Clément Marot

ca. 1497–1544

Clément Marot, unknown artist, Bibliothèque Protestante, Paris.

Clément Marot, the only son of Jehan Marot (a Norman, who had married and settled at Cahors-en-Quercy), was born at Cahors about 1497. His father, who became attached to the court of Anne of Brittany, consort of Louis XII, in the capacity of poet and valet de chambre, brought the young Marot to Paris when ten years of age, and destined him for the study of the law, but its dry technicalities had no attraction for the lively boy, who preferred joining with his young companions in the performance of the mysteries or farces then in vogue, and in which the vices and follies of the age were made the subjects of ridicule.

His education, though apparently somewhat irregularly conducted, included an acquaintance with the Greek, Latin, and Italian languages, and where it was deficient in thoroughness, it was supplemented by his great natural quickness and intelligence, aided by association with many of the learned men of the time. He had a good voice, sang well, and seems to have played the spinet, though his musical knowledge was doubtless slight. He even appears, like the troubadours of earlier days, to have composed melodies to many of the songs he wrote. From his father he inherited the gift of poetry, and, at the age of fifteen, produced a translation of the first eclogue of Virgil, and a “Ballade des Enfants sans soucy.”

Seeing the disinclination of the young poet to a lawyer’s life, his father attached him as a page to Nicolas de Neufville, Seigneur de Villeroy, under whose auspices he might adopt the profession of arms. While in the service of this nobleman, Marot wrote some pieces dedicated to Francis I, and in due time appeared at court. The king, however, instead of taking him into his own service, recommended him to his sister Marguerite, the brilliant and fascinating Duchess of Alençon, afterwards Queen of Navarre, who gave him an appointment in her suite as valet de chambre, or gentleman in waiting. A mutual regard sprang up between the poet and the princess, but the scandalous stories to which, long afterwards, this friendship gave rise, were certainly wholly due to the imagination of the Abbé Lenglet du Fresnoy, and have been justly rejected by later writers.

Few women were more fit than Marguerite to inspire a poet’s muse. Beautiful, accomplished, witty, amiable, she undoubtedly exercised a considerable influence on Marot, and turned his mind towards the reformed doctrines, to which her own inclinations were already directed. A change in his tone is observable from about the year 1521, and soon afterwards he entered on that long crusade of satire against the monks and their vices, which earned for him the undying hatred of the cloistered brotherhood. Marot accompanied the French army to Italy, where he was wounded, and with his king, taken prisoner at the disastrous battle of Pavia.

Marot’s first satirical attacks on the Church of Rome were, like some other writings of the time, made under the veil of allegory. A short piece in this vein, which he wrote on his return from Italy, excited the suspicions of the Sorbonne, and Marot was thrown into prison at a time when a charge of heresy was a question of life or death. From this danger he was extricated by the Bishop of Chartres, who, employing a friendly stratagem to withdraw him into his own hands from those of the Inquisition, kept him in nominal custody till a formal order for his release was obtained by Marguerite from her brother on his return from captivity in Spain.

Not long afterwards Marot married, and, in 1526, petitioned the king to appoint him to the post of valet de chambre, which his father, then lately dead, had held. To this request Francis gave a favourable reply, but through the intervention of his enemies at the Court, two years elapsed before Marot was formally inscribed as a member of the royal household. During this time he continued to produce poetical pieces of various kinds, in several of which marks of the influence of the reformed doctrines may be distinctly traced, until, in 1528, an outrage in Paris offered to an image of the Virgin, and, justly or not, imputed to the Protestants, lighted afresh the fires of persecution, and forced Marot to retire for a time to his native town. He returned to Paris in 1529, and in the following year published a collection of his early poems, under the title of “Ladolescence Clementine.” On the death of the king's mother, Louise of Savoy, in the autumn of 1531, the violence of persecution subsided for a time; but, a few months afterwards, Marot, whose pen never remained unemployed, was, with several other persons, again made the object of attack; this time on a charge of violating the rules of abstinence during Lent and other forbidden days. Again he succeeded in escaping from the tender mercies of the Church.

