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Case 3 - Versifying the Psalms

The Psalms were a form of religious verse from the Old Testament that was attractive to Protestant and Catholic readers alike in different countries. A number of women writers found comfort and inspiration in composing their own versions in a variety of verse forms. The seven Penitential Psalms asking God for mercy were especially popular. They are usually the Psalms numbered 6, 31, 37, 50, 101, 129 and 142 in the Vulgate version. Working with the Psalms also provided an opportunity for women to have a political voice. Esther Inglis made some of her calligraphic masterpieces for supporters of the English Protestant cause, while Laura Battiferri, a major patron of the Jesuits, dedicated her Penitential Psalms to Vittoria Farnese Della Rovere, granddaughter of Pope Paul III, who convened the Council of Trent, leading to reforms in the Catholic Church.

Jean Calvin. Sermons de Jehan Calvin. English. London, 1560

Bible. O.T. Psalms. Italian. Selections. 1566. Florence, 1566

Thomas Bentley. Monument of matrones. Part 1-4. London, 1582

Esther Inglis. Argumenta psalmorum Davidis. Manuscript, 1608.

Esther Inglis. Argumenta psalmorum Davidis per tetrasticha manu Estherae Inglis... Manuscript, 1608

Elisabeth Sophie Chéron. Pseaumes de David et Cantiques. Paris, 1694


The book by John Calvin shown above is translated by Ann Locke Prowse who was active in the early Calvinist movement in England. A friend of preacher John Knox, she visited the Protestant stronghold of Geneva and translated both this work and one by a student of Calvin, Jean Taffin. Her sequence of twenty-one sonnets meditating on Psalm 51 was printed at the back of her translation of Calvin’s Sermons on Isaiah. She prays for God to give her a voice:
Lord loose my lippes, I may expresse my mone,
And findyng grace with open mouth I may
Thy mercies praise, and holy name display.


Laura Battiferri also translated the Psalms. She was already recognized as a major poet — a new Sappho — and was connected with the court circles in Florence, and the whole book is dedicated to the pious Vittoria Della Rovere, duchess of Urbino. Battiferri writes to the duchess: “I have set out to translate his [David’s] penitential songs into Tuscan rhymes, with no other purpose than to pray that it please the Divine Bounty to support this hand and open these lips….”† Each individual Psalm is dedicated to a cloistered nun in Florence or Urbino. The dedicatee of Psalm 51, seen above, is Sister Vincentia Biliotti in Florence.


Thomas Bentley's Monument of Matrones includes Morning and Evening Praiers, with Divers Psalms, a book of prayers and Psalms translated by Lady Elizabeth Tyrwhit, one of Queen Katherine Parr’s ladies-in-waiting. Tyrwhit was part of a small group of women at court who shared the queen’s interest in Lutheran-influenced devotional reform. Tyrwhit’s book was first published in 1574, but only one copy of that edition survives.


Other women, like Esther Inglis and Sophie Chéron, translated Psalms and meditated further on them by decorating their books with calligraphy and illustration. Inglis was a skilled calligrapher and she created many manuscripts on religious themes that she gave to English and French courtiers active in the Protestant cause. The embroidered manuscript above is a version of the Psalms (from the French Geneva Bible) full of her intricate calligraphy. It was a gift to Prince Henry, son of King James I. Sophie Chéron's book of Psalms is printed, but is also decorated with engravings. She believed people were inspired by the stories of the Psalms represented in pictures. Although she was herself a gifted painter, poet, and musician, the illustrations in this book were done by her brother.



(Translation by Victoria Kirkham)

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