Geneva’s Convent of the Poor Clares

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Pierre Chouet’s 1655 engraving shows the former Convent of St. Clare between the fortified wall (F) and the cathedral (A).

I’ve been thinking a lot this week about Geneva’s Convent of the Poor Clares. As my dissertation research focuses on a Protestant city during the very time at which it became Protestant, this might seem a bit unusual — why the interest in a Catholic institution in pre-Reformation Geneva?

My interest in the city’s convent stems from the fact that the building of the convent became the city’s General Hospital in the 1530s. The Reformation led the former home of the Poor Clares to become a (Protestant) home dedicated to the care of the poor. 

Moreover, we can learn about the nuns’ experience of the Reformation from a unique source. Jeanne de Jussie, the secretary of Geneva’s Poor Clares, wrote a chronicle of the Reformation and the order’s experiences during this tumultuous time. Jussie’s chronicle has been translated to English as The Short Chronicle by Prof. Carrie F. Klaus, and is an incredible and accessible document for understanding the Reformation from an often inaccessible point of view: that of a Catholic woman. This document is also a wonderful teaching resource, especially when coupled with the writings of Protestant women from the same time (such as Marie Dentière, who attempted to proselytize to the Genevan Poor Clares, as noted in my previous blog post).

On a hike this week, I stumbled into Jussy, the outlying region of Geneva in which Jeanne was born over 500 years ago. I also visited Jussy’s Protestant church, built in 1611, which just celebrated femmes dans la Réforme (women of the Reformation) this week. The women the parish highlighted included Jeanne d’Albret and Marguerite de Navarre, but of course excluded Jeanne de Jussy.

The Convent of St. Clare was established in Geneva in 1477 by Yolande of France, Duchess of Savoy. As the only monastery for women in pre-Reformation Geneva, the convent quickly acquired a special place in Genevan spiritual life. Since medieval times, Christians held a concept of space imbuing those places in which sacred acts (such as transubstantiation) occurred, or in which sacred people (such as nuns or hermits) lived, with a sense and presence of the divine. And this is how the Genevan community saw the convent: the sisters’ confinement, deprivation of luxuries (and even basic needs), and maintenance of a strict rule imbued the physical structure of the convent with a certain holiness.

The antimonasticism of the Reformation completely disrupted this attitude. Evangelical ideals interpreted the life of monks and nuns as unnatural and impure, rather than holy. Geneva’s Protestant preachers, such as Guillaume Farel, argued that the cloistered lifestyle of nuns was a perversion of biblical understandings of the Virgin Mary. Acts of iconoclasm in the city began to impact the convent as early as 1532, when Jeanne de Jussie reports that several Protestant sympathizers pulled up a large wooden cross that stood in front of the convent, and threw it into the convent’s well. This well became a semi-frequent receptacle of Catholic icons during iconoclastic actions. On the eve of Pentecost in 1534, Protestants beheaded several statues in front of the gate of the nearby men’s Franciscan house, throwing the heads into the well; and three days later, Protestants overturned two angels at the cemetery of the nearby Madeleine church, once again throwing these statues into the Poor Clares’ well.

By the summer of 1535, the intensity of iconoclasm reached a fever pitch in the city. This came to a head for the sisters of St. Clare in late August, when over one hundred men entered the convent, bent on its destruction. Jussie describes this experience for the nuns:

The following is the violence that was done in the convent and to the poor nuns, a pitiable thing.

On [August 24], great companies came, all with arms and weapons and all kinds of swords and dreadful instruments. […] They ran immediately through the convent …, destroying and smashing everything they found, images, books, and breviaries… Like enraged wolves, they destroyed those fine images with great axes and hammers […]; they left no object intact.

[The intruders] spread throughout the convent in great herds, for more than 150 had come in, all with a fanatical desire to do evil, and they left no image or object of devotion untouched in the dormitory, the infirmary, or any place in the convent. When they came to the choir where the poor sisters were [hiding], they smashed the fine statues right in front of their eyes, sending shards flying above them, which hurt when they hit them.

The whole convent resonated with the violence. (The Short Chronicle, 138-40)

Levain f204
This image from a 19th-century printing of The Short Chronicle shows the nuns attempting to protect themselves from men entering the convent on 24 August 1535

After the desecration of their home, the Poor Clares refused to stay in the city. Although the city council requested that the women remain — under the condition that they abandoned encloisterment, their simple dress, and their entire way of life, adapting to the beliefs and practices of Protestantism — the nuns preferred to leave the only home they had ever known rather than acquiesce to these demands. The sisters had already engaged in secret correspondence with the (Catholic) Duke of Savoy, who arranged for the sisters to move to the vacant Augustinian Monastery of the Holy Cross in Annecy, France (just over forty kilometers south of Geneva, on Lac d’Annecy).

And so in the early morning of 30 August 1535, the Genevan Poor Clares vacated their home and their city. Jussie describes the poor nuns’ departure pitifully. This example should suffice to demonstrate her characterization of their departure:

And even though mother vicaress had given them all good shoes to keep from hurting their feet, most of them did not know how to travel by foot, but carried them attached to their belts. (The Short Chronicle, 174)

Surely the sisters did, in fact, know how to wear shoes! Even though they were a discalced order who usually went barefoot, they likely had worn shoes as children before coming to the convent. This passage demonstrates that Jussie wrote with a particular purpose: to demonstrate the helplessness of the nuns, and their steadfastness in the face of wicked and corrupt Protestants. The same story told from the point of view of Protestants is, of course, entirely different.

Levain f262
This 19th-century image shows the departure of the Poor Clares from the convent

The sisters settled in their new home in Annecy in early September 1535. They lived in this convent for more than two centuries, far longer than the fifty-eight years they had spent in Geneva. However, the Poor Clares never forgot their origins, and always called themselves the “Sisters of Saint Clare of Geneva in refuge in Annecy.” The convent was dissolved in July 1793 in the aftermath of the French Revolution.

The former Convent of St. Clare is now the location of Geneva’s Palais de Justice (the city’s courthouse). The convent’s former chapel is now where the criminal court’s deliberation occurs, and judges enter the court from what was once the convent’s sacristy, passing under a gothic arch that once separated these private, holy spaces.

This blog post is informed by chapter 3 of my dissertation, “Reformation and Transformation,” which highlights the transformation of the convent into the hospital. 

Sources

Ganter, Edmond. Les Clarisses de Genève 1473-1535-1793. Geneva: Éditions de la Société Catholique d’Histoire, 1949.

Jussie, Jeanne de. Le levain du calvinisme, ou commencement de l’heresie de Genève, faict par Reverende Soeur Jeanne de Jussie. Suivi de notes justificatives et d’une notice sur l’ordre religieux de Sainte-Claire et sur la communauté des Clarisses à Genève par Ad.-C. Grivel. Edited by Gustave Relliod. Geneva: Fick, 1865. (Source of two images.)

—. The Short Chronicle. Edited and translated by Carrie F. Klaus. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006. (Source of quotes.)

Naef, Henri. Les Origines de la réforme à Genève, vol. 1. Geneva: Jullien, 1936.

Pouvoir judiciaire. “Historique des bâtiments du Palais de Justice.” September 2016. Last accessed 15 October 2017.

Roest, Bert. Order and Disorder: The Poor Clares between Foundation and Reform. Boston: Brill, 2013.

Société d’Histoire et d’Archéologie de Genève. Registres du Conseil de Genève, vol. 13. Geneva: H. Kündig, 1940.

4 thoughts on “Geneva’s Convent of the Poor Clares

  1. J Bird Runs says:

    Looks like a beautiful hike! I love getting to learn history from you because you make it wayyyy more interesting. All I can remember from high school are the axis and allied powers….

    Liked by 1 person

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