If anyone is under the illusion that Durant's vague belief in God and rejection of organized religion equipped him to provide a fair and unbiased historical account of the life of John Calvin, this historian concluded his coverage of Calvin with, "...we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense" [Will Durant, The Reformation: The Story of Civilization (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), 490]. That conclusion sums up well Durant's treatment of Calvin. Later in his Dual Autobiography, he and his wife jab the Reformation's seeming rejection of the Renaissance "as pagan" and a reversion "to the gloomy theology of saint Paul and Saint Augustine, leading to the predestinarianism of Calvin and Knox, the Puritan regime, and the replacement of papal authority with the authoritarianism of the state in religion in Germany and Great Britain." Durant did not hide the fact that he was not sympathetic to either Calvin or the Reformation.
It's not that every fact or tidbit offered by Durant on John Calvin is suspected erroneous due to inherent bias. There were unfortunate, oppressive, and deadly results from the strict morality imposed by the Genevan church and state while Calvin was in residence. While every societal atrocity that occurred cannot necessarily be linked to the Reformer, Calvin cannot be completely exonerated from his role or place in that society (nor would he probably want to be). Calvin, despite his intellectual greatness and piety, was still a man with faults, flaws, and sins. He did have influence in Geneva (at least at certain times), and he was in favor of strict societal discipline. But Durant's Calvin comes off more like a left-over inquisitor from the golden era of the Inquisition, a power-hungry ruthless mogul who transformed Geneva into one of the most oppressive societies in history. Durant's basic tendency is to make Calvin worse than he was by necessarily linking him to a number of historical events (which he may, or may not have been a part of), and also by describing him in an overly negative and lopsided way. Here's a brief snippet of evils attributed to Calvin from Durant to demonstrate this point:
To speak disrespectfully of Calvin or the clergy was a crime. A first violation of these ordinances was punished with a reprimand, further violation with fines, persistent violation with imprisonment or banishment. Fornication was to be punished with exile or drowning; adultery, blasphemy, or idolatry, with death. In one extraordinary instance a child was beheaded for striking its parents (link).Notice how Durant's thoughts flow: from the crime of speaking words against Calvin, linked to severe punishment for sexual crimes, then to the beheading of a child, all the direct result of John Calvin. While the last statement will be our main focus, of the sentences here selected leading up to it, Durant provides documentation only for the first, citing this secondary source, which says only, “…to laugh at Calvin’s sermons, or to have spoken hot words of him in the street, was a crime…” This source provides no documentation for the assertion. That's typical of Durant's historical work. Often, primary materials allude his conclusions. He simply cites some other historian making an undocumented assertion. Here, Durant's historical trail dead-ends at a secondary source merely making an undocumented claim.
Given that it's almost impossible in our modern age to examine the subject, "John Calvin" without immediately being bombarded with Calvin's involvement with the execution of Michael Servetus, how is it that, according to Durant, there was an "extraordinary instance" in which Calvin had a child beheaded, and that account isn't center-stage, usurping the Servetus incident? It sounds outrageous: Calvin had a child executed for simply striking their parents, and that's not more despicable than Calvin having a grown man executed for heresy? Doesn't the execution of a child typically have more societal emotional capital? Something doesn't add up here.
Durant does document the child's beheading. He first mentions it's from the same source as the previous documentation mentioned above, Charles Beard, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in its Relation to Modern Thought (Edinburgh: Williams and Norgate, 1885), 250. That source states,
Two things are especially to be noticed in the holy reign of terror which Calvin established and left behind him as a legacy to Geneva: first, the vast extension given to the idea of crime, and next, the worse than Draconian severity of the punishments inflicted. Adultery was repeatedly punished with death. A child was beheaded for having struck father and mother. Banishment, imprisonment, in some cases drowning, were penalties inflicted on unchastity.Similar to the previous assertions, this author does not document his claims. It may be Beard relied on the "Registers of the city of Geneva" (which is mentioned in a footnote at the bottom of the page), or it may be this author simply borrowed the fact from another secondary source. Durant may have realized this lack of primary evidence and actually provided another source, one of a much better pedigree: Phillip Schaff's History of the Christian Church. In describing "the most striking cases of discipline" in Geneva, Schaff launches into numerous examples, including, "A girl was beheaded for striking her parents, to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment" (link). Schaff though doesn't document this either. Later on in the same section Schaff mentions the Genevan Registers, but it appears to be for a different example. Once again, Durant's trail of facts reaches a dead-end for anyone venturing deep into history.
