Article published in
Studies, Volume 22 Issue 2, Pages 240 - 250.
[content the same, text slightly altered: minor corrections and some
Did Clément Marot really
offer his Trente Pseaulmes to the
Emperor Charles V in January 1540 ?
In both popular and
scholarly literature, the offering of an early manuscript of the Trente
Pseaulmes by Clément Marot to the Emperor Charles V, passing through France
in the winter of 1539-1540, is presented as a matter of fact, often combined
with an identification of this manuscript with Ms. Cod. Vind. 2644 (Vienna,
The fact that this story is only known from one
source, the so called Villemadon Letter, dated 1559, is hardly
ever taken into account when referring to this event. This article raises
questions concerning the historical trustworthiness of the information contained
in this letter by sketching the historical background of it (the French Wars of
Religion), and the way the reference to the “Psalm offering” functions in the
propagandist discourse of the Letter. Finally the common identification of the
presentation copy with the Ms.Cod. Vind. 2644 is discussed.
Clément Marot, metrical Psalms, French Court, Villemadon
Letter, Catherine de Medici, Huguenots
The story of Marot offering his Trente Pseaulmes
to the Emperor.
Although the verse translations of the
biblical Psalms by the French court poet Clément Marot are well known, not the
least because they form the nucleus of the later Genevan Psalter, much about the
genesis of Marot’s translation project remains unknown.
Material, mostly bibliographical, evidence indicates that probably around 1530
Marot translated the first penitential Psalm (Ps. 6) into French, which appeared
as a separate print and was added at the end of the second of the Augereau
editionsof Le miroir de treschrestienne
Princesse Marguerite de France in 1533.
This Psalm translation was also included in the sequel to
Marot’s collected works (La suite de l’Adolescence Clementine,
1534 onwards). Apart from this no official publication of any other Psalm
translation by Marot is known until the winter of 1541-1542, when Etienne Roffet
published Marot’s Trente Pseaulmes in Paris, accompanied by a dedicatory
Epistle to the French King.
In the meantime though translations of Palms by Marot
circulated in, and even outside France. Manuscript copies, more or less hidden
references in his own poems, and unauthorised (partial) editions of the
Trente Pseaulmes (since 1539) strongly suggest an ongoing effort on Marot’s
part to add new Psalm translations to his first attempts.
They also testify to an increasing popularity of Marot’s Psalm translations,
even though the atmosphere for translations of the Bible into the vernacular had
worsened considerably in the second half of the 1530s. In 1541 this unofficial
tradition culminated in a surreptitious edition of Marot’s 30 Psalms in a
collection of Psalmes de David in Antwerp in 1541.
Noteworthy is that the text of Marot’s Psalm translations in all these editions
and related manuscripts differs considerably from the official edition by Roffet
Apart from this material evidence, hardly anything else is
known for certain about Marot’s translation activity. Nevertheless, almost all
scholars mention as a matter of fact that the Trente Pseaulmes were
presented to his King, Francis I, as early as 1539, and that the King was so
pleased with them that he subsequently suggested that Marot should present a
copy of the Trente Pseaulmes to the emperor, Charles V. The Emperor
visited Paris in January 1540 on his way to Flanders to suppress a revolt in
It is also reported that Charles V received the Psalms gratefully, rewarded
Marot with 200 gold pieces, and encouraged him to continue the good work.
Consequently these verse translations became popular at court, with court
musicians composing music for them and courtiers trying to sing them to popular
or home-made tunes. As far as I can see, all authorities, historical, literary
and musical believe that this event did indeed take place. If a reference is
given, it is always to the so called Villemadon Letter and to this letter
In this letter all the elements mentioned above are indeed present.
The Villemadon Letter
[L. Cimber & F. Danjou's reproduction (1843) I added as
One would expect the historical reliability of this
apparently unique source to have long since been established beyond doubt, but
this is not the case. Nonetheless, V.L. Saulnier’s description of this letter
(dated 1559) as a fierce pamphlet against Cardinal Charles de Lorraine
comparable to Le Tigre of François Hotman, might have roused some
Saulnier also wonders why its historicity is so uncritically
accepted: “Tout le peu de gens qui le citent délaisse, à ma connaissance, le
contexte, et a l’air de l’accepter comme d’office.”
