ARTICLES ON VIRET
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Pierre Viret and Geneva
by Michael Bruening
Excerpt from Archive for Reformation History, Volume 99 – 2008
There is no “Rue Pierre Viret” in Geneva. Viret does not stand next to John Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore Beza, and John Knox in Geneva’s Reformation Monument, but one suspects that had a fifth figure been added, it would have been Viret. Pierre Viret (1511-1571) is best known as the reformer of Lausanne, where he served from 1536 to 1559 during the crucial, formative years of the Reformation in his native Pays de Vaud. His ministry in Lausanne was bracketed and occasionally interrupted, however, by stays in Geneva. Viret’s activity in Geneva, together with his close personal relationship with John Calvin, made him in some ways a minister of Geneva his entire adult life. Indeed, the Reformation in Geneva would not have taken the form that we know it without him.
On three occasions in particular, Viret played a vital yet often overlooked role in Geneva. First, it was Viret, together with Guillaume Farel, who introduced the Reformation to the city in 1534-1535. Second, in 1541-1542, Viret’s work in Geneva was decisive in convincing Calvin to return from exile in Strasbourg. Third, after his own exile from Lausanne in 1559, he served officially as a minister of Geneva until he was transferred to the church of Lyon in 1563. Although discontinuous, the nine years during which Viret was a pastor of Geneva, therefore, represent a quarter of his career as a minister. Moreover, he was well liked by the people of Geneva – no doubt more than Calvin was in some quarters. Unlike the French Calvin, Viret was practically a native son, a fellow romand who spoke a similar dialect and shared the same culture as the Genevans. Indeed, there is much truth to Henri Vuilleumier’s assessment: “The Genevans always considered him one of their ministers, and as if he were simply on leave in Lausanne.”
A reassessment of Viret’s relationship with Geneva is necessary for two reasons: first, to correct several misconceptions in the current understanding of his biography; and second, to deepen our understanding of Calvin himself as a collegial pastor who was indebted to his friends and colleagues for his success, rather than as the towering independent figure famously decried as the “pope of Geneva” by his detractors. During Viret’s first two stays in Geneva he played a decisive role in setting the stage for Calvin. Farel is commonly given most of the credit for introducing the Reformation in Geneva; in 1534-1535, however, Viret was nearly as active in encouraging the Genevans to break from the Catholic Church. The period from 1541-1542, when Viret was preparing Geneva for Calvin’s return from Strasbourg, was still more significant, yet it has received even less attention. Viret’s presence in Geneva at that time was essential in overcoming Calvin’s initial reluctance to return to the city and in assisting him in his reform efforts once he arrived. Finally, no period of Viret’s life has inspired as much conjecture and misunderstanding as the years he spent in Geneva between his banishment from Lausanne in early 1559 and his subsequent departure for France in the autumn of 1561. He has been accused of feigning illness, of trying to escape the restrictive atmosphere of Geneva, and of feeling betrayed by Calvin’s selection of Theodore Beza as his successor in Geneva. Not only do such speculations lack support in the sources, but, more importantly, they have obscured the significance of Viret’s final years as a pastor of Geneva.
I. REFORMING GENEVA, PART 1:1534-35
Not a great deal is known of Pierre Viret’s early life. It seems that he was born in 1511 in the town of Orbe in the Pays de Vaud, the son of Guillaume Viret, a tailor. He claims to have been first introduced to the new evangelical teachings as a boy by the town’s schoolmaster, Marc Romain. Later, he studied in Paris at the College de Montaigu with John Mair, among others, but returned to Orbe before receiving a degree, probably for fear of religious persecution. Orbe’s unusual political status helped to pave the way for Viret’s introduction to the Reformed ministry, for the town was one of the common lordships (bailliages communs) governed jointly by Catholic Fribourg and Protestant Bern. Orbe’s status as a common lordship allowed the Bernese to insist that the town permit evangelical preaching, and when Guillaume Farel came to preach in Orbe in April-May 1531, he immediately recruited Viret into the evangelical ministry. Between 1531 and 1534, Viret was an evangelical preacher in the service of Bern, and he was active chiefly in Orbe, Grandson, Payerne, and Neuchatel.
