Marie Dentière – The Outspoken Woman

If you were to visit Geneva, your itinerary would likely include the famous Reformation Wall (or The International Monument of the Reformation if you’re fancy). 100 meters long, the wall is built around the University of Geneva and was built to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth and the 350th anniversary of his foundation of the University. The wall depicts multiple theologians of the Reformation with Calvin, Farel, Beza, and Knox taking centre stage. But, almost camouflaged against the stone and eclipsed by the impressive statues of men, we can find the name of the only woman on the Reformation Wall – Marie Dentière.

Unfortunately, we don’t know much about Marie’s early life. To be honest we’re lucky to know anything at all! Marie was born in 1495 into a family of lower nobility in Tournai (part of modern Belgium). As was common for girls of her social status, Marie entered the convent when she was around 13 years old. Here we can assume she received some form of education above the norm for women, as well as extensive knowledge of the Bible. In 1521, at the age of 26, Marie was elected Abbess of her Augustinian nunnery.

We don’t know how or when, but before 1524 Marie became convinced of the truth that Martin Luther and other Reformers were teaching. Luther’s preaching against monasticism, as a former monk, must have especially hit a chord with Marie who abandoned the monastic life and fled to Strasbourg. Marie would later write that she had been “forced out” of her hometown because of her conversion and so sought refuge in Strasbourg where the Reformation was well underway.

While in Strasbourg, Marie married Simon Robert, ex-priest and friend of Reformers such as Guillaume Farel. The couple moved to Bex in Switzerland where Robert had been given a position as a reform pastor. Five years after their marriage, Robert died in 1533 and Marie married Antoine Froment and moved to Geneva to work for the Reformation there alongside Farel. Between her two marriage, Marie had five children.

Farel had arrived in Geneva the previous year and the Reformation quickly took the form of a political revolt. Geneva’s citizens v’s their Prince-Bishop. Soon, as Thomas Head writes, there was “both a shouting war in the assemblies and a shooting war in the streets”. The defeat of the Bishop and the Duke of Savoy by Protestant armies in February 1536 sealed Geneva as a Protestant city.

It was then that Marie began her writing career. As a piece of political propaganda, Marie penned The War for and Deliverance of Geneva, in which she portrays her understanding of those recent events as part of sacred history. She was aware that her writing might divide so the title page bore the sound advice:

“Read, and then judge”

Drawing upon rich Biblical imagery and interpretation, Marie proved herself to be a capable theologian and preacher. But at the same time, she didn’t. Marie signed her work: “A Merchant Living In That City” and so the mystery theologian was not known to be Marie until the nineteenth century. We do not know how popular this work was, but it disappeared shortly after its publication and no printed copies have survived to us today.

After declaring themselves a Protestant city, Geneva now had to decide what that would look like and who would govern them. Marie had worked hard alongside her fellow Reformers especially regarding clerical celibacy and the monastic ideal. Now, Marie began to push for a more radical Church. Marie’s ‘radical’ ideas included the greater inclusion of women in the Church (in comparison to the Roman Catholic Church), the right for women to interpret the Bible and the right for women to preach the word, even if their audience was limited to other women.

Whilst Marie was working to ensure a woman’s voice was heard within the debate, things progressed quickly in Geneva. Calvin arrived in 1536 at the invitation of Farel and managed to divide the town council almost immediately. Eventually, the council was forced to expel Calvin, Farel and their evangelical vision of reform, from the city in April 1538.

This distressed Marie. Though she was not a Calvinist, Marie agreed with them and their reform and so sought to defend them. In 1539, Marie wrote and published her work: A Letter to the Queen of Navarre. Here, addressing the French Reformer Queen Marguerite as a means to justify her writing, Marie defended the position of Calvin and Farel and argued against their exile – all whilst presenting a case for the greater inclusion of women in the Church. Needless to say, it’s a pretty impressive letter!

Marie questioned why women shouldn’t be allowed to read and interpret the Bible for themselves. She writes:

“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? Ah! It would be too impudent to hide the talent which God has given to us, we who ought to have the grace to persevere to the end. Amen!”

In Geneva 1,500 copies were printed, all attributing the letter to a pseudonym to get around the city’s printing regulations. But everyone knew the true author. Six weeks after their publication, pastors in Geneva seized the remaining copies and arrested the publisher. The publisher was given a fine and he, alongside Marie’s husband, had to appear before the council and argue that the books were not heretical. The books were never released, and the council quickly passed legislation banning the publication of books which they had not approved. Marie’s husband remarked that this reaction was only because the council had been so:

“wounded, piqued and dishonoured by a woman.”

The suppression of Marie’s writing generated conversation amongst the Reformers. For example, in 1539 the council of Bern asked Béat Comte whether they should allow the work to be translated. After reading the book, Comte replied saying that, while he could find nothing in it contrary to Scripture, because it was written by a woman, he would argue that it should be suppressed. Thus, Marie’s voice was silenced not by Catholic authorities but by her fellow Reformers.

Marie’s ‘outspokenness’ (here used as code for a woman speaking in the same way as a man) and her husband’s support of her ‘outspokenness’ landed them in hot water with the Reformers in Geneva. As early as 1539 Marie’s husband was denounced by Farel because of her behaviour and by 1540 Marie was blamed for causing her husband to fall into “moral turpitude”. The very Reformers Marie had considered friends and had been attempting to defend, now denounced her and punished her husband as a result. This treatment likely destroyed her marriage. We know that Froment remarried but it is unclear whether this was after Marie’s death in 1561 or after a period of separation.

Marie had dedicated her adult life to securing the city of Geneva for the Reformation and fought tirelessly to defend the theological position of Calvin and Farel. Marie was the only person to ask what the place of women would be in the Church they were pioneering, arguing simply that women should be allowed to read, interpret and maybe even preach from the word. As a capable theologian herself, how painful must it have been for Marie to be excluded from discussions, punished for her contributions, and then silenced by her co-workers, solely because of her gender.

Marie reminds us that while the Reformation changed a lot of things, it did little to improve the standing of women in the Church. Their help was accepted at the beginning, but they were later phased out of the movement because of their gender. And so, at the end of the Reformation, Marie’s question to Marguerite of Navarre remained:

“Do we have two Gospels, one for men and the other for women?”

Further reading: Katharina Wilson, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation; Roland Bainton, Women of the Reformation: In France and England; Ingrid Akerlund, Sixteenth Century French Women Writers; Marie Dentière, Epistle to Margeurite De Navarre and Preface to a Sermon.

Image shows Marie’s name on a seperate stone on The Reformation Wall

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