The Reformer Who Wrote Erotic Poetry

Theodore Beza, lover of fancy hats. Portrait by an unknown artist circa 1605.

History is full of odd tales, and nowhere more so than during the Protestant Reformation. We have, for example, the much beloved story of how Martin Luther’s future wife, Katharina Von Bora, escaped from her convent in a fish barrel, giving new meaning to the phrase, “That’s a pretty kettle of fish.” The relationship between the two of them and the subsequent improvements in Herr Luther’s bowel movements are rather the stuff of legend. (More about Luther, Germans, and poop can be found here.)

Then there was Wibrandis Rosenblatt, who managed to get herself married to three different Protestant Reformers – Johannes Oecolampadius (Try saying that three times fast!), Wolfgang Capito, and Martin Bucer. Now, I must stress that this dear lady was not married to them all at the same time, but rather in succession after they each went the way of all flesh. Indeed, before she was ever married to Oecolampadius, she was already the widow of one Ludwig Keller (Ancestor of Timothy Keller? Just throwing it out there…). That makes a total of four husbands for Wibrandis, which is either incredibly unlucky or incredibly suspicious.

However, for our story today I would like to take us a bit farther south to the town of Geneva, nestled on a beautiful lake at the feet of the Alps. Long before it was nagging the rest of the world about how it should behave in times of war, Geneva hosted a rather interesting religious experiment when it invited a French expat named Jean Calvin – yes, that’s John Calvin – to carry out a reformation in the city along with Guillaume Farel. This was an important development in the history of the Reformed Protestant tradition.

But I’m not going to talk about Calvin today – sorry to burst your bubble. I know Calvin is much beloved in these parts, even by those who have never bothered to read any of The Institutes of the Christian Religion, his greatest lasting legacy. No, I would like to talk about one of Calvin’s close associates, Théodore de Bèze, better known in the English speaking world as Theodore Beza. His is a truly fascinating story with many twists and turns.

Like his fellow Frenchman Calvin, Beza moved to Paris early on to study the law. He became well known in the literary world of his day. When he was about 29 years old, he experienced a serious illness that led him to contemplate spiritual matters, and this resulted in a kind of conversion. He subsequently moved to Geneva and made a semi-scandalous marriage to a woman of lower social standing. Beza became a major player in the Reformed movement. He was Calvin’s chief biographer and successor. I would say you could recognize him in pictures by his hat and long beard, but that was pretty much the norm for the Geneva Reformers. In the painting above, he looks like nothing so much as the wizard Gandalf.

Incidentally, Beza would go on to teach a student named Jacobus Arminius. When this young man returned to his native Holland, he began teaching a view of predestination that was not exactly in line with that coming out of Geneva. As it so happened, this did not go over very well with the Dutch, who liked Calvinism almost as much as they liked tulips and wooden shoes. (As a descendant of Hollanders, I cannot vouch for the uncomfortable footwear, but the flowers and theology are pretty good.) Beza’s former student found himself without a truly receptive audience, but his ideas bore a bit more fruit in England. Perhaps you have heard of his school of thought: Arminianism.

Oh, but we must not blame Beza for a single bad apple! After all, London is one of the most capitalist cities in history, but it also produced the political philosophy of Karl Marx. No, I have no intention of saddling Beza with that Arminian association, for he already had some far more interesting baggage. Here I refer to an episode from his early life that came back to haunt him.

Reformation Wall sculpture at the University of Geneva, by Paul Landowski and Henri Bouchard circa 1909. Photo by Roland Zumbühl.

Before he had his religious awakening, Beza wrote a volume of rather humorous Latin poetry entitled Juvenilia. You would be correct to assume based on the name of the work that the humor was at times juvenile in nature, although the true meaning of the word is simply that the poems were composed during the author’s youth. Alas, I am no scholar of Latin, and there is no English translation in print. However, all the sources I consulted agree that some of these poems were rather…scandalous in nature.

Laurie Langbauer writes that, “Beza’s juvenilia were notorious for their lewdness. He had to live down this early indiscretion during his later life as a Calvinist (when Catholic critics censured his poems as simply about adultery and sodomy).”[1] Yes, this was the tactic employed by Beza’s religious opponents: they claimed that the naughty deeds described in his poems were sins he had actually committed. However, this seems to have been a bit of a stretch. Mimicking the style of ancient poets such as Virgil and Ovid, Beza’s Juvenilia included a range of characters who were used to illustrate different points. He particularly speaks of a female named Candida. Yet, the devotion and even sensual desire he expressed for her was not real at all, for she seems to have been merely a fanciful creation of his imagination.