Viret played his first significant role in Geneva in January 1534, as a member of the Bernese delegation sent to resolve the Furbity affair. In December 1533, Guy Furbity, a Dominican doctor of the Sorbonne, had preached Advent sermons in Geneva against the “Lutheran heresy” in general and the “Germans” in particular. The Bernese, allied to Geneva by a treaty of combourgeoisie, understood Furbity’s words as a direct assault on them and their support of the evangelical movement in Geneva. The Bernese called on Viret to go to Geneva to participate with Farel in a debate with Furbity. Viret played an active role in the dispute, and ultimately the Dominican was forced out of town. This event brought Genevan Reformation to a turning point. In response to the affair, Catholic Fribourg insisted that Geneva expel the evangelical ministers. Protestant Bern, on the other hand, enjoined Geneva to protect them and guarantee their freedom to preach. Faced with these contradictory demands, the Genevans decided to cancel their treaty of combourgeoisie with the Catholic city, preferring the military might of Bern. This left Bern as Geneva’s sole military protector and thus gave the Bernese greater leverage than they had previously enjoyed in the city.
After the Furbity affair, Viret and Farel continued to preach in Geneva. The willingness of the Bernese to keep two of their most talented preachers in the city, despite the slow progress of reform in their other Francophone territories, demonstrates the importance they attached to the progress of the Reformation in Geneva. In 1535 Viret became the central figure in another key turning point in Geneva’s Reformation: the alleged assassination attempt on Viret, Farel, and Antoine Froment by Antonia Vax. In March of that year, Vax served the three ministers spinach soup, but only Viret ate it; he fell seriously ill afterward. Whether or not Vax actually poisoned Viret is uncertain; Jean-Francois Bergier casts doubt on the event through a close examination of her trial records. The Genevan authorities and the ministers themselves believed at the time, however, that she had indeed attempted to kill them. More importantly, they believed that Vax was not operating alone but had the support of certain Catholic clergyman in town. Vax was executed in July, and despite the eventual acquittal of the others accused, the episode led to a backlash against the city’s Catholic clergy. In June, Viret and Farel assisted Jacques Bernard in the Dispute de Rive against a weak Catholic opposition, and the Geneva city council suspended the celebration of the Mass in August. The introduction of the Reformation in Geneva was a team effort. History has tended to remember Farel principally, but Viret worked closely with him, and together they were helped by the efforts of several others, including Bernard, Froment, and Froment’s wife, Marie Dentiere.
Viret’s itinerary during the autumn and winter of 1535 is unclear, but we know that he left Geneva for several months. It is certain that he went to Basel, where he probably first met Calvin, and possible that he continued on to Strasbourg and other German cities to plead on behalf of the persecuted Waldensians in Provence. By February 1536 he was in Neuchatel, but the Genevans wanted him back. In the wake of Bern’s successful attack on Savoy in January 1536, the Genevans wrote to both Viret and the Neuchatel city council asking for his return. The Neuchatel council cited a number of reasons why it could not send Viret back at the time, but soon afterwards Viret did in fact leave Neuchatel for Geneva. On the way, he encountered the Bernese army as it was besieging the town of Yverdon during its conquest of the Pays de Vaud. There he had his fateful encounter with the soldiers from Lausanne, who convinced him not to continue on to Geneva but to return with them to Lausanne, recently conquered by Bern and much in need of an evangelical minister. Viret would remain in Lausanne for most of his career, but his work in Geneva had been significant. When Calvin arrived there in the summer of 1536, he entered a city where, in his oft-quoted words, “Papism had been crushed a little while before by the work of this excellent man [Farel] and Pierre Viret.”
II. REFORMING GENEVA, PART 2: 1541-42
Viret would reprise his reforming role in Geneva five years later, this time preparing the city for Calvin’s return from exile in Strasbourg. Yet Calvin’s biographers have barely commented on the crucial significance of Viret’s presence in Geneva in 1541. Calvin’s reluctance to return to the city that had banished him is well known. For several months, he resisted enormous pressure exerted by those who wished him to return, especially Farel. Historians have not examined as closely Calvin’s eventual acquiescence, yet the sources suggest that he would not likely have abandoned Strasbourg had Viret not laid the groundwork.
