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Title: History of the Reformation - Poisoning of the Reformers — Conversion of the Head of the Franciscans (Spring, 1535.)
Author: John Calvin
Language: English
58 00005-0057 Poisoning of the Reformers — Conversion of the Head of the Franciscans (Spring, 1535.)
(Spring, 1535.)

THE ultramontanes were more zealous than ever. Many would only employ lawful arms; but there were some who were by no means scrupulous as to the means adopted to vanquish the enemies of Rome.

Fanatics make a false conscience for themselves, and then look upon culpable actions as good ones. Empire was slipping from the hands of the Church; it must, at any cost, be restored to her, thought the extravagant Roman-catholics of Geneva. Canon Gruet, in particular — his famulus, Gardet the priest, and Barbier, in the service of the bishop of Maurienne, thought that, as neither duke, bishop, nor mameluke could do anything, other means must be devised to check that furious torrent which threatened to sweep away papacy, temples, priests, and images. Fanatics, whom the wise men of catholicism are unanimous in condemning, were plotting in the dark and muttering softly that as Farel, Viret, and Froment were all living in the same house, they could easily be got rid of at one blow. Some inkling of these guilty designs got abroad, and the Reformers were warned to be on their guard; but such plots did not trouble them. ‘If we were all three dead,’ said Froment, ‘God would soon raise up others.

Out of stones can He not raise up children unto Abraham?’ The work of darkness began. There lived in Geneva at that time a married woman and mother of a family, Antonia Vax by name; she was of quick perception, melancholy temperament, enthusiastic imagination, weak rather than depraved. In those days poison was much used; Bonivard had often related, ‘how pope Alexander VI., wishing to have the money and benefices of two or three cardinals, had drunk in mistake from the flagon in which stood the poisoned wine, and had been caught in his own trap.’ Antonio had seen poison employed. When in service at Lyons, nine years before, she had remarked that one of her companions always carried with him a little box piously covered with an Agnus Dei : ‘It contains sublimate,’ he had told her. More than once after this, when the unfortunate woman, of dark and dreamy temperament, felt the vapors rise to her brain, she had cried out: ‘How wretched I am! how I should like to be out of this world! If I only had some sublimate!’ At Bourg she had seen her mistress, in complicity with a Spanish doctor, give her husband poison; and entering afterwards the household of an illustrious family, the Seigneur de Challe, nephew to the bishop of Maurienne, she had seen her master poison his mother’s husband. After this Antonia came to Geneva with her husband and children. Barbier, one of the chief instigators of the plot, had known Antonia when she was in M. de Challe’s service. On his return from a conference held at Thonon, he cast his eyes upon her to carry out the guilty designs formed by him and his accomplices. At Geneva, as in England, it was a woman whom the misguided priests selected to strike the blow which they hoped would destroy the Reformation. Neither of those wretched women was deprived of all moral sentiment; but the heated imaginations of the maid of Kent and of Antonia, and their unhealthy sensibility, made them embrace enthusiastically the schemes of wicked and crafty men. Barbier accosted the woman Vax, spoke to her of the preachers, and of the ills which threatened Holy Church; and when he thought he had sufficiently prepared the ground, he represented to her the great service she would do to religion, if she freed Geneva from the heretics. ‘If any suspicions should be aroused,’ he added, ‘you will only have to remove to Canon Gruet’s, secretary to Monseigneur of Maurienne.’ Antonia hesitated. Some monks of the abbey of Ambournay, in Bresse, whom she had known, and who were then at Geneva, got round her, and endeavored to persuade her that such an action would merit the glory of heaven. She appeared sensible to their persuasions, and yet the deed was repugnant to her. To decide her, Barbier took her to D’Orsiere, a canon held in great esteem. ‘Act, act boldly,’ said the canon; ‘you need not be anxious.’ The unhappy woman yielded. The next step was to prepare the means: by representing her as a poor woman who fled to Geneva for the Gospel, they contrived to get her admitted into Claude Bernard’s house, where Farel, Viret, and Froment lodged. Bernard’s heart was touched, and he engaged Antonia to wait upon his three guests, who took their meals apart. She knew so well how to play her part, that she was in fact regarded as one of the more fervent seekers of the Gospel. To procure poison was not difficult: she had lived for some time with Michael Vallot, the apothecary, and continued to go there. One day she paid him a visit, and, at a propitious moment, caught up some poison in a box and ran away.

When the poison was in her hands, she had still (as it would appear) a moment of uneasiness; but the wretches, whose tool she was, pressed her to deliver Geneva from heresy. Accordingly, on the 8th of March, Antonia, taking courage, prepared some spinach soup, which she made very thick, for fear the poison should be noticed, threw in the sublimate, and, entering the room where Farel, Viret, and Froment were at table, put the deadly broth before them. Farel looked at it, found it too thick for his taste, and, though he had no suspicion, asked for some household soup.

Froment, less dainty than Farel, had taken the spoon, and was about to lift it to his mouth, when some one came in and informed him that his wife and children had just arrived in Geneva. He rose hastily, ‘leaving everything,’ and ran off to meet them. Viret was left, still pale and suffering from the sword-cut he had received from a priest near Payerne.

The perfidious Antonia had told him that she would make him some soup ‘good for his stomach,’ and he therefore ate tranquilly the food she had ‘dressed to kill him.’ The crime was accomplished. If the good providence of God had miraculously saved two of the evangelists, the third was to all appearance lost. At this moment the wretched woman suddenly became agitated; her conscience reproached her with her crime; and bursting into tears, she ran hurriedly to the kitchen, where she began to moan. ‘What is the matter with you?’ asked her companions: but she made no answer. Unable to resist her remorse, and believing pure water to be a good antidote to the poison, she formed the resolution of saving her victim, poured some water into a glass, hurried up-stairs, and desired Viret to drink it. The latter was astonished, and wanted at least to know the reason of such a request. She refused to tell him, but did not cease begging him until he had drunk.

Froment, much irritated against the woman, regarded her emotion as ‘mere crocodile’s tears;’ he says so in his Chronicle. We are inclined to believe them sincere.
Viret became ill, and his friends were heart-broken. ‘Alas!’ said Froment, ‘we expect death for him, and not life.’ People asked the cause of this sudden illness, and Antonia, suspected of knowing something about it, was seized with terror. She felt herself already caught and sentenced. ‘I know very well that it is no sport, ’ she exclaimed. Her imagination was heated; she went to the house where her children lived, and, taking the youngest in her arms, leading a second by the hand, the others following her, she ran with alarm to the shore of the lake, wishing to escape, and her little ones with her. ‘Take me away from the city,’ she said to the boatmen. They carried her as far as Coppet, about three leagues off.

Claude Bernard and one or two of his friends, who had reasons for mistrusting the woman, jumped into a boat, and, having found her, brought her back. They did not, however, charge her with anything; but her conscience accused her: her agitation kept increasing during the passage; and her haggard eyes were fixed upon her old master, his friends, and the boatmen. ‘You are betraying me,’ she said: ‘you are playing me a trick.’ At length they arrived. Antonia got out of the boat first, and while Bernard and his friends were occupied in landing the children, she slipped away lightly, plunged into a dark alley between the Molard and the Fusterie, hurried through it, climbed the Rue de la Pelisserie, and reached the house of Canon D’Orsiere, who had said to her: ‘Act, act boldly, you need not be anxious.’ ‘Save me!’ she exclaimed. The canon hid her in his cellar. But some people had seen a woman pass hurriedly along: the officers of justice searched the canon’s house, found Antonia crouching in a dark underground cellar, and took her away to prison, where she confessed everything.

Meanwhile Viret was in peril of death, and, as there was no woman at Bernard’s to tend him, Dame Pernette, a pious Christian, and wife of the councilor Michael Balthasard, begged that he might be removed to her house, which was done. Froment, who went to see him often, said: ‘Really, Dame Pernette is doing him a great service, and showing him great kindness.’ One doctor said he was poisoned, another denied it. The whole city was filled with the affair: men and women assembled and expressed their sorrow. ‘Must the Church be robbed of such a pearl,’ they said, ‘by such a miserable creature?... Poor Viret! Poor reformers!... Sword-cuts in the back, poison in front... Such are the rewards of those who preach the Gospel!’ Viret was saved, but he felt the effects of the poison all his life. The investigation began on the 13th of April. Antonia was not of a character to conceal her crime: the venefique, as they called the poisoner, declared openly she was led into it by the ‘round caps (the clergy).’ The priests, and even the canon who had ruined her, were arrested and taken to prison. A canon arrested by lay-men! All the clergy were in commotion: Aime de Gingins, the bishop’s vicar-general, represented to the syndics that a canon ought not to be imprisoned by anybody, not being a subject of the State, but only of the chapter. The magistrates declared that the investigation of criminal matters belonged to them, and the priests were forced to submit to be tried according to the common law — a great innovation in the sixteenth century.

Antonia was condemned to have her head cut off, her body hung on the gibbet of Champel, and her head fixed on a nail At first she remained firm. ‘Take care, my lords,’ she said, ‘that your servants do not poison you, for there are many who practice it.’ But when she had returned to prison, she became quite prostrated. Pale and speechless, she rolled her haggard eyes around her. It was still worse when she was led to the place of execution.

Her mind wandered: she was like one of those personages spoken of in antiquity, who were said to be pursued by the Furies. Although surrounded by an immense crowd, she did not observe it: her eyes seemed fixed on some mysterious beings. She fancied she saw the priests of Geneva and the monks of Ambournay standing round her. ‘Take them away, take them away!’ she exclaimed, waving her hand; and as the guards showed by their looks of astonishment that they did not know what she meant, ‘Take them away,’ she resumed, pointing with her finger at what she believed she saw; ‘in heaven’s name take away those round-caps who are before me;... it is they who are the cause of my death!’ Having mounted the scaffold, she cried out again in great anguish: ‘Take them away!’ and her head fell. She paid dearly for her crime — a crime too frequent in those days, when fanatics thought it their duty to serve by violence the cause which they said was the cause of God. The adversaries of the Reformation, in the countries which it reached, have too frequently employed the arms of iniquity against it.

The guilty project of getting rid of the three Reformers at once had the opposite consequences to what its authors had hoped. The atrocity of the attempt increased the love of the people for the Reform, and detracted greatly from the reputation of the priests. The most sinister reports were circulated about them. It was said that they had tried to poison the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, in order to cut off all the reformed at a blow. People shrank from them in the streets as they passed, as if their simple approach could inflict death. All Geneva was in commotion: a transformation of that little state became imminent. At this time ambitious popes and despotic princes exercised absolute power. Two kinds of enfranchisement were necessary for Christendom: that of the nation and that of the Church. The Genevese sought after both: some rallied round the banner of faith, others round that of liberty; but the more enlightened minds saw that these two holy causes should never be separated; and that the political awakening of a nation can only succeed so far as the awakening of the conscience tends to prevent disorder. In no country, perhaps, were these two movements so simultaneous as in Geneva. Certain natural phenomena are studied in microscopic animalcules: a moral phenomenon may be illustrated in the history of this small city which may be enunciated in these words: ‘He who desires to be free must believe.’ The Gospel, however, was not as yet triumphant. While the Romancatholics always had their parishes, their churches, and numerous priests, the reformed had but one place of worship, and three ministers. Such a state of things could not last long. An important event occurred to hasten the victory of the Gospel and of liberty.

