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Title: History of the Reformation - Second Attack, in Which the Leader Perishes (May 4, 1533.)
Author: John Calvin
Language: English
 36 00005-0035 Second Attack, in Which the Leader Perishes 
(May 4, 1533.)

THE Reformation of Geneva numbered in its ranks the friends, not only of evangelical truth, but of political liberty. ‘There was both good and evil in this. The vigorous hand of the huguenots may possibly have been necessary to restrain the intrepid mamelukes; but it was to be regretted that the arms of the flesh shone beside those of the spirit. If reasoning by syllogism is bad in religious subjects, reasoning by the pike is worse still.

Some partisans of the Reform gave a new version of the Compel them to come in of the Romish Church, by practicing a little of the Compel them to go out. Both of them need a little indulgence. The human mind having been kept in darkness for ten centuries, required a lengthened education before it could understand that it is unholy to employ in religion any other weapons than those of free conviction.

There was another kind of hostility, pretty frequent in those times, and more conformable to the manner of our days than swords and guns — the use of ridicule. The Genevans of both schools usually began with legitimate discussions, the catholics alleging the infallibility of the pope, and the reformed opposing them with that of the Word of God. They debated on this subject in the streets and in the convents, around the fire and even in the council. But they often passed from discussion to ridicule.

One day, when the priests were walking in procession and singing aloud the prayers for the conversion of heretics, some huguenots standing at the corner of a street, fancying a resemblance between their harsh chants and the voice of a certain thick-skinned animal, said laughingly to one another: ‘Give some thistles to those noisy braying donkeys.’ ‘Alas!’ exclaimed the nuns in their cloister,’ they make so many jests that you could not write them down in a year!’ It is Sister Jeanne who records this fact, but her narrative is so full of fables that we cannot guarantee its authenticity. Most of the priests were stronger in arm than in mind, and preferred a fight with swords to one with words. That devout canon and valiant knight Messire Pierre Wernli was bursting with rage. He harangued in the convents, in private houses, and even in the streets; he wished to fight and prove, halberd in hand, that supreme respect was due to the papacy. He held frequent conferences with the heads of the party, both lay and ecclesiastic, at Percival de Pesmes’, at M. de Thorens’, Or at the vicarepiscopal’s.

All kept their eyes and ears open, determined to take advantage of the first opportunity to secure the triumph of their cause.

They thought the time for action had come at laSt. It was now the beginning of May, the date of the fair at Lyons, at that time much frequented by the Genevans. Some of the principal huguenots hesitated, however, to go there. It seemed difficult for them to leave Geneva just at that moment, for all the indications of a storm were visible in the sky. They believed, however, they should have time to make the little journey before the crisis arrived. Some of the more daring among them posted up bills with the words: ‘Let us go to the fair before the war and deliverance of Geneva.’ They departed, and in certain secret meetings it was said that the huguenots who remained behind ought to be killed, and the gates shut against those who were away: thus the religion of Geneva would be saved. But in the opinion of others, it was proper that the pomps of religious worship should form a prelude to these combats of the faith.

Sunday, the 4th of May, was the feast of the Holy Windingsheet. The linen cloth, in which the body of Jesus Christ was buried, and on which (it was said,) the print of his face had remained, was exhibited that day in Geneva, and on other days in ten or twelve different cities which all pretended to possess it. At the moment when the reform was endeavoring to restore Christ’s true image to the church, such as it is found in Holy Scripture, the most ardent partisans of catholicism were found exhibiting on a sheet the features, which sixteen centuries, as they alleged, had not been able to efface. To give more importance to the feast, the vicar-general entrusted the service to Pierre Wernli, who was looked upon as one of the most important of the canons, and was at the head of the most bellicose.

The congregation was large. Great fervor, internal emotion, and ardent prayers rendered the service that day more than usually solemn. Wernli, who had put on his finest sacerdotal robes, presided over the ceremony with religious enthusiasm and swelling pride. He was fanatical but sincere.

His motto was: ‘Everything for the honor of God and holy church.’