In May 1540, Viret was among the first to suggest to Calvin directly that he should return. Even before the fall from power of the Articulant faction in Geneva, which favored strong political ties to Bern, Calvin scoffed at this suggestion in his reply to Viret: “I had to laugh at that part of the letter where you show yourself so concerned for my health. Would I prosper in Geneva (of all places)? Why not rather be crucified right now? It was more than enough to have perished there once; why would I want to be racked with that torture again? Therefore, my Viret, if you want the best for me, forget about that idea.” Even earlier, by March 1540, Calvin had begun to hear rumblings from those in Geneva who hoped he would return. In June, when the leading Articulants had been ousted, Farel went to Strasbourg seeking again to recall Calvin to his former post.
These early attempts to bring Calvin back to Geneva demand minor revision to some of William Naphy’s findings. Naphy states, “When the Guillermins regained control in the summer of 1540 they made no attempt to contact Calvin about his possible return,” and he concludes that “the lack of enthusiasm for Calvin’s recall is another indication that the ecclesiastical aspects of the crisis were of secondary importance…Clearly, one cannot say that Calvin was central to the 1538 crisis.” Instead, he claims, “The crisis was first and foremost political in nature.” Naphy’s case for the political elements of the conflict is strong, and it provides a necessary antidote to earlier, pious histories that saw Calvin behind all that happened in Geneva. Nevertheless, Naphy has overstated his case, for these appeals to Calvin came in the spring of 1540, months before the official call from Geneva in October, and even well before the factional resolution in favor of the Guillermins in the summer of 1540. This enthusiasm for Calvin’s recall indicates that the ecclesiastical elements of the conflict went hand-in-hand with the political concerns, as they so often did in the sixteenth century. Ultimately, the central element of the conflict shifts depending on one’s perspective. For example, Naphy rightly notes that “the central disputed issue at the beginning of the crisis in 1538 was whether or not the magistracy had the power to order changes to the religious practices of Geneva without consulting the ministers or getting their approval. This issue has implications for both the political and ecclesiastical history of Geneva. For the city councilors, it was a political struggle for authority in the city. For Calvin, on the other hand, it was a clear infringement on the proper jurisdiction of the church. Calvin’s refusal to administer the Easter Eucharist in 1538, the act that directly prompted his expulsion, likewise illustrates the dual nature of the tensions in Geneva. To the magistrates, this was an act of political disobedience, but to Calvin it was a necessary precaution to avoid the pollution of the body of Christ in the sacrament.
When Calvin was finally recalled to Geneva officially in the autumn of 1540, he was still reluctant and invoked as an excuse for delay his duties as a negotiator at the imperial colloquy of Worms. “If in the meantime,” he suggested, “you wish to call our brother Master Pierre Viret, your church would not be destitute, for you know him, and he would show the same concern for your church now as he did in the beginning.” Viret also had reservations about going to Geneva, for he was concerned about leaving his church in Lausanne. Farel, however, appealed to the pastors in Bern, saying, “So that Satan, who always resists holy endeavors, cannot set up any stumbling blocks for you, temporarily release Viret, who was recently requested. I am sure you can manage this with the Small Council.” The Bernese subsequently granted Viret a six-month leave of absence to go to Geneva, an apparent indication of their concern for both the ecclesiastical and the political affairs of the city. The Bernese were chronically short of pastors in Vaud; Viret was the chief pastor in the most important city in the region and among the few faculty members at the fledgling Lausanne Academy. The Bernese must have believed that his presence in Geneva was indeed important.
