Viret’s Lausanne Academy


Soon after the city of Lausanne accepted the Reformation, Viret took up residence there as minister of the Cathedral Church. Though Lausanne was labeled Reformed, it was still heavily steeped in centuries of Catholicism, and thus carried over much debauchery into the new Protestant religion. The scandals of the former Catholic pastors were particularly harmful to the propagation of the new Faith, and Viret determined that something must be done to alter the injurious influence. Bemoaning the state of the pastors, he wrote, "They like better a pint at their side than a Bible."1

To rectify this state of affairs, the Bernese magistrates determined to begin an academy for the training and education of young men for the ministry. The Lausanne Academy was founded in January of 1537, and was the first Protestant academy of the French-speaking world. Scholars came from many neighboring countries to teach at the new school. Lausanne became a haven as persecutions drove many a notable Protestant scholar from his home. Viret noted in August of 1549, "Every day many people flock here, our school grows day by day, producing such abundant fruits, and extends far and wide. We must all give thanks to the Lord."2

The Lausanne Cathedral was provided by the lords of Bern as the location for the newly-formed Academy. Lectures were given there and at any adjoining house possessing sufficient space for the classes. As historian André Gindroz notes,

. . . the professor of Philosophy taught in the vestibule of one of the canonical houses located on the eastern side of the Lower City. The library and the college were placed in Menthon’s chateau, . . . But the great fundamental teaching, that of theology, was given in the Cathedral choir. There, under that admirable dome, in the thousand colors of the variegated light dazzling through the stained glass windows, not far from a pope’s coffin, two illustrious Reformers, the vehement Farel and the gentle and courageous Viret, taught, in a tender and firm voice, the vital doctrines of the Reformation. Such a place! Such men! Such teaching! . . . Such words the pious Reformers drew from their raptured hearts! Such tones escaped their breasts, palpitating with emotion and faith! Under the cold stone of the tombs of the ancient bishops the stirring of their bones could almost be heard as their magnificent Cathedral, snatched from Rome, was given to Christ!”3

Though countries such as Italy and Germany were represented at times in the teaching staff of the new Academy, the faculty was predominantly French. Indeed, so many were the French professors that in 1558 dean Jean Haller noted that the instructors were ". . . all French, except Viret."4

Though the Academy was well equipped with wise and knowledgeable professors, the Messieurs of Berne noted with dismay a lack of students with enough schooling to enter the Academy. To remedy this situation a boarding house was commenced in which young students would be given appropriate training to equip them to enter the Academy upon conclusion of their studies. A Genevan, Antoine Saunier, was loaned to Lausanne for a year to organize and establish the school.5 It was completed October 30, 1540. The structure housed a dozen young men, and was paid for by the lords of Bern. This soon earned it the name Les Douze Escholiers de Messieurs, or The Gentlemen’s Twelve Students.

In 1542 Celio Secondo Curione, a refugee from Piedmont, Italy, was appointed house tutor of Les Douze Escholiers.6 The young scholars were placed under his charge, and it was his duty to see that they were cared for and fed. Curione retained this office (as well as professor of Arts at the Academy) until 1546, at which time he was succeeded by André Zébédée, an instructor from the Guyenne College at Bordeaux.7

In 1548 the Bernese magistrates granted a sum of 3,000 livres to be used in the founding of a library at the Academy.8 This resource was an invaluable aid to the Academy’s students, who found within the newly-created library a wealth of Reformed teaching essential to those who were leaving the folds of Catholicism. In 1553 a grant of 100 florins annually was provided as a book allowance for the library.


The Lausanne Academy grew and flourished for over twenty years, during which time thousands of young Protestant students passed through its doors, hailing from every corner of Europe, including France, Germany, England, and Poland.9 The Academy turned out countless pastors and martyrs for the Reformed faith. One such martyr, Pierre Naviheres, lodged in Viret’s home while attending the Academy. He, along with four other French students, desired to return to their hostile homeland to preach the Gospel to their Catholic family and friends. They departed with the blessing of the Academy, but had scarcely crossed the French border before they were discovered and imprisoned. Despite Viret’s and many other professors’ strong interceding on their behalf, the young scholars were burned at Lyon, May 16, 1553.

