« Prev Life of Beza to his Conversion Next »

§ 167. Life of Beza to his Conversion.

The history of the Swiss Reformation would not be complete without an account of Calvin’s faithful friend and successor, Theodore Beza, who carried on his work in Geneva and France to the beginning of the seventeenth century.

In the ancient duchy of Burgundy is the village of Vezelay. It was once the scene of a great gathering, for to it in 1146 came Louis VII. and his vassals, to whom Bernard preached the duty of rescuing the Holy Sepulchre from the infidels so convincingly, that the king and his knights then and there took the oath to become crusaders. Four and forty years later (1190), in the same place, Philip Augustus of France and Richard the Lionheart of England, under similar pleadings, made the same vow.

The village clusters around the castle in which, in 1519, lived the rich Pierre de Besze,12751275    This was the old spelling as appears from Beza’s signature. The modern French spell it Bèze, the English and Germans Beza, which is the Latin form. the bailiff of the county, a descendant of one of the proudest families of the duchy. His wife was Marie Bourdelot, beloved and renowned for her intelligence and her charities. They had already two sons and four daughters, when on the 24th of June in that year, 1519, another son was born who was destined to render the name illustrious to the end of time. This son was christened Theodore. Thus the future reformer was of gentle birth — a fact which was recognized when in after years he pleaded for the Protestant faith before kings, and princes, and members of the nobility and of the fashionable world.

But the providential preparation for the part he was destined to play extended far beyond the conditions of his birth. Gentle breeding followed. His mother died when he was not quite three years old, but already was he a stranger to his father’s house; for one of his uncles, Nicolas de Besze, seigneur de Cette et de Chalonne, and a councillor in the Parliament of Paris, had taken him with him to Paris and adopted him, so great was the love he bore him, and when the time came he was put under the best masters whom money and influence could secure. The boy was precocious, and his uncle delighted in his progress. One day at table he entertained a guest from Orleans, who was a member of the royal council. The conversation turned upon the future of Theodore, whereupon the friend commended Melchior Wolmar, the famous Greek scholar at Orleans, who was also the teacher of Calvin, as the best person to educate the lad. The uncle listened attentively, and sent Theodore thither and secured him admission into Wolmar’s family. This was in 1528, when Theodore was only nine years old. With Wolmar he lived till 1535, first at Orleans and then at Bourges, and doubtless learned much from him. Part of this learning was not at all to the mind of his father or his uncle Claudius, the Abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Froimont in the diocese of Beauvais, who, on the death of his brother Nicolas, on Nov. 29, 1532, had undertaken the pious duty of superintending the boy’s education; for Wolmar, in common with many sober-minded scholars of that day, had broken with the Roman Church and taken up the new ideas inculcated by Luther, and which were beginning to make a stir in France. Indeed, it was his known adherence to these views which compelled his flight to Germany in the year 1535. Thus the future reformer, in his tenderest and most susceptible years, had impressed upon him the doctrine of justification by faith in the righteousness of Christ, heard much of the corrupt state of the dominant Church, and was witness to the efforts of that Church to put to death those who differed from her teaching.

Nothing was further from the mind of the father and uncle, and also from that of Theodore himself, than that he should be an advocate of the new views. The career marked out for him was that of law, in which his uncle Nicolas had been so distinguished. To this end he was sent to the University of Orleans. Although very young, he attracted attention. He joined the German nation—for the students in universities then were divided into factions, according to their ancestry, and Burgundy was accounted part of Germany—and rapidly became a favorite. But he did not give himself up to mere good-fellowship. He studied hard, and on Aug. 11, 1539, attained with honor the degree of licentiate of the law.