Viret arrived in Geneva on 10 January 1541, and he appears to have enjoyed immediate success. Farel wrote to Calvin, “No man has ever been so accepted. No church has ever rushed in so eagerly to hear the word of the Lord.” Less than a month after Viret’s arrival, the Genevan minister Jacques Bernard urged Calvin, “Do not put off coming to see Geneva, that is, a new people, clearly restored (thanks be to God) by the work of Pierre Viret.” These are but two of a long series of letters begging Calvin to return to Geneva, and they may well have exaggerated Viret’s success in an effort to allay Calvin’s fears of returning. Viret himself may provide a more accurate description of the situation. In a letter to the chief minister of Zurich, Heinrich Bullinger, he was cautiously optimistic: “The situation in Geneva has been proceeding very successfully and improving daily, but one issue greatly hinders our efforts. Although everything is now going our way and this is the very turning point and the best occasion for rebuilding everything that had collapsed, nevertheless, we dot have men with suitable learning and piety who can carry it out…The ministry of the Word is respected again, the youth are instructed properly, the hospitals and hospices are repaired, and the political strategy of the opposition is shattered, yet there are too few who assist and advance out pious efforts; on the other hand, there are too many who strive to obstruct and delay our work and who violate the peacefulness of the churches. So far, the Lord has greatly blessed our efforts. But there is not anyone whose shoulders can bear such a burden alone, certainly not I who am so weak in body and spirit that it is amazing I have been able to carry on thus far.” Viret’s description seems to indicate that good progress had indeed been made. He makes it clear, however, that there was still a long way to go and, most importantly, that he needed help.
After a long delay, which necessitated a six-month extension of Viret’s leave of absence, Calvin finally returned to Geneva in September 1541. Viret had helped to turn the Genevan church around, making it possible for Calvin to set about the task of implementing his reforms immediately upon his arrival. Faced with this daunting task, he insisted that Viret remain at his side to help. Three days after his return, Calvin told Farel, “I have also kept Viret with me, whom I absolutely would not allow to be taken away from me.” Now it was Calvin who sought to persuade Viret that he was needed in Geneva. He explained to Farel, “If Viret leaves me, I am completely finished; I will not be able to keep this church alive. Therefore, I hope you and others will forgive me if I move every stone to ensure that I am not deprived of him.” Calvin is hardly known for emotional outbursts; this language, therefore, indicates how precious a resource he considered his friend during his first months back in Geneva. Viret’s continued presence was all the more necessary because he had not been able to establish effective ecclesiastical discipline before Calvin arrived. This is Calvin’s one criticism of his associate at this time: “For although Viret began successfully to restore many things, because he put off a complete plan of order and discipline until my arrival, it was like starting from the beginning.” In fact, Calvin exaggerated. Earlier, in April 1541, influenced by Viret, the Small Council had moved to establish a consistory to enforce discipline and regulate marriage. It put off further action until the matter could be discussed by the Council of Two Hundred, which then delayed its decision. The consistory was not discussed again until Calvin’s arrival. In any event, Viret’s past failure could not overcome his present necessity in Calvin’s eyes.
Unfortunately for Calvin, he could not detain Viret forever, and after multiple extensions of his leave of absence, Viret finally returned to Lausanne in July 1542. His stay in Geneva had been more than a year longer than originally planned. The political situation, within the city and without, set the stage for Calvin’s return, and it is certain that the long-term success of the Genevan Reformation was largely a result of his efforts. But any account of Calvin’s return to Geneva is incomplete without consideration of Viret’s impact on the city and on Calvin himself both before and after his return. Viret’s efforts there eased Calvin’s dread of returning, and his continued labor was so effective that Calvin claimed he would not be able to go on without him. Calvin was, of course, able to survive Viret’s departure, but one is left to wonder whether the history of the Reformation in Geneva would be so inextricably bound up with Calvin had Viret not preceded his return.
III. LIFE AFTER LAUSANNE, 1559-1563
For nearly seventeen years following his departure from Geneva in 1542, Viret served the church and city of Lausanne as its chief pastor. He returned to Geneva frequently, however, to consult with Calvin, and he continued to appear before the city council, taking an active role in the city’s ecclesiastical affairs. One episode from this period is especially indicative of the respect with which the people of Geneva held their former minister. In the autumn of 1557, the magistrates of Lausanne sued Viret for preaching against them. When they learned of this, Geneva’s city councilors contributed the substantial sum of twenty-five ecus to aid Viret in his defense. Attacked in court by his own townsmen of Lausanne, Viret found assistance from his old friends in Geneva. Fifteen years after his departure from Geneva in 1542, Viret’s ties to the city remained strong.
