Renee of France and John Calvin—Friends to the End

Calvin opens up about his personal life with Renée in ways that are uncharacteristic of him. They were friends.

He took great care to present Renée with clear teaching on the essential doctrines, as she was up against false teachers in the Este court. As she was going through persecution brought on by her own husband, wavering in her faith, Calvin continues to strengthen and encourage her with gospel truth. He spoke graciously to her in her weakest moments. He was a constant source of counsel for her, in the influence she had and the choices she was making regarding her personal life. Renée didn’t always take Calvin’s advice. She pushed back quite a bit. But there was a mutual respect creating a friendship comfortable with open disagreement and growth. It wasn’t one-dimensional. Calvin also listened to Renée’s concerns and gained from her perspective.
The thing I really appreciate about Simonetta Carr is that she likes to hang out a little in the uncomfortable spots when writing about history. Her whole book on Renée of France is about a Reformation figure who was “difficult to categorize”:

For some, she was a devoted daughter of the Church of Rome, misled and deceived by John Calvin and other reformers. For others, a heroine of the Reformation, who kept her faith—with the exception of one painful lapse—in spite of fierce persecution. Some, emphasizing her complaints to Calvin in her last letters, have described her as a fierce ecumenical spirit. (14)

In answering this question of who Renée of France really was, Simonetta Carr gives a bite-sized biography, a “brief look at the life of a woman who made difficult choices and asked stimulating questions—someone like most of us, often baffled by uncertainties, resisting changes, stubborn, and frustrated” (16). It is a great little read which I recommend. But rather than give you a summary or review, as it’s a short book that I encourage you to read for yourself, I just wanted to reflect on something that stood out to me in Renée’s story. And that is my take-aways from the intimate correspondence between Renée and John Calvin.

One reason it stood out to me so much is because all of the sexual tension in the contemporary church. I’m constantly seeing articles about whether women and men should text one another or have a business lunch in public. Renée was in a difficult marriage, so that one could even say she was vulnerable. Duke Ercole II was not happy with his duchess. She was continually stirring up political controversy as the infamous “patroness of banned or endangered Protestants, who were often employed in her service in different capacities”(45). She wasn’t exactly what the church would uphold as a submissive wife.

There isn’t a lot of information of Calvin’s visit to Ferrara, Italy. There isn’t a precise date or duration of his stay or an account of his purposes for his first visit with Renée. He did use a different name, Charles d’Esperville. And he made quite an impact on Renée and her court. Carr points out just how much they had in common, separated by only a year in age and both struggling to live away from their homeland of France. This visit was the beginning of a fruitful friendship of correspondence for the rest of their lives. There’s no romantic scandal here. There is pastoral guidance. But even more than that, Calvin opens up about his personal life with Renée in ways that are uncharacteristic of him. They were friends.

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