The Devil and the Consistory Never Sleep (Geneva, 1554-1556)

One of my favorite characterizations of the Consistory, the one in the title, came from a family living out in the rural village of Vandœuvres in the Genevan hinterland. The origins of the incident go back to October 1554 when Michel Chapelle’s young grandson died. The family laid out the body in their home and Michel, following traditional practice, asked that wax candles be brought. He then took the candle and made the sign of the cross over the body three times and then said “May God and Saint Michael guide you.” Then he implored the child to pray for him and his family when he got to heaven.

Their neighbors, the Catherine and Humbert Caillat (also Calliat) were scandalized by such “idolatry” now prohibited under the Reformed regime — invoking saints, making the sign of the cross, lighting candles for the dead, and expecting the dead to intercede for us with God were all proscribed by the Reformed regime. When Catherine Caillat saw what Michel was doing, she blew out the candle. According to one report, Michel then hit her, while another says that Bernarde Chapelle, wife of the child’s father (and perhaps mother of the child, but the record doesn’t say), tried to hit Caillat. In either case, in reference to the French Reformed refugees, Bernarde Chapelle faced down Mme Caillat and told her that “In spite of all the banished Frenchmen, they will light candles when someone dies.”

The Consistory did not have the power to impose any fines, but it could refer cases to the Small Council when it thought that a particular incident might deserve further punishment. The matter was indeed referred to the Small Council and this apparently cost the Chapelles the not inconsiderable sum of ten florins. By comparison, the fine for simple fornication, that is sex between two unmarried persons, was only five florins plus six days in jail [R.C.P. I, p.18]

Furthermore, Jean Chapelle was excommunicated. He was incensed. Some months later, it came to light that he had pronounced his fellow excommunicate, sworn enemy of Jean Calvin and eternal bad boy of Genevan politics, Philibert Berthelier to be a “good man” (homme de bien). He also traveled to the city where the pastors would not recognize him to take communion despite the ban and also acted as godfather for a child, an honor also prohibited to excommunicates.

Finally, in 1556, the Chapelles were hauled before the Consistory for singing lewd songs and other miscellany. It was at this point that Jean Chapelle’s niece, no doubt mirroring the exasperation of the family as a whole, spat “The Devil and the Consistory never sleep.” This particular charge didn’t seem to cause them much trouble compared to the others, perhaps because aside from the association with the Devil, the members of the Consistory would have seen it as validation of their work!

The end of the transcription needs some checking here and may have some errors, but it’s not the interesting part anyway.

Catherine, femme de Humbert Calliat, et son filz Pelegrin de Vendouvre contre Jean Chapelle.
Depose le jeune filz a la forme d’ung billiet dont la teneur s’ensuyt si-apres. Item depose lade. femme avoir entendu de lade. avoir dit que le Consistoire leur avoit couste des ung an dix florins, et y estoit la nyece dud. Chapelle que disoit aussi que le Dyable et le Consistoire ne dorment jamais.
Advis: que pour jeudi lade. femme et nyece vienne ici, en balle ung billiet au chastellin.
Teneur du billiet: il y avoit en la chansson ces motz:
“Ung homme pourtoit ses coulles vendre au marche;
une femme vint pour les achepter”.
La fille respondit, “N’y veus-tu pas venir?”
“Et ou”, dict Pelegrin,
“En Fontayson?” Dict elle, “Pour le mal des…”, et demeurat sans espreuves le reste.
[R.Consist. 11, f. 29v (28 mai 1556)]
Catherine, wife of Humbert Calliat, and her son Pelegrin from Vandœuvres, against Jean Chapelle.
The young son testifies in the form of a short note the contents of which follow. Also, the said woman [Catherine] testifies having heard the said woman [Bernarde] say that a year ago the Consistory had cost them ten florins, and the niece of the said [Jean] Chapelle was there and she said that the “Devil and the Consistory never sleep.”
Decision: That for Thursday the said woman and niece come here, and that the note be given to the castellan.
Contents of the note: there was a song with the words:
A man carried his balls to market;
A woman came to buy them.
The girl answered: “Don’t you want to come?”
“Where?” said Pelegrin.

“To Fontayson,” the girl said, “for the sickness of…” and there’s no proof of the rest.


Sources: R.Consist. 9, f. 154, 158–59, 162 (25 octobre, 1 et 8 novembre 1554); P.C. 2e sér, n. 1045/2 (8 nov 1554); R.Consist. 10, f. 3, 31, 35v (21 fév, 28 mai, 20 juin 1555); R.Consist. 11, f. 1v, 15v, 27v, 29v, 30 (20 fevrier, 2 avril, 21 et 28 mai, 4 juin 1556). This incident is discussed briefly in Lambert, “Cette loi ne durera guère”, Bull. de la Soc. d’Hist. et d’Arch de Genève, 1993–1994, pp. 5-6.

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