Choosing Death: Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva

Jeffrey R. Watt


In this case study of the Republic of Geneva, Jeffrey R. Watt convincingly argues that the early modern era marked a decisive change in the history of suicide. (SCE&S 58)

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Sixteenth Century Essays & Studies, Vol. 58

In this case study of the Republic of Geneva, Jeffrey R. Watt convincingly argues that the early modern era marked a 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.

Because of Geneva’s uniquely rich and well-organized sources, this is the first study to provide reliable evidence on suicide rates for pre-modern Europe. Watt 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.




Suicides, Homicides, and Accidents: The Data
The Judicial and Intellectual Dimensions of Suicide
The Social, Economic, and Political Dimensions of Suicide
The Cultural Dimensions of Suicide: Part 1
The Cultural Dimensions of Suicide: Part 2

About the Author


Throughout his research, Jeffrey R. Watt has focused on the intersection between the history of religion and everyday life, studying court records as a window to the popular culture of early modern Europe. His scholarship thus far has concentrated on the impact of the Reformed faith, examining its influence on various aspects of daily life in an attempt to uncover the conjunction of religious, cultural, and social history. His first book, The Making of Modern Marriage: Matrimonial Control and the Rise of Sentiment in Neuchâtel, 1550–1800 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992), analyzes the impact of the Reformation on marriage and traces changes in the control of matrimony and in popular attitudes toward marriage during the course of the early modern period. Watt has also published articles on the registers of Geneva’s Consistory during the time of Calvin, examining the Reformed faith’s impact on women, popular religion, and the institutions of marriage and the family. Currently he is editing a book on suicide in early modern Europe and has begun research on the Inquisition in Modena, Italy. Watt received his A.B. from Grove City College in 1980, his M.A. from Ohio University in 1982, and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 1987. He is associate professor of history at the University of Mississippi, where he has taught since 1988.


[Watt] has done an excellent job in many ways: this book is inter alia an excellent social history of Geneva. It is also an admirable guide to the theories that have been advanced to explain suicide. And it elegantly analyzes the information that Geneva’s first-rate archives have for us. These are critical achievements.

Journal of Modern History

Extremely dense in detail and information and yet very lucid and readable...this is a very important work, perhaps the most comprehensive, on suicide in the early modern period and should be read both by scholars and upper level students with enthusiasm.

—The Catholic Historical Review

There is much to commend this ambitious study of suicide in early modern Europe, especially Watt’s meticulous combing of the evidence relating to suspicious deaths and his examination of the influence of class and gender on the decision to take one’s own life. It will, no doubt, contribute for some time to the already significant scholarly discussion of suicide among historians and sociologists conducting research into death and dying.

Sixteenth Century Journal

[Watt’s] well-argued and cogent account is based on comprehensive archival research with strengths far beyond the realm of quantitative analysis. It is an important addition to the corpus of literature on the history of suicide, as well as the social and cultural history of early modern Europe in general. And ironically, Choosing Death is full of vivacious life-and-death dramas, making it lively and entertaining reading.


This intriguing, densely researched, and well-argued monograph does much to forward the discussion of how changing social mores affect community behavior. Watt argues persuasively that physiological or even sociological explanations cannot completely explain the change in behavior. The understanding of suicide and the attitudes of people, churches, and government also played a significant role in how people reacted to suicide and the reasons that some people chose death. This study is a welcome addition to the examination of how the Reformation was received and how popular practices and beliefs evolved and changed as the modern era dawned.

Journal of Church and State

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