Documentation: Edward Babinski
This story of Calvin and the beheaded child is peppered throughout the Internet. One of the best hits comes from Edward Babinski, a self-professed former fundamentalist who is now some sort of agnostic with an ax to grind against Calvin. Babinski came upon the same sentence from Schaff and states,
Schaff does not footnote the “beheading” incident, though he does provide on that page and the next a few footnotes regarding other incidents of prohibitions and their penalties in Geneva. He also lists the sources he consulted when writing his book (sources are listed at the beginning of each section). In this case, judging by nearby footnotes and by his source list for that particular section, he most likely obtained his information from either the Registers of the Council of Geneva, or, “Amedee Roget: Lʼeglise et lʼetat a Geneve du vivant de Calvin. Etude dʼhistoire politico-ecclesiastique, published in Geneve, 1867 (pp. 92). Compare also his Histoire du people de Geneve depuis la reforme jusquʼa lʼescalade (1536-1602), 1870-1883, 7 vols.”Notice Babinski made an effort to track down where Schaff got his information from. Babinski says Schaff may have taken the information directly from the Registers of the Council of Geneva (more on this source later). In the literature of source material section, Schaff doesn't directly cite the Registers (but he does reference them in his footnotes). The next source, Lʼeglise et lʼetat a Geneve du vivant de Calvin. Etude dʼhistoire politico-ecclesiastique is available here. Babinski mentions specifically "pp. 92" of the 1867 edition, but there doesn't appear to be anything remotely relevant to the story in this book, nor specifically on page 92. Babinski simply is repeating the reference as Schaff noted it, that the book is 92 pages long. Babinski then directs his readers to compare this source with seven volumes of "Histoire du people de Geneve depuis la reforme jusquʼa lʼescalade." I'm not sure how comparing a 92 page book to seven volumes is supposed to make this child's beheading more clear. The reason why is Babinski's "Compare also his..." is what Schaff wrote in his literature on the subject section, "Comp. also his..." Even though Babinski is quoting Schaff directly, the narrow focus of this beheaded child is getting obfuscated by Babinski's presentation of Schaff's basic bibliography of the literature about sixteenth century Geneva.
Despite this bibliographic rabbit trail, Babinski does provides some other interesting clues about this story: the year of the execution and the child's name. Quoting an old book from Paul Henry, he states, "Another child in 1568, for having struck his parents was beheaded," but again, documentation from this source is lacking. Then Babinski quotes an unknown English translation of Jean Picot who states, "Philippe Deville was beheaded in 1568 for having beaten his father and step-mother." This is documented, "Jean Picot Professeur dʼhistoire dans la faculte des lettres de lʼAcademie de cette ville] Histoire de Geneve, Tome Second (Published in Geneva, i.e., A Geneve, Chez Manget et Cherbuliez, Impreimeurs-Libr. 1811) p. 264." Here is page 264 from the 1811 edition. The text reads, "Philippe Deville fut décapité en 1568, pour avoir battu son- père et sa belle-mère." Babinski then states,
Picot and Schaff do not agree on the gender of the beheaded child, and my first source, Dr. Henry, only mentions that it was a “child,” not specifying its gender. Picotʼs History of Geneva provides the most complete information concerning the incident, including the childʼs name and the date of the beheading. The archives of Geneva are vast and include not only the Registers of the Council and the Registers of the Consistory, but many other records as well (that the Calvin scholar, Robert Kingdon, lists by category in Vol. 1 of his English translation of the Registers of the Consistory). Though massive, the Genevan archives could probably be searched by focusing on the year of the beheading and the childʼs name that Picot has given, and they could probably supply more information, such as the childʼs age when s/he was beheaded. — E.T.B.]Babinski is correct, some of these massive archives can be searched. He's correct that Robert Kingdon released the detailed Registers of the Consistory of Geneva in the Time of Calvin Volume 1: 1542-1544 (Grand Rapids:William B. Eerdmans Publishing company, 1996). It's an invaluable English reference, but unfortunately, I don't think the English version ever made it past volume one after Kingdon's death in 2010. Hathi Trust though lists thirteen volumes of the Genevan registers in French. The relevant volume would be volume 3 which covers the years 1565-1574. I searched a number of key terms (including, "Philippe Deville," "Philippe de Ville," "Philippe de la Ville, Philippe la ville" "décapité," to name a few). I did not come across anything relevant. In full-disclosure, I do not have physical access to these French volumes. I'm relying on online search engines from Google Books and Hathi Trust.
I appreciate that Babinksi mentions the discrepancy in the accounts, that it could either be a boy or a girl (this source claims Philippe Deville was female). There are though some other interesting details if one combines the accounts presented (and also assumes all the accounts are of the same historical event). Schaff adds the beheading took place "to vindicate the dignity of the fifth commandment." While this may have been the actual reason, it also could simply be Schaff's added comment or inference rather than something specifically noted in the Genevan records about this incident.
The (unknown) English translation of Picot says it was not simply striking of the parents, but rather a beating of a father and step-mother. It makes one wonder exactly how old this child was that it beat both parents. This "beating" should at least rule out that it was a young child having a temper tantrum "striking" the parents in adolescent defiance. Even if it was an older teenager, it would not justify the death penalty in our day and culture, but it does make one wonder exactly what the other details may have been to provoke such a harsh sentence in that time period. How severe was this beating?
If all these historians are describing the same event, there is one blatant fact mentioned by Paul Henry and Jean Picot that, for some unknown reason, Will Durant, Charles Beard, and Philip Schaff left out. It was also a fact mentioned but downplayed by Mr. Babinski: the year of the incident: 1568, in which some of the accounts say the beheading took place. What was John Calvin, the despotic tyrant doing in 1568? Was he staring down the child in Genevan court as a prosecutor, boldly proclaiming God's law was broken and the child must be punished with death? Was he watching the beheading of a child for breaking God's law? No, Calvin was at rest in his grave. He died May 27, 1564. If 1568 is the correct year, the best Calvin's detractors can do with this event is to argue the beheading was the result of Calvin's earlier influence in Geneva. This connection would need to be proven as a necessary connection from the historical record, not simply assumed (post hoc ergo propter hoc).
Did Geneva behead Philippe Deville in 1568? Despite not finding any specific corroborating primary evidence, I assume they did. As to the specifics, and why they invoked the death penalty, I don't know. Yes, I think Geneva went overboard with discipline, yes there were unfortunate atrocities committed by the state; yes Calvin played his part in both until his death in 1564. But, Geneva played its part in the progression of piety and practice away from Rome, and of eventually separating the church from the state (which took a long time!). There is a tendency to think that once the Bible was made central in the church and the Papacy was defanged, all of the medieval worldview and practices would immediately fall away. No, this took time. Geneva demonstrates the dissonance of a church seeking to reform according to the Bible and still function with aspects of the medieval structure of government. It didn't work.
Here were some other sources mentioning the 1568 beheaded child. More will be added as I come across them.
"Le manque de respect aux parents constitue alors une atteinte à la loi sur laquelle il n'est pas question de transiger :un enfant du village de Genthod, Damian, fou de colère, insulte sa mère: «Diablesse! diablesse!» en lui jetant des pierres. Il est fouetté publiquement, pendu à une potence et n'échappe à la mort qu'en raison de son jeune âge.Son aîné, Philippe de Ville, est décapité pour avoir battu père et mère. Son aîné, Philippe de Ville, est décapité pour avoir battu père et mère" (link)."En 1568, Philippe Deville fut décapité pour avoir battu son père et sa belle-mère" (link).
"In 1568 Philippe Deville was beheaded for striking his father, and the year before Antonia Sambuzide was condemned to prison for taking her husband by the beard" (link).
"To understand what the word 'severity' means, let it be added that certain men who laughed during a sermon were imprisoned for three days; another person had to do public penance for neglecting communion on Whit-Sunday; a girl was beheaded for striking her parents; several women were imprisoned for dancing; and a lady was expelled from the city for expressing sympathy with the 'libertines,' and abusing Calvin and the Consistory" (link).
"Calvin allowed a girl to be beheaded (for the heinous crime of striking her parents) during his reign of terror in Geneva 400 years ago. This atrocity is not exactly a secret; it is soberly reported by leading historians; but it is the sort of fact that is not taught." (link).