We now reach the year 1533, an important date in the history of the French psalter, as it was that in which the first of Marot’s translations of the psalms appeared. In that year was published “Le Miroir de tres chretienne Princesse Marguerite de France, Royne de Navarre, Duchesse de d’Alenqon et de Berry, auquel elle voit et son neant et son tout,” Paris, 1533. At the end of the first part is “Le VIe Pseavlme de David, translaté en francoys selon l’hebreu par Clément Marot, valet de chambre du Roy.” After the second part comes, “L’ Instrvction et foy d’vng Chrestien, mise en francoys par Clément Marot,” and comprising the Pater Noster, the Ave Maria, the Credo, the “Benediction deuant mengier,” the “Graces pour vng enfant, le tout versifié, auec le Dixain d’vng chretien malade à son amy.”

A most indecent and abusive attack on the Mass was printed at Neufchâtel in the form of a placard, and on the night of October 18, 1534, these placards were posted up in every direction in Paris and other large towns, one being even affixed to the door of the king’s apartment at Amboise, where he was then residing. The anger which this act naturally excited in the breast of Francis, gave an advantage to the enemies of the Reformation which they were not slow to use.

On his return to Paris in the following January, the king took part in an expiatory procession of the most imposing character, which traversed the streets of Paris to the Cathedral of Nótre-Dame; and the more effectually to atone for the insult offered to the Holy Sacrament, six Protestants were executed with special refinements of cruelty. A few days afterwards a sentence of death was published against all heretics, as well as those who should harbour them, and this decree continued in force until, five months afterwards, the Pope himself interposed to obtain a mitigation of its rigour.

Fortunately for himself, Marot was absent from Paris when the placard was published, but his house was searched, and his name appears as the seventh in a list of persons ordered to return to the capital within three days, on pain of banishment or death. His first impulse was to seek the king at Amboise, but Francis was not in a mood to afford him any protection. On second thoughts Marot resolved to leave France, and fled, in the first instance, to the court of his friend Queen Marguerite, equally the resort of artists and men of letters, and a refuge for the Huguenots in time of persecution. But Marguerite’s influence was then weak, and she had to act cautiously herself, and Marot, feeling that his safety would be better insured by placing a greater distance between himself and France, withdrew to the Court of Renée, Duchess of Ferrara, leaving his young son with Marguerite, who took him into the number of her pages. On his arrival in that city Marot was received with favour, and soon afterwards appointed poet and secretary to the Duchess. It was while residing at her court that he first met the man with whom he was destined to be associated at Geneva six years later. 

In 1534 Calvin, then twenty-five years of age, had abandoned the church of Rome. Leaving France soon afterwards he went first to Strasburg, then to Basle, and, in the month of March, 1536, paid a short visit to Italy. There he remained about a month or five weeks, of which time he spent the greater part at Ferrara. But there is no evidence that any intimacy was then formed between Calvin and Marot. The characters of the austere and stern theologian and of the witty poet of the court were too discordant to admit of friendship, and no trace appears of any subsequent correspondence between them until 1542, when Marot was again obliged to seek safety in flight from his native country. Calvin returned to Basle about the month of May, and shortly afterwards the French colony at Ferrara was broken up.

Marot retired to Venice. Here, besides security, Marot found congenial society, but he still felt himself an exile, and longed to revisit his family and native land. Neither a poetical epistle which he addressed to the king from Ferrara, nor the intercession of Marguerite proved of any avail. He now besought the good offices of the Dauphin, but received no reply, and that young prince died shortly afterwards. At last the efforts of his friends proved successful, and in the latter part of 1536 Marot was permitted to return to France. After a short stay at Lyons he resumed his residence in Paris, and in the following year was reinstated in his former position at the court. 

We have already seen that in 1533 Marot had published a metrical version of Psalm 6. He seems to have occupied himself between that time and 1539 in similarly translating other psalms. Whether he undertook this task at the suggestion of Queen Marguerite or of some other person, whether he intended his work to supply a want which he felt to exist in the religious services of the Reformers, or whether it was merely that the poetry of the Hebrew psalms commended itself to his taste, it is of no great importance to ask. Marot himself knew nothing of Hebrew, but the revival of learning a few years before had deprived the theologians, much to their indignation, of the monopoly of interpreting the “forbidden languages,” as they termed Hebrew and Greek, and had given an impetus to a spirit of inquiry far from pleasing to the Doctors of the Sorbonne. In 1534 Vatable published a Latin version of the Psalms, and it is not improbable that to this eminent scholar Marot was indebted for assistance in his work.