Convinced of the efficacy of the sacrifice of the mass, he repeated the introit, chanted the offertory, consecrated the host, and went through the elevation. The sympathetic accents that rose from his heart resounded through the arches of the cathedral. ‘What a fine voice!’ said some; ‘what a fine man! There is not such another officiator in the world, and we have not seen so fine a service in Geneva for these ten years!’ After the mass of the Holy Windingsheet, the catholics could not doubt of the approaching triumph of the church.

A new contest was about to begin. We do not forget the small extent of the field of battle. We are not describing the destinies of the empire of the Persians or the Romans, of the Russians or the Germans; but those of a little city, surrounded by a narrow territory. Here, everything is on a small scale; yet the combat of which we are about to speak led to the return of the prince-bishop; and if the plans formed between that ecclesiastical prince, the duke of Savoy, and the emperor himself had been carried into execution at that moment, as everything seemed to forebode, liberty and the reformation would have perished in Geneva. Would that loss have produced no effect? Are we mistaken in thinking that the great battle which was to last during all the 16th century — a battle which the gospel and liberty fought against Rome, Jesuitism, and the Inquisition, and which is undoubtedly the most important of modern times — might not have had the same issue, if this little city, so full of living faith and heroic courage, had not fought in the ranks, and imparted to protestantism the rigor necessary to conquer formidable enemies? When they heard of these petty struggles, many of the friends of liberty and the gospel perhaps may say: ‘Let us not despise such little things. It is we whom the narrative concerns. These people were the first to fight for the precious gifts which we now enjoy in peace.’

Wernli did not intend to remain satisfied with a mass: he believed a fight was necessary. He had hardly laid aside his robes, his cross, and stole, when he thought of donning his armor: this was part of his piety. He had no trouble in persuading his brethren, for the priests were more zealous than the laymen in these disturbances. The first battle having proved a failure, they prepared for a second. In the reformation of Geneva facts play as important a part as ideas. The great questions of rights, liberty, and truth were not elaborated simply in the studies of a few lawyers or divines, but were discussed around the hearths of burghers, at the meetings of evangelicals, and in the general council of the citizens, and were decided in the streets in the midst of formidable struggles. Ideas became acts; doctrines gave birth to events; theories set men’s hearts beating, armed their hands, and produced great deliverances. There may have been some evil in this mighty activity, but it was an unavoidable evil.

On the afternoon of the festival, Wernli and a great number of other ecclesiastics met in council at the vicar-episcopal’s. They bitterly regretted that the good-nature of the Friburgers and the weakness of the syndics had caused the failure of their plot. They had lost the game, and must begin again. A project adjourned needs not on that account be given up. The catholics should take advantage of the time when the absence of the principal huguenots would make the victory easy.

During this discussion a few citizens of both parties were promenading near the Rhone, apparently thinking only of taking a little recreation. It was the evening of a holiday, and the setting sun poured its rays in floods of flame upon the lake. The west was on fire, the water reflected the image of the sky, and flashed with bright and flickering colors. But the citizens thought little at this moment of the beauties of nature. However great the apparent calm without, their souls were agitated by fierce passions. By degrees they entered into conversation; they spoke of religion, as was their custom; they debated with warmth, then they began to dispute and to abuse each other, and finally hands were raised and blows were struck.

The sun set; the brightness died away, all grew pale round the city, and daylight was fading into darkness. The hour, so favorable for walking, had attracted many abroad; the noise drew still more. Huguenots and mamelukes, catholics and reformed, hurried to the Molard. ‘What is the matter?’ they asked. The parties were already forming into two distinct groups. Every one as he arrived joined his friends; they arranged themselves in order, they soon counted their numbers, and two bands drew up face to face. Some of the more impetuous went in front and excited the crowd. The gaoler of the episcopal prisons and his brother, both great brawlers, who handled the dagger cleverly, ‘very riotous men’ (says a manuscript) thorough bravoes of the 16th century, were among the most violent. Monks and priests of the lower rank mingled with the people in the square, while their superiors were in consultation at the vicar-episcopal’s. They excited the crowd, and complained loudly that the Friburgers had hindered them on the 28th March from destroying the heretics, which, they held, would have been a necessary severity.

Meanwhile the two parties, though already face to face, apparently did not think of coming to blows. One Pinet, sent by the clergy ‘to apply the match, began to work upon the people.’ He glided from group to group, and strove to inflame the minds of the catholics. ‘Who will fight along with me on behalf of his religion?’ he said. Then turning towards the huguenots, he challenged them, shouting out, with an oath: ‘Your creed is a rascally one, you Lutherans! If there is a man among you willing to maintain the contrary, let him come here and fight.’ This challenge was repeated several times, but the reformed feared a disturbance. ‘Peace has been made,’ said they, ‘do not break it.’ Some of them added: ‘Be on your guard, Pinet is a sad scamp.’ Nobody would ‘take the bait.’ One huguenot, however, the impatient Ami Perrin, could not contain himself; provoked by the priest’s agent, he rushed upon him and nearly killed him. Both huguenots and catholics ran between them to separate them. Peace was restored or at least seemed to be; but a spark had been struck out, and the fire was about to be kindled. A young Catholic, Marin de Versonay, agitated by the scene which he had just witnessed, left the square and hurried up the Rue du Perron. Versonay was a man of narrow mind but ardent imagination, and fanatically attached to the Romish Church, which he looked upon as the sole and exclusive source of holiness and everlasting happiness. Moreover he had an unbounded affection for his cousin Percival de Pesmes, and the profoundest respect for the sovereignty of the bishop. His ancestors had conferred great services upon Geneva. In 1476 his grandfather Aymon, councilor to the bishop John Louis of Savoy, had lent his plate to the city to quiet the Swiss, who threatened it with pillage. The young nobleman wished to do for Geneva more than his grandfather had done — he wished to destroy heresy. His wife, with whom the priests were great friends, urged him on night and day. The members of the episcopal council, the canons and principal priests, were all armed and waiting at Messire de Bonmont’s house the issue of this skirmish. At every noise they pricked up their ears, fancying they heard the foot-steps of a messenger; but none appeared, and everything seemed to betoken that peace would not be disturbed. Pinet had withdrawn in confusion, and Perrin, notwithstanding his natural impetuosity, knew very well that the reformed did not wish to take the initiative and break the public peace. Tranquillity was restored. A few citizens of both parties still remained in the Molard, but many of the catholics and huguenots had left, and to seal their concord had gone to drink together, saying that they intended to remain friends. The match had gone out. Young de Versonay and the impetuous canon were going to rekindle it.

The former, whose imagination had been excited, directed his steps to De Bonmont’s house. He knocked violently at the gate and shouted aloud: ‘Help! help! they are killing all good christians!’ At the sound of these imprudent words the canons and priests caught fire; some remained doubtful and motionless, but Pierre Wernli, ‘that good knight,’ immediately sprang to his feet. The service he had celebrated in the cathedral was hardly over, when he had thought of another, and said to himself that this very day the Reformation must be buried in a windingsheet from which it should never rise again. Accordingly, after taking off his sacerdotal robes, he had put on his breast-plate and cuishes, belted his sword to his side, seized his heavy halberd, and thus armed, had gone to the vicar-episcopal’s. Immediately Wernli heard Versonay’s voice, he thought the hour was come. Standing in the midst of the priests, and grasping his weapon, he invited his colleagues by a glance to follow him.

Many hesitated, and then, ‘burning with love of God,’ says one of his greatest admirers, ‘this good champion of the faith, seeing that nobody got ready for the fight, lost patience, would not wait for the other church-men, and went out first with fiery courage.’ The die was cast; the battle was about to begin, for no one was able to stop the impetuous canon.