Besides the preachers who left the Academy to proceed as missionaries to the surrounding Roman Catholic countries were many world-renowned men of the Faith who also received their training at Viret’s Academy. Some students who entered the Academy included Zacharias Ursinus and Casper Olevianus, authors of the Heidelberg Catechism of 1562, and Guido de Bres, author of the Belgic Confession of 1561.


Viret’s Academy boasted learned instructors from Italy, Germany, France, and Switzerland. In 1540 the salary of Hebrew and Greek professors was 200 florins, two muids of wheat, and two barrels of wine. Professors lodged in the canonical houses near the Cathedral.

Some prominent men among Viret’s professors included: Theodore de Beze, successor to Calvin in Geneva and principal of the Lausanne Academy, and Mathurin Cordier, the author of a book of Latin dialogues which remained the standard in elementary Latin classes for several centuries. Conrad Gesner, who left Zurich to teach at the Academy, assumed the Greek chair in 1537 at only twenty-one years of age. He was succeeded by Jean Ribit and Chevalier Francis Berauld.

Other professors included Claude Prévôt, Pierre Pandor, Claude Molinier, Jean Tagaut, who taught Mathematics and Philosophy, Antoine Chevalier, instructor in Hebrew, Jean Randon, the Headmaster, Jean Merlin, a Hebrew professor, and Francis Hotman, a professor of Law who was converted to Protestantism after observing the fortitude of the Reformed martyrs.10 Imbert Paccolet, a French refugee, arrived at the Academy in August of 1538 and taught Hebrew for ten years. An old priest, Jacques Valier, also gave lectures at the Academy, as well as assisting Viret as a preacher in the Lausanne Church.


As the years passed, relations with the Bernese magistrates became increasingly more and more difficult as Bern sought to reserve for itself the jurisdiction pertaining to the churches within their domains. Viret, seeking to further the Reform in Lausanne, did his utmost to turn the formerly Catholic populace into a Christian people. This he found impossible to carry out without Church discipline. However, try as he might, Viret could not persuade the lords of Bern to delegate such God-given authority to the Church.

Throughout his pastorate at Lausanne, Viret made numerous journeys to Bern to plead the cause of his congregation and beg the magistrates to allow him the discipline necessary to establish and build the Church. Viret pled with the Bernese lords, assuring them that a true Church must be permitted to govern its members. Bern, however, desirous of retaining its omnipotence over its subjects, refused to relinquish such authority to the Church, stating that it was the State’s prerogative to govern the Church.

An example will serve to illustrate the problem with Bern’s mandate: during Viret’s pastorate, a certain churchgoer in Lausanne opened and operated a house of prostitution under his mother’s roof. Despite this blatant disregard of God’s Law, the pastors, according to Bern, were required to allow—in fact, could not restrain —the guilty man from attending the Lord’s Supper. Little or no jurisdiction was afforded to Viret and other Lausanne pastors in the realm of morals. As Viret stated, this lack of discipline would result in no Church at all. Pastors, he stated, must be allowed to enforce "this discipline, by which we can distinguish between swine, dogs, and sheep, according to Christ’s teaching." 17 "Discipline," he noted, "can be abandoned, if the administration and use of the Word of God and the sacraments are also abandoned, for the Word and the sacraments cannot be properly administered without it." 18

Despite his continued appeals, Bern refused to permit Viret to restrict the Lord’s table. All must be allowed to participate, and any pastor who refused to administer communion was to be discharged immediately. The Lausanne pastors, following Peter’s initiative (Acts 5:29), sent numerous letters to Bern in which they stated their obligation to follow God rather than men:

We have not been called to this charge [the ministry] to close our eyes, to keep silent, to conceal vice, and to cover the scandals of those who have been entrusted to us, but to be on guard, to be attentive, to unceasingly lift our voice with strength, when needed. . . . We must do this to discharge our duty in good conscience. . . . We do this to show that we are innocent and free of the blood of those who perish by the offence of others. 19

The dispute regarding the jurisdiction of the Church and the sanctity of the Lord’s table finally came to a head in 1558. Writing to Calvin on August 24, Viret confided, "I have more bitter worries than anyone. I’m between the anvil and the hammer, and know not where to turn. . . . I pray that God does not withhold His directions from me." 20

Faced with the decadent moral state of many in his congregation, Viret announced that it was impossible for him to administer communion on Christmas Day, 1558, without first being permitted to examine and instruct those who wished to partake. Going before the Council of Lausanne, he begged a seven-day postponement of the communion service to provide the time necessary to examine the communicants. After much travail and debate the Council at last agreed to give the pastors the stipulated time.

