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Born to a noble family in Tournai, Marie Dentière (1495-1561) left her convent in the 1520s to work for religious reform. She married a former priest and with her husband went to Switzerland, where she was active in the Reformation's takeover of Geneva.
Dentière's Very Useful Epistle (1539) is the first explicit statement of reformed theology by a woman to appear in French. Addressed to Queen Marguerite of Navarre, sister of the French king Francis I, the Epistle asks the queen to help those persecuted for their religious beliefs. Dentière offers a stirring defense of women and asserts their right to teach the word of God in public. She defends John Calvin against his enemies and attacks the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church. Her Preface (1561) to one of Calvin's sermons criticizes immodesty and extravagance in clothing and warns the faithful to be vigilant. Undaunted in the face of suppression and ridicule, this outspoken woman persisted as an active voice in the Reformation.
T o the most Christian princess Marguerite of France, Queen of Navarre, Duchess of Alencon and of Berry, M[arie] D[entière] of Tournai wishes salvation and abundance of grace, through Jesus Christ.
My most honored Lady, just as the genuine lovers of truth desire to know and understand how they should live in these very dangerous times, so we women should know how to flee and avoid all errors, heresies, and false doctrines, whether from false Christians, Turks, infidels, or from others suspect in doctrine, as your writings have already sufficiently shown. And although several good and faithful servants of God have been moved in times past to write, preach, and announce the Law of God, the coming of his son Jesus Christ, his works, death, and resurrection, nevertheless they have been rejected and reproached, principally by the wise men of the people. And not only those servants, but even God's own son, Jesus Christ the just, has been rejected.
That is why you should not marvel if in our time we see [a2v] such things happening to those to whom God has given the grace to write, say, preach, and announce the very things that Jesus and his Apostles said and preached. We see that the whole earth is filled with malediction and its inhabitants are troubled, observing among themselves great tumults, debates, dissensions, and divisions, greater than have ever been seen on earth: terrible envy, strife, rancor, malevolence, avarice, lechery, theft, pillage, spilling of blood, murders, tumults, rapes, burnings, poisonings, wars, kingdoms against kingdoms, nation against nation. In short, all manner of abomination reigns: father against son and son against father, mother against daughter, daughter against mother, even as far as one selling the other, the mother delivering her own daughter up to all evils. So much so that there are very few among all the people on earth who really know how they should live, seeing such things happen among people who call themselves Christian. And no one dares to say a word about all this because one person wants one thing to be done, another something else; one person lives a good life (or so he says), another evil; this one is wise, that one foolish; this one [a3r] thinks he knows, the other knows nothing; one claims this is good, another that. In short, there is only dissension, and one or the other must necessarily be living in evil, because there is only one God, one faith, one law and one baptism.
However, my most honored Lady, I wanted to write you, not to teach you, but so that you might take pains with the King, your brother, to obviate all these divisions which reign in the places and among the people over whom God commissioned him to rule and govern. And also over your people, whom God gave you to provide for and to keep in order. For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth. And even though we are not permitted to preach in public in congregations and churches, we are not forbidden to write and admonish one another in all charity. Not only for you, my Lady, did I wish to write this letter, but also to give courage to other women detained in captivity, so that they might not fear being expelled from their homelands, away from their relatives and friends, as I was, for the word of God. And principally for the poor [a3v] little women [femmelettes] wanting to know and understand the truth, who do not know what path, what way to take, in order that from now on they be not internally tormented and afflicted, but rather that they be joyful, consoled, and led to follow the truth, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. [And also to give courage to my little daughter, your goddaughter, to give to the printers a little Hebrew grammar that she has made in French for the use and profit of other little girls, above all, for your daughter, my Lady the Princess, to whom it is directed. For as you well know, the female sex is more shameful than the other, and not without cause. For until now, scripture has been so hidden from them.] No one dared to say a word about it, and it seemed that women should not read or hear anything in the holy scriptures. That is the main reason, my Lady, that has moved me to write to you, hoping in God that henceforth women will not be so scorned as in the past. For, from day to day, God changes the hearts of his people for the good. That is what I pray will soon happen throughout the land. Amen.
