Song was frequently disciplined in the sixteenth-century Consistory of Geneva as part of the broad program of social Reform led by Calvin. Between 1542 and 1552, more than one hundred cases involving illicit singing came before the Consistory court. These cases reveal the Consistory’s persistent attempt to control the singing of all members of Genevan society regardless of social status or situation. They also offer a new field of evidence for exploring the boundaries between proper (honneste) and improper (deshonneste) singing in Reformed communities. The bulk of the cases surveyed from this period involved charges of illicit singing alongside other immoral behaviors, such as gambling and fornication. These cases directly linked indecent singing to other forbidden acts—a connection that worked out a neo-Platonic view of music in juridical process and provided the rationalization for the entire project of disciplining song in the courts. Concerns over improper song leading to illicit behavior and ultimately to social disorder were dramatically illustrated in a cluster of Consistory cases related to the famous Bolsec affair that exploded in Geneva near the end of the year 1551. Bolsec’s contrafactum on the tune of Psalm 23 from the Geneva Psalter—written during Bolsec’s lengthy stay in prison—spread his dissenting theology to his supporters and enacted the dangerous potential of song to disrupt the unity of the Reformed city.
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