Diarmaid MacCulloch on the Psalter as the secret weapon of the Reformation

"The outbreak of war in 1562 was the culmination of a decade of extraordinary growth in French Protestantism. There may have been two million adherents in around a thousand congregations by 1562, while in the early 1550s there had been only a handful of secret groups; the phenomenon is even more spectacular in scale than the sudden emergence of popular Protestantism in Scotland in the same year that had so astonished John Knox. How had such rapid expansion taken place? Public preaching had not been possible on a significant scale to spread the message in France; there had not been enough ministers, and limited opportunities to gather to listen to sermons. Books played a major part, but the two central texts, the Bible and Calvin's Institutes, were bulky and expensive and could not have had a major circulation in the years of persecution before 1560, while a massive increase in Bible publication came only after 1562. Lesser, more easily concealed pamphlets could be more easily distributed and read, but in one respect the Protestant crowds who emerged to fight their Catholic neighbors ignored what Calvin and the ministers of Geneva wrote. Until open war began, Calvin was relentless in conveying a message of moderation and avoidance of conflict. Very few seem to have listened: the clerical leadership was then swept along against its will by popular militancy marked especially by gleeful smashing of images.

"The explanation for this mass lay activism may lie in the one text which the Reformed found perfectly conveyed their message across all barriers of social status and literacy. This was the Psalter, the book of the 150 Psalms, translated into French verse, set to music and published in unobtrusive pocket-size editions which invariably included the musical notation for the tunes. In the old Latin liturgy the psalms were largely used in monastic services and in private devotional recitation. Now they were redeployed in Reformed Protestantism in this metrical form to articulate the hope, fear, joy and fury of the new movement. They became the secret weapon of the Reformation not merely in France but wherever the Reformed brought new vitality to the Protestant cause. Like so many important components of John Calvin's message, he borrowed the idea from the practice of Strassburg in the 1530s. When he arrived to minister to the French congregation there after his expulsion from Geneva in 1538, he found the French singing these metrical psalms, which has been pioneered by a cheerfully unruly convert to evangelical belief, the poet Cl√©ment Marot. Calvin took the practice back to Geneva when he returned there to reconstitute its Reformation. Theodore Beza finally produced a complete French metrical psalter in 1562, and during the crisis of 1562–3, he set up a publishing syndicate of thirty printers through France and Geneva to capitalize on the psalm-singing phenomenon: the resulting mass-production and distribution was a remarkable feat of technology and organization.

"The metrical psalm was the perfect vehicle for turning the Protestant message into a mass movement capable of embracing the illiterate alongside the literate. What better than the very words of the Bible as sung by the hero-King David? The psalms were easily memorized, so that an incriminating printed text could rapidly be dispensed with. They were customarily sung in unison to a large range of dedicated tunes (newly composed, to emphasize the break with the religious past, in contrast to Martin Luther's practice of reusing old church melodies which he loved). The words of a particular psalm could be associated with a particular melody; even to hum the tune spoke of the words of the psalm behind it, and was an act of Protestant subversion. A mood could be summoned up in an instant: Psalm 68 led a crowd into battle, Psalm 124 led to victory, Psalm 115 scorned dumb and blind idols and made the perfect accompaniment for smashing up church interiors. The psalms could be sung in worship or in the market-place; instantly they marked out the singer as a Protestant, and equally instantly united a Protestant crowd in ecstatic companionship just as the football chant does today on the stadium terraces. They were the common property of all, both men and women: women could not preach or rarely even lead prayer, but they could sing alongside their menfolk. To sing a psalm was a liberation—to break away from the mediation of priest or minister and to become a king alongside King David, talking directly to his God. It was perhaps significant that one of the distinctive features of French Catholic persecution in the 1540s had been that those who were about to be burned had their tongues cut out first."

—Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (Penguin Books: 2003), 307–308


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