Marie Dentière – A Pillar of the Reformation in Geneva
Visitors to Geneva, Switzerland, will find at the heart of the Parc des Bastions – the largest historical park in the city center - an impressive monument with giant statues of the main protagonists of the Geneva Reformation: John Calvin, William Farel, Theodore Beza and John Knox (better known for his role in the Scottish Reformation). The engravings on the wall include Geneva’s motto “Post Tenebras Lux” and, on an adjacent stone block, the name of a woman: Marie Dentière.
Dentière is the only woman mentioned on the wall. Her name was added in 2002, about a century after the wall’s inauguration. It was an important addition because, despite centuries of stained reputation, she is recognized as one of the leading intellectuals and promoters of the Reformation.
From Prioress to Reformer
She was born around 1495 into a well-off noble family (d’Ennetières) in Tournai, Flanders (part of today’s Belgium). Nothing is known about her younger years. Between1521 and 1524, we find her in the Augustinian Abbey of Saint-Nicolas-des-Prés in Tournai, where she became a prioress.
By 1524, the news of Luther’s teachings had spread throughout much of continental Europe and had seeped into convents. Convinced of their truth, Dentière left her convent for Strasbourg, where she married Simon Robert, a former priest from Tournai and a member of the “Cenacle of Meaux” (founded by the French Reformer Lefèvre to encourage a deeper study of Scriptures). Simon was also a well-known Hebrew scholar. The couple had two daughters.
In 1528, Simon was appointed pastor of Bex. Soon after, he was called to Aigle, Switzerland. Besides serving his congregation, he worked with Guillaume Farel to bring the Reformation to the Swiss Valais. The couple stayed in Aigle until Simon’s death in 1532.
Dentière then married another pastor – a student and associate of Farel, Antoine Froment, originally from the Dauphiné (in Southern France). With him, she had another daughter, Judith.
The couple moved to Geneva in 1535, where, besides preaching, Froment opened a school free of charge. The advertisement read: “A man has arrived, who in the space of one month will teach anybody, great or small, male or female, to read and write French. Who does not learn it in that time need not pay anything.”
Besides these activities, Froment kept a shop. Calvin described him as a “fine preacher” who, having put aside his apron, mounted the pulpit and then climbed back to the store where he would gab, thus preaching a double sermon.”
It is from this time that we start having news of Dentière’s involvement in the Reformation. In 1536 she visited the local convent of the Poor Clares of Jussy to encourage the nuns to leave embrace the Reformation. The convent was notoriously faithful to the Church of Rome. During a visit by Farel and Viret, the prioress had protested so loudly that she was removed from the room. Even then, she kept on banging on the walls, and the nuns joined her in the commotion.
Dentière didn’t have any more success in spite of the heartfelt account of her experience: “For a long time I lived in those shadows and hypocrisy where you are, but God alone made me recognize the abuse of my pitiful life, and I was brought to the light of truth. Considering with regret how I lived, for in these orders there is nothing but sanctimoniousness, mental corruption, and idleness…”
These words were recorded by the secretary of the convent, Jeanne de Jussie, who described Dentière as “a false abbess, wrinkled and of diabolical language, possessing a husband and child ... who mixed herself up in preaching and in perverting the people from devotion.”
Besides speaking, Dentière wrote some pamphlets that went to the press. Her first work was a primer of French grammar – the first of this kind. In 1536, she published The war and deliverance of the city of Geneva, about the history of the Reformation in Geneva.
Her most renowned work, A Very Useful Epistle Composed by a Christian Woman of Tournai, was published as a response to the ban of Calvin and Farel from Geneva in 1538. She addressed it to her close friend Marguerite, queen of Navarre and sister of King Francis I of France. Besides attacking the city council who had banished the two Reformers, Dentière challenged the Roman Catholic Church and reproved those in power who had accepted unseemly compromises. She asked Marguerite to intervene.
Packed with Scriptures (over 200 references in 65 pages), the pamphlet was also a defense of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. While accepting Paul’s injunction in 1 Timothy 2 as a prohibition for women to preach in a church setting, Dentière believed that women could speak in other venues, teach one another, write, and interpret Scriptures. As other writers before her, she brought up the examples of biblical women such as Deborah, the Samaritan woman, and Mary Magdalene.
