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Pagnini and the welfare state

July 28, 2014

I have tried drafting a few posts lately but none of them seemed interesting enough. So I gave up and retreated to reading French books in Google books on Santes Pagnini to see where he has been hiding out. This time I found out that he is not best known for having produced the most influential translation of the Bible in the western world. He did that. But he did something else for which he was more celebrated. He and a friend of his, Jean de Vauzelle, another of the preaching brothers, not monks, but Dominicans, who are not cloistered, the two of them were the inspiration and driving force behind the establishment of the first public welfare system in France. They wrested the feeding of the poor out of the hands of the church, which wasn’t doing such a great job, and founded a public system run by the city of Lyon and funded by local wealthy merchants and nobles, the church, and a tax rebate from Paris. He persuaded a relative, a fellow Florentine, to build a new hospital and make sure the poor were cared for. Someone went around house to house in Lyon and registered the poor, handed out bread once a week, set up homes and schools for poor children, and hired doctors for the hospitals, one of them being François Rabelais. Approximately 5% to 7% of Lyon was on welfare at the time due to recent crop failures and famine.

Pagnini went to Lyon because he knew there was a printing press with Hebrew fonts and a patron who would support his work. But ostensibly, he was sent to Lyon by the pope to suppress Lutheranism. Luther was calling for the abolition of the mendicant, (begging) orders, such as the Dominicans, since they were doing such a terrible job of caring for the poor. He supported the secularization of welfare.

So, Pagnini, against the wishes of his own prior, Nicolas Morin, an inquisitor no less, simply advocated for the secularization of care for the poor as well, preached compassion and education, mixed socially with the populace and made sure that Lutheran influence in the city was always low key and did not gain ground. No one could complain about the Dominicans of Lyon not caring for the poor. As well as secularizing welfare, he had wealthy citizens build and staff new hospitals. In this way he supported humanism and moderate Catholicism in Lyon during his lifetime and the city rewarded him by making him a citizen, giving him a living allowance and all he wine he could drink, so he was no longer a “begging” priest, but one who was well supported and could give his free time to teach Hebrew to his students, some of whom later became Hebrew professors themselves. Many of the same men were medical doctors, and wrote medical pamphlets on surgery, etc. mixing theology and medicine.

It happens that in these same years, 1520 to 1550, women poets were first published in France. The Lyon school of poets included many women, who participated with men in a salon of poetry readings, also producing poetry for publication. I fell into flights of fancy and wrote a poem which reflects Pagnini’s translation of the Psalms, in particular the first few lines of Ps. 42 and Ps. 22.

Here are the disputed lines,

כְּאַיָּל, תַּעֲרֹג עַל-אֲפִיקֵי-מָיִם–

כֵּן נַפְשִׁי תַעֲרֹג אֵלֶיךָ אֱלֹהִים

As the deer (masculine) desires (feminine) the springs of water

So my soul (fem.) desires (fem.) you, O God.

The problem is that the feminine of deer ends with the letter ת tau, and the verb  “desires” in the feminine begins with the tau. Since there is only one tau in the first line, the reader has to chose, either the tau is mistakenly added out of nowhere and the deer is really masculine, or two tau’s are reduced to one tau, and the deer is feminine. This is called haplography, writing a letter once when it should be written twice. Most exegetes see the point, but in English the word “deer,” gender indefinite, is just too handy. However, in Hebrew the feminine “doe” has an echo in the feminine soul, so the feminine is more poetic. Here are some of the translations,


Quemadmodum desiderat cervus ad fontes aquarum,

ita desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.


Quemadmodum cerva desiderat ad torrrentes aquarum,

ita anima mea desiderat anima mea ad te, Deus.

Luther Bible

Wie der Hirsch schreit nach frischem Wasser,

so schreit meine Seele, Gott, zu dir.


As the hart panteth after the water brooks,

so panteth my soul after thee, O God.

Geneva Bible

Comme une biche soupire après des courants d’eau,

Ainsi mon âme soupire après toi, ô Dieu!

  Conferenza Episcopale Italiana

Come la cerva anela ai corsi d’acqua,

così l’anima mia anela a te, o Dio.

The French and Italian have translations which reflect the Hebrew, “doe,” but for English and German, I haven’t found any translations with “doe” or the equivalent. Perhaps I will later. Pagnini also introduced the expression, the “doe of dawn” in the heading of Ps.22. For this reason, I wrote a poem imagining what it would be like to be a woman during the Reformation. It was not uncommon for girls from wealthy families to have a Greek tutor, but never a Hebrew tutor. That was mostly taught in other venues, inaccessible to women. My friend was over for supper a few days ago, and we reminisced about how we had studied, one of us Greek, and the other Hebrew, for 7 years, along with several years of the other language as well. We were lucky. Here is my poem,

Dawn’s doe desires the rushing water
She is not filled by the stagnant pool
Ancient wisdom’s anxious daughter
Will not be this ages fool.

Open those pages to her as well
And keep not the seal of unknown forms
The wandering mind will not dwell
In shelter from the word-waged storms

Text is the tumbled torrent where
Three flow together in equal share.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Craig Wiley permalink
    July 29, 2014 12:28 am

    The musical rendition version of Ps. 42 by the Trees Community uses “Doe”. so I looked, and it looks like they’re using the original Jerusalem Bible (not the New Jerusalem Bible), a Catholic translation, which also has Doe:

    42:1 As a doe longs for running streams, so longs my soul for you, my God.
    42:2 My soul thirsts for God, the God of life; when shall I go to see the face of God?

  2. July 29, 2014 9:56 am

    Well, we readers of your post are lucky. Thank you for your poem. And thanks also, Suzanne, for your earlier post on “doe” in this psalm:

  3. July 29, 2014 4:32 pm

    Hi Craig,

    That makes sense since the Jerusalem Bible was published in French first and the French translations typically do say “doe” here. And I should add that the Jerusalem Bible was also translated by Dominicans, the same order as Pagnini.

  4. August 7, 2014 6:33 pm

    Hi Suzanne,
    This morning, I was reading the translation by our co-blogger, Craig (The Inclusive Bible: The First Egalitarian Translation). Here’s what he has:

    Like a stag, a doe,
    longing for streams of cool water,
    my whole being longs for you, my God.
    My soul aches with thirst for God,
    for a god that lives!
    When can I go see God fact to face?

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