Though Saulnier questions the trustworthiness of many passages in this
letter, he accepts the reliability of the passage about the Psalms, because –
according to him – it belongs to a non-propagandist part of the letter and is
thus “gratuitous”. He recommends that its historicity be accepted until the
opposite is proven.
I do not agree with Saulnier on this point and hope to make clear that the
opposite is indeed more probable; that is, the passage about the Psalms is not
gratuitous, but a substantial element of the propagandist discourse. An analysis
of the letter in its historical background seems the proper way to proceed in
order to be able to reassess the historical reliability of the narrative
elements concerning Marot’s Psalms.
Provenance of the Villemadon Letter.
The Villemadon Letter is dated 26 August 1559 and adressed
to Cathérine de Medici. The first known version was published in 1565 in an
anonymous Recueil des choses memorables...,
a collection of pamphlets, manifestos and letters, which at the same time
document and serve the Huguenot war of the House of Condé against the House of
Guise (c. 1562-1568). The Letter might well have been such a pamphlet, and thus
it might antedate its first appearance by a few years. Unfortunately no one has
ever been able to confirm Ph.A. Becker’s promising remark, that he located an
original copy in Paris.
The printer is identified as Eloï Gibier, and the place of print was
The conception and publication of this letter is closely related to the first
War of Religion, which broke out around the death of Henry II (10 July 1559).
The introduction of the letter also explicitly links it to this period, not only
because of the date, but also in plain words. The writer himself characterises
the letter as a prophetic appeal to Catherine de Medici to break with the house
of Guise, since in his opinion they are responsible for the death of Henry II.
The memory of the past serves to reinforce this appeal. This does not
necessarily exclude historical reliability, but caution seems advisable.
The edition in the Recueil is signed “D.V.” The
identification of D.V. as a high court officer, named “Villemadon”, or “de
Villemadon” goes back to Louis Régnier de la Planche, who refers to the letter
in his Histoire de l’estat de France.
This reference does not break the circle of Huguenot propaganda, since Régnier
de la Planche also an ardent Huguenot and prolific pamphleteer. Furthermore, the
identification itself is not much of a help, since according to Saulnier’s
research, no Villemadon or de Villemadon is known, either in the
entourage of Marguerite or in general. It is probably a pseudonym.
Contents of the Villemadon Letter
The writer introduces himself as a former court official in
the household of Marguerite de Navarre. He often worked as an ambassador from
her court to the court of the King. He displays intimate knowledge of personal
and state affairs. He has long since
retired but, after the horrible
death of the king (Henry II died 10 July 1559), he
feels that it is his duty to warn Catherine,
for he has found out the “source et cause de l’infortune adveneu au feu Roy...
la vérité me l’a monstrée, comme je la vous feray toucher au
doigt et à l’oeil, discourant la tristesse de vos jeunes
ans, et le secours et faveur que Dieu vous donna...”
The “tristesse” of Catherine to which he refers is the discovery that,
while her womb was barren (late 1530s), her husband Henry begot a bastard child,
which inspired Diane de Poitiers (“la vieille meretrice”)
to organise a meeting of courtiers to persuade the king to repudiate Catherine.
When Catherine found out, she could find comfort only in tears and piety.
She looked to God for help. The author addresses Catherine
directly: “en ce temps-là vous le recognoissiez, honorant sa saincte Bible, qui
estoit en vos coffres ou sur vostre table...”.
Time went by. The King fell seriously ill and the enemies increased in power.
It was then – still following the letter – that God decided to intervene and
save France by giving Catherine a child, the means to achieve
this, being the appreciation at court of the Trente Pseaulmes of Marot,
or as the author puts it:
[l’Eternel…] à l’instant va préparer et ouvrir le moyen par
lequel il vouloit que toute la bénédiction du Roy et de vous prinst naissance,
et sortist en perfection et évidence. Car ce père plein de miséricorde, meit au
coeur du feu Roy Françoys d’avoir fort aggréables les trente psalmes de
David, avec l’Oraison dominicale, la Salutation angélique et le Symbole des
que feu Clément Marot avoit translatez et traduicts, et dediez à sa grandeur et
laquelle commanda audict Marot présenter le tout à l’empereur Charles-Quint, qui
receut bénignement ladicte translation, la prisa, et par parolles, et par
présent de deux cens doublons qu’il donna audict Marot, luy donnant aussi
courage d’achever de traduire le reste desdicts psalmes, et le priant de luy
envoyer le plus tost qu’il pourroit Confitemini Domino, quoniam bonus,
d’autant qu’il l’aimoit.
