François Villon (pronounced [fʁɑ̃swa vijɔ̃] in modern French; in fifteenth-century French, [frɑnswɛ vilɔn]), born in Paris in 1431 and disappeared from view in 1463, is the best known French poet of the late Middle Ages. A ne'er-do-well who was involved in criminal behavior and had multiple encounters with law enforcement authorities, Villon wrote about some of these experiences in his poems.
Villon's real name may have been François de Montcorbier or François des Loges: both of these names appear in official documents drawn up in Villon's lifetime. In his own work, however, Villon is the only name the poet used, and he mentions it frequently in his work. His two collections of poems, especially "Le Testament" (also known as "Le grand testament"), have traditionally been read as if they were autobiographical. Other details of his life are known from court or other civil documents.
From what the poems tell us, it appears that Villon was born in poverty and raised by a foster father, but that his mother was still living when her son was thirty years old. The surname "Villon," the poet tells us, is the name he adopted from his foster father, Guillaume de Villon, chaplain in the collegiate church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, and a professor of canon law, who took Villon into his house. François describes Guillaume de Villon as "more than a father to me".
Villon became a student in arts, perhaps at about twelve years of age. He received a bachelor's degree from the University of Paris in 1449 and a master's degree in 1452. Between this year and 1455, nothing is known of his activities. As the author of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article writes, "Attempts have been made, in the usual fashion of conjectural biography, to fill up the gap with what a young graduate of Bohemian tendencies would, could, or might have done, but they are mainly futile."
Alleged criminal activities
On 5 June 1455, the first major recorded incident of his life occurred. In the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met, in the Rue Saint-Jacques, a Breton, Jean le Hardi, a master of arts, who was also with a priest, Philippe Chermoye (or Sermoise or Sermaise). A scuffle broke out, daggers were drawn and Sermaise, who is accused of having threatened and attacked Villon and drawn the first blood, not only received a dagger-thrust in return, but a blow from a stone, which struck him down. He died of his wounds. Villon fled, and was sentenced to banishment – a sentence which was remitted in January 1456 by a pardon from King Charles VII after he received the second of two petitions which made the claim that Sermoise had forgiven Villon before he died.
Two different versions of the formal pardon exist; in one, the culprit is identified as "François des Loges, autrement dit Villon" ("François des Loges, otherwise called Villon"), in the other as "François de Montcorbier." He is also said to have named himself to the barber-surgeon who dressed his wounds as "Michel Mouton." The documents of this affair at least confirm the date of his birth, by presenting him as twenty-six years old or thereabouts.
Around Christmas 1456, the chapel of the Collège de Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. Villon was involved in the robbery and many scholars believe that he fled from Paris soon afterward and that this is when he composed what is now known as the Petit Testament ("The Smaller Testament") or Lais ("Legacy" or "Bequests"). The robbery was not discovered until March of the next year, and it was not until May that the police came on the track of a gang of student-robbers, owing to the indiscretion of one of them, Guy Tabarie. A year more passed, when Tabarie, after being arrested, turned king's evidence and accused the absent Villon of being the ringleader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange similar burglaries there. Villon, for either this or another crime, was sentenced to banishment; he did not attempt to return to Paris. For four years, he was a wanderer. He may have been, as his friends Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux were, a member of a wandering gang of thieves.
Le Testament, 1461
The next date for which there are recorded whereabouts for Villon is the summer of 1461; Villon wrote that he spent that summer in the bishop's prison at Meung-sur-Loire. His crime is not known, but in Le Testament ("The Testament") dated that year he inveighs bitterly against Bishop Thibault d'Aussigny, who held the see of Orléans. Villon may have been released as part of a general jail-delivery at the accession of King Louis XI and became a free man again on 2 October 1461.
In 1461, he wrote his most famous work, Le Testament (or Le Grand Testament, as it is also known). In the autumn of 1462, he was once more living in the cloisters of Saint-Benoît and in November, he was imprisoned for theft in the fortress that stood at what is now Place du Châtelet in Paris. In default of evidence, the old charge of burgling the college of Navarre was revived, and no royal pardon arrived to counter the demand for restitution. Bail was accepted; however, Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel. He was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged ("pendu et étranglé"), but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on 5 January 1463.
Villon's fate after January 1463 is unknown. Rabelais retells two stories about him which are usually dismissed as without any basis in fact. Anthony Bonner speculated the poet, as he left Paris, was "broken in health and spirit." Bonner writes further:
- He might have died on a mat of straw in some cheap tavern, or in a cold, dank cell; or in a fight in some dark street with another French coquillard; or perhaps, as he always feared, on a gallows in a little town in France. We will probably never know.
Villon was a great innovator in terms of the themes of poetry and, through these themes, a great renovator of the forms. He understood perfectly the medieval courtly ideal, but he often chose to write against the grain, reversing the values and celebrating the lowlifes destined for the gallows, falling happily into parody or lewd jokes, and constantly innovating in his diction and vocabulary; a few minor poems make extensive use of Parisian thieves' slang. Still Villon's verse is mostly about his own life, a record of poverty, trouble, and trial which was certainly shared by his poems' intended audience.
In 1461, at the age of thirty, Villon composed the longer work which came to be known as Le grand testament (1461–1462). This has generally been judged Villon's greatest work, and there is evidence in the work itself that Villon felt the same.
Besides Le Lais and Le grand testament, surviving works of Villon include 16 shorter poems, varying from the serious to the light-hearted, and 11 poems in thieves' jargon which were attributed to Villon from a very early time, but which many scholars now believe to be the work of other poets imitating Villon.
Mysteries in Villon
Villon's poems are sprinkled with mysteries and hidden jokes: they are peppered with the slang of the time and the underworld subculture in which Villon moved, replete with private jokes, and full of the names of real people (rich men, royal officials, lawyers, prostitutes, and policemen) from medieval Paris.
Complete works: recent translations
A new English translation by David Georgi came out in 2013. The book also includes Villon's French, printed across from the English, and notes in the back provide a wealth of information about the poems and about medieval Paris. "More than any translation, Georgi's emphasizes Villon's famous gallows humor...his word play, jokes, and puns". For the complete works, another option is Barbara Sargent-Baur's very literal translation (1994, now out of print) which also includes 11 poems long attributed to Villon but possibly the work of a medieval imitator.
Complete works: older translations
A translation by the American poet Galway Kinnell (1965, revised in 1977) contains most of Villon's works but lacks the shorter poems. Peter Dale's ingenious verse translation (1974) follows the poet's rhyme scheme faithfully, though the necessity of finding rhymes requires him to frequently stray from literal faithfulness. Other fine translations include one by Anthony Bonner, published in 1960, and another by John Herron Lepper, from 1926. One drawback common to these English older translations is that they are all based on old editions of Villon's texts: that is, the French text that they translate (the Longnon-Foulet edition of 1932) is a text established by scholars some 80 years ago.
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
The refrain "Where are the snows of yester-year?" is one of the most famous lines of translated poetry in the English-speaking world. It comes from The Ballad of Dead Ladies, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's translation of Villon's Ballade des dames du temps jadis, where the line is: "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?"
A very loose but lively English take-off on a scattered selection of Villon poems was made by Stephen Rodefer in 1976, under the pen name Jean Calais. Translations of three Villon poems were made in 1867 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Translations of three other poems by Villon, plus translations of two into rhyming cant by William Ernest Henley can be read on Anthony Weir's website.
Klaus Kinski, the German actor, was an admirer of Villon and performed his work many times. There are recordings of Kinski reciting Villon on cd and vinyl.
Villon's poems enjoyed substantial popularity in the decades after they were written. In 1489, a printed volume of his poems was published by Pierre Levet. This edition was almost immediately followed by several others. In 1533, poet and humanist scholar Clément Marot published an important edition, in which he recognized Villon as one of the most important poets in French literature and sought to correct mistakes that had been introduced to the poetry by earlier and less careful printers.
Adaptations and tributes
In 1960, the Greek artist Nonda dedicated an entire one man art show to François Villon with the support of André Malraux. This took place under the arches of the Pont Neuf and was dominated by a gigantic ten-meter canvas entitled Hommage à Villon depicting the poet at a banquet table with his concubines.
In popular culture
Daniela Fischerová wrote a play in Czech that focused on Villon's trial called Hodina mezi psem a vlkem—translated to "Dog and Wolf" but literally translates as "The Hour Between Dog and Wolf." The Juilliard School in New York City mounted a production of the play directed by Michael Mayer with music by Michael Philip Ward in 1994.
Bertolt Brecht's Baal was written from 1918 to 1919. He based the main character Baal after François Villon. Some of the lyrics Brecht wrote for "Threepenny Opera" are translations or paraphrases of poems by Villon. John Erskine wrote The Brief Hour of Francois Villon in 1937, a work of historical fiction. Henry Livings' The Quick and the Dead Quick (1961), is an unconventional historical drama about François Villon.
The Italian singer-songwriter Fabrizio De André composed the concept album Tutti morimmo a stento whose lyrics are inspired by the poetry of François Villon (with one of the songs in the album entitled La ballata degli impiccati, Ballade des pendus).
The Russian bard singer Bulat Okudzhava has a song called "The Prayer of François Villon" (in Russian: "Молитва Франсуа Вийона" Molitva Fransua Viyona) (covered by Regina Spektor in 2012 on the album What We Saw from the Cheap Seats). For English translation of the song, go to , translated and performed by Mika Tubinshlak.
Villon was an influence on American musician Bob Dylan.
The German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann wrote a ballad over Villon, "Ballade auf den Dichter François Villon" in 1968, available on the "Chauseestrasse 131" LP.
The French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens has a song called "Ballade des dames du temps jadis", where he puts Villon's poem into music.
Claude Debussy composed the "Trois Ballades de François Villon", published in 1910, based on Villon's poetry.
The Swiss composer Frank Martin's Poemes de la mort, for the unusual combination of three tenors and three electric guitars, is based on three Villon poems.
"Ballade de Mercy" is sung authentically in medieval French by Neo-Medieval German band CORVUS CORAX
The 1925 operetta The Vagabond King is also based on the McCarthy play, and it too has been filmed twice – in 1930, with Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald, and in 1956, with Oreste Kirkop and Kathryn Grayson. However, in the operetta, Villon is appointed king for twenty-four hours, and must solve all of Louis XI's political problems in that amount of time.
Ezra Pound included passages from Le Testament in the libretto of his opera of the same name, to demonstrate radical changes in the relationship of words and music under Villon's pen, changes that Pound believed profoundly influenced English poetry. Pound composed the original score in London between 1920 and 1921, with the help of pianist Agnes Bedford. It then underwent a succession of revisions to better document the rhythmic relationships between words and music. These included a concert version for the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1926, a rhythmically complicated score edited by George Antheil in 1923, a hybrid version of these earlier scores for broadcast by the BBC in 1931, and a final version, fully edited by Pound, in 1933. The 1923 Pound/Antheil version was premiered in 1971 by the San Francisco Opera Western Opera Theater, conducted and recorded by Robert Hughes (Fantasy Records), with Phillip Booth in the role of Villon. Portions of this LP have been re-released on Other Minds audio CD "Ego scriptor cantilenae, The music of Ezra Pound." The opera was first published in March 2008.
In Richard Strauss opera Der Rosenkavalier, (libretto by Hugo von Hofmanssthal) at the end of Act I the Marschallin sings: "such' dir den Schnee vom vergangenen Jahr", an allusion to the refrain from the Ballade des dames du temps jadis.
