Childhood and Student Years

John Calvin was born on 10th July 1509 in Noyon in Northern France (about 100 km north of Paris). His actual name is Jean Cauvin. Calvin’s father was the notary of the cathedral chapter there and therefore a layman among clerics and as such in a raised position. Already at the age of almost twelve, John Calvin got his first living – a part of the income of a particular parish (Chapel de la Gesine). Until 1523 Calvin went to school in his home-town. At the age of fourteen he was sent to Paris to the College de la Marche, a famous boarding school, at which Mathurin Cordier was head as Latin teacher. Cordier is known as the founder of a new pedagogy. And even if Cordier himself only gave Calvin Latin lessons for a short time, Calvin nevertheless admired him his life long. And moreover, Cordier was later appointed head and organiser of the school system in Geneva and Lausanne.

Only after a short time in the College de la Marche, Calvin moved in 1524 for unknown reasons to another boarding school, the College de Mantaigu, a stronghold of Roman-Catholic orthodoxy, which was considered a nightmare by the pupils. Nevertheless, Calvin seemed not to have suffered there all too much, but rather to have enjoyed a thorough education, above all in Grammar and in philosophy, but also in theology. Indeed, one of Calvin’s teachers, John Mair or Major, has written a commentary on the gospels and defended the Roman doctrines against Wyclif, Hus and above all Luther. The doctrine of Luther had already got around and it was this that had to be thoroughly defended against. Probably Calvin got to know Catholic theology there on the basis of the Sentences of Peter Lombard (c. 1100 to1160), the church fathers, and also from Augustine (354 to 430).

Calvin made several friends, some of whom were open-minded in relation to the Reformation, and some who even joined it. Calvin had not yet done this himself – he found Luther’s polemic against Zwingli too vehement. Whether Calvin had read Luther’s writings is unclear. In any case, Calvin did not join the Reformation but remained for the time being a faithful follower of the Roman Doctrine. One could describe Calvin as a Catholic humanist who insisted upon a renewal of the sciences, but not on a Reformation in the sense of Luther.

Indeed, in 1527, while Calvin was still at the college, the income of a second living arose.

At the beginning, Calvin’s father had intended Calvin to study theology. However, he changed his plan, perhaps because he had disputes with the cathedral chapter in Noyon, perhaps also because he hoped for more possibilities for his son from another discipline, and steered him in the direction of law. Calvin began the study of law probably in 1528 in Orleans, then a very famous faculty. He worked doggedly and zealously, learnt Greek in a few months and was influenced continually by humanist ideals. Calvin left Orleans in 1529 and studied further in Bourges with the famous lawyer Alciat.

In 1531, Calvin found out that his father had become seriously ill, travelled to Noyon and was able to stay by his father in his last hours. The disputes of Calvin’s father with the cathedral chapter had become so vehement that he had been excommunicated since 1529, which insulted him greatly.

After the death of his father, Calvin went to Paris. He was now independent and beside his juridical studies dedicated himself above all to literary studies. In Paris, King Franz I had founded a new humanist-oriented university, at which Calvin registered. In the Winter of 1531/32, Calvin composed a commentary on Seneca’s “De clementia” – “on mildness” (treatise). This book made him well-known and numbered him among the leading humanist echelons in France. Then he returned to Orleans and completed his study of law as “Licentiate of law.”