Quoy voyans et entendans les musiciens de ces deux princes, voire tous ceux de
nostre France, meirent à qui mieux mieux les dictes psalmes en musique, et
chacun les chantoit.
After Marot had offered his
Trente Pseaulmes to the Emperor Charles V on the explicit command of the
French King, his Psalm translations became an instant success at court,
everybody asking for a particular Psalm to call his/her own. Young Henry was
especially fond of Psalm 128, which blesses the man whose wife will bear him
lots of children (sic), and Catherine’s favorite was Psalm 142, a touching
complaint to the Eternal God.
The author then relates that
he once paid a visit to the court and found Henry singing the Psalms with his
“chantres,” accompanied by all kinds of instruments.
When he relates this idyllic scene to Marguerite, she not only praises the piety
and good faith of Henry and Catherine, but breaks out in
prophecy and predicts that for that reason God will turn their grief into joy:
puisqu’il a pleu à Dieu mettre ce don en leurs coeurs, voyci le temps, voyci les
jours sont prochains que les yeux du Roy seront contens, les désirs de Monsieur
le daulphin saoulez et rassasiez, les pensées des ennemis de Madame la daulphine
renversées; mon espérance aussi et la foy de mes prières prendront fin. Il ne
passera guères plus d’un an que la visitation miséricordieuse du Seigneur
n’apparoisse, et gageray qu’elle aura un fils pour plus grande joye et
concludes that Marguerite has been “une saincte sybile et véritable
vati[ci]natrice, d’autant que de treize à quatorze mois en là, vous enfantastes
nostre roy François, qui vit aujourd’huy.”
Marguerite’s prophecy marks the transition to the last part of the letter
in which Charles de Lorraine is attacked vehemently.
Influenced by him, the king abandoned the way of the righteous, the
Psalms lost their popularity, and therefore France has gone straight to its
ruin. That is why Henry had to end his days in agony.
Thus the “source et cause de l’infortune adveneu au feu Roy”, mentioned in the
introduction to the letter, is unveiled. Once this mystery is revealed,
Catherine is urged to convert before it is too late, to do penance for her (and
her late husband’s) sins and begin again to serve God, as she did in her youth
by praying the Psalms of David, “reprenant en usage ces beaux psalmes
Davidiques, dont jadis vous réfrigeriez vostre esprit angoissé et pour lesquels
il vous béneict en génération.”
She should chase away the treacherous clan of the Guises:
“Madame, voyez, allez; ne répugnez, ne permettez et souffrez que ce serpent,
diable rouge et ses adhérans, mettent la main au-devant [...]. Séparez et
esloignez de vous de tels monstres estranges.”
In the end the author claims his words to be pure prophecy as well:
“Finablement, madame, pensez que mon dire c’est le dire du prophète; que si vous
ne le faites, vous verrez advenir en ce royaume tant de malheurs sur
Summary and provisional
According to the author of the
Villemadon Letter, Marot’s Psalms were God’s gift to save King Francis
and France. As long as they were cherished, France flourished. Precisely to
“prove” this, the introduction of the Psalms in France is surrounded with all
kinds of wondrous and wonderful stories, from a blessing of Marot’s Psalms by
the Emperor himself (including an exhortation to continue the job of translating
to a prophecy of childbirth by Marguerite of Navarre. The fact that the turning
point in the history of France is symbolised once more by reference to the
Psalms is also telling. Did things change dramatically when Charles de Lorraine
got to grips with Henry II and replaced the godly Psalms of Marot with the
lascivous Horatian Odes? Well, they will change again if the use of the Psalms
This was a poignant discours in a period where Charles de Lorraine was very
powerful and the entire – by then Huguenot – Psalter had just been published.
Based on this résumé, it seems
clear that the narrative about the Psalms cannot be considered as a gratuitous
detail in an otherwise highly tendentious letter, as Saulnier suggested. On the
contrary, it is a key element of the line of reasoning in the letter, and
therefore Saulnier’s advice to accept the narrative with a certain naïve faith
has become untenable.
The presentation of the Trente
Pseaulmes to the emperor is depicted as a public happening, immediately picked
up by the courtiers and court musicians. However, no reference to this event can
be found in contemporary sources, and this does not encourage us to credit this
narrative. Furthermore, the journey through France of the emperor and his army
(November 1539-January 1540) was one of the best covered events of the era, both
by participants and spectators.
