of what they should know to obtain eternal salvation that they have retained only a few vestiges of the Christian religion" (ibid., p. 35). In the sixteenth century, the great missionary territory of Europe was, in fact, the mountain villages not distant foreign lands.

The mountains were also sheltered from interfering central goverments. They were thus a place of both political liberty and neglect by the central authorities as they were both a place of spiritual liberty and neglect. Mountain populations were notoriously difficult to conquer and medieval and early-modern writers noted that while despotism reigned on the plains of Syria and Morroco, the mountain populations lived independently. Much the same was true in Italy and Sardinia. When Braudel writes of the "freedom of the hills," he means not the spiritual freedom of the mountaineer, but the political freedom of the mountain dweller, cut off from civilization. "As we have seen," wrote Braudel, "the mountains resist the march of history, with its blessings and its burdens, or they accept it only with reluctance" [ibid., vol. I, p. 40-41].

Of course, not all Europeans had a negative opinion of the mountains and some, despite their preconceived fears and negative opinions, could not help but notice their beauty. The great Swiss naturalist Conrad Gesner (1516–1555) was one of the exceptions of the age. Gesner was perhaps the John Muir of the sixteenth century, though in his own time he was known as "the German Pliny." In addition to his botanical work and his landmark four-volume zoological study, Gesner also published an account of his voyage to the Gepfstein (6299 feet), the lowest point in the Pilatus chain. He traveled the mountains below the snow line mostly as a botanist. In Descriptio Montis Fracti sive Montis Pilati, Gesner "explains at length how each of the senses of man is refreshed in the course of a mountain excursion" [Enc. Brit, 11th ed (1910-1911), v. 11, p. 910; "Gesner, Konrad von"].

In a 1541 letter to J. Vogel, Gesner tells his friend,

When the power of all the elements and all of nature manifest themselves here [in the mountains] in such an intense way, it isn’t suprising that the ancients saw in the mountains a certain divinity and then imagined a crowd of mountaineer gods, like Fauns, Satyrs [and] Pan…. They also saw them as sources of their fear, because contemplation of these high and wooded places evokes in souls a stupor that hits us harder than that evoked by human things." [Josias Simmler, Alps, p. XI; from the French translation by Coolidge].

This remarkable passage occurs in the midst of Gesner’s rumination on why gravity does not simply pull down the mountains over time. He likens the natural forces at work to those at work in a tree that loses leaves and then adds new ones. Gesner posited that geological forces tear down parts of a mountain and throw up others, but at such slow rates and over such long time scales that humans can’t readily see them (p. XIII). At roughly the same time that Copernicus was formulating his theories of celestial motion and Vesalius revolutionizing the study of anatomy, Gesner was establishing the fundamental mindset for the study of geology — extreme long-term thinking. Gesner closes his letter with an expression of his pure joy in the mountains, mild patriotism, and a love of botany (p. XVII): "For many other reasons the spectacle of the mountains grabs me beyond all measure, and since those of our country are very high and, they tell me, richer in plants than all the others, I was taken with a strong desire to visit them."

It is perhaps not surprising to find a mountain lover by the mid-sixteenth century. Europeans were brimming with a new-found confidence. 1492 was a watershed year not simply because of the voyage to America. It was also the year that the Spanish finally conquered the last Moslem armies in what is now Spain and succeeded in expelling both Moslems and Jews. And it was also the year that Charles VIII of France ordered his vassal Antoine de Ville to climb to the top of "Mount Inaccessbile", better known to us as Mont Aiguille. This is generally seen as the birth of modern technical alpinism and marked the beginning of a major shift in the way Europeans thought of mountains.

That said, we need to recall that attitudes change slowly and people like Gesner (and his friend Josias Simmler, another Swiss mountain lover) would be lonely voices for another few centuries yet. In the late seventeenth century, Thomas Burnet was a Cambridge don on extended sabbatical shepherding young aristocrats around the continent for their cultural edification. In 1672, he and one of his charges crossed the Alps at Simplon Pass. Knowing that mountains were ugly and dangerous places, something to be crossed, not visited, Burnet was surprised by his own reaction. He wrote: "There is something august and stately in the air of these things that inspires the mind with great thoughts and passions…. They fill and overbear the mind with their excess and cast it into a pleasing kind of stupor and imagination." It was once again this simple and direct experience of mountains that, one could say, founded the field of geology. Burnet was puzzled by these mountains and why they were not in Genesis. He also knew that they could not have been covered over in forty days of rain and that they therefore must have been formed after the flood. This implied, to him, that the earth was far more than six thousand years old [Beattie, Alps, p. 4–5]. It was the logical extension of Gesner’s observation that change in the mountains took place too gradually for humans to notice. Without this observation, we can say there would be no Huxley, no Darwin and no Muir.

Burnet lost his academic appointment at Cambridge University for his views on the age of the earth and his belief that the mountains were not part of the original Creation. But only a bit more than a century later, Balmat and Paccard would summit Mont Blanc and de Saussure would have scientific instruments carried to the top. From that point on, more and more people became literary racers, bent on crossing the plains as fast as possible in order to go into the mountains. Alpine Clubs were formed. Wealthy Englishmen sending postcards back to London from the Alps virtually created the iconic White Christmas which was previously never something that British or Americans dreamed of and sang about. Meanwhile, the plains became something to cross as fast as possible by train and interstate highway. The appreciation of the plains is perhaps part of what Peter Laslett calls "the world we have lost," that is the good things that time has left behind. That appreciation, however, is not unretrievable. Muir found it when he settled near Twenty Hill Hollow. And I think everyone I was with that day at Twenty Hill Hollow, lush from winter rains, also felt the primeval pleasure of a green and rolling landscape. Most, however, probably did not know that they were connecting not just with a primeval experience, but with a medieval and early-modern experience as well.

Thanks to Bob Bauer, Dean Shenk and Erik Westerlund for making the trip possible!

Update: some more on the location of Twenty Hill Hollow (since Moses asked).

I was taken with a group by Bob Bauer who did his master’s thesis on Muir’s early ramblings, particularly to Twenty Hill Hollow: Shepherd of the Plains: John Muir at Twenty Hill Hollow

Dan Styer has used Bauer’s work to create a map

View Twenty Hill Hollow in a larger map

Let the Games End

The Consistory members complained about rural governors (châtelains) who refused to remand people to the Consistory and then (loosely translated)

Des Jeux. Item des jeux, qu’il disent sont si frequentz que les loix et bonne discipline [are ignored?], chose de tres mauvaise consequence. Arresté que les cries des jeux et quilles soyent exequutees sus les joyeurs en publique. Et il y sont expressement myses les deffenses aux hostes, hostesses et tavernes. Of Games. Also regarding games, they say they are so frequent that the laws and good discipline [of the republic are not observed?], which has dire consequences. It was decided that cries regarding gaming and bowling be enforced against those who game in public. And that the prohibitions be expressly mentioned to inkeepers and tavern keepers.

This is one of many such complaints that the Council heard for years and years even before the Reformation, and in the end, the gamers and bowlers outlasted both the bishop and the Consistory, since neither holds serious power in Geneva now, but the gambling goes on. The bowling too.

The Three Commandements of Claude Paccard

I always love finding more or less direct quotes from some of the lesser known characters who inhabited Calvin’s Geneva, but who were less than perfect students of the Reform.

Calvin’s catechism, at least in theory, taught people three basic texts: the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostle’s Creed and the Ten Commandments. There’s pretty good evidence that most people eventually learned these in the vernacular, as required. But some people failed miserably.

One such case was Claude Paccard’s rather humourous recitation of the little-known Three Commandments before the Consistory in 1560. Paccard, a fisherman, lived in Geneva at least since 1555, when he first appears before the Consistory because he and his wife were sleeping at the public baths and his wife woke up to find another woman in their bed.[1] Apparently there was some fear that the woman was there at Claude’s behest and that something illicit happened while Mme Paccard slept. We can’t know for sure. In any case, it allows us to say with certainty that Paccard had lived in Geneva for at least five years. It’s possible he was born in Geneva, but we have no earlier record nor do we have a record of his immigration.

Five years later and found to be poorly instructed, Paccard was told by two members of the Consistory to attend catechism. He admitted refusing to go saying that if everyone went, there wouldn’t be enough room. This earned him a call before the full Consistory where they asked him how many “Commandments of God” there were. He replied “Three” and began to enumerate them.

  • First, “Our Father who art in heaven,” reciting the first line of the Lord’s Prayer.
  • Second, “I believe in God,” reciting the beginning of the Apostle’s Creed.
  • And finally he rattled off the Third Commandment, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” which of course comes from the middle of the Apostle’s Creed.[2]

Notably absent from his Three Commandments is anything at all drawn Exodus 20, the traditional Decalogue.

[1]R.Consist. 10, f. 48 (15 August 1555).

[2]R.Consist. 17, f. 163 (17 October 1560).