On Friday morning, March 31, 1542, the wife of sheath-maker Louis Pyaget appeared before the Geneva consistory to make an account of her faith. According to records, she "[s]aid she has a daughter who knows her faith better than she, and she did not know it except in Latin as in former times, and in the French language she could not say her creed; in Latin in a general way. And she does not know it in another language and does not understand it otherwise, and as for the sermons she has not frequented them."

What was the meaning of the Reformation for ordinary, largely illiterate men and women in France and nearby city-states such as Geneva? How do we interpret the plight of a distraught woman who, like Madame Pyaget, was raised Catholic and admitted that she was unable to "comprehend anything, no matter how much they instructed her" in the new religion and its practices? In what ways did the Protestant innovations seek to transform her daily life?

The Huguenots restructured ritual and ecclesiastical institutions in order to teach the essentials of Christian doctrine and nurture proper conduct. While people's receptivity varied, church leaders tenaciously pursued a broad reform of everyday behavior and lifestyle, which, in their minds, completed the reform of theology.

Instruction and rebuke

The Reformed churches labored to convey the truths of Christianity primarily through sermon services and catechism lessons. The congregation gathered each week for the Sunday morning sermon, focusing on God's truth as contained in Scripture and Scripture alone.

Children and some parents also assisted at afternoon catechism sermons, which were typically based on John Calvin's published catechism. Adults attended additional catechism lessons in the days leading up to each of the four annual celebrations of the Lord's Supper—at Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, and in early September.

Church officials expected congregants to memorize the Lord's Prayer and the Apostles' Creed. Failure to partake of the liturgy or the inability to recite one's prayers drew immediate attention from the consistory.

When Jehan de Carro stumbled over the prayer and confession before the Geneva consistory in December 1542, he was advised "that he should come to instruction to know whether he will be given Communion, and before he comes to Communion he should come here Thursday and go to the catechism on Sundays and frequent the sermons; otherwise he will be rigorously punished."

Every local Reformed church possessed a consistory. It was a supervisory body, which, depending upon the size of the congregation, had one or more pastors, between a half dozen and a dozen elders, and several deacons.

The lay elders and deacons gathered with the pastor according to an established schedule, usually once a week in urban centers, every other week or less in rural areas. With the pastor serving as moderator, they conferred on details of church administration, oversaw the distribution of aid to the poor, and discussed various breaches of Christian conduct that had come to their attention.

The elders, in particular, shouldered heavy responsibility for monitoring proper behavior. They watched over the congregation, ensuring that the faithful lived and worshiped according to acceptable religious and moral standards. Larger churches usually divided the town into administrative districts and assigned an elder to each.

The elders regularly reported to the consistory on the various misdeeds—absence from services, Sabbath breach, quarrels, fornication, dancing, playing games, and the like—that had taken place within their assigned neighborhoods since the group's previous meeting. They also kept "dishonor roles," listing those whose failings were especially grievous or who balked when ordered to perform public repentance. The elders were expected to visit every family within their districts on an annual basis.

Toward a godly society

The behavioral goals to which Reformed churches and their consistories aspired reveal, in important ways, the Huguenots' monumental attempt to eradicate what they considered a corrupt and superstitious medieval culture, instituting a godly society in its place. In everything, the Reformed churches strove to observe biblical guidance, especially the Ten Commandments.

Worship followed an established schedule and acquired an educational character. The faithful sat quietly in pews (a recent introduction) and listened attentively. No longer could people wander about, as they had at some medieval services.

The church further forbade the conduct of business on Sunday. The consistory chastised a farmer, for example, for hauling grain on the Sabbath and others for conducting business in their shops.

Contamination by contact with an ungodly world, and with Catholics, concerned the reformers deeply. Sorcerers and fortune-tellers, a common feature of that society, were deemed threatening and summarily chased from Huguenot towns and villages. Persons who traveled to Catholic cities were often questioned when they returned. The mere appearance of a rosary in Geneva in May 1542 caused a number of women to be summoned by the consistory, which did not drop the matter until the rosary was found and confiscated.

The Huguenots' desire to eliminate Catholic excesses led, for example, to a furious offensive against dancing. Officials punished more people for dancing than for sexual immorality. Why? Not only did dancing entail provocative gestures and immodest ditties, but it was often associated with Catholic, and hence "idolatrous," religious customs such as votive festivals.

