DUKE HERCULES of Este had remarked that certain changes had taken place since the arrival of the Frenchman. Calvin’s discussion with Francois the chaplain could not be kept secret. Borgia’s grandson knew that the pope, under the pretense of heresy, might deprive him of his states; already his father, Duke Alphonso, through being on bad terms with Rome, had passed many years in exile. The Inquisition had a tribunal at Ferrara, and what was going on at court was more than enough to alarm it.
A report had been made to the pope; Charles V. had been informed; and Paul III. proposed a treaty to the duke, in which there was a secret article stipulating the removal of all the French then at Ferrara; but there was one among them for whom a severer fate was reserved. The duke, retracting the indulgence he had conceded to his wife, declared that he was resolved to put an end to the schismatic intrigues of which the court was the theater; that the count and countess of Marennes, Soubise, the other gentleman, and even Marot, must quit his states; ‘and as for M. d’Espeville,’ he added, ‘know, madam, that if he is discovered, he will forthwith be dragged to punishment on account of religion.’ This order was like a thunderstroke to Renee. Called to leave the land of her ancestors, she had created a little France at Ferrara; and now, all who gave her any comfort in her exile were about to be torn from her. Rome would deprive her of that pious and learned teacher who had given her such good counsel; perhaps he would expiate on an Italian scaffold the crime of having proclaimed the Gospel. All the lords and ladies of the court, and even the satirical Marot, were to leave Ferrara. Leon Jamet seems to have been the only Frenchman permitted to stay; the duchess, who required a secretary, had obtained her husband’s permission for this ex-clerk of the treasury to remain with her in that character. Thus the daughter of Louis XII., after the bright days she had enjoyed, was condemned to remain almost alone in her palace, as in a gloomy chamber; her slightest movements were watched; she was tormented by priests whom she despised, and exposed by the grandson of Borgia to unjust harshness. Marot, touched by so many misfortunes, and knowing the part which the queen of Navarre, Renee’s cousin, would take in this great trial, addressed her in these touching lines: Ah! Marguerite, ecoute la souffrance Du noble coeur de Renee de France; Puis comme coeur, plus fort en esperance, Console-la.
Tu sais comment hors son pays alla, Et que parents et amis laissa la; Mais tu sais quel traitement elle a En terre etrange! Renee was to suffer a pain still greater than that caused by the dismissal ‘beyond the mountains’ of her friends from France. That iniquitous institution, decorated with the name of the Holy Office , which was destined a little later to make thousands of martyrs in Spain, the Netherlands, and other countries, desired for the moment to strike the teacher who had excited the greatest terror and hatred at Rome. The Inquisition had discovered Calvin’s residence. His name and his crime were inscribed in the black-book of that cruel institution. Heresy was flourishing at the court of Este; the chief culprit was pointed out, and if the others were allowed to depart, he at least must be punished.
Calvin, forewarned of what was going on, was at the palace Del Magistrato, where he and Du Tillet lived, and was hurriedly getting ready for his departure, when the agents of the inquisitors, who were on the watch, arrived, seized the ‘pestiferous disturber,’ and dragged him away a prisoner. It was not their intention to leave him in a place where the evangelical doctor possessed many influential friends. They determined to have him tried at Bologna, a city in the States of the Pope, not far distant from Ferrara, where they would be entirely the masters. The young Frenchman was therefore placed in the charge of some familiars of the Holy Office, and guarded by them was to proceed to that ancient city which boasted of possessing within its walls the ashes of St. Dominick, the founder of the Inquisition.
Calvin began the journey, surrounded by the men appointed to conduct him. He might then have said of himself, as he afterwards said of another: ‘Although he hopes still, he is assailed by a hundred deaths, so that there is not an opening, be it ever so small, for escape.’ The tribunal of the Inquisition, which was never tender, would certainly not be so towards a heretic of this kind. The squadron which had him in charge, turning towards the south, crossed a fertile country and proceeded without obstacle towards the city of Bologma. They had already gone more than halfway, when some armed men suddenly made their appearance. They stopped the escort, and ordered them to release their prisoner. We do not know whether there was any resistance; but this much is certain, that the inquisitors, little accustomed to yield, saw the doctor taken from them whom they were conducting to certain death. Calvin was set at liberty and strained every nerve to get out of Italy.