However, three other priests, less notable, but quite as violent — Bertholet, Manillier, and Servant — ran to St. Pierre’s and ordered the ringers to sound the tocsin loudly and hurriedly. These men, themselves alarmed at what was told them about the riot, rang immediately, ‘to the great terror of christians,’ says sister Jeanne. Over all the city swelled the majestic voice of Clemence, an ancient bell, well known at Geneva, which bears this inscription on the rim:




In truth Clemence at this moment ‘was calling the people and convoking the clergy,’ and as for the ‘demons, whom her voice was to affright.’… they were the re-formed — at least in the eyes of the priests, The huguenots who remained in the Molard, thought that the papists meditated returning to the attack and killing them in their houses. The darkness increased the agitation caused by the dismal sounds from the belfry. ‘What is the matter?’ said the citizens. ‘The heretics are assembling in the principal square to plunder the churches,’ answered some of the catholics. ‘Let us rally on the other side, in front of the stalls,’ was the reply. Some said truly that it was a false alarm; that the huguenots had gone to the river bank simply for a walk, as is everywhere customary on a Sunday evening, and that they were already returning home; but the more violent would listen to nothing; they hurried from all quarters, summoned by the tocsin, and displayed their banners. On the side of the stalls they shouted with all their might: ‘Rally here, all christians, and be of good heart in defense of holy faith.’ And great was the tumult among them. It was quite pitiful to hear their cries in the streets. The other churchmen, who at the first moment had hesitated to follow the canon, took courage, and leaving the vicar’s house, descended to the Molard.

In the priests’ eyes it was a decisive moment. A great number of them, no doubt, thought only of their personal interests, but many believed that the issue of the struggle was a question of life or death for catholicism in Geneva. They shuddered when they saw those whom they termed unnatural children, turning away from the bosom of their mother’s breast — the papacy. ‘These curious and rebellious minds,’ they said, ‘imagine that they will overthrow the Church but the gates of hell shall not prevail against it… .O bride of Christ! thou who procurest for us the chaste and everlasting embraces (castos oeternosque amplexus ) of the divine Spouse, we are thine for ever!’

Wernli had made up his mind to give his life, if necessary, for the cause of Rome. This was not with him the hasty resolution of a moment. Seeing the progress of the Reformation, he had vowed to sacrifice everything for its destruction, and it was with this intention he now descended from the neighborhood of St. Pierre’s to the Molard. It was necessary to accomplish on the 4th May what the 28th March had been unable to do. ‘Wernli desired to be the first,’ says Froment, ‘to support as a man of war the holy mother Church.’ He was both the hero and the victim of this important day. Vainly did the people shout to him on every side that ‘Peace was made;’… he would hear nothing. ‘He was the most obstinate and the maddest of the priests.’ Full of venom and devotion for the cause of popery, he exclaimed: ‘He! all good christians to my aid.’ Many lay-men and clerks joined him, and they proceeded hurriedly towards the square. ‘The canons and other churchmen were the first under the flag,’ says Sister Jeanne. In a short time fifteen hundred men, ‘many of them priests,’ were assembled. During this time, other ecclesiastics were gathering in arms in the court of St. Pierre, so as to stop the huguenots who might desire to go to the scene of the tumult. Three reformers, coming from the Bourg du Four, soon arrived with hasty steps in front of the cathedral. The sacerdotal corps immediately barred the way, and the priests began to attack them. One of them was ‘unfortunate enough to receive twenty-eight wounds at their hands, and fell to the ground.’ As for the other two, ‘the dogs took flight,’ says the bulletin of St. Claire. At this moment Wernli and his followers reached the Molard, The night was dark, the stars above gave a faint light: men appeared like shadows, and it was hard to distinguish friends from foes. Obscure and confused noises, inarticulate sounds, marks of approbation or of anger, issued from the darkness. It was like the hoarse roaring of the sea before the storm burst forth. For a few seconds there was a dead silence, then on a sudden loud shouting. When the canon arrived, armed from head to foot, he heard the cries of the reformers, and, stirred with anger, he flourished his halberd, and pointing it in their direction, shouted out in his Friburg patois: ‘Dear God! where are these Lutherans who speak ill of our law?… God’s blood! where are they?’ With a coarse oath, he turned round to his followers, and said, ‘Courage, good christians! do not spare those rascals.’ One might fancy him the giant Goliath, who, with a helmet of brass upon his head, and armed with a coat of mail, came forth, spear in hand, to defy the army of Israel. The warlike canon had hardly given the signal when the combat began. It was a fine spring night, everything was pale and grey; it was, as we have said, easy to make mistakes; the silence and obscurity imparting a certain solemnity to the struggle. The shadows moving about the Molard became agitated; they rushed upon each other, and dealt frequent blows in the darkness. One shadow ran after another, but on both sides they fought desperately and at close quarters. From time to time there was a brief gleam; sword met sword, and flashed fire. The violent Perrin and the zealous Claude Bernard were at the head of the huguenots, and struck stoutly. Among the catholics, John Rosetti and Canon Viole were those who rushed with greatest fury upon their adversaries. All four were wounded on the spot. Others besides them were hit, and their blood flowed; but they were not noticed, and the combatants trampled the wounded under foot, until their friends, recognizing them, carried them to some neighboring house. ‘A blow more famous than all was about to be struck;’ a victim more notable was about to bite the dust.

