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Just a thought
(selected for you by Dick Wursten)

About Libertines and Nicodemites...

Almost all scholars in the past (and still far too many today) uncritically follow Calvin when he depicts his opponents as a coherent group (i.e.: with fixed ideas and morals). Doing this, not only the historical nuances get lost, but one does injustice to the people who dared to disagree with John Calvin. The terms Calvin uses are pejorative and carry a lot of negative associations with them. He is fighting them, not portraying them.

One would expect caution with modern scholars when citing/reading/interpreting Calvin polemical utterings.

However, in the very prestigious new critical edition of Calvin's Works (published by Droz, Genève), the editorial introduction and explanatory notes suffer from the same old disease. Andrew Pettegree (St Andrews) signalled this with regard to the use of the term 'Libertines' and Nicodemites, both specimina of  tendentious and controversial terminology.

Below I copy his review from CHRC 86 (Brill, 2006). The editor in question is dr. Mirjam van Veen, a Coornhert specialist.

BOOK REVIEW: Ioannis Calvini, Opera Omnia denuo recognita... IV, Scripta didactica et polemica I. [Droz, Genève, 2005, ISBN 2600009663].

Because Calvin's reputation as a writer rests so squarely on his principal works of systematic theology, the institutes and his biblical commentaries, it is not always recognised that he was also an adept and effective popular polemicist. In fact, after the first success of the lnstitutes it was these shorter vernacular works that occupied much of his energy and attention during the 1540s, and helped establish his claim to leadership over a wider movement beyond Geneva. In his polemic falls into two categories: works directed against the Roman church, including the remarkable Traite des Reliques, and tracts written against those who sympathised  with the evangelical cause, but yet rejected the prescriptions of the French Reformed movement. This latter category includes the seminal Excuse aux Nicodemites, and the two works included here. This contribution to the new Droz edition of Calvin's works is therefore greatly to be welcomed, although the cautious and somewhat austere editorial style means that we are scarcely offered the full contextual discussion of the importance of these tracts for which one might have wished. The editor provides a full and readable text, with notes on variations between editions (principally the addition of marginal notes in the second edition of Contre la secte phantastique. Other biblical references in the text are also clearly recognised and identified. The introduction to each text, in contrast, is short and not particularly illuminating. There is little comment on Calvin's style, which must surely be relevant to the profound contemporary impact of Calvin's shorter vernacular writings Calvin’s talent for pithy, economical prose is in marked contrast to that of friends and allies such as Fare! and Viret. Both wrote extensively on the same issues that concern Calvin here, the danger of false believe in the evangelical community, and the threat posed by backsliding and compromise with the Roman religion. Yet neither captured Calvin’s gift for a calm economy of language, allied to an extraordinary rhetorical power, which somehow avoids both the hyperbolic abusiveness that characterises much polemical writing of this period, and the wordy verbosity to which both Farel and Viret were prone. The editor offers no comment on this matter, nor indeed on how Calvin had settled on such a distinctive and effective writing style.

Most disappointing is the unreflective way in which the editor accepts Calvin's tendentious and controversial terminology. While pointing out that no-one would have accepted the label ‘libertine’ as a term of self-designation, Van Veen nevertheless talks of a libertine reply, a libertine case at Rouen, even of Margaret of Navarre maintaining a favorable stand towards libertinism. This is almost as if we should believe that libertinism could encompass a coherent set of beliefs, as Calvin would seem to suggest. In truth, this is very much to be doubted. The reality of an unsettled time was that those who questioned Catholic orthodoxy held to a variety of individual positions, which would never have been formulated as a coherent body of beliefs. It suited to Calvin to treat libertinism as something formed and settled, but to accept his presentation as the basis of historical analysis does violence to the reality of the time.

With Nicodemism Calvin was on firmer ground: the term, which he had coined, did accurately capture an alternative strategy of accommodation, which Calvin was determined to root out. Here again though scholars have been too willing to allow the Genevan reformer to frame the terms of thedebate, in characterizing Nicodemite behaviour as the consequences of weak faith. In many respects dissimulation was a perfectly rational response, and the Refonned churches of France, the Nettherlands, and England would have reason to be grateful for those who emerged from the shadows when the opportunity arose to create a public church. For the Netherlands this still lay in the future when Calvin was approached to write against Dirck Coornhert. This is a curious episode. According to Calvin Dutch admirers had sent him a manuscript translation of Coornhert's work, and asked him to reply. But why did he do so in French, rather than Latin, if this was essentially for a Dutch audience? No Dutch translation of Calvin's work seems to have existed. Calvin had clearly been nettled by Coornhert's comparison of the Genevan reformer with Menno Simons, and he may have seen Coornhert as a potentially influential figure. But Calvin's reputation in the Dutch speaking provinces of the Netherlands was not yet established, and this may have been less influential than other of his vernacular writings. Here Calvin's text is presented with a helpful editorial apparatus, placing the original text of Coornhert's Verschooninghe  van de roomsche afgoderye in the footnotes to assist comparison with Calvin’s textual paraphrase. The editor also documents Galvin 's biblical references, even catching Calvin in a minor error of attribution. All in all this is a useful first volume in the section of Calvin's Opera devoted to the didactic and polemical writings; other volumes, however, could profit from a more challenging editorial commentary.

 Andrew Pettegree, University of St Andrews

 

On the other hand... Some of the Libertines were of course libertines proprement dit... Read this:

Un Calvin, un Garasse, un Mersenne, pour ne parler que des plus célèbres contempteurs des libertins, n’ont-il pas, volontairement ou non, forcé le trait, voyant des libertins et des athées partout où quelques voix dissonantes se faisaient entendre ? Qu’à des fins de propagande, ils aient fait preuve d’exagération, en dramatisant délibérément les écarts de comportement et de doctrine dont ils avaient connaissance, qu’ils en aient rendu compte en des termes provocateurs et polémiques, n’implique nullement que tout cela relevait du fantasme. Faut-il, par ailleurs, s’étonner que ces théologiens engagés fussent parmi les premiers à ressentir que des phénomènes inquiétants se produisaient dans les profondeurs de la société ?

Le libertinage de la Renaissance à l’Âge classique : un territoire pour l’historien ?
Didier Foucault

 

 

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