His sojourn in that country, as we read of it in authentic documents, is far from being a blank page, as some have supposed. The last event that we have mentioned, according to Muratori, has even a particular interest. It reminds us of a well-known circumstance in the history of the German reformation, when Luther, returning from Worms, was carried off by horsemen masked and armed from head to foot. But Calvin’s case was more serious than that of the Saxon reformer, who was taken to a castle belonging to friends, beyond the reach of danger; while Calvin was left alone, almost in the middle of Italy, and forced to make his way through a hostile country, where he ran the risk of being arrested again.
It has been asked who snatched this choice prey from the tribunals of Rome, and even in the states of the pope; whence did the blow proceed? It was bold and rash; it exposed its contrivers and agents to great danger, for the papacy and the Inquisition were all-powerful in Italy. A strong affection, a great respect for the reformer, and boundless devotion to the cause of truth, can alone account for such an audacious adventure.
One person only in the Italian peninsula was capable of contriving it and of carrying it out, and that was — is it necessary to say? — the daughter of Louis XII. Everybody ascribed the reformer’s liberation to her. It might be expected that the Inquisition, always so suspicious and severe, would be implacable in its vengeance. Renee escaped, at least for the moment. It is possible that Hercules of Este exerted his influence at the pontifical court to hush up the affair, and promised to keep the duchess closer in future. He kept his word but too well.
Calvin did not hesitate to take advantage of this rescue; but from that moment we have no sufficient data about him or his route. To find any traces of him, we must examine local traditions, which ought not to be despised, but which do not supply us with historical certainty. It was natural — the map indicates it — that the fugitive should turn his steps in the direction of Modena. In the environs of that city there lived a celebrated man of letters, Ludovico Castelvetro, who was suspected of heresy. He was an esteemed critic and skillful translator; he had rendered into Italian one of Melanchthon’s writings, and when he quitted Italy many years after this, he passed through Geneva, where he visited some friends. When the ancient villa of Castelvetro was pulled down in the first half of this century, the workmen discovered a sealed chest, which contained the earliest editions of Calvin’s works in marvelous preservation. The reformer had no doubt heard this scholar mentioned at the court of Ferrara; but there is nothing to prove that he sought a temporary asylum under the roof of Melanchthon’s translator, who does not appear to have made at that time a frank profession of the Gospel. Tradition relates that Calvin, instead of going northwards towards Switzerland, skirted the Apennines, turned to the west, and reached the Val di Grana, between Saluzzo and Coni, where he preached. It is affirmed that the priests of the village of Carigliano so excited the women of the parish, that with savage cries they stoned the Frenchman out of the place.
It is added that Calvin went thence to Saluzzo, and preached there, but with as little success. In our opinion, these traditions are not sufficiently corroborated to deserve a place in history. It seems more likely that Calvin took the shortest road to Switzerland and made for the St. Bernard pass. If he had possessed leisure for evangelical excursions, he might no doubt have gone to the Waldensian valleys, which his cousin Olivetan had visited, and where the latter had conceived the project of translating the Bible, at which he himself also labored and was still to labor. But there is no indication of his having ever visited those mountains.
He arrived at the city of Aosta.
The first gleams of the Word of God were beginning, as we have said, to enlighten that cisalpine region which lies at the foot of the St. Bernard, Mont Blanc, and Mont Rosa. Aosta, founded by Augustus, after whom it was named, had received an evangelical impulse from Switzerland. The Bernese had thought that if the Divine Word crossing the St. Gothard had made conquests near the banks of the Ticino, it might make others in the valley of Aosta by crossing the St. Bernard. Italian, Bernese, and Genevan documents all bear witness alike to the religious fermentation then prevailing in that city. ‘The Gospel is spreading beyond the mountains,’ wrote Porral, the envoy of Geneva at Berne, ‘and it must go forward in despite of princes, for it is from God.’ Ere long the Roman hierarchy made use of their customary weapons against those who embraced the Reform, and Porral announced that the Aostans had ‘serious questions with their bishop, on account of the excommunications , which they could not bear.’ We have told how the Bernese plenipotentiaries went to Aosta in November 1535, to confer with the duke of Savoy. They pleaded there in favor of Geneva, and demanded the liberation of Saunier, then a prisoner at Pignerol. They talked with everybody they met about the great questions then under discussion, and invited them to receive the teaching of Holy Scripture. Some dwellers in the valley, both among the nobility and burghers, welcomed the principles of the Reformation. Among those won to the Gospel were the Seigneurs De la Crete and De la Visiere, the pious and zealous Leonard de Vaudan, Besenval, Tillier, Challans, Bovet, Borgnion, Philippon, Gay, and others. But if there were hearts in the valley of Aosta ready to receive the Gospel, there were others determined to resist it. At the head of its opponents were two eminent men. Among the laity was Count Rene de Challans, marshal of Aosta, full of enthusiasm for popery and feudalism, and bursting with contempt for the heretics and republicans of Switzerland.
Distressed at witnessing the reverses suffered by his master, the duke of Savoy, he had sworn that in Aosta at least he would exterminate the Lutherans. His fellow-soldier in this crusade was Pietro Gazzini, bishop of Aosta, one of the most famous prelates of Italy. Priests and devotees extolled his virtues and his learning, but what distinguished him most was the haughty temper and domineering humor which so often characterizes the priests of Rome. Gazzini was a canon of the Lateran, the first patriarchal church of the west, and served as the channel between the duke and the pope. He was at Rome when evangelical doctrine began to spread in his diocese, and he then tried to manage that the council, which was to put an end to heresy, should be held in the states of the duke his master. He even carried his ambition for his sovereign very far. ‘It was becoming,’ he told the pontiff, ‘that the direction of the council should be given to the duke of Savoy by the emperor and the king of France.’ The direction of a council given to a secular prince by the pope and two other secular princes is an idea apparently not in strict harmony with the theocratic omnipotence of the pontiff, which many men boast of so loudly.
In the bishop’s absence, there was a person at Aosta quite worthy of supplying his place: this was the guardian of the Franciscan monastery, Antonio Savion (Antonius de Sapientibus), a well-informed, zealous man, who afterwards became general of the order, and was one of the fathers of the Council of Trent. Savion uttered a cry of alarm.
One day, when Gazzini was performing his duties in the basilica of St. John, he received letters describing the state of affairs at Aosta. The alarmed prelate did not hesitate. ‘When Calvin’s heresy was penetrating into his diocese,’ said Besson, the Savoyard priest, ‘he hastened to block up the road.’ As soon as the bishop arrived, he visited every parish with indefatigable diligence; he went into the pulpits and ‘kept the people in sound doctrine by his sermons. ’ He told them that ‘Satan was prowling about, like a roaring lion, to devour them; that they must therefore keep a strict watch and drive back the ferocious beast.’ To these exhortations he added censures, monitions, and excommunications. All readers of Holy Scripture were to be driven from the fold of the church.
A general assembly of the Estates of the valley to regulate the affairs of the district was held on the 21st of February, 1536. Among the deputies were several friends of the Reformation: De la Crete, Vaudan, Borgnion, and others indicated in the cahier of the Estates. Two subjects in particular filled the majority of the assembly with anxiety. The political and the religious situation of the city appeared equally threatened. Men’s eyes were turned to Switzerland, and it was asserted that designs of political conquest were combined in the minds of the Bernese with the too manifest desire of religious conquest. At a time when the house of Savoy was exposed to the attack of France, many wanted to see the valley of Aosta take advantage of this to join the Helvetic League and rally under the standard of the Gospel. The members of the assembly were convinced that the Swiss desired ‘to canton’ all the country, and by that means extend their confederation on both sides of the Alps. But the other danger was still more alarming to the chiefs of the Roman party, and they earnestly represented to the Estates that the attachment of the city and valley to the holy see of Rome was threatened; and that the Bernese Lutherans, who were not content with laying hands upon the territory of Vaud, but had introduced and propagated their ‘venomous sect,’ wanted to do the same in Aosta. The assembly resolved to maintain the Romancatholic faith and continue loyal to his ducal highness, and it was enacted that every transgressor should be put to death. It is a matter of notoriety that Calvin passed through the city of Aosta; but did he arrive at this epoch, and was he there during part at least of the session of the Estates? This is affirmed by documents of the 17th and 18th centuries, and his presence there is not impossible; but there is, in our opinion, one circumstance adverse to its acceptance. The official documents of the period, and more especially the journals of the assembly of February and March, 1536, make no mention of Calvin’s presence, and do not even allude to it. It would, however, have been worth the trouble of recording, if he were only designated, as he was a little later in the Registers of Geneva, as a Frenchman . Two important facts, in a religious point of view, occurred at Aosta in the early months of the year 1536: the Assembly of the Estates and the passage of Calvin. The first took place in February and March; the second probably a little later. Tradition makes them coincide, which is more dramatic; history sets each in its right place.
But because the reformer did not (during the sitting of the Assembly) play the part assigned to him, it must not be assumed that he never passed through that city.
Calvin had his reasons for taking the Aosta and St. Bernard route. It had been in use for centuries, and he had no doubt learnt during his residence at Basle, what was universally known in Switzerland, that the Bernese had frequent relations with this country, that they had introduced the Gospel there, and that some of the inhabitants had adopted the principles of the Reformation. An ancient document gives us to understand that Calvin passed through Aosta both going and returning. In our opinion that would be quite natural. The reports circulated in Switzerland about that city would induce him to take that road on his way to Italy, and we can easily conceive, as regards his return, that a fugitive would take a road already known to him, and where he was sure of meeting friends. But we do not press this, and are content to follow the traces Calvin left in the country on his return, and which are still to be found there.
At the foot of the St. Bernard, very near the city of Aosta, stood a house on some rising ground, where a grange may still be seen. In order to reach it you leave the St. Bernard road a short distance from the city and take a footpath, near which a little chapel now stands. The meadows around it, the abrupt peaks rising above it, the Alps hiding their snowy heads in the clouds, the view over Aosta and the valley — all combined to give a picturesque aspect to that house. If the traveler asks the inhabitants of the country what house that is, he will be told it is ‘Calvin’s Farm;’ and they add that when the reformer was passing through Aosta, he was sheltered there by one of the most zealous of the reformed, Leonard de Vaudan. It was very natural that Calvin should prefer such a retired habitation to a house in the city.
We do not know what Calvin did or said at Aosta. The only fact which appears proved — and a monument more than three centuries old attests it — is that his presence did not remain unknown, and caused a sensation there more or less lively. The reformer would have run great danger had he been arrested in the city of Bishop Gazzini, ‘who by his vehement discourses was arming all his flock against the heretics, and who, seeing Satan incarnate in the evangelical teachers, called upon them to expel the ravenous beast.’ Such are the expressions made use of by the historian of the diocese. Calvin, already a fugitive, hastened to leave the neighborhood of the city. To these simple and natural facts some extraordinary circumstances have been added. For instance, certain writers have represented the Count of Challans in fierce pursuit of Calvin, and following him with drawn sword into the very heart of the mountains.
This is a legend tacked on to history, as happens far too frequently.
