A woman was JAILED FOR ARRANGING HER HAIR to an "immoral height" (source).This fact can be found in some weird places. The Jehovah's Witnesses say: "John Calvin enacted laws specifying the color and type of clothing his followers might wear. Jewelry and lace were frowned upon, and a woman could be jailed for arranging her hair to an 'immoral height.”" On the opposite end of the spectrum, popular Christian author Philip Yancy references it in his best-seller, What's So Amazing about Grace?: "A father who christened his son Claude, a name not found in the Old Testament, spent four days in jail, as did a woman whose hairdo reached an 'immoral height'." Yancy directly links this incident to Calvin as an example of what occurs "When the church has occasion to set rules for all society, it often veers towards the extremism Jesus warned against."
Most often though, the quote serves the "I hate all things John Calvin and Calvinism" movement. This contingent is not only cross-denominational, it includes heretical sects, world religions, atheists, humanists, etc. It appears to be something opposing groups agree on: John Calvin was an awful individual, in essence, a dictator, proven by the fact that under his "rule," a woman was jailed for her the "immoral height" of her hair (whatever that means, as if Calvin was measuring hair height!). Let's take a close look at this fact and try to determine it's truth and John Calvin's involvement.
Documentation: Will Durant, The Reformation
I suspect the popularity of this fact finds its genesis in pop-historian Will Durant's book, The Reformation. The key phrase which distinguishes Durant as ground zero is the use of the phrase, "immoral height." As far as I can tell, he's the first to use this phrase in regard to this historical nugget. Durant says,
Durant provides a footnote right after the "immoral height" of the woman's hair: "Villari, Savonarola, 491." Durant says this refers to "VILLARI, PASQUALE, Life and Times of Girolamo Savonarola, N.Y., 1896." Here is Page 491 of that text. In context, Villari is not doing an in-depth study on Calvin or Geneva. He's simply mentioning Calvin in passing as a comparison to Savonarola. The comparison is intended to show (according to him) both suffered from fanaticism and intolerance. Villari states,
Did not John Calvin live in the age of Leo X. and Francis I., and was he not a man of considerable culture, lofty genius, and iron strength of will? He too became the head of a republic, without, however, the merit of being its founder; and yet, while the declared champion of freedom and tolerance, he not only inflicted the severest punishments on all who committed blasphemy or worked on Sunday, but even cast women into prison for arranging their hair in an immodest fashion!1 Was it not he who, in the year 1553, had the innocent and ill-starred Servetus burnt to death at Geneva? It is no part of true historic criticism to put aside, when judging Savonarola, all remembrance of human passion and religious excitement.
1 In the Geneva Archives the Decree is still preserved by which a woman was sentenced to imprisonment, parce qu'elle n'avait pas les cheveux abattus.This was the sparse source Durant utilized. Villari claims it was John Calvin himself that "even cast women into prison for arranging their hair in an immodest fashion." Documentation is also provided: "In the Geneva Archives the Decree is still preserved by which a woman was sentenced to imprisonment." Notice Villari explains the Genevan records say explicitly, "parce qu'elle n'avait pas les cheveux abattus," but he leaves it to his readers to search out those records for this particular sentence! This is not meaningful documentation, particularly for his contemporaries. Even with our advantage of online search engines, this exact sentence typically hits only Villari's books.
Also notice that Will Durant mis-cited Villari. The English translation of Villari utilized by Durant does not say "immoral height," but rather, "immodest fashion." Villari's text was originally in Italian, not English. Villari's Italian text reads, "le donne per la poco modesta acconciatura dei loro capelli." "Immodest fashion" is an acceptable English translation. Why did Durant choose "Immoral height"? One pictures a Genevan woman with a 1950's beehive hairdo. True, the words "immodest" and "immoral" are related, but doesn't it seem Durant was trying to paint a darker picture of the event than what Villari wrote? The French text cited by Villari (parce qu'elle n'avait pas les cheveux abattus) does not say immoral height. The gist is that her was not hanging down.
Elsewhere I've documented Will Durant's strong bias against John Calvin. Here we see that not only was Durant biased by his choice of words in quoting his secondary source, that secondary does not helpfully substantiate the information presented. The trail mapped out by Durant to uncover the historical truth turns out to be a dead end.
There are clues from other sources to consider in determining whether or not Calvin or Geneva regulated women's hair. For instance, this source states,
It was then decreed that the taverns should be closed at nightfall, all games of dice and cards were forbidden, and every sort of blasphemy and swearing was to be punished by imprisonment. It would have been well if the reformers had been content to stop there, for the prisons were full of delinquents, but Calvin insisted on legislating on the subject of dress and personal adornment, and sins of vanity were punished, as if they belonged to the same category as theft and libel. The registers of the republic under date May 20, 1537, contain the following entry:—
"A married woman went out last Sunday with her hair hanging down more than it ought, which is a bad example and contrary to the Gospel preached. The mistress, the maids who accompanied her, and the woman who dressed her hair have been sent to prison."Notice particularly, this author claims the woman had "hair hanging down more than it ought," the exact opposite of what Durant claimed. Now not only is Calvin arresting women for high hair, he's arresting them for long hair! The famous historian Leopold von Ranke likewise mentions a version of this story:
One of the chief causes of contention was the adorning of brides, the "plicatura capillorum," which the preachers, according to 1 Peter iii. 3, would not permit. In the Registries of the Republic, May 20, 1537, we find that the mother and female friends who were present when a bride appeared "avec les cheveux plus abattus qu'il en se doit faire," were also subjected to punishment. The new preachers placed themselves under an obligation to permit the benediction of the bride "en cheveux pendans."
I suspect that the "Registries of the Republic" being cited is this text:
“Une épouse étant sortie dimanche dernier avec les cheveux plus abattus qu'il ne se doit faire, ce qui est d'un mauvais exemple, et contraire à ce qu'on leur évangélise, on fait mettre en prison sa maitresse, les deux qui l'ont menée, et celle qui l’a coiffée.—Régistres, 20 Mai, 1537.I believe the popular source for this French text utilized by these two writers may be to an 1850 biography of John Calvin. The date of May 20, 1537 appears to be an error from this biographer. The actual date was October 30, 1537. I suspect the biographer utilized this text, and made a simple copyist error. Karl Barth mentions this similar story along with the correct date and a helpful reference"
Barth documents this with CO 21, 216. This is referring to the multi-volume set, Joannis Calvini opera quae supersunt omnia. Volume 21, page 216 states:
Registres du Conseil de Genève à l'époque de Calvin, Volume 2. So Durant got it both right and wrong. He's right that a woman was arrested and imprisoned. He's wrong as to the specific details.
The Registers of Geneva do record at least one instance of the the regulation of hair style and subsequent imprisonment in 1537. It appears to me that the woman's hair was was placed up, whereas the standard was to have hair hanging down.
Calvin arrived in Geneva in 1536, but the best records of the Genevan church didn't really begin until a decade later. What is available in the early years are fragments, which is where this information comes from. It appears the incident Durant was documenting (via Villari) was originally a fragment from October 30, 1537.
One thing that is missing from the context of the primary source fragment is reference to John Calvin having a woman arrested for her hair style. True, Calvin was an important voice in the life of the Genevan church. Was he directly responsible for the ordinance? This author claims some of these strict regulations (like the hair ordinance) "were already in existence" before Calvin got involved. For this author, Calvin's fault was not making the ordinance, but rather calling on the Council to enforce those pre-existing laws. Was Calvin then directly responsible for having a woman imprisoned for a hairstyle in 1537? The context does not say that. The most one could argue is that Calvin may have influenced the incident.
How responsible then was Calvin for the regulations on hairstyle? The Reform movement in Geneva did not begin with Calvin, but it certainly grew exponentially under Calvin's influence. Calvin's biographer Thomas Henry Dyer paints a picture of Geneva as being not only liberal, but a bit wild previous to Calvin's arrival: "...it must be admitted that they were carried away to excess in Geneva, and that the greatest dissoluteness of manners prevailed." He argues that the morality of the city did require reform, but that the Reformers tried too quickly (they "should be extirpated all at once...") which led to some of the seemingly harsh recordings found in the Fragments. He refers specifically to the "hair" incident:
Marriage was ordered so be solemnised with as little show as possible. Instead of the joyous fete it had hitherto been, it was converted into a purely religious ceremony, and sanctified by a sermon. If the bride or her companions adorned themselves in a fashion contrary to what was evangelised, they were punished with imprisonment.From the same time period, there are the Articles Concerning the Organization of the Church and of Worship at Geneva 1537, probably the product of Calvin himself. There is nothing specific in this document about hair. There is nothing then that directly links Calvin to this incident. On the other hand, though written later, we do have Calvin's comments on 1 Peter 3:3. There Calvin comments,
3. Whose adorning. The other part of the exhortation is, that wives are to adorn themselves sparingly and modestly: for we know that they are in this respect much more curious and ambitious than they ought to be. Then Peter does not without cause seek to correct in them this vanity. And though he reproves generally sumptuous or costly adorning, yet he points out some things in particular,—that they were not artificially to curl or wreath their hair, as it was usually done by crisping-pins, or otherwise to form it according to the fashion; nor were they to set gold around their head: for these are the things in which excesses especially appear.