When news of the ruling reached Bern, however, the magistrates were outraged at this usurpation of their authority. They sent immediately to Lausanne to countermand the decision of the Council and to dismiss and expel Viret and his colleagues.

Thus ousted, Viret and his associates were forced to pack their belongings and seek refuge elsewhere. This refuge was soon found in the neighboring city of Geneva, where Calvin welcomed his friend with the warmest affection.

Bern appointed other ministers in Viret’s stead, but those who were nominated to fill his place refused, preferring rather to join Viret in exile than submit to Bern’s ungodly demands. Numerous professors and students of the Academy also followed the expelled ministers, swelling the number of the exiles to a vast multitude. Johannes Haller, a contemporary of Viret, noted that "over a thousand people migrated from Lausanne to Geneva." 21 The significance of this mass exodus from the city of Lausanne can scarcely be overstated, for the city’s population at the time was little more than 5000.22

The host of distinguished refugees exiting Lausanne was not, however, permitted to merely languish in the city of Geneva. Despite the dire appearance of their plight, God had prepared marvelous works for the exiles. Just five months after their arrival in the city, Calvin founded his Genevan Academy, employing as its core the outcasts who had fled Lausanne.

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1 Michel Campiche, La Reforme en Pays de Vaud (Editions de L’Aire, Lausanne, 1985), page 194

2 Henri Meylan, La Haute Ecole de Lausanne, 1537-1937 (Universite de Lausanne, 1986), page 22

3 André Gindroz, Histoire de l’instruction publique dans le canton de Vaud (Georges Bridel Éditeur, Lausanne, 1863), pages 33-34

4 Emile Doumergue, Lausanne au temps de la Reformation (Georges Bridel & Cie Editeurs, Lausanne, 1902), page 40. the date is given as 1549 in Gindroz, Histoire de l’instruction publique dans le canton de Vaud, page 31

5 Gindroz, Histoire de l’instruction publique dans le canton de Vaud, page 31

6 Henri Martin, Les Cinq Étudiants de L’Académie de Lausanne (Georges Bridel Éditeur, Lausanne, 1863), pages 6-7

7 Meylan, La Haute Ecole de Lausanne, pages 16-17

8 Doumergue, Lausanne au temps de la Reformation, page 40

9 Jean Barnaud, Pierre Viret, Sa Vie et Son Oeuvre (Saint-Amans, 1911), page 180

10 Martin, Les Cinq Étudiants de L’Académie de Lausanne, page 6; Gindroz, Histoire de l’instruction publique dans le canton de Vaud, page 38

11 Barnaud, Pierre Viret, page 309

12 Cart, Pierre Viret, le Reformateur Vaudois, page 99

13 Barnaud, Pierre Viret, page 349

14 Barnaud, Pierre Viret, page 354

15 Barnaud, Pierre Viret, pages 351-352

16 Barnaud, Pierre Viret, pages 353-355

17 Cart, Pierre Viret, le Reformateur Vaudois, page 118

18 Pierre Viret, Instruction Chretienne (L’Age d’Homme, Lausanne, 2008), page 348

19 Letter of July 15, 1555, as quoted in Barnaud, Pierre Viret, page 445

20 Cart, Pierre Viret, le Reformateur Vaudois, pages 123-124

21 As quoted in Michael W. Bruening, Calvinism’s First Battleground: Conflict and Reform in the Pays de Vaud, 1528-1559 (Springer, Dordrecht, The Netherlands, 2005), page 254

22 Bruening, Calvinism’s First Battleground, page 10

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