Geneva, Switzerland

Of all the libraries and archives I have visited since I began my research on the Camisard Prophets, Geneva is without a doubt the place I consider as the starting point of my quest. I first came to Geneva in 2007 during my PhD and have returned with great pleasure several times since then. The city is especially pleasant to visit in the summer time, with concerts and other activities on the Bastions campus and of course a chance to swim in the lake after a long day in the library.

As the institutional centre of Calvinist orthodoxy, Geneva is an indispensable stopover for anyone interested in the history of the Reformation, the Huguenot diaspora and the Enlightenment. This is where Calvin settled in 1536, where he founded the Academy in 1559, and where Servetus was notoriously burned alive at the stake for heresy in 1553. In the late seventeenth century, Geneva and the Swiss Confederation saw the arrival of thousands of Huguenot refugees from southern France. Most of them continued their journey through Schaffhausen or Zürich, and then toward northern Europe via Frankfurt-am-Main. Geneva was also an important print centre in the Enlightenment, Rousseau’s birthplace and home to the most famous of the philosophes: Voltaire. Throughout the early modern period, Geneva therefore corresponded with the whole of northern Europe and beyond,  giving scholars many reasons to visit its archives.

Université de Genève.JPG
The Bibliothèque de Genève (BGe).

The Bibliothèque de Genève (BGe) was founded by Calvin himself in 1559 alongside the College and Academy, and remains today one of the oldest libraries in Switzerland. It is located on the northeastern side of the university building on the Bastions campus, opposite the famous Reformation wall. The general reading rooms are located on the ground and first floors, but the library also has branches in other locations such as the Voltaire Institute and Museum. An electronic catalogue will help you navigate through the BGe’s impressive collections. These consist of 2,5 million books (including 25,000 on Voltaire alone!), 4 million images, 50,000 musical scores and over 25,000 manuscripts.

The Reformation Wall, Geneva. From left to right: Guillaum Farel, Jean Calvin, Théodore de Bèze and John Knox. To the left of the wall stand the statues of William the Silent, Gaspard de Coligny and Frederick William of Brandenburg, and to the right those of Roger Williams, Oliver Cromwell and Stephen Bocksai. The names of Luther and Zwingli are also engraved on separate stones at either end of the wall.

Manuscripts can be consulted on the second floor in the Senebier reading room, named after Jean Senebier (1742-1809), who first catalogued the library’s collections in 1779. The electronic catalogue provides a great starting point for your research –the Voltaire collection has its own catalogue– but it is incompleteIf, like me, you are searching for a needle in a haystack, the card index catalogue remains your best ally. It helped me navigate through the Antoine Court, Fatio de Duillier and Le Sage papers, as well as through various correspondences and records relating to the infant prophets of Dauphiné and Swiss Pietism more generally. A substantial part of my prosopographical database of millenarian networks was compiled from these collections.

Once you have located your sources, manuscripts can be ordered by filling out a paper form and are usually delivered within half an hour. Photos are allowed without flash, but limited to ten per day, and free wi-fi is available throughout the BGe. International visitors should also note that Swiss power sockets are slightly different from European ones. Their hexagonal shape may not always be compatible with your laptop charger. Luckily, you can borrow a power adapter in the Senebier reading room. Just ask the librarian on duty behind the desk. They are always friendly and willing to help.

If you plan on working in Geneva, make sure to visit the Institute for the History of the Reformation (IHR), located on the southern side of the university building. The Institute has its own library and can offer desk space for visiting scholars. It is a great place to work and an opportunity to engage with a dynamic research community. My project was largely shaped by the discoveries I made and the exchanges I had with colleagues in Geneva.

The journey continues…


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