François Villon (pronounced [fʁɑ̃swa vijɔ̃] in modern French; in fifteenth-century French, [frɑnswɛ vilɔn], c. 1431 - c. 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 was born in Paris in 1431. One source gives the date as April 19, 1432 [O.S. April 1, 1431] .
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 sources 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. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, "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.
American poet Richard Wilbur, whose translations from French poetry and plays were widely acclaimed, also translated many of Villon's most famous ballades.
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?"
In Richard Wilbur's translation of the same poem, the refrain is rendered, "And where shall last year's snow be found?"
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.
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 significant 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.
See also Ezra Pound's musical setting of Villon's Le Testament opera as a work of literary criticism concerning the relationship of words and music.
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.
Villon was an influence on American musician Bob Dylan.
The Swiss composer Frank Martin's Poèmes de la mort, for the unusual combination of three tenors and three electric guitars, is based on three Villon poems (1969)..
The Three Penny Opera, from 1928, by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht contains three songs that are loosely based on poems by Villon. Namely Les Contredits de Franc Gontier, La Ballade de la Grosse Margot and L'Epitaphe Villon.
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.
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 and one of the attributed poems in thieves' slang as Villon’s Good-Night.
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.
Villon figures in the 1936 movie 'Petrified Forest;' the main character, Gabby, a roadside diner waitress played by Bette Davis, longs for expanded horizons; she reads Villon and also recites one of his poems to a wandering hobo "intellectual" played by Leslie Howard.
The TV program "Screen Directors Playhouse," episode 22, "The Sword of Villon," casts Errol Flynn in the fictional role of François Villon, who, through skillful sword play and the love of a good woman, strives to rescue the King of France from an assassination attempt. This episode of the program aired 4 April 1956.
Italian author Luigi Critone wrote and illustrated a graphic novel based on Villon's life and works entitled "I, François Villon"