‘Read, and then judge’ – this was the title page of The War for and Deliverance of Geneva by Marie Dentière, published in 1536. For Marie Dentière, this was not just a sound piece of advice; it was a plea to her readers to judge the following words based on their content, and not the gender of their writer. Sadly, her advice often went unheeded.
Marie was born in Tournai, part of modern Belgium, in 1495. Coming from the lower nobility, when she was thirteen Marie followed the normal trajectory for girls her age by entering a convent. Here she would have received an education beyond the norm for women at that time, one centred around biblical studies and theology.
It is a mystery how or when Marie was first introduced to the teachings of the reformers, including those of ex-monk Martin Luther. Yet, by 1524 she had learnt enough to be convinced of the truth of their words. She converted, denounced her monastic life, and fled to the Reformation city of Strasbourg. Here, she quickly became part of the central group of reformers who were also seeking refuge there.
In 1533, Marie married Antoine Froment, a friend of the reformer Guilhem Farel, and the couple moved to Geneva to aid him and their friends in the Reformation effort there. After years of near civil war, in 1536, Geneva declared itself a Protestant city. The only problem was that no one knew what this should look like, and soon, voices from all corners were talking, debating and arguing different aspects of church organisation and secular governance.
For many reformers, this was the perfect opportunity to start afresh, to review and evaluate all that existed in the Catholic Church and rebuild a new church in keeping with Protestant theology. This was an exciting challenge for the reformers, but Marie saw it as a unique prospect; it was a chance for women to be heard, and she intended to represent their voice.
Including women in the new church
Though Marie rejected monasticism, she appreciated the theological education she had received in her convent and the spiritual ministry the sisters had provided for one another. In this new church with no monastic houses, Marie wanted to ensure that these opportunities for education and service remained available to women. She believed that women were capable of reading and correctly interpreting the Bible, so there was no reason to prevent their inclusion in parts of church life. However, such beliefs soon saw Marie being labelled as a ‘radical’, causing both her and her husband to be pushed out of the discussions taking place.
With no one listening to her, Marie took up her pen. In 1538, Calvin and Farel were expelled from Geneva by the city council. Afraid of how this might affect the progress of the Reformation, Marie set out to garner support for the two men in the form of a published letter addressed to the Reformation Queen, Marguerite of Navarre. In this letter, Marie simultaneously defends Calvin and Farel, their character and their vision of reform, whilst pushing for the greater inclusion of women in the church.
Drawing together her biblical literacy and theological training, Marie persuasively defended her gender against ‘the faithful who say that women are very impudent in interpreting Scripture for one another.’ She asks Marguerite, ‘If God has given graces to some good women, revealing to them something holy and good through His Holy Scripture, should they, for the sake of the defamers of the truth, refrain from writing down, speaking, or declaring it to each other?’
A voice silenced
Marie had finally found a way to get a woman’s voice heard, but her success was only temporary. 1500 copies of her work were published in Geneva under a pseudonym, but within only six weeks her identity was discovered. Immediately, the books were seized, banned, and declared heretical. This was not a localised reaction, either; further afield in Bern, reformer Béat Comte was asked to read the book and decide whether it should be translated. He later reported finding nothing within the book contrary to Scripture, but said that because it was written by a woman, it would be best to suppress it. Marie’s voice was not silenced by Catholic authorities who disagreed with her theology, but by her fellow reformers because of her gender.
Despite defending Calvin and Farel, both men outright rejected Marie’s aid on their return to Geneva, even in their evangelism to the local convent where she was more experienced. In 1539, Farel denounced Marie’s husband, attributing Antoine’s ‘moral turpitude’ to Marie’s influence. Meanwhile, Calvin publicly ridiculed Marie’s misplaced desire to be involved in the Reformation movement, calling her an ‘unruly’ woman. From this point onwards, Marie and Antoine were ostracised by the other Reformation leaders, to such an extent that they were unable to continue evangelising.
Marie died in 1561. There are no sources that provide an account of the last 22 years of her life, though it appears the situation between herself and the other reformers in Geneva was never resolved.
The Reformation is a pivotal point in the history of the Church. Reformers including Luther, Calvin and Farel used their God-given gifts to inspire and enable people to draw closer to God. Indeed, they continue to influence us today through their great theological treatises. That said, by excluding Marie and women like her, it is only today that we are starting to have conversations that Marie wanted to initiate nearly 500 years ago. Her story is not uncommon – it is shared by Christians throughout history and even today, and as we live in such a polarised world, we should use Marie’s experience to reflect on how we, as Christians, interact with each other. How do we respond to our brothers and sisters with whom we disagree? Do we ignore their voice, defame them, or resort to cheap insults? Do we listen and consider their words before responding? How often do we follow Marie’s advice to ‘read, and then judge’?
For English translations of Marie Dentière works, see Katharina Wilson’s, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation.