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Catullus Transformed: Antiquity Resurrected for Reformation in Theodore Beza’s 1579 Psalmorum Davidis et Aliorum Prophetarum Libri Quinque

Michael Spangler

Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary

The purpose of this paper is to present a portion of my current research on Theodore Beza’s 1579 Latin verse translation of the biblical Psalms. I will argue for the clear influence of Catullus in Beza’s Latin Psalms, which is a proof not only of the enduring value of pagan poetry for the Genevan reformer, but more broadly, of the new and abundant life which the classical world enjoyed in the sixteenth-century Reformed church.

My research makes an important contribution to the field of Neo-Latin studies in two main ways. First, it adds to the growing recognition of the important place of Theodore Beza (1519-1605) in the sixteenth century. Beza was the fellow pastor and successor of John Calvin in Geneva, the first rector of Geneva’s famous Academy, a systematizing theologian and important link between Calvin and later Reformed theology, a voluminous correspondent, an influential political theorist, and before all these things a poet, who not only wrote the larger part of the enormously influential French Genevan Psalter, but also composed Latin verse throughout his long life. Even so, in the past century if Beza was mentioned at all, it was usually in order to critique his predestinarian theology (Blacketer). More recent historical theology, however, has emphasized the pastoral character of Beza’s writings (Wright), a recent biography has described Beza’s role as both poet and theologian (Dufour), other works have analyzed Beza’s humanism (Manetsch 2000, Summers 1991), and still others have focused on portions of his Latin poetry (Summers 2016, 2001). It is clear from these works that Beza’s remarkable contributions to Neo-Latin literature are ripe for study.

Second, my research gives needed attention to a Neo-Latin genre that was very important in the sixteenth century but today largely ignored: the Latin verse Psalm paraphrase. This genre flourished in Beza’s day among educated Europeans, both Protestant and Catholic (Green), and Beza’s Latin Psalter was one of the five most popular ever published (Gaertner). However, despite its importance, on this fascinating book there has been written only one short article (Duncumb). There exists no comprehensive study, no critical edition, and no more than a few mentions in studies of other works (e.g. Engammare 2007, 2009). Indeed, these Latin Psalms are, in the words of Alain Dufour, “today totally forgotten.”

The paper I hope to present will include an introduction to Theodore Beza focusing on his early love for Catullus (3 minutes), an overview of his Latin verse Psalms (3 minutes), and a discussion of how in them Beza sang biblical praise in a Catullan voice (10 minutes). The first evidence I will present is Beza’s abundant use of the distinctly Catullan meter, the phalaecian hendecasyllable. It is the third most frequent of his forty-seven distinct meters, used in 22 of his 171 settings. Second, I will demonstrate allusions to Catullus’ Carmina through broad stylistic features, including some that were common in in the broader Renaissance imitation of Catullus (Ford). These include the use of diminutives, an interrupted style that resembles dialogue, “all-around” words like undiquaque (Psalm 91:4), bi-directional phrases like modo hinc et inde (Psalm 16:8), and frequent repetition, even of nearly entire lines. Third, I will discuss allusions which appear to be direct citations of Catullus, such as Beza’s use of the phrase omnibus cacchinis from Carmen 13:5 in Psalm 2:4.

Finally, I will briefly propose some conclusions for properly understanding the sixteenth-century Reformed reception of pagan antiquity. In Beza’s “Catullan Psalms” we find a use of antiquity that could be called characteristically Reformed. Beza employed ancient authors in the service of contemporary biblical reformation, at the center of which stood the worship of God. To put it simply, through Beza’s Psalms, Catullus was able, finally, to do what Beza believed he was made for: to sing the praise of his Creator.

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The World of Neo-Latin: Current Research

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