It was natural that Calvin, under the circumstances in which he was placed, should not take the ordinary road, as it was certain he would be looked for there, and he might easily have been overtaken. It would appear, if we follow the traces his passage has left round Aosta, that he sought to escape from the enemies of the Reformation. When we leave ‘Calvin’s Farm,’ and turn to the right, we come to a bridge near Roisan, below the village of Closelina. This is called in the neighborhood ‘Calvin’s Bridge.’ Calvin crossed it, and thus followed a more difficult and less frequented road than the St. Bernard. If we climb the mountain in the direction of the valley of La Valpeline, we arrive at a col enclosed by Mont Balme, Mont Combin, and Mont Velan: this is the ‘pass of the window,’ afterwards named ‘Calvin’s Window,’ and by it the reformer entered Switzerland again. As we have said, Calvin’s passage had made a deep impression in Aosta.
The inhabitants of that most catholic city looked upon their opposition to the reformer, and the flight to which they compelled him to have recourse, as a glory to their city calculated to bring upon them the admiration of the friends of the papacy. Consequently, five years after these events, on the 14th May, 1541, the Aostans erected a stone cross in the middle of their city in memory of the act. As this primitive monument had become decayed, it was replaced two centuries later (1741) by a column eight feet high, which Senebier mentions, and on which there was this inscription: ‘HANC CALVINI FUGA EREXIT ANNO MDXLI.
RELIGIONIS CONSTANTIA REPARAVIT MDCCXLI.’
Finally, a hundred years later, this was succeeded by the monument, which every traveler can now see as he passes through Aosta, and which we have examined more than once ourselves. There are thus three centuries and three successive monuments. Calvin’s passage through the city of Aosta is, therefore, among the number of historic facts commemorated on the very spot where they occurred, in the most peremptory manner.
Calvin passed through Switzerland, halted at Basle, and thence proceeded to Strasburg. He determined to choose one of these two cities, in which to pass that studious and peaceful life he desired so much, either in the society of Cop, Gryneus, and Myconius, or of Bucer, Capito, and Hedio.
But he desired first to return to Noyon, where he had some business to arrange. Leaving Du Tillet at Strasburg, he started for France, which he could do without imprudence; for he had not left his country under the weight of any judicial sentence which he had evaded. Moreover the government just then was less severe.
The arrival of the young doctor was no sooner known in Paris than many friends of the Gospel hastened to his inn. They were never tired of listening to him. ‘There is not in all France,’ they told him, ‘a man who inspires us with so much admiration as you do.’ But Calvin was eager to reach Noyon, where a severe disappointment awaited him: his brother Charles, the chaplain, was no more. The circumstances of his death filled Calvin with sorrow and with joy. ‘Charles openly confessed Jesus Christ on his dying bed,’ his surviving brother, Anthony, and his sister Mary told John, ‘and desired no other absolution than that obtained from God by faith. Accordingly, the exasperated priests had him buried by night, between the four pillars of the gallows.’
Calvin invited Anthony and Mary to leave a country in which believers were covered with infamy.
His stay at Noyon was very short. It was not possible for him to go direct to Basle or Strasburg, because of the war between Charles V. and Francis I., which prevented his crossing Champagne and Lorraine; but he learnt that he could, without encountering any difficulty, pass through Bresse, then ascend the Rhone, traverse Geneva, and so reach Basle by way of Lausanne and Berne. He took this road. ‘In all this,’ says Beza, ‘God was his guide.’ Thus drew near to Geneva the great theologian who discerned more clearly than any other man of that day what, in doctrine and in life, was in conformity with or opposed to God’s truth and will. Whereas his predecessors had left some few traditions existing by the side of Scripture, he laid bare the rock of the Word. Truth had become the sole passion of that ardent and inflexible soul, and he was resolved to dedicate his whole life to it. At that time, however, he had no idea of performing a work like Luther’s; and if he had been shown the career that was opening before him, he would have shrunk from it with terror. ‘I will try to earn my living in a private station,’ he said. The ambition of Francis I. changed everything. That prince, unwittingly, accomplished the designs of God, who desired to place the reformer in the center of Europe, between Italy, Germany, and France.