François Villon 1431–-c. 1463
(Also François des Loges and François de Montcorbier) French poet. See also Francois Villon Poetry Criticism.
Villon is considered one of the greatest French poets of the Middle Ages. In Le Lais (The Legacy; 1456), Le Testament (1461), and other works, Villon wrote about an underworld—populated by thieves, pimps, and whores—that he knew well and a way of life that brought him into conflict with legal and clerical authorities. His reputation as a dissipated pauper stands in stark contrast to the image of refinement cultivated by the courtly poets of the Middle Ages, and it made him an object of embarrassment and derision for high-minded scholars, but made him a favorite of Romantic poets. While Villon's works highlight his life of crime and debauchery, they are also characterized by the author's unusually personal poetic voice and the depth of his spiritual concerns. Villon's ability to move seamlessly between high and low—and to rouse sympathy for a cruel and vulgar, if pathetic, narrator—distinguish his poetry both from the ballads of contemporary aristocrats and from merely journalistic portrayals of urban Parisian life. His bittersweet evocation of the relentless oblivion of history—reflected in his most often quoted verse, “Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?” (“But where are the snows of yesteryear?”)—has ironically kept alive his own fame as an undisputed master of direct poetic expression.
Most of what is known about Villon's life has been taken from his work, particularly his two mock-wills, Le Lais and Le Testament. Separating fact from fiction in these works has long posed a challenge for Villon's biographers. “Villon” is not even the poet's birth name: sometime in his adult life, the poet changed his name to Villon to honor his patron, Guillaume Villon. Survivng court documents suggest that he was also known as François des Loges and François de Montcorbier. Records indicate that he studied at the University of Paris, earning a bachelor of arts degree in 1449 and a master of arts three years later. While at the university, Villon had his first notable run-in with authorities for his participation in a student prank involving the theft of a stone called “The Devil's Fart.” His conflicts with the authorities grew more serious after he left the university. In 1455 a priest attacked Villon with a knife. Villon fought back, and the priest later died of the wounds he received. Villon fled Paris until, through the efforts of his friends, he received a pardon in 1456. Later that same year, however, Villon was involved with the theft of 500 écus from the Collège de Navarre. When he was named as the leader of the criminal expedition, he was forced to flee Paris again, or risk imprisonment. Scholars presume that before he left he wrote Le Lais, his first mock-testament. Little is known of his activities for the next four years, but it is believed that he spent some time at the court of Duke Charles d'Orléans.
Villon was imprisoned at Meung-sur-Loire in the summer of 1461. The nature of Villon's crime is unknown—earlier biographers maintained that he was there “no doubt for good cause,” while more sympathetic later scholars have imagined that the fault was minor. Villon was imprisoned by order of the bishop of Orléans, Thibaut d'Aussigny, whom he would attack viciously in Le Testament. If Villon was forthright in his poetry, he was tortured and starved until his release in October 1461, in an act of clemency celebrating the arrival of the new king, Louis XI. Villon, embittered by poor treatment in prison, the desertion of his friends, and his financial destitution, returned to Paris, where he wrote Le Testament. He was soon imprisoned again for a minor offense; while he was incarcerated authorities recognized him as one of perpetrators of the theft at Navarre. He was released, but was required to pay his share of the stolen écus. Within a month Villon was arrested again, apparently for no reason—a brawl broke out with a group of Villon's friends, but although Villon fled the scene before the fight began, he was imprisoned, subjected to water torture and condemned to hanging. Villon appealed his sentence, which was commuted on January 5, 1463, to a ten-year exile from Paris. Most scholars believe that Villon died shortly after his exile, a consequence of failing health and spirits as well as the utter destitution he detailed so poignantly in Le Testament.
Villon's first known work was Le romaunt du Pet au Deable (The Romance of the Devil's Fart). Although no copies have survived, several accounts of manuscripts passed among Villon's fellow students demonstrate its existence. The work details the misadventures of those students involved in the prank of stealing the stone known as “The Devil's Fart” from the garden of Mademoiselle de Bruyères. Between 1450 and 1463 Villon composed some twenty-seven short poems, which survive in a variety of manuscript sources. These have been gathered into two groups. The eleven Ballades en jargon were written in the Coquille slang of thieves and counterfeiters. Although modern readers have found them largely unintelligible because of the archaic slang, the meter and form of the ballads are perfect, and they exhibit the same acrostics that have become familiar to readers of Villon's other works. The sixteen Poèmes variés include several pieces that pertain to his time at the court of the Duke d'Orléans; others address other members of the nobility and the Parlement, and still others detail his wretched existence in the prison at Meung. Villon's first major work is Le Lais, which follows the mock-testament form popular in the Middle Ages. The poem is a humorous will in which the poet leaves both real and imagined possessions to friends and enemies. The particularity of many of the names, places, and events described in the poem renders much of the humor lost on modern readers, and critics have been divided on whether this early work contains any of the more universal themes found in Le Testament. Most readers of Villon, however, know him only for Le Testament, which uses the same mock-will form asLe Lais but demonstrates a greater scope and vision. For years scholars considered Le Lais a precursor to Le Testament, but that view has largely been discarded. Critics currently focus less on the particular biographical details and coarse humor of the poem, and more on Villon's capacious view of humanity and his eschatological concerns.
The tragic facts of Villon's biography—particularly his likely ignominious death—demonstrate that he was not widely appreciated in his own time, although he was known to patrons of the arts such as the Duke d'Orléans. Indeed, it was the appreciation of authors such as François Rabelais, Nicolas Boileau, and several poets of the Romantic era that has preserved his work in the Western canon. Even Villon's admirers could not always ignore his reputation for debauchery and crime, however; although Robert Louis Stevenson professed admiration for the poet, he excoriated Villon for his cynicism, dissolution, and amoral lifestyle. Others, such as William Carlos Williams, found Villon's reputation part of his renegade charm. Such views, however, presumed that Villon is accurately represented by the narrator of his poems—a presumption that has been challenged by more recent scholars. Ann Tukey Harrison has pointed out that despite his conflicts with authority, Villon wrote as one very much involved in the literary culture of his day and, despite his “povre Villon” persona, as a master of his chosen field. Karl D. Uitti has suggested that the perception of Villon's “marginality” has been an important factor in his later reception. In a study of Villon and the theme of authority, Tony Hunt has examined in detail how Villon created a complex persona throughout Le Testament, and argued that readers must not equate the “François” of the poem with Villon the poet.
The issue of Villon's vulgarity and amorality has been treated by modern scholars as merely part of his broad worldview. Critics including David A. Fein and Evelyn Birge Vitz have addressed the Christian themes in Villon's work, noting that despite Villon's cynicism, his faith in a redemptive deity was sincere and an important theme of his later work. Robert D. Peckham has suggested that, rather than being contradictory, Villon's mix of crude humor and religious supplication demonstrates the possibility of redemption. Villon's technique, lauded as flawless by critics and fellow poets alike, has prompted critics to consider his education: Barbara Sargent-Baur has cited Villon's classical education as a source for his rhetorical style, while Nancy Freeman Regalado has argued that Villon's education enabled him to make the evocative faux-errors, or misquotations, that adorn his poetry