Other activities aroused condemnation both for their unhealthy effects on individuals and for the possibility that their pursuit would bring scandal on the Reformed church. Blasphemy and other offensive language obviously had no place in Huguenot communities. Neither did risqué dress, extravagant makeup, ornate hairdos, dice and cards, drink, or idle distractions such as tennis and bowling. Even mildly athletic games such as quoits or skittle smacked of indolence, while playing cards and throwing dice could involve wagering and thus constituted avarice.

"Every family a church"

Huguenots focused reform efforts on family life as well. "Every family of the pious ought to be a Church," Calvin said, and his followers took him seriously. Everything from sexual comportment and marriage contracts to childrearing and domestic squabbles came under the consistory's scrutiny.

Couples had to honor betrothal vows, publish marital banns (announcements of the intent to marry), refrain from marrying close relatives, and obtain parental permission to wed. Men and women living together without benefit of holy matrimony were told to marry immediately.

Consistories invariably summoned and punished women who became pregnant out of wedlock—and, if known, their partners. Still, individuals accused of sexual misconduct tended to be women, and the slightest hint of sexual impropriety led to consistorial investigation. An unmarried washerwoman named Claudaz was imprisoned in Geneva because she was accused of being pregnant; she was freed only after appearing before the consistory three times to protest that she had been falsely accused.

Though less obvious than sexual misconduct, discord within families also attracted the church's watchful gaze. Consistories promptly investigated reports of married couples living apart or fighting, and they frequently exhorted such couples to "live together in peace as they promised God in front of the church, and to frequent the sermons."

Intergenerational conflicts, too, aroused authorities' attention, for Calvin's statement, "Piety toward parents is the mother of all virtues," applied equally to young and adult children. The consistory of one village scolded a married woman for her "irreverent" treatment of her father. Several men at another town were told on various occasions to obey and honor their mothers and to cease "annoying" them.

An oasis of peace

Above all, the Huguenot community was determined to reduce strife and aggression, simultaneously promoting the settlement of disputes and fostering public peace. Pastors, elders, and deacons believed it their duty to promote Christian harmony.

Quarrels, both verbal squabbles and physical brawls, were frequent. Men called one another thief and cheat, cowardly and dumb. They would raise fists, throw stones, brandish sticks and swords, and draw pistols.

Although quarreling was largely a male offense, women fought too. Female insults concentrated on a woman's sexual virtue. A widow slandered her neighbor, intimating that the woman had several pregnancies prior to her marriage.

Once an old man caught his daughter in the act of robbing his house. When he resisted, she sent him to the floor with a quick punch.

Reformed pastors and elders went to great lengths to settle these animosities. The consistory demanded solemn promises that the combatants would forget past differences and live henceforth in peace and friendship.

Feuding parties "extended the hand of friendship" and promised to live amicably. Disputants were told to "forget the past," reconcile and shake hands. Mediating conflict always ranked highly among the Huguenots' objectives.

It is somewhat difficult to reconcile this emphasis with the fact that the Huguenots engaged in a protracted, bloody series of wars with their Catholic neighbors. Religious leaders took note of the violence, of course, but they tended to characterize the conflict as defensive—the safeguard of the one true religion from its diabolical opponents.

Still, many Huguenots, especially those from the ranks of the nobility, must have appeared too enthusiastic in their pursuit of war, though the church refrained from chastising them explicitly.

From ideals to reality

The success of this effort to reform society is difficult to judge. It certainly had plenty of detractors.

A law clerk complained that if he wanted "auricular confession" he would convert to Catholicism. A student challenged the consistory to explain by what "Scriptural authority" it presumed to interrogate him, while a notary labeled the entire system no more than a "human invention."

Apparently they had heeded their pastors' counsel to read Holy Writ and were astonished to find no mention of the consistory.

Most people, however, complied and reoriented their lives. At the very least, most members of the French Reformed churches attended services regularly, knew their catechism, and shared in the Lord's Supper four times a year—up from their medieval ancestors' once-yearly participation.

Although measuring changes in demeanor is tricky, anecdotal evidence offers a few clues. A woman could not forgive a cobbler for "gravely offending and injuring" her. Unable to "soften her heart," she hesitated to participate in the Lord's Supper because of a "heavy conscience."

A man absented himself "voluntarily" due to his acrimonious litigation with another member of the congregation. Others refrained because of ongoing quarrels and rancorous squabbles with business associates, neighbors, and relatives.

Though faults remained, these believers had internalized Reformed religious ideals and applied them to their daily lives. The Reformation touched them in profound and enduring ways.

Raymond A. Mentzer is Daniel J. Krumm Family Professor in Reformation Studies in the School of Religion at the University of Iowa.