Les cent cinquante Psalmes

Les cent cinquante Psalmes du royal prophete Dauid


Les cent cinquante Psalmes
du royal prophete Dauid


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Gordon 1554 .P65

Les cent cinquante Psalmes du royal prophete Dauid

A Paris : Par Iean Ruelle demourant en la rue S. Iacques à l'enseigne S. Nicolas, [1554?]

Les cent cinquante Psalmes (Poitevin)

Les cent cinquante Psalmes du royal prophete Dauid (Poitevin)

Gordon 1554 .P65

Clément Marot (1496-1544) – humanist, worldly courtier, bon vivant, and ultimately evangelistic poet – was among the first to try his hand at translating (or more accurately, paraphrasing) the Psalms into French verse. Beginning in the early 1530s with the first of the Penitential Psalms, Psalm 6, he had published a selection of thirteen Psalms by 1539, thirty by 1541, and fifty by 1543. But death intervened the next year, before he could render the entire corpus of 150 Psalms as French poems.

In order to fill this void, poetic efforts were expended by a number of other writers, most of whom were far better known than Jean Poitevin (?-1565), whose paraphrases in verse appear in the present volume. Identified on the title page of earlier editions as Les Cent Psalmes de David, qui restoient à traduire en rithme françoise, traduictz par maistre Ian Poictevin Chantre de Saincte Radegonde de Poictiers, this selection of Psalms constitutes Poitevin’s entire literary oeuvre. These translations were published in only a few editions in the 1550s, and are judged even by the translator’s sole biographer as “fort médiocres.”

Although the title page of the present edition announces the complete work of 150 Psalms, they are not presented in the Biblical 1-150 order. Rather, the Poitevin paraphrases are presented first, followed by the earlier Marot translations of Psalms 1-15, plus another 34, presumably those that appealed most to the translator. Not only chronological order, but also the nature of the signatures of the two parts (Aa-Vv8 for Poitevin, A-I8 for Marot), suggest that the layout has inexplicably been reversed in this edition, with Poitevin’s 100 (actually 101, beginning with Psalm 16) Psalms preceding Marot’s 50 (actually 49, notwithstanding that section’s title page’s announcement of 52). Perhaps the title page had been absent-mindedly copied from another edition, where Marot’s 49 Psalms were supplemented by three others translated by other authors.

This illogical binding order may reveal a move of political caution: while Marot was tainted in the eyes of the French and Roman Catholic authorities as belonging in, or at least appropriated by, the Genevan (i.e., Protestant) camp. Poitevin had no such baggage, and in fact had dedicated his work to the Cardinal of Lorraine, Archbishop of Rheims, the very epitome of the Establishment. The first edition of Poitevin’s Psalms carried further signs of official approval in the form of a royal privilege for six years dated 14 April 1550, as well as the approbation of the doctors of the Sorbonne. As Marot’s translations of the Psalms had already been placed on the Index of Prohibited Books by the very doctors of the Sorbonne, it is little wonder that there are no such official sanctions here. This edition appears to walk a fine line between Protestant and Catholic orientations in several ways: the Psalms are numbered according to the Hebrew/Protestant system, but each is preceded by a Latin incipit taken from the Vulgate; among the peripheral texts that follow Marot’s Psalms, some are typically Protestant, some are neutrally Christian, and at least one (the Ave Maria), reflects the Roman Catholic veneration of Mary.

While both the Marot and Poitevin versions of the Psalms were set to music and were sometimes printed with musical annotation, the present edition gives text only. However, it is richly illustrated with woodcut vignettes accompanying most of the Psalms and usually referring to episodes from the life of Jesus or to such Christian concepts as the Trinity. The Old Testament text is also frequently made to serve New Testament purposes in the summaries preceding each Psalm, as in Psalm 16, which is introduced as a prayer of Jesus Christ to God the Father, announcing to the faithful their salvation through his death and eternal life through his resurrection.

In other instances, however, both the summary and the illustration merely describe the content of the Psalm, as in Psalm 150, which shows an Old Testament priest with a burnt offering on the altar and describes David exhorting the faithful to praise the holiness and magnificence of God in his temple with every musical instrument.

The present undated edition, hypothetically dated [1554] on the basis of its almanach covering the years 1554-1567, is extraordinarily rare: the Poitevin component here is the only known copy in the world; the Marot, one of only two (the other belonging to the Bibliothèque de la Faculté de Théologie Protestante in Montpellier, France). Further attesting to its rarity, this edition has been almost universally ignored by bibliographers, earning only brief mentions in vols. III and IV of Jacques-Charles Brunet’s Manuel du libraire et de l’amateur de livres and in the catalogues of the collections of two former owners, Édouard Rahir and Grace Whitney Hoff.

This coupling of Marot’s 50 (actually 49) and Poitevin’s 100 (actually 101) paraphrases of the Psalms occurred sporadically throughout the 1550s, after which Poitevin’s works disappeared from sight. While the two versions were integrated once in a 1554 Rouen edition, published as Cent cinquante psalmes du Prophete Royal David, Traduicts en Rithme Françoise, Par Clement Marot & Jean Poictevin. Mis en ordre selon le Psautier, they were usually merely “associated,” each with its own title page and signatures, as in the Gordon copy.

Because of their superior poetic quality and because of the literary esteem in which the author was held, the Marot translations immediately became “canonical” and were never challenged throughout the 16th century, at least not in the Protestant camp. While a number of other poets (e.g., Gilles d’Aurigny, Claude Le Maistre, Maurice Scève, Étienne Pasquier, Bonaventure Des Périers, as well as Poitevin) worked to fill the lacuna left by Marot’s untimely death, that task would eventually be accomplished by Théodore de Bèze (1519-1605), who would  succeed Jean Calvin as head of the Reformist movement in Geneva upon the latter’s death in 1564. The complete Marot-Bèze Psalter, first published and widely disseminated in 1562, quickly became the French Protestant standard, and largely remained so, with periodic tweakings and revisions, thereafter.

Further Reading

Candaux, Jean-Daniel, Bettye Thomas Chambers, and Jean-Michel Noailly. Bibliographie des psaumes imprimés en vers français, 1525-1900.  Bibliography of Printed Editions of the Psalms in French Verse, 1525-1900.  Geneva: Éditions Droz, forthcoming.

Clément Marot. Cinquante pseaumes de David mis en françoys selon la vérité hébraïque. Ed. Gérard Defaux. Paris: Honoré Champion Éditeur, 1995.

Guillo, Laurent. "Le Psautier de Paris et le Psautier de Lyon: à propos de deux corpus contemporains du Psautier de Genève (1549-1561)." Bulletin de la Société de l'Histoire du Protestantisme Français 136 (1990): 363-419.

Materials on this page were generously contributed by Bettye Chambers, Georgetown University (2007).