About 1539 Marot completed his first instalment of the psalms, thirty in number, and submitted the manuscript to the king and the members of the royal family. His translations were at once received with favour, especially by the Dauphin (afterwards Henry II), who took great pleasure in singing them himself. Where princes lead the court follows. Marot’s psalms became the fashion, but in a manner very characteristic of Parisian society of the time. Each courtier adopted a psalm, which he sang to some light tune as he would a favourite ballad. We cannot suppose that the religious element had much to say to the practice. At the beginning of the year 1540, when Charles V visited Paris, Marot, by the king’s command, presented him with a copy of these translations. The emperor rewarded the poet by a present of two hundred golden doubloons, and ordered a psalm to be written expressly for himself.

Had Marot’s psalms remained in manuscript and their use been confined to the court, they might have escaped the notice of the Church, but about the beginning of 1542 there appeared “Trente Pseaulmes de Dauid, mis en francoys par Clement Marot, valet de chambre du Roy,” Paris, Roffet, with dedication to Francis I. Of this, the first author’s edition of Marot’s psalms, a copy, probably unique, still survives in the National Library at Paris. It contains the following psalms: 1 to 15, 19, 22, 24, 32, 37, 38, 51, 103, 104, 113, 114, 115, 130, 137, and 143. To facilitate the singing of the psalms Marot added some metrical notices to the headings of twenty of them, but the volume contains neither melodies nor references to melodies.

Marot had completed his thirty psalms in 1539, but probably abstained from publishing them then on account of the numerous edicts that had been issued against printing Bibles and other religious works. He may have thought that the time had now arrived when he might safely send his manuscripts to the press. The king and the court had found no heresy in them, and the licence for their publication was certified by three doctors of theology, but, unfortunately, just about this time Francis was again falling under the influence of the party of persecution, several rigorous edicts against heretics and heretical books were promulgated in the course of the year 1542, and two persons were burnt in Paris. Under such circumstances the publication of Marot’s psalms, and their consequent dissemination among the people, would be certain to alarm the Sorbonne. Former experience was not forgotten, and Marot left Paris with the intention of retiring to Cahors, but hearing on the way that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, he turned aside, and crossing the frontier, left France never to return. From its own point of view the Sorbonne was right. The psalms of Marot became one of the most powerful instruments in promoting the Reformation in France. 

Marot appears to have spent about three months in Savoy, and arrived at Geneva towards the end of November, 1542. Here he found his thirty psalms already employed in the service of the Church, but with a text which Calvin then, no doubt for the first time, discovered to be spurious. Proposals were soon made to the poet to continue his translations, and even King Francis seems to have intimated his wishes to Marot to the same effect. The work was accordingly commenced, and in August, 1543, Marot published his “Cinquante Pseaumes,” containing—with an epistle to the ladies of France, and another to the King—a revised edition of the thirty psalms, twenty new ones (of which the Song of Simeon was counted as one), the Commandments, the Articles of Faith, the Lord’s Prayer, the Salutation of the Virgin, and Prayers before and after meat. The new psalms were 18, 23, 25, 33, 36, 43, 45, 46, 50, 72, 79, 86, 91, 101, 107, 110, 118, 128, and 138, which with the Song of Simeon make up the number of fifty. It will be observed that the five psalms translated by Calvin in 1539 (25, 36, 46, 91, and 138) are here replaced by new versions, and now disappear from the Genevan psalter, although they were retained in a new edition of the Strasburg psalter, published in 1545.

Of Marot’s intercourse with Calvin during his stay at Geneva almost nothing is known. Neither in his writings ever speaks of the other, and even in the preface to the psalter Calvin makes no allusion to Marot. Nor is this surprising. Except in their adherence to the reformed doctrines the two men had nothing in common. Autocratic by nature, Calvin tolerated no dissent either in faith or discipline. Unbending in his logic and confident in the absolute truth of his premises, he pushed his conclusions to their extreme limits, without regard to their practical results; and, consistent in his own asceticism, had no sympathy for the contradictions, still less for the weaknesses, of human nature. To Marot, outspoken, genial, and tolerant, the iron fetters which then bound Geneva must have been unendurable; his relations with Calvin could never have been cordial, and his associates were chiefly among those to whom the tyranny of the reformer and the Council were odious. One of these friends was cited before the Council in December, on a charge of having, in his own house, played at dice with Marot. The dice, it turned out, were used for a game of backgammon. About two months before this, Calvin, who was anxious that the translation of the whole Psalter should be completed, applied to the Council to give Marot an engagement for the purpose, but that parsimonious body refused to grant the necessary remuneration. In such an atmosphere Marot could not live, and soon afterwards returned to Savoy. A short poem, addressed to the King, which he then wrote, and in which he expressed his opinion that Geneva was exactly the reverse of Paradise, must have been highly displeasing to Calvin and the fanatical party who looked on their city as a foretaste of the New Jerusalem.