In light of his continuing connection with Geneva, it is hardly surprising that Viret should have returned to the city in early 1559 following his expulsion from Lausanne. When he arrived, he was immediately installed as a pastor, and he remained there until September 1561. Unfortunately, this is one of the most obscure periods of Viret’s life, since, as Jean Barnaud rightly points out, so much of our knowledge of his previous activities comes from his extensive correspondence with Calvin. Once in Geneva, Viret had no further need to communicate with Calvin by post, and he corresponded regularly with few others. Outside of those mentioned in scattered city council records, therefore, Viret’s activities are difficult to trace. Perhaps because of this silence, no period of Viret’s life has given rise to more speculation and misunderstanding. Most of the guesswork has surrounded Viret’s departure from Geneva in 1561, which has been characterized as “sudden” or “mysterious” and explained by an assortment of unsubstantiated theories. Scholars have suggested variously that Viret was not really ill, that he was bored in Geneva, that he had been implicated suddenly with the controversial theologian Jean Morely, and that he was resentful of the supposed favor shown by Calvin toward Theodore Beza. None of these suggestions holds up under closer scrutiny, however. First of all, we must keep in mind – and this is rarely noted in the secondary literature – that Viret’s departure from Geneva was not intended to be permanent; he was taking a leave of absence, initially only for the winter of 1561 – 1562, and he planned to return to Geneva the following spring. The fact that he left his family behind in Geneva is a good indication that he had every intention of returning at that time. Furthermore, although his leave was extended, he remained a pastor of Geneva until 1563.
When Viret left Geneva for Nimes in September 1561, he explained that he needed a warmer climate for his failing health during the winter months. Historians have been peculiarly reluctant, however, to accept this “excuse” for his departure. Robert Kingdon suggests that Viret may have feigned illness in order to undertake an independent evangelical tour of France: “The whole story of Viret’s departure from Geneva suggests some rather detailed independent plans. Even the sickness may have been feigned. Viret generally looked to contemporaries to be extremely ill, but that seldom kept him from his exceedingly strenuous pastoral work. He may well have used the recurrence of a chronic ailment as an excuse to leave Geneva and begin an independent tour of evangelization.” Kingdon, furthermore, points out that Viret was remarkably active in Nimes upon his arrival, suggesting that he could not, therefore, have been terribly ill.
Viret was, in fact, very worried about his health. He had fallen so ill earlier in the year that Beza reported to Bullinger, “We seriously suspect that he will die.” During 1561, the Geneva council made a number of special provisions for Viret, who lay “deathly ill” in April. Viret prepared his last will and testament on 12 April 1561, an act usually deferred until one’s deathbed. Later, in 1563, Viret himself would recall, “It has been two years since, by the will of our God and Father, I fell into an illness whereby my body was so debilitated and brought so low that in my judgment I could not expect anything else but to be lowered into the ground. For I had never before had a sickness that had brought me so close to the grave, not even when I was poisoned by the art and cunning of the enemies of the Gospel.” Clearly, this was no pretense, nor should the fact that he began preaching in Nimes on his arrival in the autumn of 1561 be understood as a sign that his health was no longer a concern. Viret’s illness was most serious in April 1561, at the tie he wrote his will. It seems to have continued unabated into May, when Beza reported on his condition to Bullinger. But by September, he had recovered significantly; Christophe Fabri wrote to Viret, “I am marvelously happy, and all the brothers with me give thanks to the Lord for your recuperation.” He certainly must have been healthy enough to make the 350-kilometer journey from Geneva to Nimes. Yet Viret might reasonably have feared that if he were to stay in Geneva another winter, he could relapse into the same ill health that the previous winter had brought him. Spending the season in Nimes would be preferable to enduring the near-freezing temperatures he could expect in Geneva. Hence, the primary reason for his departure was exactly the one he gave: his health.
Robert Linder, however, believes that Viret may simply have been bored and resented having to play second fiddle to Calvin in Geneva after having led the Lausanne Church for over twenty years: “Whether or not Viret’s sickness was the real reason for his hurried departure from Geneva in 1561 is a matter of speculation…It is very likely that Viret was restless and bored with his work at Geneva. After all, for twenty-three years he had been in ‘the thick of the fight’ against Berne on one hand and Roman Catholicism on the other as chief pastor of the huge church in Lausanne. He was not accustomed to labor for long in the shadow of another man as he was forced to do in Geneva in relation to the great Calvin.” Linder also indicates that Viret’s tense relationship with Beza was being groomed as Calvin’s successor may have also played a role in Viret’s decision, a theme reiterated by Heiko Oberman: “On 24 August 1558….Viret had reached the end of his rope; he wanted to leave the ministry in order to conclude his life as a private citizen. When Viret, exiled by Bern and after an interlude in Geneva, finally left for France in September 1561, the reason Calvin gave for his friend’s departure was his need for the healthier air of Provence. But in the confidential letter in which Viret first announced his planned resignation, the stated motive for this dramatic move was not his physical health. In unequivocal terms, he accused Calvin of having masterminded Beza’s move to Geneva…A new structure emerged when Beza came to Geneva destined to be Calvin’s successor…When [Viret] was welcomed in Geneva it was not to assume his old role of trusted lieutenant and second-in-command. This position had been given to Beza.” Oberman’s interpretation of events rests on a leap of both logic and chronology. Apparently relying in part on Linder’s argument, he suggests that Viret’s departure from Geneva in 1561 was directly related to the quarrel between Viret and Calvin some three years earlier over Beza’s departure from Lausanne. Nothing in the source connects these two episodes. Furthermore, Oberman implies that upon going to France, Viret resigned from the ministry in Geneva. In fact, Viret remained on the roster of the Geneva Company of Pastors, as is amply documented by Bernard Roussel, who rightly points out the weakness of Oberman’s argument regarding Beza but does not deal extensively with Beza’s and Viret’s relationship in Geneva and afterwards.
Demanding particular consideration is the assumption that Beza was being groomed as Calvin’s successor and the tension alleged to have developed between Viret and Beza as a result. Oberman’s claim that the position of “lieutenant and second-in-command had been given to Beza is not supported by the evidence. First, Viret had been elected pastor of Geneva even before he arrived in the city; Beza, by contrast, had been called to Geneva chiefly as a professor of Greek. He was elected minister two months after Viret, and only after he had been in the city for months. Second, for the next two years, Viret, not Beza, appears with Calvin in almost all the city’s records. The consistory registers invariably list Calvin and Viret first among those present, while the names of Beza and the other ministers are listed below in varying order. When Calvin appeared before the city council, he almost always did so together with Viret, not Beza. Calvin and Viret preached together in the cathedral; even the mid-week services had to be moved to the cathedral of St. Pierre because of the summer heat and “the multitude that came to hear Calvin and Viret.” Finally, the decision to elect Beza rector of the new Academy was certainly an honor and an acknowledgement of his profound intellectual ability, but it was not the position from which one would naturally inherit leadership of the Company of Pastors. Until his illness in 1561, Viret, not Beza, must have been Calvin’s heir-apparent – if indeed Calvin had need of one at that time.
There is merit to the notion that there was tension in Viret and Beza’s relationship, but it did not result from an effort to groom Beza as Calvin’s successor. While Viret and Beza were in Lausanne together, there is no evidence that relations between them were rocky, although there is likewise little evidence that they were especially close. Nonetheless, Beza’s departure from Lausanne in August 1558 certainly strained Viret’s relationship with both Beza and Calvin. Unlike Viret’s departure from Geneva, Beza’s removal from Lausanne was sudden, and Calvin played an important role in it. Although Viret initially resented Calvin’s failure to consult him in this instance, the two quickly reconciled in Geneva. Viret and Beza’s relationship, on the other hand, hit another rough patch as soon as Viret arrived in the city; in essence, Viret stole Beza’s accommodations. Just a week after Viret’s arrival, the city council decreed “that Viret be lodged at Saint Abre, where we had initially ordered lodging for Theodore Beza, who should remain where he is with Seigneur de Arca for another three months.” Beza seems not to have taken the news well. Less than a week later, the two of them appeared before the council, where “once again the manner of their lodging was discussed. And it was decided that Viret be lodged at Saint Abre in the sale….and that he have the garden… and as for Beza, he should be lodged elsewhere.” If anything, it was not Viret who was upset that Beza was being groomed as Calvin’s successor, but Beza who was resentful of being overshadowed by Viret once again, as he had been previously in Lausanne.
It is difficult to take this argument much further, however, for there is simply no additional evidence of bitter disagreement or serious rupture between Viret and Beza. Nor, however, is there evidence of much cooperation. The almost total lack of surviving correspondence between the two after Viret went to France is striking; a single letter from Beza to Viret is all that survives from the seven years between Calvin’s and Viret’s deaths (1564-1571). On the other hand, Beza seems to have been well aware of Viret’s activities in France, perhaps through confidential correspondence that does not survive or through word of mouth. And Beza honored “l’eloquent Viret” in his Icones as “a learned man, with a marvelously charming disposition.” Although Viret and Beza seem not to have been close, we can say with confidence that whatever tension there may have been nothing whatever to do with Viret’s decision to leave Geneva.
A fourth scholar who questions Viret’s departure from Geneva is Philippe Denis. Denis suggests that Viret was sympathetic to Jean Morely’s controversial Congregationalist ideas, which later came under intense fire from Geneva, particularly from Beza. Denis implies that Viret may have crossed Calvin by insisting that consistory members be selected on the advice of all the ministers rather than that of Calvin alone. “One little known episode from Viret’s stay in Geneva could have played a significant role in his decision to leave. It is, in any case, of the greatest interest in the context of the Morely affair. On 30 January 1560, Viret and Calvin appeared together before Geneva’s Small Council…They proposed that the members of the consistory no longer be chosen from the group of citizens, but from among the pious men of the church and that, before appointing them, one should take the advice of all the ministers instead of calling on Calvin “all alone, as if he were the ministers.” Denis suggests that this last proposal must have been Viret's and may have alienated him from Calvin.
First of all, Calvin and Viret’s appearance before the city council in January 1560 hardly seems directly relevant to what Denis suggests is Viret’s “hasty” departure over a year and a half later. Moreover, Denis’s point rests entirely on his interpretation of certain ambiguous pronouns as a reference to Calvin: “that one calls on (lui) alone, as if (il) were the ministers.” To be sure, the grammar of the passage is less than perfectly clear, and in the absence of a clear antecedent, the pronouns may, in fact, refer to Calvin. Its context, however, makes Denis’s reading implausible. Ina proposal for reforming the consistory prepared and presented by Calvin and Viret together, Viret would hardly have launched an impromptu attack on Calvin as the two stood side-by-side before the city council.
Furthermore, in trying to show possible connections between Viret and Jean Morely, Denis highlights, as Linder had as well, the suddenness of Viret’s departure: “His departure is sudden, as Morely notes in the dedicatory letter of the Traicte de la discipline et police chrestienne. He departs in haste, without taking leave of the city council.”
Viret’s departure was hardly as sudden as Linder and Denis indicate. Viret left Geneva on 29 September 1561, but more than two weeks earlier, on 11 September, Calvin notified the city council of Viret’s intention to spend the winter in Languedoc on his doctor’s advice. Viret must have been discussing the idea with his friends even earlier, for on 12 September, Christophe Fabri sent him a letter from Neuchatel, advising him to select a destination other than Montpellier, since the climate there would be too harsh for his health. By 17 September, word had spread to France, where Beza reported from the Colloquy of Poissy that Viret was “being sought out by many leading nobles who all say that he is useless in Geneva if the doctors can be believed.” It is true that Viret did not appear before the council to take his leave in person because “he feared his departure was too well known” among the general populace. Still, the discussion of his imminent departure suggests that he made no secret of it among his friends. Hence, we must conclude with Roussel that “the historian does not have a single argument to minimize the motive” of Viret’s poor health to explain his departure.
