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The Memory of Grievances Past

By Andrew Pettegree |

For Protestantism, France was both the greatest prize and the greatest missed opportunity. For a few heady years in mid-century, it appeared, at least to members of the expanding Calvinist congregations, that the conversion of France was at hand. A decade later these hopes lay in tatters, the dying embers snuffed out by the horrors of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The movement regrouped in urban strongholds far from Paris in the south and west, but never again posed a significant threat to France’s Catholic identity.

Leaf B1r of the Saumur edition of Les Pseaumes de David printed by Thomas Portau in 1609. USTC 6802634. Image courtesy of ProQuest.

The psalms, sung in the metrical versions devised in Geneva by Clément Marot and Théodore de Bèze, played a critical role in all stages of the movement’s growth, tribulation and survival. Calvin’s Geneva church rejected the hymn-singing tradition of Luther’s church, where the new hymns were often set to tunes appropriated from secular songs, for the more austere alternative of metrical psalms. Yet in both churches communal singing became a staple of the worship service, a pedagogic tool, and a badge of identity. This was even more the case when the Calvinist movement was transposed to Catholic France.

Psalms became a comfort in adversity, while the young churches still faced persecution, and then, a triumphant demonstration of defiance as royal authority was challenged, and the Calvinists sought freedom of worship. In the French Wars of Religion, Huguenot armies sang psalms before battle. In places like Saumur, psalms became not only a tool of edification, but a badge of identity, a memorial of liberties preserved through years of tragedy.

prefatory calendar
The prefatory calendar on A2r of Les Pseaumes de David, USTC 6802634. Image courtesy of ProQuest.

In this beautiful edition, the Calvinist identity is reinforced by a poignant calendar, where the traditional Catholic holidays are replaced by special days of Protestant memory. The day when the Flood began to recede when Noah spied dry land, and the conversion of Saint Paul, vied for remembrance with the death of Catherine of Medici and memories of Catholic treachery. Even in the sanctified space of worship, the true enemy was never out of view.


Andrew Pettegree is Professor of Modern History at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Universal Short Title Catalogue. He is the author of over a dozen books in the fields of Reformation history and the history of communication including Reformation and the Culture of Persuasion (Cambridge University Press, 2005), The Book in the Renaissance (Yale University Press, 2010), The Invention of News (Yale University Press, 2014) and Brand Luther: 1517, Print and the Making of the Reformation (Penguin, 2015). His latest book, The Bookshop of the World. Making and Trading Books in the Dutch Golden Age (Yale University Press), co-authored with Arthur der Weduwen, was published in March 2019, and in Dutch with Atlas Contact. The Dutch Republic and the Birth of Modern Advertising will be published by Brill in March 2020, along with a source edition News, Business and Public Information. Advertisements and Announcements in Dutch and Flemish Newspapers, 1620-1675 (both co-authored with Arthur der Weduwen). Their next project, The Library: A Fragile History, is contracted to Profile for 2021.


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