The year was 1546. A man named Chappuis wanted to name his son “Claude” after one of his relatives. Unfortunately for Chappuis, he lived in Calvin’s Geneva, where “Claude” happened to be the name of a local saint highly honored by Catholics.
This probably wasn’t a coincidence when Chappuis’s relative was named “Claude,” as the Catholic practice of naming children after local saints was very common in the area, but Chappuis didn’t seem to care much about the name’s saintly connection. He was more interested in honoring his family heritage.
Chappuis took the boy to a local pastor to be baptized. The pastor was Protestant, but as Chappuis had no explicit intention of actually honoring the local saint, he likely did not expect this to be an issue.
How wrong he was.
The pastor agreed to baptize the child, calmly began the ceremony, and pronounced over the boy, “I baptize you in the name of Abraham.” Horrified, Chappuis physically grabbed his son back from the pastor. His community joined him in anger, and a large group followed Chappuis out of the church.
Hypolite Rivet, a very powerful man in the community, took Chappuis’s side. He argued that the pastor had no right to name the child, as that decision was up to the parents and godparents. Chappuis’s struggle also reached the heart of a woman named Nevet, who was the wife of one Claude Vouvrey.
Before the Reformation, Nevet had been a midwife, so she may have performed baptisms in the past. She accompanied the angry group to Chappuis’s home, where she reportedly baptized the child as Claude. Nevet later denied this before the consistory, which presented her only with remonstrances and an order to serve her own husband.
Chappuis appeared before Calvin’s consistory later that month. He claimed that his son Claude had been cheated of a proper baptism, as the pastor had, for some indecipherable reason, stopped speaking before finishing his sentence: “I baptize you in the name of Claude in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
The consistory was angered by Chappuis’s insistence on the name “Claude.” Chappuis argued that it was his right to name his own child. He said that if he were denied this right, he would refuse to give the child his proper baptism for another fifteen years.
Calvin took the case before the Small Council at the end of the month. He argued so passionately about the importance of regulating names that some magistrates considered him overzealous.
Still, the Council took his side. It sentenced Chappuis to a few days in prison, as well as remonstrances, a public confession, and fines– a punishment far exceeding Nevet’s.
Furthermore, the Council officially decreed that though parents could choose their children’s names, they may only select names that come from the Bible. That November, the Council allowed Calvin to write a public list of prohibited names. The name “Claude” was officially banned.
Before the Reformation, “Claude” was Geneva’s third most popular name among both boys and girls. After the Reformation, the name “Claude” was practically nonexistent. Before the Reformation, about 50% of children were given saints names, while the other half were given biblical names. After the Reformation, about 3% of children were given saints names, while 97% were given biblical names.
Parents chafed against this restriction, partially because they felt it infringed on their rights as parents, but also because it infringed on the honor of their heritage. The names they were prohibited from using were the names of their fathers, their godmothers, and even themselves.
In fact, the officer of the consistory, the very man who likely brought Chappuis before the Council, leading to his imprisonment over the name he chose for his son… was none other than Nevet’s husband, Claude.
Read more about this case and other fascinating stories about the conflict between Calvin’s consistory and parental wishes in this great article by Jeffrey Watt on JSTOR.
Watt, Jeffrey R. “Calvinism, Childhood, and Education: The Evidence from the Genevan Consistory. The Sixteenth Century Journal, vol. 33, pg. 439-456.