In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geneva (1400-1600)

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Archives and Libraries
  • Reference Works and Bibliographies
  • Journals and Serials
  • Ancient Chronicles
  • Society, Family, and Law
  • Countryside

Renaissance and Reformation Geneva (1400-1600)
Mathieu Caesar
  • LAST REVIEWED: 06 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 May 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0353


The settlement of human societies on the shore of Lake Geneva, at the mouth of the river Rhône, dates back to prehistorical times. Due to its strategic location and the fact that a bishopric was installed in the city at the beginning of the 5th century, Geneva rapidly developed into an important economic and political center. During the late Middle Ages, and especially from the 15th century, the city took advantage of the dominion of the House of Savoy and of the absence of wars in the region. The commercial development promoted by the dukes of Savoy, who supported and protected commercial traffic over the Alps, boosted Geneva’s economic growth. The subsequent development of international trade fairs and the presence of many Italian merchant-bankers (Milanese and Tuscans in particular) made Geneva one of the most important centers of the European Renaissance economy. The city’s economic development was accompanied by substantial demographic growth. The city of 5,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 15th century grew to 10,000 people by the 1460s. The growth continued during the 16th century as a result of Protestants taking refuge in the Reformed Republic, and by the beginning of the 17th century, Geneva had 17,000 to 18,000 inhabitants. Difficulties faced by the duchy of Savoy and the expansion of the Swiss Confederacy plunged the city, by the 1470s, into economic and political crisis. During the 1520s and 1530s, Geneva allied to the Swiss Cantons, acquired political independence from the bishop, and adopted the Reformed faith (1536). The institution of Calvin’s Church, and the city’s conflicts with Bern and the duchy of Savoy, created a climate of great uncertainty and many conflicts, which ended only with the Peace of Saint-Julien (1603). Traditional Swiss scholarship considers the Reformation to have been the watershed between the medieval city and the early modern independent Republic. This dividing line has influenced historiographic production, with only a few works analyzing a given topic across the 15th and 16th centuries. While economic history generated many important studies during the 1960s and 1970s, religious and social history, especially related to Calvin’s Geneva (roughly 1540–1570), have largely dominated the Genevan bibliography. More recently, political and urban history, especially concerning the late medieval period, have received renewed attention. For more resources on Calvin’s Geneva, see the Oxford Bibliographies article in Renaissance and Reformation on John Calvin and Calvinism. Given the city’s close ties with the Swiss Confederacy, a valuable bibliography is also provided by the Oxford Bibliographies article in Renaissance and Reformation on Switzerland.

General Overviews

Chronicles of the city and narrative accounts of some of the main historical events affecting the city, such as the Reformation, have appeared since the 16th century (see Ancient Chronicles); however, the focus here is on the most recent works, with the goal of providing useful bibliographies and updated historiographic interpretations. Dufour 2014 is a good overview that offers a concise history of the city. A good starting point for a more detailed analysis is offered by Caesar 2014 and Walker 2014, which offer chapters on specific topics rather than a comprehensive narrative of events. Monter 1975; Guichonnet 1986; and Mottu-Weber, et al. 2002–2006 offer a more detailed analysis of specific periods and present helpful annotated bibliographies.

  • Caesar, Mathieu. Histoire de Genève. La cité des évêques (IVe – début XVIe s). Neuchâtel: Alphil, 2014.

    Overview of the history of Geneva from the origins to the 1520s. Most of the book (chapters 5 to 13) deals with the 15th and the beginning of the 16th centuries. Shows the complexity of the relations between Geneva and the duchy of Savoy, which was not simply an enemy of the city.

  • Dufour, Alfred. Histoire de Genève. 5th ed. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2014.

    Fifth edition of a concise, readable narrative of Geneva’s history from the Roman period to the 20th century. About one-third of the book deals with the 15th and 16th centuries. A good introductory reading, especially for students approaching the history of the city for the first time.

  • Guichonnet, Paul, ed. Histoire de Genève. 3d ed. Toulouse, France: Privat, 1986.

    A collection of eight contributions covering the history of Geneva from its prehistory to the late 20th century. The late medieval period and the 16th century are covered by Louis Binz and William Monter (chapters 3 and 4). Good annotated bibliographies.

  • Monter, E. William. Calvin’s Geneva. New York: J. Wiley, 1975.

    Focusing on the 16th century, this work is a classic account of the history of Geneva during the era of Calvin. Still the best English synthesis of Calvin’s Geneva, combining religious, political, economic, and social history.

  • Mottu-Weber, Liliane, Anne-Marie Piuz, and Bernard Lescaze. Vivre à Genève autour de 1600. 2 vols. Geneva, Switzerland: Slatkine, 2002–2006.

    The best overview of Geneva at the beginning of the 17th century. While the first volume outlines a social-economic history of the city (chapters on economics, demography, food supply, public finances, taxation, and the countryside around Geneva), the second volume offers an overview of political and ecclesiastical institutions, pastoral care, the operation of justice, sumptuary law, and education.

  • Walker, Corinne. Histoire de Genève. De la cité de Calvin à la ville française (1530–1813). Neuchâtel: Alphil, 2014.

    Second volume, following Caesar 2014, of the Histoire de Genève published by the Swiss editor Alphil. The 16th century is covered by the first five of fifteen chapters. In the spirit of the series, a limited bibliography of essential sources is presented, along with some color maps and images.

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