Listening and Knowledge in Reformation Europe

Hearing, Speaking, and Remembering in Calvin's Geneva

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Anna Kvicalova
  • London, England: 
    Palgrave Macmillan
    , November
     267 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Anna Kvicalova’s Listening and Knowledge in Reformation Europe examines auditory culture in Reformation Geneva. It is an extremely impressive study that provides insightful analysis of the work for reform in the city. It should, in my judgment, be of serious interest to anyone studying (or interested in) the Genevan Reformation, John Calvin, early modern preaching, religious life, and a host of other subjects.

The Genevan population experienced significant difficulties in adapting to these reforms, a fact that is apparent to those who have studied the implementation of ecclesiastical and cultic reform in Geneva with the arrival in the city first of Guillaume Farel and later John Calvin. Kvicalova examines the causes behind these difficulties and argues that they are caused by the “transformation in the manner of lay participation in the worship” (4). The difficulties imposed on the Genevans to listen attentively to the sermon and, more generally, to accustom themselves to the new religious regimen was behind the evident problems experienced by many Genevans. Pursuing this line of argument, Kvicalova produces chapters on topics such as verbal utterance, auditory memory, and modes of childhood instruction. She analyzes sensory perception from within the broader contours of scholarship on hearing and acoustics. She exhibits impressive knowledge about sound and hearing in the wider European context. On the Genevan Reformation, the study mentions a sizable collection of scholarship in the footnotes—not only the work of Robert Kingdon, Christian Grosse, and other names who are standard fair for someone studying this subject, but also less well-known pieces. Mapping out her plan for the work, Kvicalova sets her monograph within a two-fold critique of current scholarship, namely, that scholarship has focused too much on the personality and theological writings of John Calvin alone and, second, that it has made little use of unpublished documents from the 16th century (8-9). She also rightly notes the Genevan Reformation has yet to be studied through the lens of the cultural history of the senses.

What we find here is a wonderfully fresh perspective cast on the work of the Genevan Reformation. Kvicalova carefully examines numerous examples of individuals who were called before the consistory concerning their obedience to the church in listening to sermons. They were asked to repeat prayers or name the preacher who preached the last sermon they attended. In the process, she makes perceptive observations about numerous aspects of the work of reform, down to (for example) the practice of the different secretaries who took notes when the consistory interrogated someone in their presence. Wonderful detail and patient analysis appear throughout the volume.

To show her detail and analysis, I will discuss in more detail chapter 3, which explores “Modes of Verbal Utterance in Calvinist Epistemology.” The author sets out an organized and extremely thoughtful assessment of the changes related to speaking, the function of language, and the like that appear in the Genevans’ religious reforms. Kvicalova is especially insightful when she assesses the sense of what it would have entailed for the population of Geneva to experience the changes introduced by Farel and Calvin in worship and city life. Quite rapidly, these people would have been expected to accustom themselves to listening carefully to expositions of scripture without saying a word or talking amongst themselves and, additionally, would have been expected—indeed, required—to speak quite fluently about their religious beliefs, doubts, and convictions when hauled before the consistory. All of this is incisive and engaging on her part. The same appears in other chapters. The volume contains superb analysis of numerous aspects of religious life such as the way the Genevan pastors and consistory handled deafness in relation to the question of whether a deaf person ought to be allowed to take the Lord’s Supper. There is a fantastic chapter on acoustics and much to like about this study.

I might also note briefly some (minor) shortcomings. First, use of words like “Calvinist” and “literalism” seem to this reviewer slightly inappropriate. Although the former was used in 1552, it was not common until later. Likewise, the term “literalism” is full of connotations having nothing to do with 16th-century exegesis. Second, some of the observations in the volume feel a bit hurried. There is, for instance, brief mention in chapter 3 of the vital importance of “gestures and bodily conduct” in both “practical performance of the Reformation” and Reformed “theological discourse” (77). The assertion feels slightly provocative and like something that requires more engagement with sources, both primary and secondary, to confirm. Continuing, Kvicalova asserts two pages later that the new emphasis on language is connected with “Reformed literalism” (79) in biblical interpretation. The connection between verbal utterances and biblical interpretation is an intriguing one. She then mentions the Reformed focus when interpreting scripture on the intention of the speaker, which is true enough. But pursuing this line of inquiry further, Kvicalova explores Calvin’s education in Paris as a way of fleshing out the background of her point. Here she curiously claims that Calvin studied under John Major at the Collège de Montaigu. This has been called into question by a host of scholars, perhaps most notably Alexandre Ganoczy. Why she asserts the point is unclear. She then pursues the distinction between intuitive and abstractive knowledge, but without engagement with T. F. Torrance’s study of Calvin’s hermeneutics. I was also surprised not to see any interaction with the work of Karen Spierling or Suzanne Selinger, but one can always pick holes in monographs in this way. This small cluster of concerns is, in the grand scheme of her study and its overall aims, minor.

This is an extremely impressive piece of scholarship that many will want to read. Its findings are important and will likely lead to other work exploring sense perception, hearing, memory, and the like in the Genevan Reformation.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jon Balserak is a senior lecturer in early modern religion at University of Bristol.

Date of Review: 
February 9, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Anna Kvicalova is Research Fellow at the Center for Theoretical Study at Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences, Czech Republic.


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