Seminary or University? The Genevan Academy and Reformed Higher Education, 1560-1620

By Karin Maag
Aldershot Hants (Great Britain) : Scholar Press (1996). 224 Pages.

Reviewed by
12.2 (Fall 2001) : 268-270

 The importance and contribution of John Calvin’s Academy in Geneva is noteworthy to any historian of either the ecclesiastical or educational domains. In his introductory essay to Cotton Mather’s Magnalia Christi American [The Great Works of Christ in America], George H. Williams developed a lineage from Calvin’s Geneva Academy in the old world to Harvard College in the new through the “. . . transfer of knowledge (translatio studii) from Paradise through “the universities of Palestine” . . . to the University of Paris (where the four faculties were likened to the four rivers of Paradise), to old Cambridge, and to John Calvin’s Academy in Geneva” (Cotton Mather, Magnalia Christi American, Kenneth Murdock, ed. [Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press Harvard, 1977] 56). Yet, in spite of so apparent an intellectual contribution, a relative dearth of Anglophilic scholarship exists on this important institution. Previous treatments of the Academy have been largely limited to the French-speaking world, notably Charles Borgeaud, Historie de l’université de Genève: L’ Académie de Calvin 1559-1798 (Geneva, 1900).

Karin Maag’s Seminary or University? The Genevan Academy and Reformed Higher Education, 1560-1620 makes a critical contribution in this regard. Maag (Ph.D., University of St. Andrews) is Director of the H. Henry Meeter Center for Calvin Studies and a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Previously, Maag was an honorary lecturer in the modern history department at St. Andrews and was a fellow of the Reformation Studies Institute. She additionally held a post-doctoral fellowship for research on the Swiss Reformation. Maag’s publications include Melanchthon in Europe: His Work and Influence Beyond Wittenberg (Baker, 1999); The Reformation and the Book (Ashgate, 1998); and The Reformation in Eastern and Central Europe (Ashgate, 1997). Seminary or University? The Genevan Academy and Reformed Higher Education is part of the St. Andrews Studies in Reformation History series and an adaptation of Maag’s Ph.D. thesis.

According to its own abstract, Seminary or University? is a “. . . wideranging study of the ideological divisions, institutional structures and communication networks of the leading Reformation centers of higher education in Switzerland and North-Western Europe in the late 16th and early 17th century. At its core it is an extensive and deep study of both the Genevan archives and those from other European institutions. The study is illuminated by revealing portraits of the students, professors, and administrators from the institutions.”

The text is organized into two units embracing seven chapters. Chapters one through three are institutional and chronological treatments of the Geneva Academy covering the years of 1559 to 1620. Chapters four through seven extend the discussion by exploring externally the Academy’s relationship between Protestant France in general, Zwingli’s Zurich, Heidelberg University, and Leiden University. Maag offers an even treatment of a subject—Calvin and the Genevan Academy— that can be either grossly laudatory or inflammatorily critical, depending upon the writer’s perspective. Relying on both primary archival source materials and non- English secondary sources, Maag offers an informative piece of scholarship that is well-written, liberally-noted, and unusually balanced. Detailed bibliography and index are provided for consultation.

Seminary or University?breaks from predictable and self-promoting style that plagues many institutional histories of higher learning, particularly in the Christian realm. No less than Samuel Morison, the great Harvard historian, heaped undocumented praise on Geneva when he said, “The Geneva Academy . . . offered better instruction in Arts, Theology, and Law than many universities at the time. For Protestant youths, Geneva was the most stimulating educational center in Europe” (Morison, The Founding of Harvard College, 132 [emphasis added]). Readers of Seminary or University? may draw a slightly different conclusion. Maag paints Geneva as it was— gleaned from archival sources rather than undocumented and uncritical assumption. The narrative openly examines the challenges and problems that shaped the Geneva Academy. Rather than expounding biographically the prominent leadership such as Calvin and Beza, Maag looks closely at the interchange of the various constituency groups that comprised the Genevan Academy, thereby providing a truer picture of the historical reality. Such a treatment is refreshing. Maag explores faculty, student, council, and church interplays that create a real understanding of institutional dynamics. Vignettes on faculty and students color the narrative.

The second portion of the book focuses on the interplay between Reformed culture and Protestant society in the broader European context and its subsequent relationship to Geneva—first by looking at the church (France and Zurich) and second, by examining other university centers of Reformed learning (Heidelberg and Leiden). This section offers insight into church-academy dynamics and fraternal relationship among educational institutions that is usually overlooked in the literature. By exploring this neglected area, Maag does a tremendous service in helping readers glean valuable insights that often bear similarities to contemporary church-college relations. At several points this reviewer noted references connecting Geneva with Montpellier. Readers interested in connecting these centers of learning might consider Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s, The Beggar and the Professor (University of Chicago, 1997). Though Laudrie’s treatment is earlier (1552-1556), the chronologic proximity and documented references to Geneva make this work an additional reference for those interested in the two learning centers. For additional discussion, see J. Gregory Behle, review of The Beggar and the Professor: A Sixteenth-Century Family Saga, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Arthur Goldhammer, trans., The Master’s Seminary Journal 10/2 (Fall 1999): 309-10.

This reviewer felt that the lists of professorial turnover in the schola publica became, at points, monometerical in the opening chapters of the work. Although undoubtedly a critical dimension, the rate of change among the professors tends to dominate the narrative as a theme. Maag offers a detailed appendix of the Genevan professors from 1559-1620 (196-98) which further evidences the focused nature of her research.. Unfortunately, this reviewer’s greatest criticism is outside the purview of the author. The $94.95 price tag for this fine work will render it inaccessible to all but the most determined readers. This, in combination with publication by a small scholarly press, may relegate this otherwise excellent work to scholarly obscurity.

Readers interested in Reformation history and culture, the contribution of European higher education to American colleges and universities, or Calvin’s Geneva in general, will be well-served by this fine edition. Seminary or University? The Genevan Academy and Reformed Higher Education, 1560-1620 offers a solid exploration of the historical realities from primary archival materials and non- English sources, devoid of preferential or mythological assumptions. Though the steep price tag will preclude a large portion of potential readership, Maag’s contribution to both Reformation and higher education history is too important to ignore.