It may be now asked, whether the Apostle wholly condemns the use of gold in adorning the body. Were any one to urge these words, it may be said, that he prohibits precious garments no less than gold; for he immediately adds, the putting on of apparel, or, of clothes. But it would be an immoderate strictness wholly to forbid neatness and elegance in clothing. If the material is said to be too sumptuous, the Lord has created it; and we know that skill in art has proceeded from him. Then Peter did not intend to condemn every sort of ornament, but the evil of vanity, to which women are subject. Two things are to be regarded in clothing, usefulness and decency; and what decency requires is moderation and modesty. Were, then, a woman to go forth with her hair wantonly curled and decked, and make an extravagant display, her vanity could not be excused. They who object and say, that to clothe one’s-self in this or that manner is an indifferent thing, in which all are free to do as they please, may be easily confuted; for excessive elegance and superfluous display, in short, all excesses, arise from a corrupted mind. Besides ambition, pride, affectation of display, and all things of this kind, are not indifferent things. Therefore they whose minds are purified from all vanity, will duly order all things, so as not to exceed moderation.Notice also Calvin's comments in his commentary on 1 Tim. 2:9,
In like manner also women. As he enjoined men to lift up pure hands, so he now prescribes the manner in which women ought to prepare for praying aright. And there appears to be an implied contrast between those virtues which he recommends and the outward sanctification of the Jews; for he intimates that there is no profane place, nor any from which both men and women may not draw near to God, provided they are not excluded by their vices.
He intended to embrace the opportunity of correcting a vice to which women are almost always prone, and which perhaps at Ephesus, being a city of vast wealth and extensive merchandise, especially abounded. That vice is—excessive eagerness and desire to be richly dressed. He wishes therefore that their dress should be regulated by modesty and sobriety; for luxury and immoderate expense arise from a desire to make a display either for the sake of pride or of departure from chastity. And hence we ought to derive the rule of moderation; for, since dress is an indifferent matter, (as all outward matters are,) it is difficult to assign a fixed limit, how far we ought to go. Magistrates may indeed make laws, by means of which a rage for superfluous expenditure shall be in some measure restrained; but godly teachers, whose business it is to guide the consciences, ought always to keep in view the end of lawful use. This at least will be settled beyond all controversy, that every thing in dress which is not in accordance with modesty and sobriety must be disapproved.
Yet we must always begin with the dispositions; for where debauchery reigns within, there will be no chastity; and where ambition reigns within, there will be no modesty in the outward dress. But because hypocrites commonly avail themselves of all the pretexts that they can find for concealing their wicked dispositions, we are under the necessity of pointing out what meets the eye. It would be great baseness to deny the appropriateness of modesty as the peculiar and constant ornament of virtuous and chaste women, or the duty of all to observe moderation. Whatever is opposed to these virtues it will be in vain to excuse. He expressly censures certain kinds of superfluity, such as curled hair, jewels, and golden rings; not that the use of gold or of jewels is expressly forbidden, but that, wherever they are prominently displayed, these things commonly draw along with them the other evils which I have mentioned, and arise from ambition or from want of chastity as their source.In both passages, Calvin mentions curled hair and vanity. Perhaps it was Calvin's influence that had this woman arrested and imprisoned? It appears that a hairdresser had dressed a woman's hair in such a way that she simply looked... too beautiful, which would be an an outward show of vanity in Calvin's mind. Without though any direct evidence, it's speculation at best that Calvin had anything to do with it.
Here's an interesting article: Untangling history: What hair and hairstyles meant in 16th and 17th-century Europe. The author states:
In early modern Europe, dress was regulated by “sumptuary laws”. These regulations set out who could wear what and when, according to a hierarchy of privileges believed to be accorded by god. Some of the laws related not just to clothing but also to hair.-snip-
In some areas, the Reformation made extravagant excesses a subject of discussion and attempted to regulate clothing in regard to new aesthetics of piety and morals of modesty.
Early modern European cities enacted laws that defined the privileges and duties of different groups. Noblemen, clerics and peasants, for example, were expected to dress and behave in certain ways: what was appropriate for one group was inappropriate for another. In the wake of the Reformation, people were expected to comply with new rules on dress – but, as always, there were some who were determined to test the limits of authority.