A Prohibited Pocket-Book: Christophe Plantin’s 1564 Genevan Psalter

By Elise Watson |

In 1564, famed Antwerp printer Christophe Plantin published a small-format edition of a popular metrical psalter, a book of Biblical psalms intended for liturgical use. The National Library of the Netherlands in the Hague contains a copy of this psalter, entitled Les Pseaumes de David, mis en rime françois (The Psalms of David, set in French Rhyme; USTC 60968). This edition has survived in two other known copies, one in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France and one in the Zion Research Library in Brookline, MA. The psalter is printed in 24mo, or vigesimo-quarto, a diminutive format with an average size of about 10cm x 5cm. Though small in stature, this edition attracted sizeable controversy. In fact, Plantin received a commission in 1570 to print an Index of Forbidden Books, which contained his own text from six years earlier (USTC 440563).

title page of Plantin's Psalter
The title page quotes Isaiah 42:10, “Sing to the Lord a new song, sing his praise to the ends of the sea and all that is in it, islands and their inhabitants, sing”. Koninklijke Bibliotheek, KW 1 E 18.

This particular setting of the psalms, one of the first to include all 150 from the biblical text, originated in Geneva, through the efforts of the poet Clément Marot and the theologian Theodore Beza, who translated the text and set the psalms to a consistent and singable metre. By 1560, the public singing of psalms had become synonymous with Protestantism in the Low Countries, and in 1561 Philip II outlawed this practice, requiring all owners of psalters to present them to the local priest for approval. Inquisitional examinations led to the confiscation of unapproved psalters, especially by these French translators, from the houses of suspected heretics. However, the popularity of psalm singing as a worship practice continued to grow in both Catholic and Protestant circles.

Mindful of this increasing demand, Antwerp printer Christophe Plantin undertook the production of a new edition in 1564. Plantin was no stranger to controversy; his printing of an anonymous prayer manual deemed heretical by the authorities in Antwerp had forced him to flee only two years earlier. As a result, before printing Les Psaumes de David he took extra preventative steps by obtaining a royal privilege, which authorised him to produce a new edition of the French psalms of David. He also declined to attribute the setting to Márot and Beza on the title page, which would have reinforced its Calvinist origins.

“Though small in stature, this edition attracted sizeable controversy.”

A complicated small-format text, such as this psalter, required considerable resources to produce. Printing musical notation necessitated not only specially cast type, but often required multiple impressions per sheet as well. For this pocket-sized psalter, the notes had to be both small and clear, and the reader’s ability to interpret the interwoven text and melody depended on the organisation and clarity of the print. Any erratum or disorganisation threatened the very musical integrity of the work.

Unfortunately for Plantin, his psalter attracted immediate accusations of heresy. Authorities seized and burned copies in Brussels only months after their release, citing their use of melodies used by Protestants. Les Pseaumes de David appeared on the Index of Prohibited Books issued by the Duke of Alva, the regent of the Low Countries, in 1570. Per his contract, the Duke’s archtypographer, responsible for the production of official documents, printed and distributed the Index. This figure, ironically, was Plantin himself!


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Elise Watson is a PhD student in the Reformation Studies Institute at the University of St Andrews. Her thesis examines printing for the Catholic community in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic. She is broadly interested in the interactions between religious identity and spiritual literature, and how the interconfessional book trade affected questions of toleration and co-existence in the post-Reformation landscape. She is also the Assistant Editor of Brill’s Book History Online.

Images courtesy of Marieke van Delft, Koninklijke Bibliotheek.


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