Finally, the fact that neither of the two Psalms cited in the Letter were
included in the Trente Pseaulmes does not add credibility to the
historical claim of the narrative. If not substantiated by external evidence, it
seems advisable not to accept the anecdotes about the Psalms in it as
established historical facts.
The manuscript of the
Trente Pseaulmes: Codex Vindobensis 2644.
If the manuscript offered by Marot to the emperor was
found, the story of D.V. would of course be confirmed. The only condition is
that a candidate must be linked, preferably
undeniably, to this event. At first sight, a manuscript of the Trente
Pseaulmes, now in the Vienna Staatsbibliothek, appears promising,
because it is not only richly ornamented (fitting for a gift to an emperor), but
also contains a full colour reproduction (I only could
obtain a b/w copy) of the coat of arms of the house of Habsburg.
The first to link this manuscript to the story in the
seems to have been Ph. A. Becker in 1921.
This identification is, however, not unproblematic. Although the manuscript
indeed contains the coat of arms of the House of Habsburg, the catalogue of Otto
Pächt attributes it to Ferdinand I, Charles’ brother.
Because of the presence of a one-headed eagle, the branch it represents is not
the branch of a Roman Emperor, but of a Roman King. Charles V never was a Roman
king. Ergo this manuscript was not dedicated to him, but probably to
Ferdinand I, who had been a Roman King since 1531. The
main fields are those of Hungary and Bohemia, but on the smaller inner shields
(there are two!) things get fuzzy.
But the reader may judge for
him/herself since no exact attribution has been made yet:
A second objection to this identification concerns the text
itself. The manuscript contains the Trente Pseaulmes of Clément Marot in
a version which is very close to the first official edition of Roffet (winter
1541-1542). This means that the natural temporal habitat of this manuscript is
somewhere in the vicinity of the Roffet edition, which is significantly later
than the events to which it is linked in the Villemadon Letter.
We conclude that the mere existence of Ms. Cod. Vind. 2644 should not influence
the assessment of the historical reliability of the narrative present in the
Summary of questions
If the story of the presentation of the Trente Pseaulmes
to the Emperor in January 1540 were true, the next complex of questions would
remain without a satisfactory answer. Why do we find no contemporary reference
to the events as related by D.V.? Why did Marot keep the Trente Pseaulmes,
publicly blessed by King and Emperor, en portefeuille for two years? Why
did Roffet publish Marot’s welcome ode to the Emperor (“Cantique sur l’entrée de
l’Empereur à Paris”) in 1540, and not the Trente Pseaulmes at the same
The answer that publishing Psalm translations in the vernacular was a hazardous
project is always to the point in these dangerous years, with the exception of
this one moment in January 1540..., if the story of Villemadon were true.
Any objection from the Faculty of Theology would have been simply overruled by
the fiat of the King of France and the nihil obstat from the
“Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire”. It was a golden opportunity, a momentum...
if the story of the Villemadon were true.
If one puts the events told by D.V. in parenthesis
(and all elements gathered here suggest that that might be a wise move),
everything seems to indicate that Marot never presented his Trente Pseaulmes
to the Emperor Charles V in January 1540. All the evidence, be it material,
textual or circumstantial, points to a different chronology, in which the date
of the first official publication (winter 1541-1542) is the anchor point.
In this chronology Marot dedicated the fruit of many years
of work, Trente Pseaulmes in French verse, to King Francis somewhere in
1541. He sent it to the king, accompanied by a dedicatory letter. Having
procured a Royal Privilege on 31 November 1541, Roffet published them and they
enjoyed a considerable success. The huge advantage of this simple chronology is
that no complicated theories have to be constructed to explain the fact that all
other Psalm editions and manuscripts known to us before this first official
edition, including the Antwerp Psalter of Des Gois, contain part of the
Trente Pseaulmes in quite a different version.
This fact can be accounted for by simply stating that no other versions were in
existence at that time.
The Villemadon Letter should thus be regarded and
treated as what it is: a political pamphlet, which organises historical facts,
memories and legends, in a tendentious discourse, to create an effect on the
reader. This does not imply that there are no true historical reminiscences in
it that are corroborated by other sources (the initial popularity at court, the
professional musicians’ interest in it), but they all will appear to be more
naturally “at home” at a later date, that is after the first official
publication in the winter 1541-1542.
Dick Wursten (Antwerp)