Liberal Arts Faculty Books

Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva


Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva



In this case study of the Republic of Geneva, Jeffrey R. Watt convincingly argues the early modern era marked decisive change in the history of suicide. His analysis of criminal proceedings and death records shows that magistrates of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries often imposed penalties against the bodies and estates of those who took their lives. According to beliefs shared by theologian John Calvin, magistrates, and common folk, self-murder was caused by demon possession. Similar views and practices were found among both Protestants and Catholics throughout Reformation Europe. By contrast, in the late eighteenth century many philosophies defended the right to take one's life under certain circumstances; Geneva’s magistrates in effect decriminalized suicide; and even commoners blamed suicide on mental illness or personal reversals, not on satanic influences. Watt uses Geneva's uniquely rich and well-organized sources in this first study to provide reliable evidence on suicide rates for premodern Europe. He places his findings within a wide range of historical and sociological scholarship, and while suicide was rare through the seventeenth century, he shows that Geneva experienced an explosion in self-inflicted deaths after 1750. Quite simply, early modern Geneva witnessed nothing less than the birth of modern suicide both in attitudes toward it—thoroughly secularized, medicalized, and stripped of diabolical undertones—and the frequency of it.



Publication Date


Relational Format



Arch Dalrymple III Department of History


Penn State University Press


Christian Denominations and Sects

Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva