19 mei 2009
Doct. Thesis

Clément Marot and religion
A reassessment in view

of his Psalm paraphrases


[Nederlandse tekst]

Activities around the Psalms
in Amsterdam on 19 May 2009 [Dutch]



In the early sixteenth century reform-oriented Christians in Strasbourg and Geneva started to sing the biblical Psalms in their vernacular French. A great number of these rhyming paraphrases turned out to have been written by the famous French court poet, Clément Marot (1496-1544). They form the nucleus of the Huguenot Psalter, an initiative of John Calvin’s. Marot, however, was and is famous mainly for his love songs (chansons) and witty epigrams. Did he only paraphrase the Psalms to do Marguerite de Navarre, the King’s sister a favour, or was there more to it?

Dick Wursten casts a new light on this question by carefully analyzing Marot's Psalm paraphrases, using historical, philological, exegetical and theological methods. He shows that Marot very likely used Martin Bucer’s erudite and scholarly, completely up-to-date Psalm commentary in order to reach a consistent, literary, and historically reliable versification of the ancient Psalms. Thus, theologically Marot belongs to the group of learned Humanists, who through their perusal of Jewish exegetical insights (Kimhi, Ibn Ezra) began to question traditional exegesis, which until then had been strongly Christological.

After analysing the literary forms and idiom in/of the last paraphrases published by Marot, the author concludes that Marot – even when he collaborated with Calvin in Geneva in 1543 – in his heart had never left Paris. Spiritually he apparently belonged to those who could not or would not choose between Rome and Geneva: the so called ‘Nicodemites’, passionately scorned by Calvin and forgotten by history.


below the picture a full summary



In this study the author tries to clarify some aspects of the religious sensibility and theological position of the French poet Clément Marot (1496‑1544). He was stimulated to do so, noticing that discussions bearing on this subject often left the impression of a trench war between negationists and believers, all admitting though that Marot was known as a ‘Lutheran’ in the mid 1530s. Negationists denied in particular a lasting personal involvement in the Evangelical movement, while believers proclaimed him to have been a major player on the field, culminating in the translation of a third of the Psalter in French verse, adopted by John Calvin for the reformed Church of Geneva to serve in worship. Trying to avoid simple oppositions, the author analyses texts of Marot in their historical context to find relevant information concerning Marot’s religious sensibility. His attitude towards Marot’s texts is cautious and he tries not to jump to conclusions too soon, nor to identify too straightforwardly the message of a text with the opinion of the author. Since most scholars excluded Marot’s most substantial corpus of religiously oriented texts (the Psalm paraphrases) from this kind of assessments, these are given special attention in this study.

After evoking the main positions (C.A. Mayer, 1960; M.A. Screech, 1967; and G. Defaux, 1992/1995) and the corresponding status quaestionis in an introduction, a number of poems of Marot is analysed in the first chapter using historical and biographical information to interpret them in their own context. The author does not claim completeness, but wants to show that it is difficult, yet not impossible, to assess something certain if one has to base oneself on texts written in times of trouble and dealing with dangerous issues, like religion. He suggests that Marot at least in 1533‑1534 (the Evangelical year of wonders) was not only a spectator but also a combative, even provocative protestor against religious abuses, not afraid to ascend the stage to support the reform-oriented initiative of the Evangelical movement in France (gathered around Marguerite de Navarre). This support was both personal (pleading for and encouraging his friends) and material (contributing a translation of some biblical and devotional texts). With regard to the period of his exile (1535-late 1536), some exceptional poems are analysed that are known in two versions (one edulcorated, the other fiery anti‑ecclesiastical). They show that Marot did not really change his mind in exile, but only – in the end – decided to keep silent concerning these issues. This decision is traced back in his poems. The author especially highlights the term ‘poltroniseur’ (coward), used by Marot himself to describe his attitude, which not only means coward, but also refers to the capacity to accommodate acts to circumstances. At the end of this historical biographical chapter the question is raised, why, after having returned to glory in France in 1536/1537 and after having edited his Oeuvres in such a way that the religiously troubled past could not interfere anymore with a seemingly bright future, the ‘Prince des poëtes francoys’ in 1542 emigrated to Geneva. To answer this question the author embarked on a thorough analysis of Marot’s most substantial poetic production from that period, the Psalm paraphrases.

In Chapter 2 (‘Tracing the Psalms’), the author tries to disentangle the intricate and complicated bibliographical issues concerning the origin and development of Marot’s Psalm translation project. The main manuscripts and publications, both surreptitious and official, are analysed and compared. Sometimes up to four versions of a translation of one Psalm appear to exist. After having described them, assessing the peculiarities of every edition, the author suggests organising these texts into ‘families’, refraining from establishing a strict chronological order of influence, as was generally done in the past. Two main groups (families) can be formed, the first representing the texts of the first 30 Psalms in a sometimes primitive state, occasionally in two redactions (crossed out passages in BnF Ms. 2337). The second group represents the official, and sometimes heavily revised, text of these Psalm paraphrases, present in three manuscripts and printed for the first time in 1541/1542 in Paris. This text was partly revised in Geneva in 1543. One manuscript (BnF Ms. 2336) escapes this grouping and most likely has to be classified as a hybrid version. Once the version history is outlined and the diversity delineated, the different versions can be used to assess Marot’s vision on his translation project. The discussion on the final text of the Psalm translations (the official Paris edition or the anonymous Geneva edition), which has long divided the camps, is first complicated by adding even a third version (a Church edition with music notes, prepared by Calvin and the Council of Geneva in 1543) and then resolved by discerning different target groups, allowing the existence of multiple versions, all authoritative, albeit with different senses of authority.

In chapter 3 (‘Translating the Psalms’), the research material, Marot’s verse translation of 50 Psalms (i.e., 49 biblical Psalms and the Canticle of Simeon XE "Le Cantique de Simeon" ) and some related texts, is described. An appropriate research method is proposed against the background of the way a translation of an ancient text was viewed in the sixteenth century. At the same time, stock is taken of the results of scholarly research on Marot’s Psalm paraphrases. This opens the road for a ten-chapter analysis of the texts to unveil the presuppositions present in Marot’s translation choices. Elements to enable this assessment are gathered in a cumulative way, starting at the most general level, gradually digging deeper, using all available angles and analysing tools, while constantly fine‑tuning the working method in view of the research question.

The reference to the Hebraica Veritas (Hebrew Truth) is analysed in Chapter 4. This is the term proposed by Marot himself as a key to his translation. The use of this term is made transparent in a historical survey, first uncovering its origin with Jerome, and then focussing on the paradigmatic use of this term in the sixteenth century. The Renaissance conviction that ‘Truth’ could be found in the original texts, applied on the sacred text of the Bible, led to a plethora of new translations, especially of the Psalter, since the Vulgate translation of this important Bible book turned out to be the least Hebrew of all. Special attention is given to Lefèvre d’Etaples, who juxtaposed the different Psalm translations in his Quincuplex Psalterium but did not advocate a levelling down of the classical christological interpretation of the Psalter. The ‘second generation of Hebraists’ (their real break-through in the 1520s, aided by Jewish scholars), bypassed Jerome’s Psalterium Hebraicum and recurred directly to the Hebrew original to unravel the problems relating to the text and interpretation of the Psalter. Their mastery of the Hebrew text led to new insight in the ‘plain meaning’ of many Psalms and thus – automatically – caused a considerable shift in Psalm hermeneutics. To assess the degree of Hebraitas of Marot’s translation the author compiled a reference group of Psalm translations covering the field of Latin and French translations of the Psalter that might have been in reach of Marot, including both first and second generation Hebraists. Establishing differences between the Vulgate and the Hebrew text, identifying Hebrew particularities only recognisable for second generation Hebraists, the author drew up a number of test‑cases to establish Marot’s PH‑value (referring to the degree of his Hebraitas). It is shown that Marot’s translations betray that he not only used ‘a’ Hebraicum, but that his occupation with the Hebrew text was much more than superficial. The final tests even showed that Marot’s translation of some key texts is inexplicable without the supposition that he used a Hebraicum of the second generation, thus establishing Marot’s final PH‑value to a PHH level (second generation), which is remarkable, since he did not master the Hebrew tongue himself.

In Chapter 5, Marot’s paraphrase of Psalm 4  XE "Psalm 4" is subjected to a complete analysis, comparing all available versions, focussing on the successive changes. Not only an increasing Hebraitas is established, but also an important hermeneutical option is unveiled: the tendency to interpret, and thus translate, a Psalm against a concrete historical background by presenting the translation as a consistent historical narrative. To achieve this Marot did not shy away from the insertion of interpretative phrasing into his translation, concordant with Bucer’s commentary on the Psalms (1529/1532), from which Marot also extracted the summary (Argument) he placed above his paraphrase. The similarity in wording confirmed this connection, but deviations from Bucer appeared to be intentional and crucial, since corresponding to a difference in interpretation.

In Chapter 6, the most theological part of Marot’s translations, the summaries (Arguments) he placed above each Psalm are analysed. The link between Marot’s and Bucer’s Arguments is investigated. It is the author’s opinion that, although this link is not new (discovered by Ph.A. Becker in 1921), the import and ambit has not yet been rated at its true value. Since Arguments are a summary of the interpretation of the Psalm and thus hermeneutical by nature, the theological impact of adopting (and adapting) Bucer’s Arguments is far-reaching. What is made explicit by Bucer in his commentary is implied in Marot’s translations, and since Marot and Bucer almost always appear to be in complete agreement, Bucer’s Psalm hermeneutics is studied to elucidate Marot’s. Both treat the biblical text in the first place as a literary and historical unit and only in the second place as christologically (prefiguration, typology) relevant. The rhetorical, literary, and historical analysis, present in Bucer’s commentary, is gratefully used by Marot to (re-)construct the text as a coherent literary text. The thesis of G. Defaux (the consensus Marot-Bucer is broken in two cases (Pss. 2  XE "Psalm 2" and 45) because of a christological deficit on Bucer’s part), is scrutinised and rejected, both with regard to the consensus and the christological deficit of Bucer. If the Arguments of Bucer and Marot do not match, they still agree on the historical interpretation of the Psalm and in their recommendation of a typological, figurative interpretation of the texts referring to Christ. The texts themselves, however, are translated (and in Bucer’s case: explained as well) primarily within their historical context.

In chapter 7, two heavily theologically charged Psalms (Pss. 8  XE "Psalm 8" and 110) are discussed. The hermeneutical preference for a ‘plain reading’ of any Psalm is confirmed in both cases. The discussion between Lefèvre and Erasmus around the translation of Psalm 8 (ab angelis or a Deo), which has caused so much turmoil among the first generation of Hebraists is only echoed in Marot’s first attempts, but has completely evaporated in his final translations. Even the very obscure, but christologically highly charged text of Psalm 110 XE "Psalm 110"  (part of Marot’s last selection), is wrought into a consistent historical framework, presenting it to the reader as a straightforward prophecy concerning the enthronement of a worldly king, in this case: David. Marot not only seemed to have been able to forget all theological discussion about Christ’s dual nature and eternal sacerdotal kingship, generally linked to this Psalm, but also did not shy away from hazarding conjectures about the meaning of obscure texts in order to create a consistent narrative. The facilitation to do so was found – once more – in Bucer’s Psalm commentary, in which all kinds of exegetical options proposed by Medieval Jewish commentators (mainly Kimhi and Ibn Ezra) were mentioned. In the final verse of this Psalm Marot opted for a dramatic interpretation (Kimhi), which Bucer mentioned but did not dare to accept. Marot’s translation was retouched in the final edition of the Psalter (1562), adapting it to the traditional interpretation.

In chapter 8, the theological part of the research is fine‑tuned by a linguistic sounding into the theological language and religious idiom Marot used in his Psalm paraphrases. A non‑idiolect tendency, aiming at dynamic equivalence, combined with a strong preference for ordinary language is revealed. Marot seems to have aimed not only at intelligibility on the linguistic level, but also on the semantic level, preferring sociological and psychological terms above theological. The downplaying of theologically charged language to a moral level was already established in earlier research (B. Roussel), but is now corroborated by a special sounding concerning the semantic field of ‘salvation’. We noticed a strong tendency to replace the term ‘salut’ with ‘secours’ and similar (more secular) terms. Marot seemed to have perceived the Psalms as songs, referring not so much to theological and spiritual issues, but to vicissitudes of everyday life. In addition, significant lowering of the theological level in the translation of Bucer’s Arguments was noticed.

In Chapter 9, the last revision of the Trente Pseaulmes, wrought in Geneva, is analysed in order to establish whether Marot adapted or changed his translations for liturgical or theological reasons. Theological reasons were not detected since no change could be found in theologically charged issues, the one exception (Ps. 2) being an ‘undo’ of an earlier change, restoring the multi-referencing capacity of the text. Metrical changes were observed, which all adapted the initial irregular strophic form to a regular strophic form, i.e., fit for song (liturgical motive). Changes making Marot’s exegesis concord with Calvin’s exegesis, were found, as were examples of the opposite (thus falsifying a hypothesis of a consensus Marot‑Calvin formulated tentatively in 1969 by Michel Jeanneret, but having become the usual view since).

 In Chapter 10, dedicated to Marot’s final selection of Psalm paraphrases (the Vingt Pseaulmes), Marot’s mastery (feeling at ease, finding apposite terms) in translating the biblical Psalms became more and more apparent. The author noticed a dual tendency. On the one hand, new literary phenomena are observed: translating a Psalm independent of any strophic form; abandoning the self-imposed coercion to make a biblical unit (verse) correspond to a poetic unit; in one particular Psalm anachronisms popped up (Ps. 33 XE "Psalm 33" : period musical instruments and armament). On the other hand, in this selection, Marot included all six non‑Marot Psalms from the Geneva hymnbook, thus becoming the sole author of the Geneva hymns. Combined with the tenor of the revision of the Trente Pseaulmes, this made the author conclude that these poems belong to two very separate (and for Calvin incompatible) realms: the French Court (to which the poems were sent) and the reformed worship, where they were sung. The Psalm paraphrases are at home in a cultural and cultual community. Nevertheless, a progress can be observed. Initially Marot paraphrased the Psalms impressed by the ecclesiastical charge and focussing on a strophic rendering. In the final stage, we noticed that Marot opted for a dynamic equivalent rendering, tending towards poetical imitation. This suggests that for Marot the cultural aspect in the end was more important than the cultual.

This assumption is tested in chapter 11 by means of an analysis of the accompanying poems: the Epistle to the King XE "Epistre Au Roy, treschrestien Françoys, premier de ce nom (Trente Pseaumes)"  (1541), in which Marot transformed David in an orphic bard, and the Epistle to the Ladies of France XE "Epistre aux Dames de France"  (1543), in which the Psalms are proposed as the ‘better love songs’ to be sung at court. Both Epistles, with their own particular accents, are completely embedded in a Neo-platonic worldview, which prevailed at the court in Paris, but  at that time began to irritate Calvin in Geneva (Anti-Nicodemite writings).

Before embarking on a further analysis of this emerging theological tension, Marot’s Psalm translation project is evaluated in chapter 12. The seriousness and the scholarly Humanist aspects of his translation are highlighted. The fundamental ‘modernity’ of Marot’s hermeneutics is put in a broader context. The de‑theologization had its consequences, and the absence of a pious or theological commentary to counter‑balance this ‘secularising’ made this revolutionary aspect of his translation even more visible than for instance in Bucer’s commentary, where it is also present. In addition, the question whether personal aspects were determining for Marot’s translation choices is also addressed in this chapter, referring to the claims made by B. Roussel and F. Lestringant. This kind of interpretation does not seem to do justice to the seriousness with which Marot tried to render these poems, a rendering which of course is not impersonal; but one should not confuse personal with private, nor relevant with auto‑biographical.

In chapter 13, the focus of the research is redirected towards specific theological aspects of Marot’s translation project. To uncover some underlying ideas Marot’s view on the use of the Psalms as expressed in his accompanying poems is compared with Jean Calvin’s view on the same topic, as expressed in his preface to the Geneva Church book of 1542/1543, which contained Marot’s Psalm paraphrases. This comparison first reveals a high degree of conformity in their valuation of David and his Psalter, a conformity that can partly be explained because both belonged to the same Christian Humanist movement. A fundamental difference though came to light as well, because Marot’s positive approach of the inhaerent power of music, poetry, and song (part of a Neo-platonic worldview) sharply contrasted with Calvin’s cautious approach of the same phenomenon, which as such was not negative, but dominated with fear of abuse, and – consequently – the urge to guard music, poetry, and song against perversion by subsuming it under God’s Word and subject it to a strict regulation. This fundamental distrust of nature, because of the all‑pervasive power of sin, might well have been one of the reasons Marot in the end did not feel at home in Geneva.

In chapter 14, the biographical thread of the first chapter is retaken, in sketching Marot’s stay in and wanderings after Geneva. The tension between Calvin’s and Marot’s worldview, as sketched in the previous chapter, is further investigated. The welcoming poem of Matthieu Malingre (a colleague of Calvin and friend of Marot) in which Marot is admonished to adjust his life to Geneva rules, is compared with Marot’s epistle A ung sien Amy XE "Epistre A ung sien amy" , written after he had left Geneva. The same worldly pleasures, which Marot according to Malingre had to abandon, were celebrated in the latter. This made the author conclude, that Marot probably felt more at home in cultural environment with pastime and good company than in a world in which the call to forsake life was so dominant.

In chapter 15, the field is gleaned in order to gather in the harvest concerning Marot’s religious sensibility. Only aspects of the way Marot related to the religious issues of his days are highlighted. His religious opinions were not a set of lifelong convictions, but concrete stances he took gearing his personal convictions to the times, before 1535 openly wording the longing for reformation of many, and after his return from exile in 1536 opting to keep silent about it, becoming a ‘poltroniseur’. Formulated negatively, varying the title of a book of Th. Wanegffelen about the fate of the faithful who fell between two seats in the sixteenth century (Ni Rome ni Genève), Marot did never accept the way the official Church repressed the Evangelical reform-oriented movement: ‘Ni Rome’. In the 1540s this rejection of Rome might well have led to his emigration to Geneva, not only because of the intensification of persecution (the most commonly adopted view), but also because of expectations concerning the Evangelical, reform-oriented experiment there, in which his Psalm paraphrases were used for common prayer. Nevertheless, Marot ended up in no‑man’s land, not finding his ‘home’ in Geneva either: ‘Ni Rome ni Genève’, because the historical situation left him no choice, i.e., forced a choice on him, which he did not want to make, because it was not his choice. He was no man of either/or but of and/and/and. This aspect is clarified using the synchronicity of Marot trying to return to France (1543-1544) and Calvin intensifying his debate with the Evangelical Christians who stayed in France, pejoratively labelled by Calvin as Nicodemites, or even pseudo-Nicodemites. This coincidence is presented as perhaps being more than only a coincidence, Marot being a clear example of what Calvin labelled the third sect of Nicodemites, a group, not identified as such in his prior writings on the same subject, consisting mainly of ‘gens de lettres’.