Well, in any case, poor Beza had these erotic poems on his record, which he had published in 1548 and dedicated to his first great teacher, Melchior Wolmar. It was in that very same year that Beza had his life altering illness, and once he became a leader of the Protestant Reformation, the naughty poems were clearly a liability. For his part, Wolmar urged Beza to republish the poems, which everyone agreed contained some fine Latin verse. Beza wanted no part of it and wrote to his old mentor,

As respects those poems, who is there that either has condemned them more than I, their unhappy author, or that detests them more than I do today? Would, therefore, that they might at length be buried in perpetual oblivion! And may the Lord grant that, since it is impossible that what has far different from those poems may rather congratulate me upon the greatness of God’s goodness to me, than accuse him who voluntarily makes confession and deprecates the fault of his youth.[2]

Ah, a Reformer with a past! It was truly unfortunate for Beza, for the narrative that many Catholics liked to use for the Reformation was that it was motivated by a lot of…worldly things. The end of clerical celibacy was presented by the Protestants as a return to the principles of scripture, but surely it was all about the desire for sex! Such claims dogged both Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli when they decided to take wives, and in the case of Zwingli it seems that the woman he chose was indeed quite pregnant on their official wedding day, though they had been secretly married for some time before that.

Beza never quite managed to live down his poems, much as he tried to repent. He eventually republished an edited form of the Juvenilia that had been purged of some of the more tawdry references, a move that would surely please many public relations consultants of the present day: he attempted to take control and redirect the public to his own content, the better to frame the narrative. Yet, this did not completely undo the damage, and the very fact that I am talking about his erotic poems today shows that even death did not allow Beza to escape his ignominy.

Ceiling of the Maccabees Chapel at St. Pierre Cathedral in Geneva, Switzerland, arguably the home church of Calvinism. Photo by Wikipedia user Yann.

But what of these poems? From a modern perspective, they may actually improve Beza’s reputation. It must be said that Calvinists – particularly those of the more Puritan variety – do not have much of a reputation for being fun loving or humorous. I do know one or two persons in the Reformed tradition who are capable of cracking a joke…that is, when they aren’t debating you to death over some obscure doctrinal point. Oh, but I kid! I myself fit rather nicely within that tradition, and I like to think that I see the humor in life. Yet, when it comes to those sticks in the mud who outlaw musical instruments or even ban singing altogether, I declare them to be sad sacks and no successors of that great musician, Martin Luther. A religion without music is not the religion for me or any other thinking person. But I digress…

Beza is an altogether different creature. With the type of beard now favored by hipsters in coffee bars, his scandalous wife (I am told she once got fined by the Geneva authorities for the way she decorated their house. I could find no source for this, but take my stand upon the purported expertise of the Rev. Dr. Carl Trueman, may heaven help me…), and his unfortunate erotic poetry, Beza seems to have at least some sense of fun. As further proof of his public relations capabilities, he reached out to the English Protestants with a poem praising the defeat of the Spanish Armada under Queen Elizabeth I. Here is how he attempted to butter her up:

And now, o queene above al others blest,

For whom both windes and waves are prest to fight,

So rule your owne, so succour friends opprest,

(As farre from pride, as ready to do right),

That England you, you England long enjoy,

No lesse your friends delight, then foes annoy.”[3]

Forgive the Shakespearean spellings, which doft not fil the booke aright. The point here is that Beza was quite fluent in the language of poetry and used it to push forward the cause of the Reformation, attempting to make common cause with a very important Protestant ruler. The same could not be said for another resident of Geneva, John Knox, who got himself permanently banned from England when he published a pamphlet blasting the rule of female sovereigns. (“Blast” is the operative word here, as in The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Sadly, or not so sadly, it was never to have a sequel.)

I have to sympathize with Beza a little here. When I was in my late teens and early 20s, I wrote for my college newspaper. If you were to go back and dig up some of those columns, you might find more than one that I would be none too proud of today. I changed – I grew up. My views evolved as I came across new information and had new experiences.

I can’t say that I published any erotic poetry, but just to give you one example, I wrote an essay calling into question a line in the Apostles’ Creed and stating that I could no longer speak it in good conscience. One of my Bible professors and the campus pastor published articles the next week kindly disagreeing, though interestingly another Bible professor wrote me to say, “At a girl!” (This was the extent of the controversies we had at said university.) Well, it’s all in the past now. I shall leave you to wonder just which line in the creed I heretically questioned, but rest assured that I say the whole thing now.

All of us have pasts, and Theodore Beza was no exception. The important thing is that he came into contact with Jesus Christ. He was transformed from the inside out. His outlook on life changed and his desires changed. Unfortunately, he had to suffer some temporal consequences for his actions, but in eternity he was forgiven. Beza is proof positive that no one is perfect, that writers often get themselves into trouble when they try to be too clever (A good warning for yours truly!), and that we have a merciful God who is not counting our former sins against us but conforming us to the image of Christ. Never fear, Theodore! You are more than a few naughty lyrics. Now, if only we could get people to give you a small bit of credit for Calvinist theology…

[1] Laurie Langbauer. The Juvenile Tradition: Young Writers and Prolepsis, 1750-1835 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), page 67.

[2] Theodore Beza. Preface to Confession of the Christian Faith. Quoted in Theodore Beza, The Counsellor of the French Reformation, 1519-1605 by Henry Martyn Baird, published by J.P. Putnam’s Sons in 1899. The latter source is used throughout this article.

[3] https://epistole.wordpress.com/2009/06/09/theodore-bezas-poetic-ode-to-queen-elizabeth/