This view was part of her conviction that God had given His Scriptures to all. She quoted her critics as saying, “Scripture has several meanings, and it can be understood in several ways. It is not up to women to know it, nor to people who are not learned, who do not have degrees and the rank of doctor; but they should just believe simply without questioning anything.”
To these opinions, she responded with a string of questions: “Did not Jesus die as much for the poor ignorant people and the idiots as for my sirs the shaved, tonsured, and mitred? Did he preach and spread my Gospel so much only for my dear sirs the wise and important doctors? Isn’t it for all of us? Do we have two Gospels, one for men and another for women? One for the wise and another for the fools?”
But Dentière had no intention to subvert the traditional order of things: “I am not talking about the body, for there is the father and the son, one to be honored and the other to honor; the husband and the wife, she to love and the other to hold her in esteem; the master to command, the servant to obey; the king, prince, and lord to rule and judge, the subject to obey, carry, tolerate, and pay tribute, taxes, charges, and rents, according to God's word. The person who resists, resists God.”
In fact, this appeal for women to join the men in spreading the gospel was only a part of Dentière’s pamphlet. The third section, which is the epistle proper, is a long dissertation on the principles of the Reformation, such as sola Scriptura and sola fide.
Clearly unimpressed by Dentière’s accusations, the city council seized the 1500 copies of the pamphlet and imprisoned the printer, Jehan Gerard. Only two copies survived. Gerard was later released after paying a fine. In his view, the greatest issue the council had with the book is that they had been “wounded, piqued, and dishonored by a woman.”
Convinced of the need for a thorough education of women, Froment and Dentière taught their daughters Greek and Hebrew and took into their home other girls, as in a small boarding school.
Little is known about Dentière’s life after the publication of A Very Useful Epistle. In 1546, she was reproved by Calvin for speaking “in the taverns, at almost all the street corners.” According to his account, she resented “that it was no longer permitted for just anyone to chatter on about anything at all.” Calvin was also annoyed by her criticism of the long gowns worn by preachers, that – in her view – made them look like the scribes in Luke 20:46, “who like to walk around in long robes.”
These disagreements came in a wider context of longstanding remonstrances by Fromert, who was eventually removed from his pastorate and became a public notary. But Calvin’s respect for Dentière didn’t seem diminished, judging by the fact that the preface to a collection of his writings on the modesty of women, published in 1561, was written by Dentière. Besides agreeing with Calvin on the propriety of women’s clothes, Dentière added a small section on make-up, where she quotes Cyprian and Augustine as saying “that using makeup erases the image of God in us.”
For centuries after this, Dentière has been either forgotten or mentioned as a problematic woman. In the 1860’s, Swiss scholar A. L. Herminjard considered the later sins of adultery in Froment’s life (committed after Marie’s death) a consequence of Dentière’s negative influence on him. Without any historical evidence, he stated, “This proud and vindictive woman was, in spite of her intelligence, a bad counselor for her new husband, whom she dominated absolutely. She prepared his moral downfall, by allowing him to seek in business a life of ease that his pastoral career could not give him.”
Only recently, Dentière’s writings have been taken into consideration for what they are, without added speculations by secondary-source writers. Whatever we may think of her, she was one of the most active supporters of the Protestant Reformation in Geneva and her name deserves the inclusion on the Reformers’ Wall.
 Phillip Schaff, History of the Christian Church, §64, https://ccel.org/ccel/schaff/hcc8/hcc8.iv.vii.vii.html
 Katharina M. Wilson, Women Writers of the Renaissance and Reformation, The University of Georgia Press, 1987, 264
 Ibid., 263
 Ibid., 263
 Dentiere, Marie. Epistle to Marguerite de Navarre; and, Preface to a sermon by John Calvin; edited and translated by Mary B. McKinley (The other voice in early modern Europe). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004, 79.
 Wilson, Women Writers, 265
 Dentiere, Marie. Preface to a sermon by John Calvin, ed. McKinley, 93.
 Kirsi I. Stjerna, Women Reformers of Early Modern Europe: Profiles, Texts, and Contexts, Fortress Press, 2022, 30.