In 1901, the playwright and Irish MP Justin Huntly McCarthy wrote a novel (and then a play), If I Were King, imagining a swashbuckling Villon matching wits with Louis XI, climaxing with Villon finding love in Louis' court and saving Paris from the Duke of Burgundy when Louis makes him Constable of France for a week. Though largely fictitious (there is no evidence Villon and Louis even met), this proved to be a long-running success for the actor Sir George Alexander and a perennial on stage and screen for the next several decades.
The preface of Hunter S Thompson's book, Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs, uses a rather loose (though now popularised) translation of Villon's Ballade du concours de Blois:
In my own country I am in a far-off land // I am strong but have no force or power // I win all yet remain a loser // At break of day I say goodnight // When I lie down I have a great fear // Of falling.
In a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, "A Lodging for the Night", Francis Villon (anglicized spelling), searching for shelter on a freezing winter night, knocks randomly at the door of an old nobleman. Invited in, they talk long into the night. Villon openly admits to being a thief and a scoundrel, but argues that the chivalric values upheld by the old man are no better. The story appears in the collection New Arabian Nights (1882).
In Ryūnosuke Akutagawa's The Life of a Stupid Man, published in 1927 after his suicide, Akutagawa mentions being truly moved by Villon's work. He writes "He found in that poet's many works the 'beautiful male'" and states he feels like he is waiting to be hanged like Villon, unable to keep fighting in life.
In Osamu Dazai's "Villon's Wife", a young woman who is married to a dilettante comes to understand his destitute ways when she takes on the duty of paying off his debts. The ne'er-do-well is a womanizing writer who is unsuccessful. The setting is occupation period Japan.
He is a major character in Mappamundi by Christopher Harris, which depicts Villon's life after his disappearance.
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller's protagonist Yossarian laments the death of one of his bomber's flight crew, Snowden, with "Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?" as well as in French, "Où sont les Neiges d'antan?"
In Antonio Skármeta's novel, El cartero de Neruda, Villon is mentioned as having been hanged for crimes much less serious than seducing the daughter of the local bar owner.
In Edward Rutherfurd's 2013 novel "Paris," in Chapter 8 set in 1462, Villon is a regular in the Rising Sun tavern, a gathering place for thieves and criminals, and reads two ballads from "The Testament" to the tavern's patrons.
Valentyn Sokolovsky. ‘’The night in the city of cherries or Waiting for François ‘’ – on François Villon’s life in form of a person’s memories who knew the poet and whose name one can find in the lines of The Testament (in Russian, 112 p., Kiev, Ukraine, 2013).
Villon's poem Tout aux tavernes et aux filles was translated into English by 19th-century poet William Ernest Henley as Villon’s Straight Tip To All Cross Coves.
Robert Lowell (1917-1977) in his book Imitations (published in England by Faber and Faber in 1962, perhaps earlier in the USA), published translations - called 'imitations' because they attempt to retain the spirit of the originals rather than the letter - of five of Villon's poems: The Great Testament, Ballad for the Dead Ladies, The Old Lady's Lament for Her Youth, Villon's Prayer for His Mother and Villon's Epitaph.
In 1914 the film The Oubliette features Murdock MacQuarrie as Villon, Lon Chaney as Bertrand de la Payne and Doc Crane as the king Louis XI.
If I Were King was filmed as a straight drama twice: as a silent in 1920 with William Farnum as Villon and Fritz Leiber as Louis; and as a talkie in 1938 with Ronald Colman as François Villon (incorrectly "Francois Villon" in the closing credits) and Basil Rathbone as Louis. In 1927, John Barrymore also starred as Villon in The Beloved Rogue, directed by Alan Crosland (of The Jazz Singer fame), opposite Conrad Veidt as Louis. Though not officially based on the McCarthy play, it draws on the same fictitious notions of relations between Villon and Louis.
In a 1956 episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, "The Better Bargain", hitman Harry Silver quotes Villon as he refuses to kill Louis Koster's adulterous wife, because Silver himself is the man with whom Koster's wife has been "fooling around."
Early in the film The Petrified Forest, Bette Davis' character is reading a collection of Villon's poetry. Later she reads a few lines of "Ballad for a Bridegroom" to Leslie Howard's character, and in the final scene she again quotes "Ballad for a Bridegroom". In the film, she pronounces François Villon as "Francis Villain", and the Leslie Howard character corrects her, saying the double el is silent, as it approximately is in Modern French. (In 15th-century French, however, the els were pronounced, so her pronunciation was not incorrect.)
Villon's Inkwell is an Artifact in the Syfy television series Warehouse 13. The ink from the inkwell creates a "portable black hole" through which items can be passed when it is poured on a solid surface.
During the television series Downton Abbey's Christmas Special, the Dowager countess uses the line "Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan", to refer to Lord Hepworth's father whom she met in the late 1860s.
In the film Himizu, the main characters quote his Ballade ("I know flies in milk...") several times when they are in miserable situations.
- Charpier, Jacques (1958), François Villon, un tableau synoptique de la vie et des oeuvres de Villon et des événements artistiques, littéraires et historiques du XVe siècle, Poètes d'hier et d'aujourd'hui (in French), Pierre Seghers,
..il n'ait laissé dans l'histoire, que le souvenir d'un hors-la-loi. Ce poète a eu à connaitre de la Justice des hommes et le voilà qui s'apparente ainsi à nos plus récentes idoles : Sade, Baudelaire, Verlaine. Il fut un voyou : comme Rimbaud. (He left only the memory of an outlaw behind him for posterity. This poet came to know the forces of Justice, and thus is so similar to our more recent idols Sade, Baudelaire and Verlaine. Like Rimbaud, he was a hoodlum.)
- Fein, David (1997), , , New York: Twayne, p. 1, ISBN 0805745645
- Charpier, Jacques (1958), François Villon, un tableau synoptique de la vie et des oeuvres de Villon et des événements artistiques, littéraires et historiques du XVe siècle, Poètes d'hier et d'aujourd'hui (in French), Paris: Pierre Seghers,
1er avril 1431 (vieux style) ou 19 avril 1432 (nouveau style) : naissance à Paris, de François de Montcorbier, alias des Loges, qui deviendra François Villon
- Joseph F. Clarke (1977). Pseudonyms. BCA. p. 167.
- Villon, François (2013). "The Testament". (in French). Translated by Georgi, David. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-8101-2878-1. OCLC . Retrieved 10 July 2017.
Item, et a mon plus que pere, Maistre Guillaume de Villon / Qui esté m'a plus doulx que mere
- Bonner (translator), The Complete Works of François Villon (New York: Bantam, 1960), p. xxiii
- See, e.g., L. Sainéan, Les Sources de l'argot ancien (Paris, 1912), 2 volumes.
- Fein, David (1997), , , New York: Twayne, p. 1, ISBN 0805745645,
Most, however, are lesser-known personages, including friends or acquaintances of the poet, as well as a variety of characters representing all walks of life. Here, lay readers, (and frequently even scholars) find themselves at a loss. Writing primarily for a small circle of acquaintances, Villon enjoyed making private jokes that only his immediate audience would be able to understand and appreciate. Thus even many of Villon's contemporaries, unfamiliar with the poet and his immediate acquaintances and therefore incapable of deciphering the meaning of many verses, would find themselves precluded from understanding large portions of Villon's poetic corpus.
- Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1872) [original French poem Ballade des dames du temps jadis 1461 by François Villon], , (1), French poems translated 1869 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti ( ed.), London: F. S. Ellis, p. , retrieved 2013-07-23
- Villon, François (April 26, 1870), Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, , Rossetti Archive, F. S. Ellis, retrieved 23 July 2013
- Anthony Weir. . Beyond-the-pale.co.uk. Retrieved 2014-05-19.
- Dylan, Bob. . p. 112.
- El cartero de Neruda, Antonio Skármeta. Copyright (c) 1998, Libros del Bolsillo, Random House Mondadori, p. 70.
- . Downtonabbeyonline.com. Retrieved 2014-05-19.