John Calvin is a man to whom many pledge their spiritual alliegance. However, Cottret is careful to separate the man Calvin from the ensuing Calvinism that developed later. Calvin appears more timid and much more interested in spiritual reform than promoting a theocracy in Geneva. He appears often as an unwilling accomplice in the Protestant Reformation. Yet, his effect is still felt around the world today. Cottret also delves into Calvin's theology and casts him in his different roles.
Whatever else may be said about French intellectuals, French historians are the finest in the world. Their biases don't get as flagrantly in the way as is sometimes the case with British and American historians. They are less chatty than the British can often be and they are far less inclined to the grand, sweeping statement than the Americans. The best of them observe even French people and events with scientific detachment.
This new biography of Calvin could only have been written by a Frenchman and Bernard Cottret does a wonderful job. The Calvin who emerges here is a far more complex figure than the cartoon that other historians have drawn. Far from a firebrand, John Calvin was a remote, shy, almost withdrawn figure who had whatever offices he held forced upon him. Geneva had gone in for Reformed Protestantism long before he arrived there and Calvin's Geneva was far from the "theocracy" it is often caricatured as.
Calvin's faults are not papered over; Cottret does not attempt to hide his displeasure at the burning in Geneva of many accused of witchcraft or of the burning of Michael Servetus, for example. But in the case of Servetus which is dealt with extensively here, he points out that Geneva only did what the Roman Church would have done if it had the chance and that Calvin actually cooperated with the Roman Catholic Church in this matter, seeing Rome as less of a threat than certain radical Protestants, rather cutting the ground out from under those who believe Calvin was rabidly anti-Catholic.
All in all, Calvin is an outstanding book that I cannot recommend too highly.