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One of the fascinating actors in the drama of the Protestant Reformation is the famed French poet Clement Marot (1496–1544), sometimes regarded as the greatest French poet of his generation. For many years he was a court poet for the sister of Francis I (1494–1547), Marguerite de Navarre (1492–1549), who committed to the reform of the church as she was, became Marot’s great patron and protector. 

I was drawn to read a little about Marot after browsing through Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton Beau de Marot (1997). Himself a Renaissance man with proficiencies in cognitive science, physics, and comparative literature, Hofstadter wrote this significant tome to reflect on the nature of translation. The entire book revolves around a delightful little poem Marot wrote in 1537––namely, A une Damoyselle malade, to cheer up Jeanne d’Albret, Marguerite’s young daughter who had fallen ill. This particular poem has a predictable series of rhyming couplets (aa bb cc) in which each line has three syllables, the stress falling on the last of these syllables. Further, the first and last lines are the same, and the poet’s name is situated near the middle of the poem. 

A une Damoyselle malade

Ma Mignonne
Je vous donne
Le bon jour.
Le sejour
C’est prison :
Puis ouvrez
Vostre porte,
Et qu’on sorte
Vistement :
Car Clement
Le vous mande.
Va friande
De ta bouche,
Qui se couche
En danger
Pour manger
Confitures :
Si tu dures
Trop malade,
Couleur fade
Tu prendras,
Et perdras
Dieu te doint
Santé bonne
Ma Mignonne.

Calvin and Morot

When his father died, Marot was appointed as his replacement as the valet de chambre for the king, and soon after published Adolescence Clémentine, the first and very popular collection of his poems, in which the above poem appears. Under the patronage of Francis I, Marot began to translate and rhyme the Psalms, the popularity of which ultimately played a part in the advancement of the Protestant Reformation. Marot did not know Hebrew (or at least did not know it well) but relied on newly emerging Latin translations of the Psalms and on an erudite commentary by Martin Bucer (1491–1551), the reformer of Strasbourg who was also a linguist. 

When the Genevan reformer John Calvin (1509–1564) became convinced of the need for a complete Genevan Psalter to be sung at home, school, and church, he began with the translations and rhymings of Marot’s Psalms, though they were not initially intended to be sung. Calvin commissioned French composer Louis Bourgeois (1510–1559) to compose music for Marot’s lyrics. This was no easy task since Marot had employed multiple metric forms, some of which he invented himself, to compose his Psalm poems. The first edition of Calvin’s Psalter (1539) included 12 of Marot’s versifications. 

When persecution prompted Marot to flee France in 1542, Calvin warmly received him in Geneva and supported him as Calvin worked on completing a Psalter for use in worship. In Calvin’s 1543 edition of the Psalter, there are another 19 psalm rhymings by Marot. The final 1562 edition of the Genevan Psalter included 49 Psalm rhymings by Marot.

Even those who did not identify with the Franco-Swiss Reformation’s insistence on unison singing of only the melody in corporate worship recognized the high quality of the (Marot) lyrics and (Bourgeios) melodies such that countless polyphonic arrangements were composed, not least by several French court composers. Among them is Claude Goudimel’s (1510–1572) famous four-part Genevan harmonization which, in concert with the Franco-Swiss Reformation’s insistence on unison singing of melody only, was recommended for use at home and not in church.  

It’s fascinating to see how John Calvin, the great Protestant Reformer, enlisted and supported those with artistic proficiency in the cause of the Reformation.