The Crommelin Branch in Switzerland
and the Hebrew Psalter of 1637

by Miff Crommelin

The opportunity came our way in October 2012 to buy a Jewish Psalter published in 1637, a book once owned by Pierre Crommelin. Of all the 'Pierres' in our family tree, the most likely candidate is Pierre Crommelin (1683-1733) who was a Protestant minister at Geneva (1718) then a professor of literature at Geneva (1719-1733). His son, Jean-Pierre Crommelin, was a professor of history (1739) and for several years a Charge d'Affaires of the Republic in the court of Versailles [Berlemont, page 172]. There are other 'Pierres' who lived in this era but since this book involves sacred literature, we would expect that it probably belonged to a theologian, not a merchant or entrepreneur which most Crommelins happened to be at the time. If we can accept this premise, then perhaps now would be a good time to review the Crommelin branch in Switzerland.

The Swiss Crommelin Branch

Pierre-Etienne Crommelin (1647 Saint Quentin - 1694 Lausanne)
Pierre-Etienne Crommelin was a tradesman in Lyon where he married his wife, Francoise Signoret. They had eight children: Adrien, Suzanne, Francoise, Pierre, Marc-Antoine, Etienne, Antoine and Jean-Martin.

Adrien, raised in Saint Quentin since his early age, married a daughter of M. Rohart, lawyer, with whom he had a son and a daughter. He was a linen merchant.

Marc-Antoine (1685-1720) became the 'patriarch' of the India, English, Australia, New Zealand and South African branches of the family after he became a Factor with the British East India Company in Bombay.

Pierre Crommelin (1683 Lyon - 1739 Geneva)
According to France Protestante his son, Pierre, was about 14 years old when his mother fled with him to Lausanne, Switzerland in 1697 after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. He later became a pastor in Geneva and a Geneva citizen. He came to Geneva in 1700 (age 17) and was registered in the "Livre du Recteur" on 24th December 1700 as a student in philosophy and theology, and on 8th June 1702 he continued in theology, receiving his school certificate on 24th December 1706. The years 1700-1706, therefore, are the period in which the 1637 Psalter likely came into his possession. Many Psalms have Latin translations written in the margins of the Hebrew text which indicates that this Psalter was certainly 'well used' in a scholarly way at some point in its history. These Latin translations may have been part of some language study assignment by Pierre Crommelin.

Being a Minister of the Gospel, Pierre was allowed into the Geneva Bourgeoisie at the cost of 3000 florins 10 ecu for the library, and a rifle plus game bag for the Arsenal. He was elected pastor in Dardagny in 1711, in Cartigny 1712, in Saconnex 1716, in Geneva City 1718. Thereafter he became Professor in Eloquence and Belles-Lettres (Literature) in 1719 and the rector of the Academy between 1727-1731.

After his death in 1739, the Moderator at the Conseil (government) spoke the following words:

"Pierre's death is a great loss for the Church and for the Académy, where he was one of the principal assets. He spent all his time for the well-being of his students to have them develop clear and unambiguous ideas. He was an honest person, liked everything to be in good order, and maintained a profound reverence for the Conseil. If anything may have hastened his demise, it would have been the sadness he felt as a result of our present problems."

The Psalter, believed to be a text used during Pierre Crommelin's theological studies, 1700-1706,
complete with various Latin translations in the margins. It measures 7 cm wide x 11 cm high x 1.5 cm deep.

Psalm 93 / Psalm 94

We also have a passing reference to Pierre Crommelin or his son that appears in the Memoirs of Isaac Mathieu Crommelin (1730-1815). He happened to escort the 13-year-old son of the famous naturalist, Buffon, to the home of Voltaire at Ferney, a town in France near the Swiss border. When Voltaire greeted the two travellers at his home, he was amused by Isaac's name because he had a friend in Geneva whose name was Crommelin. This could have been Pierre, the theologian, or his son. This visit occurred in 1777 when Voltaire would have been about 83 years old. He died a year later.

It's odd that Voltaire, the famous philosopher, author and playwright, might have counted a theologian amongst his friends because he is reputed to have been a staunch atheist. Others say he was a deist who just happened to dislike the institutionalized church, particularly the Roman Catholic church. Some of his pithy quotations suggest he could be either.

Jean Pierre Crommelin (1716-1768)
Jean-Pierre, Pierre's son [Pierre-Etienne's grandson], distinguished himself in Geneva as a minister of state to the French Court. Jean-Pierre was Honorary Professor in civil history from 1739 to 1751, then member of the CC until 1752, Lord of the Manor of Peney until 1754, member of the XL until 1764, Minister of the Republic at the French Court between 1763-1768, where - upon his death - he was succeeded by Jacques Necker [initially a Geneva banker, and later the Finance Minister of France in the early days of the French Revolution. He was also the father of the renowned author, Madame de Staël. Isaac Mathieu Crommelin happened to know Jacques Necker, in fact, it was Necker who offered Isaac a job to be the collector of salt taxes in Guise, France.]

The Conseil (Government) expressed their satisfaction on various occasions about the way Jean-Pierre handled a number of delicate matters, in particular the way he managed to reinstate the good name of Jean Calas in 1765, and about the useful services he had provided to the Republic. After his death he had a gold medal passed to his sister Elisabeth, his heiress. During his 6 years as Chargé d'Affaires of the Republic in Paris, having succeeded M. Sellon in this capacity, Jean-Pierre had regular correspondence with the Geneva Council on several subjects. [This correspondence is available at the Geneva State Archives.]

The Psalter would have been about 70 years old when it came into Pierre Crommelin's library, and this early date marks it as perhaps the oldest book to bear the signature of a family member. The large Hebrew words on the title page of the 1637 Psalter, left to right, say Sepher Tehillim. This means Book of Psalms. The book opens the opposite way to what we are used to because Hebrew script reads right to left, and the book opens from the right. Joannis Maire, the publishing house in Leiden, Holland, also printed Christian literature. Another one of his specimens that appeared on the internet was Hugo Grotius' early defense of Christianity De Veritate Religionis Christianae published in 1640.

Lugdunum Batavorum is the Latin name for Leiden, Holland, where the publishing firm of Joannis Maire was located. Leiden was a thriving industrial center which featured a University and where people worked in the textile, printing and brewing trades. Leiden is where the settlers who sailed on the good ship Mayflower originated. Bound for America, they sailed into history in 1620, thus our Psalter was printed there only 17 years after this historic event.

Leiden is also where Rembrandt van Rijn was born in 1606, and where he lived for 26 years before achieving fame in Amsterdam. Rembrandt's first home in Amsterdam was on Vlooienburg 'Island' - 4 square blocks near the center of the city surrounded by canals and connected by little bridges. Vlooienburg was where 800 of Amsterdam's 1000 Jews lived, and this is where Rembrandt and Saskia rented a home from 1637-1639 on the Lange Houtstraat, along the Houtgracht canal. There were 3 synagogues on the Houtgracht and a school known as Etz Hayyim, the 'Tree of Life'. Rembrandt's masterpiece, Belshazzar's Feast reminds us of the knowledge and respect he had regarding his Hebrew neighbours.

"Belshazzar's Feast" by Rembrandt, 1635

One wonders how much Jewish literature dating back to the 1600's still exists. Although we don't know how the 1637 Psalter got over to Lincolnshire, England, the story behind it is that the vendor, a man who lives in Sheffield, happened to be the best man at the wedding of a friend about 25 years ago. After the wedding service, the priest approached the man with this book and gave it to him simply because he was the first Jewish best man he had ever seen in his church! He was happy to give it to him as a memento of the occasion, and because he could read the Hebrew script. The Psalter is now in the possession of Miff Crommelin, Canada, in a region of the world that was unknown to Europeans at the time the Psalter was published.