Marot’s career was now drawing to a close. He seems to have abandoned all hope of obtaining permission to return to France, a favour which he could only have purchased by the sacrifice of his principles. While at Chambéry he produced a few poetical pieces, including one on the birth of the Dauphin’s eldest son, afterwards Francis II, another on the victory gained by the French at Cérisoles in April, I544. He then removed to Turin, where he died after a short illness, in the month of August following. His remains were interred in the church of St. John, with every mark of respect from the members of the French government then established at Turin, and a poetical epitaph, written by his friend Lyon Jamet, was placed over the spot where at last he found repose. 

by George Arthur Crawford
The Musical Times
(June–August, 1881), excerpts.

Featured Psalms & Hymns:

Or laisse Createur

Collections of Psalms & Hymns:

Le Miroir de tres chrestienne princesse Marguerite de France (1533): WorldCat

Aulcuns pseaulmes et cantiques mys en chant

Strasbourg (1539): WorldCat
Facsimile by Jullien (Geneva, 1919): PDF

Psalmes de David translatez de plusieurs autheurs, et principallement de Cl. Marot (Anvers, 1541)

Trente pseaulmes de David, mis en francoys par Clément Marot (1541): PDF

La manyere de faire prieres . . . ensemble pseaumes et cantiques

Strasbourg (1542): WorldCat
Facsimile (1981): WorldCat

La forme des prières et chants ecclésiastiques

Geneva (1542): WorldCat
Bärenreiter facsimile (1959): WorldCat

La forme des prières et chants ecclésiastiques (Strasbourg, 1545)

Pseaulmes cinquante de David mis en musique par Loys Bourgeoys (Lyon, 1547): WorldCat

Pseaumes de David . . . avec plusieurs autres compositions (Strasbourg, 1548)

Pseaulmes cinquante de David, mis en vers françois par Cl. Marot (Lyon, 1549): WorldCat

Pseaumes octantetrois de David

Geneva (1551): WorldCat
Rutgers Facsimile (1973): WorldCat | BNF

Pseaumes de David . . . par C. Marot, avec plusieurs cantiques (Strasbourg, 1553): WorldCat

Pseaumes octantetrois de David, plus 6 ps. nouvellement traduits par Th. de Bèze (Geneva, 1554)

Octanteneuf Pseaumes de David (Geneva, 1556): WorldCat

Les Pseaumes mis en rime françois

Geneva (1562): WorldCat
Facsimile Libairie Droz (1986): WorldCat


O. Douen, Clément Marot et le Psautier huguenot (Paris, 1878-1879).

Volume 1: PDF
Volume 2: PDF

Richard R. Terry, Calvin’s First Psalter (London: Ernest Benn, 1932): WorldCat

Pierre Pidoux, Le Psautier huguenot du XVIe siècle, 3 vols. (Bärenreiter, 1962): WorldCat

Gérard Defaux, Clément Marot: Œuvres poétiques complètes, 2 vols. (Paris: Garnier, 1993): WorldCat

Related Resources:

“Clement Marot and the Huguenot Psalter,” The Musical Times, vol. 22, nos. 460-465 (June-Nov. 1881): PDF

H. Leigh Bennett, “French Psalters,” ed. John Julian, A Dictionary of Hymnology (London, 1892), pp. 932-936: Google Books

Waldo Selden Pratt, “The significance of the old French psalter,” Papers of the Hymn Society (NY: The Hymn Society, 1933): PDF

John H. Gerstner Jr., “Singing the words God has put in our mouths: A personalized account of the 1551 Genevan Psalter,” The Hymn, vol. 4, no. 1 (Jan. 1953), pp. 69-76: HathtiTrust

Cecil M. Roper, “Strasbourg and the origin of metrical psalmody,” The Hymn, vol. 49, no. 4 (Oct. 1998), pp. 12-17: HathiTrust

Duck Schuler, “The history of the Genevan psalter,” Credenda Agenda, vol. 13, no. 2 (2007): PDF

Karin Maag, Lifting Hearts to the Lord: Worship with John Calvin in Sixteenth-Century Geneva (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2016): Amazon

Édith Weber, “Clément Marot,” The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology:ément-marot