Although he had originally planned to return to Geneva the following spring, Viret left Geneva for good in 1561, returning only briefly in 1563 to collect his family and goods. Nonetheless, Viret was still a member of the venerable compagnie and had been given a leave of absence only for the winter months. His activity in France was extraordinary, especially given his illness earlier in the year. When Viret arrived in France, churches from all over the country sought him out. The churches in Nimes and Paris even sent delegations to Geneva to ask officially for his services. Ultimately, he left Nimes for Montpellier in February 1562, and from there went to Lyon. The exact date of Viret’s official release from Geneva is unclear. Roussel points to January 1563. At first glance, it seems that Viret’s transfer to the church in Lyon occurred then, but his transfer was not, in fact, complete until May 1563. On 21 January, the Geneva council records show that “The church of Lyon asks once and for all that we cede Viret completely. After hearing the advice of the ministers, the request was granted.” But apparently neither Lyon nor Geneva informed Viret about their negotiations over his future, and he was outraged. In February he complained to the pastors in Geneva about the secretive manner of the negotiations: “There was complete agreements with the plan I had described to the [Genevan] council concerning the postponement of my return until the spring. But our council [in Lyon], unaware of our agreement, wrote to your council in the letter you saw, which I was not consulted about or made aware of. You should, therefore, find the authors worthy of serious censure and reproach…None of us heard as much as a syllable about their request before we were informed by the letter your council sent us.” It is not entirely clear why these negotiations were conducted without Viret’s knowledge or why the Genevans were willing to cede Viret to Lyon. Part of the answer could lie in Geneva’s desire for closer cooperation with Lyon. The two cities were closely tied economically, and the combination of Geneva’s increasing alienation from Bern in the 1550’s with the Huguenot capture of Lyon in 1562 may well have made a stronger alliance with the French city appear all the more desirable.
To the Geneva city council, Viret expressed his sadness at being handed over to the church of Lyon and indicated his desire to retire from the ministry altogether: “If it were up to me, I would very much like to end my days with you [in Geneva], if it pleased the Lord to allow me to serve your Church such as I would like to every day of my life and if it did not please God to call me elsewhere….For from now on, I place myself in the ranks of old, exhausted, broken soldiers who can no longer perform great exploits in battle. It seems better to me to spend the future as a private citizen than to take on any public duty.” Viret did not resign from the ministry, however, and his official transfer from Geneva was delayed. Later that year, in May, the church officials of Lyon had to repeat their request for Viret, “whom they have merely borrowed.” Finally, on 13 May 1563, more than two years after he had left Geneva for France, Viret returned to Geneva and appeared before the city council to take his final leave. The council decided “to grant him honorable leave and equally to thank him for his service to our Lord in planting the Gospel and serving faithfully in the ministry here.” On 25 May, Viret bade adieu to the council and returned to Lyon, never again to return to Geneva or his homeland in the Pays de Vaud.
Viret’s relationship with Geneva while he was in France was rocky at times. The Genevans found they had little control over his activities and had to extend his initial leave of absence repeatedly. Viret never liked to take orders, whether from the Bernese magistrates while he was in Lausanne or from the ministers and council of Geneva while in France. Beza memorialized his independent spirit with the words, “He always said precisely what he wanted.” It seems that he did what he wanted as well. But it is a mistake to conclude that Viret somehow broke acrimoniously with Geneva, as he had with Bern, or that he stealthily crept out of town under a fog of suspicion. In the prefatory epistle of his Instruction chretienne, addressed to the church of Nimes, he fondly recalled his association with Geneva: “I cannot name the city of Geneva but with great honor and reverence and without always recalling the fruit of the joy and consolation that I for so long received from that church – both on the part of all the good and honorable lords whom God constituted there for the government of the republic and from my brothers and companions, pastors in the same ministry with me, and generally from all the people, who were always so affectionate toward me, as I was toward them from the beginning.”
Viret would spend the rest of his life in France, residing during his last years in Jeanne d’Albret’s Bearn. But, in many ways, Viret remained throughout his life a minister of Geneva, whether officially on the roster of the Company of Pastors or unofficially through his writing, preaching, and missionary work. With Farel, he introduced the Reformation to Geneva in the first place. He almost single-handedly set the stage for Calvin’s return from exile. And with Calvin, he created the ecclesiastical ordinances and consistory that would define Reformation Geneva. Indeed, “Calvin’s Geneva” would not have existed as such had it not been for the work of Pierre Viret.
Dr. Michael Bruening is a medieval and early modern European historian who specializes in the Reformation. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Virginia, and his Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, in the Division for Late Medieval and Reformation Studies. His first book, Calvinism's First Battleground, explores the origins of Calvinism in early modern Switzerland through the religious and political struggles between Catholics and Protestants. He is currently finishing up a critical edition of the unedited correspondence of the Calvinist reformer Pierre Viret. At Missouri S&T, Dr. Bruening teaches early Western Civilization, as well as pre-modern European history, from ancient Rome through the Reformation. Previously he taught at Concordia University, Irvine.
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