[a4] DEFENSE OF WOMEN
Not only will certain slanderers and adversaries of truth try to accuse us of excessive audacity and temerity, but so will certain of the faithful, saying that it is too bold for women to write to one another about matters of scripture. We may answer them by saying that all those women who have written and have been named in holy scripture should not be considered too bold. Several women are named and praised in holy scripture, as much for their good conduct, actions, demeanor, and example as for their faith and teaching: Sarah and Rebecca, for example, and first among all the others in the Old Testament; the mother of Moses, who, in spite of the king's edict, dared to keep her son from death and saw that he was cared for in the Pharaoh's house, as is amply declared in Exodus 2; and Deborah, who judged the people of Israel in the time of the Judges, is not to be scorned. Judges 4. Must we condemn Ruth, who, even though she was of the female sex, had her story told in the book that bears her name? I do not think so, seeing that she is numbered among the genealogy of Jesus Christ. [a4v] What wisdom had the Queen of Sheba, who is not only named in the Old Testament, but whom Jesus dared to name among the other sages! If we are speaking of the graces that have been given to women, what greater grace has come to any creature on earth than to the virgin Mary, mother of Jesus, to have carried the son of God? It was no small grace that allowed Elizabeth, mother of John the Baptist, to have borne a son miraculously after having been sterile. What woman was a greater preacher than the Samaritan woman, who was not ashamed to preach Jesus and his word, confessing him openly before everyone, as soon as she heard Jesus say that we must adore God in spirit and truth? Who can boast of having had the first manifestation of the great mystery of the resurrection of Jesus, if not Mary Magdalene, from whom he had thrown out seven devils, and the other women, to whom, rather than to men, he had earlier declared himself through his angel and commanded them to tell, preach, and declare it to others?
Even though in all women there has been imperfection, men have not been exempt from it. Why is it necessary to criticize [a5] women so much, seeing that no woman ever sold or betrayed Jesus, but a man named Judas? Who are they, I pray you, who have invented and contrived so many ceremonies, heresies, and false doctrines on earth if not men? And the poor women have been seduced by them. Never was a woman found to be a false prophet, but women have been misled by them. While I do not wish to excuse the excessively great malice of some women that goes far beyond measure, neither is there any reason to make a general rule of it, without exception, as some do on a daily basis. Take in particular Faustus, that mocker, in his Bucolics. When I see those words, of course I cannot be silent, seeing that they are more used and recommended by men than the Gospel of Jesus, which is forbidden to us, and that that teller of fables is well regarded in the schools. Therefore, if God has given grace to some good women, revealing to them by his holy scriptures something holy and good, should they hesitate to write, speak, and declare it to one another because of the defamers of truth? Ah, it would be too bold to try to stop them, and it would be too foolish for us to hide the talent that God has given us, God who will give us the grace to persevere to the end. Amen.
The Lord God desires that all without exception come to the pure and true knowledge of truth through one mediator, Jesus Christ alone, by asking for that understanding only through a true and living faith, without wavering nor seeking anyone but him, in whom resides all wisdom, prudence, generosity, and virtue, to bring down all those who rise up against him and his followers, trying to destroy him by tyrannies and human powers. We must not fear them, since we have such a great King and master who governs all by his providence and wisdom, who will halt all winds, storms, tumult, dissension, and debates when it is his good pleasure, even though his adversaries come to plot against him. For his enemies must be ground under his feet so that the Ethiopians and kings of the earth adore him, and his enemies will prostrate themselves before his face and will lick the earth. Therefore you must not be astonished but take courage when you see wars, plagues, and famines on the earth, nation against nation, kingdom against kingdom, father against son, [a6] mother against daughter, one seized in the field and another left, one seized at the mill and the other spared, one taken in bed and another spared, and so many sects reigning everywhere and others springing up. For surely that is the moment when the Son of Man will come in great virtue and power to render to each one his due, calling his Father's elect to his kingdom, which has been prepared for them since the beginning of the world.
Be therefore vigilant and ready in tribulation, for you will certainly be hated by all because of me, led before kings, princes, and lords because you give witness to truth in my name. And they will put several of you to death, thinking that they are making a great sacrifice to God. For the elect the days will be shortened. I foretold it to you: As they have persecuted me, so they will persecute you. The servant is not greater than his lord. But be glad and exult, because you are happy when men speak ill of you because of me. Take courage; because I have defeated the world, you will defeat it. Be on your guard and vigilant so that the adversary will not find you sleeping. Nothing has happened to me that has not been [a6v] predicted; likewise, nothing will happen to you that has not been predicted. They held me in hatred without cause; they will do the same to you. It was prophesied about me; so it is about you. It was accomplished in me; so it will be in you. And therefore I warn you to be on your guard, for if the father of the family knew that someone was supposed to destroy his house by night, he would keep watch and would not let his house be ruined. And you, unless you are totally out of your mind, shouldn't you keep watch even more, seeing that the matter is greater, that it's a question of something much greater than a house?