Wernli, who had remained at the top of the square, unable to see his enemies, was challenging them with all the strength of his lungs. ‘Where are they?’ he kept on shouting and swearing; ‘Where are these Lutherans who speak ill of our law?’ Some huguenots who were not in the square, but in the Rue de la Croix d’Or (all the adjoining streets were full of catholics and reformers), answered him, ‘They are here.’ The canon, who could not see, but who could hear, rushed halberd in hand in the direction whence the reply came. He reached his enemies, striking them with the head and the butt of his weapon, which he handled as easily as his breviary. By killing Lutherans he hoped to kill Lutheranism itself.

The huguenots whom he had attacked did not remain idle, but parried the priest’s blows with their naked swords. At last one of them, whom the long and pointed blade provoked, sprang forward, caught hold of the halberd, broke it in two and flung the pieces away. The hero of the clergy, finding himself deprived of his favorite weapon, lost not a moment; he drew his two-handed sword and rushed upon his adversaries, cutting and thrusting like a Switzer of Grandson. The huguenots, finding themselves so vigorously attacked, no longer stood upon the defensive; they fell upon the champion of the papacy. ‘They charged him,’ says Sister Jeanne, who adds, ‘but he defended himself valiantly.’ His breastplate protected his body from the neck to the waist, so that all the blows aimed at him glanced off, ‘so completely and cunningly was he armed.’ At last a man named Pierre l’Hoste, as is believed, a poor carman, impatient at the long struggle, looking upon Wernli as a soldier and not a priest, approached him, and, moving round him in search of the weak point in his armor, plunged his sword into his body. The canon staggered and fell. ‘Thus was the blasphemer killed, and he lay in the square without moving hand or foot.’ The struggle occurred in front of the house of Councilor Chautemps, one of the most zealous of the evangelicals. Wernli fell on the steps. They that take the sword shall perish with the sword. Some priests who were near, seeing their captain fall, fled each to his convent or to the cloister of St. Pierre. The death of the general did not, however, put an end to the fight. Priests with their partisans, and huguenots, were still exchanging blows when the syndic of the guard, the head of the military department, arrived. He raised his official baton and ordered the citizens to return to their houses. De Chapeaurouge, commander of the cavalry, zealously assisted him, ‘Stop!’ they both exclaimed. All their calling was useless, so great was the popular emotion, and so inflamed was their courage, says the chronicle. The syndic, advancing into the midst of the combatants, conjured them to separate; but he received a blow on the head from the hands of a priest. fi166A What the canon’s death had not been able to do the magistrate’s wound accomplished. This incident put an end to the contest. The reformed, full of respect for the syndic, sheathed their swords and withdrew to their homes.

Some priests, however, with a few of their partisans refused to obey.

They were unwilling to fail this time, and did not intend that their project should come to nothing. They were determined to bury the reform.

Exasperated bands paraded the streets, challenging and insulting the huguenots, who refused to chastise the braggart priests. Even this forbearance did not appease the fanatics; they continued their provocations until daybreak. ‘All night the christians were under arms,’ says Sister Jeanne, ‘seeking those wicked dogs; but it was of no good, for they were all hidden!’ When daylight began to appear, the clergy and their allies, fatigued with the tumultuous night, went off to bed, and thus ended their second attack. Now they will try to obtain by intrigue and, terror, what arms have failed to procure them.