At the very moment when a pious reformer was descending near to the gates of death, the head of the Franciscans in Genera was taking the new road ‘that leadeth unto life.’ The three brothers Bernard-Claude, the elder, in whose house the reformers received a Christian hospitality; Louis, priest of St. Pierre; and Jacques, guardian or superior of the Franciscan convent — were among the most notable citizens of Geneva. The two elder had for some time embraced the Reform; but the third, a monk, had remained a zealot for popery. Ere long he himself was shaken. Seeing the three ministers closely at his brother Claude’s, he learnt by their life to esteem their doctrine, and their virtues struck him so much the more, as he had lived in popery a life by no means regular himself. He examined himself seriously whether he would not do well to renounce monasticism. The light of the Gospel began to shine into his heart. Nothing struck him so much as the thought that Christ, in his great love, had procured for his followers by his death a perfect reconciliation with God. The character which popery ascribed to the mass appeared to him to do injury to the infinite price of the Savior’s passion. ‘I am convinced,’ said he to Farel, at the end of one of their conversations. ‘I am one of you!’ — ‘Good!’ answered the reformer, ‘but if faith is kindled in your heart, it is necessary that the light should be shown abroad. Confess your faith publicly before men.’ Jacques was determined not to spare himself, and not only to declare for the Gospel, but, further, to endeavor to make it known to his fellow-citizens. He posted up bills on February 19th, that during Lent he would preach every afternoon in the convent church.

This was something new: a numerous crowd filled the place. ‘Men and women, catholics and Lutherans, crowded in,’ says the nun of Ste. Claire, ‘and that during all the first week.’ Some fancied that the guardian was going to thunder against the reform; but all doubts were soon dispersed.

He spoke, and the astonishment was universal. The reformed were surprised at seeing one who formerly had rejected so rudely the grace of Christ, now rushing like a common soldier into the midst of the battle and defending it. The catholics were still more amazed. ‘This scandalized them so much,’ adds the sister, ‘that they never went afterwards.’ It seemed impossible to come to an understanding, and the confusion continued increasing.

How could they get out of a struggle which looked as if it would never end? There appeared one very natural means which does honor to the epoch in which men had recourse to it. The magistrates of the sixteenth century, whether in Switzerland or elsewhere, studied their charters when there was a question of establishing what was right, and assimilated the principles which had dictated them. But their love of the right was not a platonic love, as among enervated jurists. These notable men wished to realize in the government of the people what was in its constitution. Now if the book of the Liberties, Franchises, Immunities, Uses, and Customs of Geneva was the charter of the state, the Holy Scriptures were the charter of the Church: the Bible was the grand muniment of their spiritual franchises. Nothing must be decided, therefore, except by this sovereign rule. While such thoughts occupied the syndics, the same desire animated the Reformers. ‘We will forfeit our lives,’ they said, ‘if we do not prove by Holy Scripture that what we preach is true.’ A conference, at which, with the divine charter before them, the faith, duties, and rights of Christians should be established, seemed the wisest way of getting out of the difficulty.

One thing stopped the members of the council: they were reluctant that foreigners — two Frenchmen and a Vaudois — should be at the head of the disputation. Farel respected such a feeling, and desired that the name of an old Genevan should be inscribed first in Geneva on the list of the Reformation. He went to Jacques Bernard: ‘Brother,’ said he, ‘it is necessary that your change of life should turn to the edification of the people. Write down some propositions; announce that you are ready to answer all men in a public disputation, and defend your theses by clear and manifest reasons. They would refuse us this favor, for we are foreigners; but you are a citizen of Geneva, and superior of an important order. They will grant your request.’ The recent epoch of Bernard’s conversion, his want of Christian experience, the annoyances, the dangers to which he would be exposed, might have induced him to refuse this demand. But he knew that in the new life on which he had entered, the rule was, that every one, forgetful of himself, should work for the good of others; and that with regard to his insufficiency, God would provide. The head of the Cordeliers asked the council’s permission to maintain publicly the evangelical doctrine in a conference to which all the learned in the city and abroad should be invited. The syndics, who desired that the Reformation should be accomplished by reason and not by force, granted his prayer, and everything was got ready for this important action.

For a long time Geneva had seen the parties armed from head to foot, crossing their swords and halberds: now minds were to be ranged in battlearray, and the spiritual combat would, to all appearance, decide the future of the Reformation.