But we are so blind because of our avarice, which is the root of all evil, that we do not know how to recognize the truth of his words. If it is pointed out to us well enough, then we can recognize it, but by false doctrines and long orations, false prophets have seduced and tricked the poor people, letting it be understood that they are christs and saviors of the people. They walk about in long robes and sheep's clothing, but inside are ravishing wolves. They forbid marriage and foods which we should accept with thanks, or they say that Christ is here or there, which is a very strange and new doctrine. Even if [a7] Jesus Christ had not warned us to be on our guard against them, we should not believe them. For the kingdom of God does not consist in such things, nor in any external or visible observation, but it is within us; it is peace, justice, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The Lord God, knowing well that our nature is prone to evil and inclined toward all sorts of idolatry, inclined to believe, receive, and follow false prophets, warned us not to receive, believe, or hear them in any way, not even if it were an angel from heaven saying otherwise, but to recognize that their teaching is not the Gospel and that we would be held in damnation if we accepted it. In spite of that, we did not wish to obey his voice, but we scorned and condemned his holy commandment, and even worse, we loved the lie more than the truth. Because of that, he let us fall into our senses, our inventions, and our carnal desires. For it is right that he who loves the lie more than the truth should have it given to him. And seeing that we did not wish to receive and recognize Jesus as our true Pastor, Bishop, Sacrificer, Priest, Savior and King, he gave us others, to our confusion, as he did to the children of Israel. Like idolaters, they asked for a king [a7v] and they got one, to their great confusion and extreme servitude. They did not recognize the great blessing that God had given them in the good prophet Samuel; rejecting him, they rejected God and not the prophet. We likewise, being ungrateful, did not recognize the great grace that our God has given us by revealing to us his immutable word, his holy Gospel. By responding with sacrifices and external ceremonies, we have abandoned that which we should receive gladly. With his strong hand he had held back our enemies, but all for nothing. Because we abandoned him, he allowed us to seek salvation and life other than in his son Jesus, who was given to us to purge us and cleanse us of all our sins through his blood, without our having deserved or merited it.
In spite of all that, this good God is ready to take us back again, receive us, and pardon us for the love of his son. For it is impossible that sins be forgiven by means other than through Jesus or that we come to the father except through him. He is the path, the way, the truth, and the life, the sole mediator and advocate between God and men, the sole door of life, the sole host who was prefigured [a8] by the levitic ceremonies and sacrifices, which were given to the children of Israel. However, since Christ came, those shadows and figures are past, the spirit is bestowed, things of the flesh are past. The letter is dead, and the spirit gives life.
Now we must not serve God in ceremonial, carnal, or visible servitude, but in freedom of spirit. For our God is not carnal nor visible, but spirit; and he asks to be adored and served in spirit and truth. Thus, they are all to be greatly reproached who turn us back again to the servitude of external ceremonies through which they have extinguished and annihilated the true evangelical light, attributing to external things that which belongs solely to our savior Jesus, who, after he had died for our sins and risen for our justification, ascended into heaven visibly and manifestly and is seated at the right hand of his father, until he will come to judge the living and the dead. This was given to us to understand: that through external and visible baptism, we have a true and living faith, our sins are forgiven, and grace and justice are given to us. This [a8v] cannot come about except through the one savior Jesus, through the spotless lamb who takes away the sins of the world, so that it pleases the father through his Holy Spirit to draw us to him and together with Jesus Christ his son.
It was not enough for the wickedness of men to attribute and bestow the honor that belongs to Jesus Christ on those visible things that were ordained by God, but also on things ordained and invented by men, without the authority of scripture, such as pilgrimages and money given for indulgences, and pardons, and a full lot of other evil idolatries that men have discovered, created, and invented through their good intentions, or rather to pillage and rob the poor people, going against the holy word of God. It has reached the point where the earth is filled with idolatries, and if God did not intervene, it would not be within human power to extirpate and tear them out.
Excerpted from EPISTLE TO MARGUERITE DE NAVARRE AND PREFACETO A SERMON BY JOHN CALVIN by Marie Dentière Copyright © 2004 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Series Editors' Introduction
Volume Editor's Introduction
Volume Editor's Bibliography
Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre
Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin
Series Editors' Bibliography