His education being thus advanced, Beza, now twenty years old, came to Paris, there, as his father desired, to prosecute further law studies; but his reluctance to such a course was pronounced and invincible, so much so that at length he won his uncle to his side, and was allowed by his father to pursue those literary studies which afterwards accrued so richly to the Reformed Church; but at the time he had no inkling of his subsequent career. By his uncle Claudius’ influence the possessor of two benefices which yielded a handsome income, and enriched further by his brother’s death in 1541, well-introduced and well-connected, a scholar, a wit, a poet, handsome, affable, amiable, he lived on equal terms with the best Parisian society, and was one of the acknowledged leaders.12761276    The Jesuit Maimbourg, a declared enemy, in his Histoire du Calvinisme (Paris, 1682, 18mo, p. 217), has thus described him at this time: "Homme bien fait, de belle taille, ayant le visage fort agréable, l’air fin et délicat, et toutes les manières d’un homme du monde qui le faisoient estimer des Grands et surtout des dames, ausquelles il prenoit grand soin de ne pas déplaire. Pour l’esprit, on ne peut nier qu’il ne l’eust très-beau, vif, aisé, subtil, enjoûéet poli, ayant pris peine de le cultiver par l’étude des belles lettres, et particulièrement de la poësie, oùil excelloit en françois et en latin, sçachant avec cela un peu de philosophie et de droit qu’il avoit appris aux écoles d’Orleans." "He was well made, of good size, having a very agreeable countenance, a refined and delicate air, and the carriage of a man of the world, who had won the esteem of the great, and especially of the ladies, whom he took much pains not to displease. It cannot be denied that he was very attractive, lively, easy, subtle, playful, and polished, having cultivated his mind by reading literature, particularly poetry, wherein he himself excelled both in French and Latin, mingling with it a little philosophy and law which he had taken in at Orleans."

That he did not escape contamination he has himself confessed, but that he sinned grossly he has as plainly denied.12771277    Baum, I. 60-63. In 1544 he made in the presence of two friends, Laurent de Normandie and Jean Crespin, eminent jurists, an irregular alliance with Claudine Denosse,12781278    Anciently spelled Desnosze. a burgher’s daughter, and at the time declared that when circumstances favored he would publicly marry her. His motive in making a secret marriage was his desire to hold on to his benefices. But he was really attached to the woman, and was faithful to her, as she was to him; and there was nothing in their relationship which would have seriously compromised him with the company in which he lived. The fact that they lived together happily for forty years shows that they followed the leading of sincere affection, and not a passing fancy. In 1548 he published his famous collection of poems—Juvenilia. This gave him the rank of the first Latin poet of his day, and his ears were full of praises. He dedicated his book to Wolmar. It did not occur to him that anybody would ever censure him for his poems, least of all on moral grounds; but this is precisely what happened. Prurient minds have read between his lines what he never intended to put there, and imagined offences of which he was not guilty even in thought.12791279    Thus they have taken the characters mentioned in them as actual, whereas they are purely imaginary. And what made the case blacker against him was his subsequent Protestantism. Because he became a leader of the Reformed Church, free-thinkers and livers and the adherents of the old faith have brought up against him the fact that in the days of his worldly and luxurious life he had used their language, and been as pagan and impure as they.

The book had scarcely begun its career, and the praises had scarcely begun to be received, ere Beza fell seriously sick. Sobered by his gaze into the eyes of death, his conscience rebuked him for his duplicity in receiving ecclesiastical benefices as if he was a faithful son of the Church, whereas he was at heart a Protestant; for his cowardice in cloaking his real opinions; for his negligence in not keeping the promise he had voluntarily made to the woman he had secretly married four years before; and for the general condition of his private and public life. The teachings of Wolmar came back to him. This world seemed very hollow;. its praises and honors very cloying. The call to a higher, purer, nobler life was heard, and he obeyed; and, although only convalescent, leaving father and fatherland, riches and honors, he fled from the city of his triumphs and his trials, and, taking Claudine Denosse with him, crossed the border into Switzerland,12801280    He adopted the alias of Thibaud de May. So Heppe, p. 20. and on Oct. 23, 1548, entered the city of Geneva. He was doubtless attracted thither because his intimate friend Jean Crespin, one of the witnesses of his secret alliance, was living there, likewise a fugitive for religion’s sake—and there lived John Calvin.

From being the poet of the Renaissance, bright, witty, free, Beza, from the hour he joined the Reformed Church, became a leader in all its affairs and one of the chiefs of Protestantism.12811281    For having left France because he was a Protestant he was condemned by the Parliament of Paris to death, and all his property confiscated to the State (May 31, 1550). By special royal mandate his property was restored to him in 1564, although he was at the time at the head of the Reformed Church of France. Cf. Baum, I. 66 sq.

« Prev Life of Beza to his Conversion Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection