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François Villon 1431–-c. 1463

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(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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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

Principal Works

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*Ballades en jargon [Poems in Jargon] (poetry) c. 1450

Poèmes variés (poetry) c. 1450-63

Le Lais [The Legacy] (poetry) 1456

§Le Testament [The Testament] (poetry) 1461

Le Grant Testament Villon et le petit. Son codicille. Le jargon & ses ballades (poetry) 1489

Oeuvres complètes de François Villon, publiées d'après les manuscrits anciennes éditions (poetry) 1892

François Villon: Oeuvres [François Villon: Works, 4th ed.] (poetry) 1970

François Villon: Complete Works (poetry) 1994

*These eleven ballades were composed around 1450; ballades 1-6 were first published in Le Grant Testament Villon in 1489, and all were published in Oeuvres complètes de François Villon in 1892.

†These sixteen poems, also known as Poésies diverses and Le Codicille, were composed circa 1450-63; half (2-3, 10-11, 13-16) were published in Le Grant Testament Villon in 1489, and all were published in the 1892 Oeuvres complètes de François Villon.

‡This work, also known as Le Petit Testament or Le Premier Testament, was written in 1456 and first published in Le Grant Testament Villon in 1489.

§This work, also known as Le Grand Testament or Le Testament second, was written in 1461; an abridged version was first published in Le Grant Testament Villon in 1489.

Robert Louis Stevenson (essay date 1874)

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SOURCE: “Francois Villon, Student, Poet, and Housebreaker,” in Virginibus Puerisque and Familiar Studies of Men and Books, J.M. Dent and Sons, 1929, pp. 229-251.

[In this essay, originally published in 1874, Stevenson celebrates Villon's writing style while condemning both his life and his choice of subjects.]

Perhaps one of the most curious revolutions in literary history is the sudden bull's-eye light cast by M. Longnon on the obscure existence of François Villon.1 His book is not remarkable merely as a chapter of biography exhumed after four centuries. To readers of the poet it will recall, with a flavour of satire, that characteristic passage in which he bequeaths his spectacles—with a humorous reservation of the case—to the hospital for blind paupers known as the Fifteen-Score. Thus equipped, let the blind paupers go and separate the good from the bad in the cemetery of the Innocents! For his own part the poet can see no distinction. Much have the dead people made of their advantages. What does it matter now that they have lain in state beds and nourished portly bodies upon cakes and cream! Here they all lie, to be trodden in the mud; the large estate and the small, sounding virtue and adroit or powerful vice, in very much the same condition; and a bishop not to be distinguished from a lamplighter with even the strongest spectacles.

Such was Villon's cynical philosophy. Four hundred years after his death, when surely all danger might be considered at an end, a pair of critical spectacles have been applied to his own remains; and though he left behind him a sufficiently ragged reputation from the first, it is only after these four hundred years that his delinquencies have been finally tracked home, and we can assign him to his proper place among the good or wicked. It is a staggering thought, and one that affords a fine figure of the imperishability of men's acts, that the stealth of the private inquiry office can be carried so far back into the dead and dusty past. We are not so soon quit of our concerns as Villon fancied. In the extreme of dissolution, when not so much as a man's name is remembered, when his dust is scattered to the four winds, and perhaps the very grave and the very graveyard where he was laid to rest have been forgotten, desecrated, and buried under populous towns,—even in this extreme let an antiquary fall across a sheet of manuscript, and the name will be recalled, the old infamy will pop out into daylight like a toad out of a fissure in the rock, and the shadow of the shade of what was once a man will be heartily pilloried by his descendants. A little while ago and Villon was almost totally forgotten; then he was revived for the sake of his verses; and now he is being revived with a vengeance in the detection of his misdemeanours. How unsubstantial is this projection of a man's existence, which can lie in abeyance for centuries and then be brushed up again and set forth for the consideration of posterity by a few dips in an antiquary's inkpot! This precarious tenure of fame goes a long way to justify those (and they are not few) who prefer cakes and cream in the immediate present.


François de Montcorbier, alias François des Loges, alias François Villon, alias Michel Mouton, Master of Arts in the University of Paris, was born in that city in the summer of 1431. It was a memorable year for France on other and higher considerations. A great-hearted girl and a poor-hearted boy made, the one her last, the other his first appearance on the public stage of that unhappy country. On the 30th of May the ashes of Joan of Arc were thrown into the Seine, and on the 2nd of December our Henry Sixth made his Joyous Entry dismally enough into disaffected and depopulating Paris. Sword and fire still ravaged the open country. On a single April Saturday twelve hundred persons, besides children, made their escape out of the starving capital. The hangman, as is not uninteresting to note in connection with Master Francis, was kept hard at work in 1431; on the last of April and on the 4th of May alone, sixty-two bandits swung from Paris gibbets.2 A more confused or troublous time it would have been difficult to select for a start in life. Not even a man's nationality was certain; for the people of Paris there was no such thing as a Frenchman. The English were the English indeed, but the French were only the Armagnacs, whom, with Joan of Arc at their head, they had beaten back from under their ramparts not two years before. Such public sentiment as they had centred about their dear Duke of Burgundy, and the dear Duke had no more urgent business than to keep out of their neighbourhood. … At least, and whether he liked it or not, our disreputable troubadour was tubbed and swaddled as a subject of the English crown.

We hear nothing of Villon's father except that he was poor and of mean extraction. His mother was given piously, which does not imply very much in an old Frenchwoman, and quite uneducated. He had an uncle, a monk in an abbey at Angers, who must have prospered beyond the family average, and was reported to be worth five or six hundred crowns. Of this uncle and his money-box the reader will hear once more. In 1448 Francis became a student of the University of Paris; in 1450 he took the degree of Bachelor, and in 1452 that of Master of Arts. His bourse, or the sum paid weekly for his board, was of the amount of two sous. Now two sous was about the price of a pound of salt butter in the bad times of 1417; it was the price of half a pound in the worse times of 1419; and in 1444, just four years before Villon joined the University, it seems to have been taken as the average wage for a day's manual labour.3 In short, it cannot have been a very profuse allowance to keep a sharp-set lad in breakfast and supper for seven mortal days; and Villon's share of the cakes and pastry and general good cheer, to which he is never weary of referring, must have been slender from the first.

The educational arrangements of the University of Paris were, to our way of thinking, somewhat incomplete. Worldly and monkish elements were presented in a curious confusion, which the youth might disentangle for himself. If he had an opportunity, on the one hand, of acquiring much hair-drawn divinity and a taste for formal disputation, he was put in the way of much gross and flaunting vice upon the other. The lecture-room of a scholastic doctor was sometimes under the same roof with establishments of a very different and peculiarly unedifying order. The students had extraordinary privileges, which by all accounts they abused extraordinarily. And while some condemned themselves to an almost sepulchral regularity and seclusion, others fled the schools, swaggered in the street “with their thumbs in their girdle,” passed the night in riot, and behaved themselves as the worthy forerunners of Jehan Frollo in the romance of Notre Dame de Paris. Villon tells us himself that he was among the truants, but we hardly needed his avowal. The burlesque erudition in which he sometimes indulged implies no more than the merest smattering of knowledge; whereas his acquaintance with blackguard haunts and industries could only have been acquired by early and consistent impiety and idleness. He passed his degrees, it is true; but some of us who have been to modern universities will make their own reflections on the value of the test. As for his three pupils, Colin Laurent, Girard Gossouyn, and Jehan Marceau—if they were really his pupils in any serious sense—what can we say but God help them! And sure enough, by his own description, they turned out as ragged, rowdy, and ignorant as was to be looked for from the views and manners of their rare preceptor.

At some time or other, before or during his university career, the poet was adopted by Master Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of Saint Benoît-le-Bétourné near the Sorbonne. From him he borrowed the surname by which he is known to posterity. It was most likely from his house, called the Porte Rouge, and situated in a garden in the cloister of St. Benoît, that Master Francis heard the bell of the Sorbonne ring out the Angelus while he was finishing his Small Testament at Christmastide in 1456. Towards this benefactor he usually gets credit for a respectable display of gratitude. But with his trap and pitfall style of writing, it is easy to make too sure. His sentiments are about as much to be relied on as those of a professional beggar; and in this, as in so many other matters, he comes towards us whining and piping the eye, and goes off again with a whoop and his finger to his nose. Thus, he calls Guillaume de Villon his “more than father,” thanks him with a great show of sincerity for having helped him out of many scrapes, and bequeaths him his portion of renown. But the portion of renown which belonged to a young thief, distinguished (if, at the period when he wrote this legacy, he was distinguished at all) for having written some more or less obscene and scurrilous ballads, must have been little fitted to gratify the self-respect or increase the reputation of a benevolent ecclesiastic. The same remark applies to a subsequent legacy of the poet's library, with specification of one work which was plainly neither decent nor devout. We are thus left on the horns of a dilemma. If the chaplain was a godly, philanthropic personage, who had tried to graft good principles and good behaviour on this wild slip of an adopted son, these jesting legacies would obviously cut him to the heart. The position of an adopted son towards his adoptive father is one full of delicacy; where a man lends his name he looks for great consideration. And this legacy of Villon's portion of renown may be taken as the mere fling of an unregenerate scapegrace who has wit enough to recognise in his own shame the readiest weapon of offence against a prosy benefactor's feelings. The gratitude of Master Francis figures, on this reading, as a frightful minus quantity. If, on the other hand, those jests were given and taken in good humour, the whole relation between the pair degenerates into the unedifying complicity of a debauched old chaplain and a witty and dissolute young scholar. At this rate the house with the red door may have rung with the most mundane minstrelsy; and it may have been below its roof that Villon, through a hole in the plaster, studied, as he tells us, the leisures of a rich ecclesiastic.

It was, perhaps, of some moment in the poet's life that he should have inhabited the cloister of St. Benoît. Three of the most remarkable among his early acquaintances are Catherine de Vausselles, for whom he entertained a short-lived affection and an enduring and most unmanly resentment; Regnier de Montigny, a young blackguard of good birth; and Colin de Cayeux, a fellow with a marked aptitude for picking locks. Now we are on a foundation of mere conjecture, but it is at least curious to find that two of the canons of St. Benoît answered respectively to the names of Pierre de Vaucel and Etienne de Montigny, and that there was a householder called Nicolas de Cayeux in a street—the Rue des Poirées—in the immediate neighbourhood of the cloister. M. Longnon is almost ready to identify Catherine as the niece of Pierre; Regnier as the nephew of Etienne, and Colin as the son of Nicolas. Without going so far, it must be owned that the approximation of names is significant. As we go on to see the part played by each of these persons in the sordid melodrama of the poet's life, we shall come to regard it as even more notable. Is it not Clough who has remarked that, after all, everything lies in juxtaposition? Many a man's destiny has been settled by nothing apparently more grave than a pretty face on the opposite side of the street and a couple of bad companions round the corner.

Catherine de Vausselles (or de Vaucel—the change is within the limits of Villon's licence) had plainly delighted in the poet's conversation; near neighbours or not, they were much together; and Villon made no secret of his court, and suffered himself to believe that his feeling was repaid in kind. This may have been an error from the first, or he may have estranged her by subsequent misconduct or temerity. One can easily imagine Villon an impatient wooer. One thing, at least, is sure: that the affair terminated in a manner bitterly humiliating to Master Francis. In presence of his lady-love, perhaps under her window and certainly with her connivance, he was unmercifully thrashed by one Noë le Joly—beaten, as he says himself, like dirty linen on the washing-board. It is characteristic that his malice had notably increased between the time when he wrote the Small Testament immediately on the back of the occurrence, and the time when he wrote the Large Testament five years after. On the latter occasion nothing is too bad for his “damsel with the twisted nose,” as he calls her. She is spared neither hint nor accusation, and he tells his messenger to accost her with the vilest insults. Villon, it is thought, was out of Paris when these amenities escaped his pen; or perhaps the strong arm of Noë le Joly would have been again in requisition. So ends the love story, if love story it may be properly called. Poets are not necessarily fortunate in love; but they usually fall among more romantic circumstances and bear their disappointment with a better grace.

The neighbourhood of Regnier de Montigny and Colin de Cayeux was probably more influential on his after life than the contempt of Catherine. For a man who is greedy of all pleasures, and provided with little money and less dignity of character, we may prophesy a safe and speedy voyage downward. Humble or even truckling virtue may walk unspotted in this life. But only those who despise the pleasures can afford to despise the opinion of the world. A man of a strong, heady temperament, like Villon, is very differently tempted. His eyes lay hold on all provocations greedily, and his heart flames up at a look into imperious desire; he is snared and broached-to by anything and everything, from a pretty face to a piece of pastry in a cookshop window; he will drink the rinsing of the wine cup, stay the latest at the tavern party; tap at the lit windows, follow the sound of singing, and beat the whole neighbourhood for another reveller, as he goes reluctantly homeward; and grudge himself every hour of sleep as a black empty period in which he cannot follow after pleasure. Such a person is lost if he have not dignity, or, failing that, at least pride, which is its shadow and in many ways its substitute. Master Francis, I fancy, would follow his own eager instincts without much spiritual struggle. And we soon find him fallen among thieves in sober, literal earnest, and counting as acquaintances the most disreputable people he could lay his hands on: fellows who stole ducks in Paris Moat; sergeants of the criminal court, and archers of the watch; blackguards who slept at night under the butchers' stalls, and for whom the aforesaid archers peered about carefully with lanterns; Regnier de Montigny, Colin de Cayeux, and their crew, all bound on a favouring breeze towards the gallows; the disorderly abbess of Port Royal, who went about at fair time with soldiers and thieves, and conducted her abbey on the queerest principles; and most likely Perette Mauger, the great Paris receiver of stolen goods, not yet dreaming, poor woman! of the last scene of her career when Henry Cousin, executor of the high justice, shall bury her, alive and most reluctant, in front of the new Montigny gibbet.4 Nay, our friend soon began to take a foremost rank in this society. He could string off verses, which is always an agreeable talent; and he could make himself useful in many other ways. The whole ragged army of Bohemia, and whosoever loved good cheer without at all loving to work and pay for it, are addressed in contemporary verses as the “Subjects of François Villon.” He was a good genius to all hungry and unscrupulous persons; and became the hero of a whole legendary cycle of tavern tricks and cheateries. At best, these were doubtful levities, rather too thievish for a schoolboy, rather too gamesome for a thief. But he would not linger long in this equivocal border land. He must soon have complied with his surroundings. He was one who would go where the cannikin clinked, not caring who should pay; and from supping in the wolves' den there is but a step to hunting with the pack. And here, as I am on the chapter of his degradation, I shall say all I mean to say about its darkest expression, and be done with it for good. Some charitable critics see no more than a jeu d'esprit, a graceful and trifling exercise of the imagination, in the grimy ballad of Fat Peg (Grosse Margot). I am not able to follow these gentlemen to this polite extreme. Out of all Villon's works that ballad stands forth in flaring reality, gross and ghastly, as a thing written in a contraction of disgust. M. Longnon shows us more and more clearly at every page that we are to read our poet literally, that his names are the names of real persons, and the events he chronicles were actual events. But even if the tendency of criticism had run the other way, this ballad would have gone far to prove itself. I can well understand the reluctance of worthy persons in this matter; for of course it is unpleasant to think of a man of genius as one who held, in the words of Marina to Boult—

          “A place, for which the pained'st
Of hell would not in reputation change.”

But beyond this natural unwillingness, the whole difficulty of the case springs from a highly virtuous ignorance of life. Paris now is not so different from the Paris of then; and the whole of the doings of Bohemia are not written in the sugar-candy pastorals of Murger. It is really not at all surprising that a young man of the fifteenth century, with a knack of making verses, should accept his bread upon disgraceful terms. The race of those who do is not extinct; and some of them to this day write the prettiest verses imaginable. … After this, it were impossible for Master Francis to fall lower: to go and steal for himself would be an admirable advance from every point of view, divine or human.

And yet it is not as a thief, but as a homicide, that he makes his first appearance before angry justice. On June 5, 1455, when he was about twenty-four, and had been Master of Arts for a matter of three years, we behold him for the first time quite definitely. Angry justice had, as it were, photographed him in the act of his homicide; and M. Longnon, rummaging among old deeds, has turned up the negative and printed it off for our instruction. Villon had been supping—copiously we may believe—and sat on a stone bench in front of the Church of St. Benoît, in company with a priest called Gilles and a woman of the name of Isabeau. It was nine o'clock, a mighty late hour for the period, and evidently a fine summer's night. Master Francis carried a mantle, like a prudent man, to keep him from the dews (serain), and had a sword below it dangling from his girdle. So these three dallied in front of St. Benoît, taking their pleasure (pour soy esbatre). Suddenly there arrived upon the scene a priest, Philippe Chermoye or Sermaise, also with sword and cloak, and accompanied by one Master Jehan le Mardi. Sermaise, according to Villon's account, which is all we have to go upon, came up blustering and denying God; as Villon rose to make room for him upon the bench, thrust him rudely back into his place; and finally drew his sword and cut open his lower lip, by what I should imagine was a very clumsy stroke. Up to this point, Villon professes to have been a model of courtesy, even of feebleness: and the brawl, in his version, reads like the fable of the wolf and the lamb. But now the lamb was roused; he drew his sword, stabbed Sermaise in the groin, knocked him on the head with a big stone, and then, leaving him to his fate, went away to have his own lip doctored by a barber of the name of Fouquet. In one version, he says that Gilles, Isabeau, and Le Mardi ran away at the first high words, and that he and Sermaise had it out alone; in another, Le Mardi is represented as returning and wresting Villon's sword from him; the reader may please himself. Sermaise was picked up, lay all that night in the prison of St. Benoît, where he was examined by an official of the Châtelet and expressly pardoned Villon, and died on the following Saturday in the Hôtel Dieu.

This, as I have said, was in June. Not before January of the next year could Villon extract a pardon from the king; but while his hand was in, he got two. One is for “François des Loges, alias (autrement dit) de Villon”; and the other runs in the name of François de Montcorbier. Nay, it appears there was a further complication; for in the narrative of the first of these documents, it is mentioned that he passed himself off upon Fouquet, the barber-surgeon, as one Michael Mouton. M. Longnon has a theory that this unhappy accident with Sermaise was the cause of Villon's subsequent irregularities; and that up to that moment he had been the pink of good behaviour. But the matter has to my eyes a more dubious air. A pardon necessary for Des Loges and another for Montcorbier? and these two the same person? and one or both of them known by the alias of Villon, however honestly come by? and lastly, in the heat of the moment, a fourth name thrown out with an assured countenance? A ship is not to be trusted that sails under so many colours. This is not the simple bearing of innocence. No—the young master was already treading crooked paths; already, he would start and blench at a hand upon his shoulder, with the look we know so well in the face of Hogarth's Idle Apprentice; already, in the blue devils, he would see Henry Cousin, the executor of high justice, going in dolorous procession towards Montfaucon, and hear the wind and the birds crying around Paris gibbet.


In spite of the prodigious number of people who managed to get hanged, the fifteenth century was by no means a bad time for criminals. A great confusion of parties and great dust of fighting favoured the escape of private housebreakers and quiet fellows who stole ducks in Paris Moat. Prisons were leaky; and as we shall see, a man with a few crowns in his pocket and perhaps some acquaintance among the officials, could easily slip out and become once more a free marauder. There was no want of a sanctuary where he might harbour until troubles blew by; and accomplices helped each other with more or less good faith. Clerks, above all, had remarkable facilities for a criminal way of life; for they were privileged, except in cases of notorious incorrigibility, to be plucked from the hands of rude secular justice and tried by a tribunal of their own. In 1402, a couple of thieves, both clerks of the University, were condemned to death by the Provost of Paris. As they were taken to Montfaucon, they kept crying “high and clearly” for their benefit of clergy, but were none the less pitilessly hanged and gibbeted. Indignant Alma Mater interfered before the king; and the Provost was deprived of all royal offices, and condemned to return the bodies and erect a great stone cross, on the road from Paris to the gibbet, graven with the effigies of these two holy martyrs.5 We shall hear more of the benefit of clergy; for after this the reader will not be surprised to meet with thieves in the shape of tonsured clerks, or even priests and monks.

To a knot of such learned pilferers our poet certainly belonged; and by turning over a few more of M. Longnon's negatives, we shall get a clear idea of their character and doings. Montigny and De Cayeux are names already known; Guy Tabary, Petit-Jehan, Dom Nicolas, little Thibault, who was both clerk and goldsmith, and who made picklocks and melted plate for himself and his companions—with these the reader has still to become acquainted. Petit-Jehan and De Cayeux were handy fellows and enjoyed a useful pre-eminence in honour of their doings with the picklock. “Dictus des Cahyeus est fortis operator crochetorum,” says Tabary's interrogation, “sed dictus Petit-Jehan, ejus socius, est forcius operator.” But the flower of the flock was little Thibault; it was reported that no lock could stand before him; he had a persuasive hand; let us salute capacity wherever we may find it. Perhaps the term gang is not quite properly applied to the persons whose fortunes we are now about to follow; rather they were independent malefactors, socially intimate, and occasionally joining together for some serious operation, just as modern stockjobbers form a syndicate for an important loan. Nor were they at all particular to any branch of misdoing. They did not scrupulously confine themselves to a single sort of theft, as I hear is common among modern thieves. They were ready for anything, from pitch-and-toss to manslaughter. Montigny, for instance, had neglected neither of these extremes, and we find him accused of cheating at games of hazard on the one hand, and on the other of the murder of one Thevenin Pensete in a house by the Cemetery of St. John. If time had only spared us some particulars, might not this last have furnished us with the matter of a grisly winter's tale?

At Christmas-time in 1456, readers of Villon will remember that he was engaged on the Small Testament. About the same period, circa festum nativitatis Domini, he took part in a memorable supper at the Mule Tavern, in front of the Church of St. Mathurin. Tabary, who seems to have been very much Villon's creature, had ordered the supper in the course of the afternoon. He was a man who had had troubles in his time and languished in the Bishop of Paris's prisons on a suspicion of picking locks; confiding, convivial, not very astute—who had copied out a whole improper romance with his own right hand. This supper-party was to be his first introduction to De Cayeux and Petit-Jehan, which was probably a matter of some concern to the poor man's muddy wits; in the sequel, at least, he speaks of both with an undisguised respect, based on professional inferiority in the matter of picklocks. Dom Nicolas, a Picardy monk, was the fifth and last at table. When supper had been despatched and fairly washed down, we may suppose, with white Baigneux or red Beaune, which were favourite wines among the fellowship, Tabary was solemnly sworn over to secrecy on the night's performances; and the party left the Mule and proceeded to an unoccupied house belonging to Robert de Saint-Simon. This, over a low wall, they entered without difficulty. All but Tabary took off their upper garments; a ladder was found and applied to the high wall which separated Saint-Simon's house from the court of the College of Navarre; the four fellows in their shirt-sleeves (as we might say) clambered over in a twinkling; and Master Guy Tabary remained alone beside the overcoats. From the court the burglars made their way into the vestry of the chapel, where they found a large chest, strengthened with iron bands and closed with four locks. One of these locks they picked, and then, by levering up the corner, forced the other three. Inside was a small coffer, of walnut wood, also barred with iron, but fastened with only three locks, which were all comfortably picked by way of the keyhole. In the walnut coffer—a joyous sight by our thieves' lantern—were five hundred crowns of gold. There was some talk of opening the aumries, where, if they had only known, a booty eight or nine times greater lay ready to their hand; but one of the party (I have a humorous suspicion it was Dom Nicolas, the Picardy monk) hurried them away. It was ten o'clock when they mounted the ladder; it was about midnight before Tabary beheld them coming back. To him they gave ten crowns, and promised a share of a two-crown dinner on the morrow; whereat we may suppose his mouth watered. In course of time, he got wind of the real amount of their booty and understood how scurvily he had been used; but he seems to have borne no malice. How could he, against such superb operators as Petit-Jehan and De Cayeux; or a person like Villon, who could have made a new improper romance out of his own head, instead of merely copying an old one with mechanical right hand?

The rest of the winter was not uneventful for the gang. First they made a demonstration against the Church of St. Mathurin after chalices, and were ignominiously chased away by barking dogs. Then Tabary fell out with Casin Chollet, one of the fellows who stole ducks in Paris Moat, who subsequently became a sergeant of the Châtelet and distinguished himself by misconduct, followed by imprisonment and public castigation, during the wars of Louis Eleventh. The quarrel was not conducted with a proper regard to the king's peace, and the pair publicly belaboured each other until the police stepped in, and Master Tabary was cast once more into the prisons of the Bishop. While he still lay in durance, another job was cleverly executed by the band in broad daylight, at the Augustine Monastery. Brother Guillaume Coiffier was beguiled by an accomplice to St. Mathurin to say mass; and during his absence, his chamber was entered and five or six hundred crowns in money and some silver plate successfully abstracted. A melancholy man was Coiffier on his return! Eight crowns from this adventure were forwarded by little Thibault to the incarcerated Tabary; and with these he bribed the jailer and reappeared in Paris taverns. Some time before or shortly after this, Villon set out for Angers, as he had promised in the Small Testament. The object of this excursion was not merely to avoid the presence of his cruel mistress or the strong arm of Noë le Joly, but to plan a deliberate robbery on his uncle the monk. As soon as he had properly studied the ground, the others were to go over in force from Paris—picklocks and all—and away with my uncle's strong-box! This throws a comical sidelight on his own accusation against his relatives, that they had “forgotten natural duty” and disowned him because he was poor. A poor relation is a distasteful circumstance at the best, but a poor relation who plans deliberate robberies against those of his blood, and trudges hundreds of weary leagues to put them into execution, is surely a little on the wrong side of toleration. The uncle at Angers may have been monstrously undutiful; but the nephew from Paris was upsides with him.

On the 23rd April, that venerable and discreet person, Master Pierre Marchand, Curate and Prior of Paray-le-Monial, in the diocese of Chartres, arrived in Paris and put up at the sign of the Three Chandeliers, in the Rue de la Huchette. Next day, or the day after, as he was breakfasting at the sign of the Arm-chair, he fell into talk with two customers, one of whom was a priest and the other our friend Tabary. The idiotic Tabary became mighty confidential as to his past life. Pierre Marchand, who was an acquaintance of Guillaume Coiffier's and had sympathised with him over his loss, pricked up his ears at the mention of picklocks, and led on the transcriber of improper romances from one thing to another, until they were fast friends. For picklocks the Prior of Paray professed a keen curiosity; but Tabary, upon some late alarm, had thrown all his into the Seine. Let that be no difficulty, however, for was there not little Thibault, who could make them of all shapes and sizes, and to whom Tabary, smelling an accomplice, would be only too glad to introduce his new acquaintance? On the morrow, accordingly, they met; and Tabary, after having first wet his whistle at the Prior's expense, led him to Notre Dame and presented him to four or five “young companions,” who were keeping sanctuary in the church. They were all clerks, recently escaped, like Tabary himself, from the episcopal prisons. Among these we may notice Thibault, the operator, a little fellow of twenty-six, wearing long hair behind. The Prior expressed, through Tabary, his anxiety to become their accomplice and altogether such as they were (de leur sorte et de leurs complices). Mighty polite they showed themselves, and made him many fine speeches in return. But for all that, perhaps because they had longer heads than Tabary, perhaps because it is less easy to wheedle men in a body, they kept obstinately to generalities and gave him no information as to their exploits, past, present, or to come. I suppose Tabary groaned under this reserve; for no sooner were he and the Prior out of the church than he fairly emptied his heart to him, gave him full details of many hanging matters in the past, and explained the future intentions of the band. The scheme of the hour was to rob another Augustine monk, Robert de la Porte, and in this the Prior agreed to take a hand with simulated greed. Thus, in the course of two days, he had turned this wineskin of a Tabary inside out. For a while longer the farce was carried on; the Prior was introduced to Petit-Jehan, whom he describes as a little, very smart man of thirty, with a black beard and a short jacket; an appointment was made and broken in the de la Porte affair; Tabary had some breakfast at the Prior's charge and leaked out more secrets under the influence of wine and friendship; and then all of a sudden, on the 17th of May, an alarm sprang up, the Prior picked up his skirts and walked quietly over to the Châtelet to make a deposition, and the whole band took to their heels and vanished out of Paris and the sight of the police.

Vanish as they like, they all go with a clog about their feet. Sooner or later, here or there, they will be caught in the fact, and ignominiously sent home. From our vantage of four centuries afterwards, it is odd and pitiful to watch the order in which the fugitives are captured and dragged in.

Montigny was the first. In August of that same year he was laid by the heels on many grievous counts; sacrilegious robberies, frauds, incorrigibility, and that bad business about Thevenin Pensete in the house by the Cemetery of St. John. He was reclaimed by the ecclesiastical authorities as a clerk; but the claim was rebutted on the score of incorrigibility, and ultimately fell to the ground; and he was condemned to death by the Provost of Paris. It was a very rude hour for Montigny, but hope was not yet over. He was a fellow of some birth; his father had been king's pantler; his sister, probably married to someone about the Court, was in the family way, and her health would be endangered if the execution was proceeded with. So down comes Charles Seventh with letters of mercy, commuting the penalty to a year in a dungeon on bread and water, and a pilgrimage to the shrine of St. James in Galicia. Alas! the document was incomplete; it did not contain the full tale of Montigny's enormities; it did not recite that he had been denied benefit of clergy, and it said nothing about Thevenin Pensete. Montigny's hour was at hand. Benefit of clergy, honourable descent from king's pantler, sister in the family way, royal letters of commutation—all were of no avail. He had been in prison in Rouen, in Tours, in Bordeaux, and four times already in Paris; and out of all these he had come scathless; but now he must make a little excursion as far as Montfaucon with Henry Cousin, executor of high justice. There let him swing among the carrion crows.

About a year later, in July 1458, the police laid hands on Tabary. Before the ecclesiastical commissary he was twice examined, and, on the latter occasion, put to the question ordinary and extraordinary. What a dismal change from pleasant suppers at the Mule, where he sat in triumph with expert operators and great wits! He is at the lees of life, poor rogue; and those fingers which once transcribed improper romances are now agonisingly stretched upon the rack. We have no sure knowledge, but we may have a shrewd guess of the conclusion. Tabary, the admirer, would go the same way as those whom he admired.

The last we hear of is Colin de Cayeux. He was caught in autumn 1460, in the great Church of St. Leu d'Esserens, which makes so fine a figure in the pleasant Oise valley between Creil and Beaumont. He was reclaimed by no less than two bishops; but the Procureur for the Provost held fast by incorrigible Colin. 1460 was an ill-starred year: for justice was making a clean sweep of “poor and indigent persons, thieves, cheats, and lock-pickers,” in the neighbourhood of Paris;6 and Colin de Cayeux, with many others, was condemned to death and hanged.7


Villon was still absent on the Angers expedition when the Prior of Paray sent such a bombshell among his accomplices; and the dates of his return and arrest remain undiscoverable. M. Campaux plausibly enough opined for the autumn of 1457, which would make him closely follow on Montigny, and the first of those denounced by the Prior to fall into the toils. We may suppose, at least, that it was not long thereafter; we may suppose him competed for between lay and clerical Courts; and we may suppose him alternately pert and impudent, humble and fawning, in his defence. But at the end of all supposing, we come upon some nuggets of fact. For, first, he was put to the question by water. He who had tossed off so many cups of white Baigneux or red Beaune, now drank water through linen folds, until his bowels were flooded and his heart stood still. After so much raising of the elbow, so much outcry of fictitious thirst, here at last was enough drinking for a lifetime. Truly, of our pleasant vices the gods make whips to scourge us. And secondly, he was condemned to be hanged. A man may have been expecting a catastrophe for years, and yet find himself unprepared when it arrives. Certainly, Villon found, in this legitimate issue of his career, a very staggering and grave consideration. Every beast, as he says, clings bitterly to a whole skin. If everything is lost, and even honour, life still remains; nay, and it becomes, like the ewe lamb in Nathan's parable, as dear as all the rest. “Do you fancy,” he asks, in a lively ballad, “that I had not enough philosophy under my hood to cry out, ‘I appeal’? If I had made any bones about the matter, I should have been planted upright in the fields, by the St. Denis Road”—Montfaucon being on the way to St. Denis. An appeal to Parliament, as we saw in the case of Colin de Cayeux, did not necessarily lead to an acquittal or a commutation; and while the matter was pending, our poet had ample opportunity to reflect on his position. Hanging is a sharp argument, and to swing with many others on the gibbet adds a horrible corollary for the imagination. With the aspect of Montfaucon he was well acquainted; indeed, as the neighbourhood appears to have been sacred to junketing and nocturnal picnics of wild young men and women, he had probably studied it under all varieties of hour and weather. And now, as he lay in prison waiting the mortal push, these different aspects crowded back on his imagination with a new and startling significance; and he wrote a ballad, by way of epitaph for himself and his companions, which remains unique in the annals of mankind. It is, in the highest sense, a piece of his biography:

“La pluye nous a debuez et lavez,
Et le soleil dessechez et noirciz;
Pies, corbeaulx, nous ont les yeux cavez,
Et arrachez la barbe et les sourcilz.
Jamais, nul temps, nous ne sommes rassis;
Puis çà, puis là, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charie,
Plus becquetez d'oiseaulx que dez à couldre.
Ne soyez donc de nostre confrairie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre.”

Here is some genuine thieves' literature after so much that was spurious; sharp as an etching, written with a shuddering soul. There is an intensity of consideration in the piece that shows it to be the transcript of familiar thoughts. It is the quintessence of many a doleful nightmare on the straw, when he felt himself swing helpless in the wind, and saw the birds turn about him, screaming and menacing his eyes.

And, after all, the Parliament changed his sentence into one of banishment; and to Roussillon, in Dauphiny, our poet must carry his woes without delay. Travellers between Lyons and Marseilles may remember a station on the line, some way below Vienne, where the Rhone fleets seaward between vine-clad hills. This was Villon's Siberia. It would be a little warm in summer perhaps, and a little cold in winter in that draughty valley between two great mountain fields; but what with the hills, and the racing river, and the fiery Rhone wines, he was little to be pitied on the conditions of his exile. Villon, in a remarkably bad ballad, written in a breath, heartily thanked and fulsomely belauded the Parliament; the envoi, like the proverbial postscript of a lady's letter, containing the pith of his performance in a request for three days' delay to settle his affairs and bid his friends farewell. He was probably not followed out of Paris, like Antoine Fradin, the popular preacher, another exile of a few years later, by weeping multitudes;8 but I daresay one or two rogues of his acquaintance would keep him company for a mile or so on the south road, and drink a bottle with him before they turned. For banished people, in those days, seem to have set out on their own responsibility, in their own guard, and at their own expense. It was no joke to make one's way from Paris to Roussillon alone and penniless in the fifteenth century. Villon says he left a rag of his tails on every bush. Indeed, he must have had many a weary tramp, many a slender meal, and many a to-do with blustering captains of the Ordonnance. But with one of his light fingers, we may fancy that he took as good as he gave; for every rag of his tail, he would manage to indemnify himself upon the population in the shape of food, or wine, or ringing money; and his route would be traceable across France and Burgundy by housewives and innkeepers lamenting over petty thefts, like the track of a single human locust. A strange figure he must have cut in the eyes of the good country people: this ragged, blackguard city poet, with a smack of the Paris student, and a smack of the Paris street arab, posting along the highways, in rain or sun, among the green fields and vineyards. For himself, he had no taste for rural loveliness; green fields and vineyards would be mighty indifferent to Master Francis; but he would often have his tongue in his cheek at the simplicity of rustic dupes, and often, at city gates, he might stop to contemplate the gibbet with its swinging bodies, and hug himself on his escape.

How long he stayed at Roussillon, how far he became the protégé of the Bourbons, to whom that town belonged, or when it was that he took part, under the auspices of Charles of Orleans, in a rhyming tournament to be referred to once again in the pages of the present volume, are matters that still remain in darkness, in spite of M. Longnon's diligent rummaging among archives. When we next find him, in summer 1461, alas! he is once more in durance: this time at Méun-sur-Loire, in the prisons of Thibault d'Aussigny, Bishop of Orleans. He had been lowered in a basket into a noisome pit, where he lay all summer, gnawing hard crusts and railing upon fate. His teeth, he says, were like the teeth of a rake: a touch of haggard portraiture all the more real for being excessive and burlesque, and all the more proper to the man for being a caricature of his own misery. His eyes were “bandaged with thick walls.” It might blow hurricanes overhead; the lightning might leap in high heaven; but no word of all this reached him in his noisome pit. “Il n'entre, ou gist, n'escler ni tourbillon.” Above all, he was fevered with envy and anger at the freedom of others; and his heart flowed over into curses as he thought of Thibault d'Aussigny, walking the streets in God's sunlight, and blessing people with extended fingers. So much we find sharply lined in his own poems. Why he was cast again into prison—how he had again managed to shave the gallows—this we know not, nor, from the destruction of authorities, are we ever likely to learn. But on October 2, 1461, or some day immediately preceding, the new king, Louis Eleventh, made his joyous entry into Méun. Now it was a part of the formality on such occasions for the new king to liberate certain prisoners; and so the basket was let down into Villon's pit, and hastily did Master Francis scramble in, and was most joyfully hauled up, and shot out, blinking and tottering, but once more a free man, into the blessed sun and wind! Now or never is the time for verses! Such a happy revolution would turn the head of a stocking-weaver, and set him jingling rhymes. And so—after a voyage to Paris, where he finds Montigny and De Cayeux clattering their bones upon the gibbet, and his three pupils roystering in Paris streets, “with their thumbs under their girdles,”—down sits Master Francis to write his Large Testament, and perpetuate his name in a sort of glorious ignominy.


Of this capital achievement and, with it, of Villon's style in general, it is here the place to speak. The Large Testament is a hurly-burly of cynical and sentimental reflections about life, jesting legacies to friends and enemies, and, interspersed among these, many admirable ballades, both serious and absurd. With so free a design, no thought that occurred to him would need to be dismissed without expression; and he could draw at full length the portrait of his own bedevilled soul, and of the bleak and blackguardly world which was the theatre of his exploits and sufferings. If the reader can conceive something between the slap-dash inconsequence of Byron's Don Juan and the racy humorous gravity and brief noble touches that distinguish the vernacular poems of Burns, he will have formed some idea of Villon's style. To the latter writer—except in the ballades, which are quite his own, and can be paralleled from no other language known to me—he bears a particular resemblance. In common with Burns he has a certain rugged compression, a brutal vivacity of epithet, a homely vigour, a delight in local personalities, and an interest in many sides of life, that are often despised and passed over by more effete and cultured poets. Both also, in their strong, easy colloquial way, tend to become difficult and obscure; the obscurity in the case of Villon passing at times into the absolute darkness of cant language. They are perhaps the only two great masters of expression who keep sending their readers to a glossary.

“Shall we not dare to say of a thief,” asks Montaigne, “that he has a handsome leg?” It is a far more serious claim that we have to put forward in behalf of Villon. Beside that of his contemporaries, his writing, so full of colour, so eloquent, so picturesque, stands out in an almost miraculous isolation. If only one or two of the chroniclers could have taken a leaf out of his book, history would have been a pastime, and the fifteenth century as present to our minds as the age of Charles Second. This gallows-bird was the one great writer of his age and country, and initiated modern literature for France. Boileau, long ago, in the period of perukes and snuff-boxes, recognised him as the first articulate poet in the language; and if we measure him, not by priority of merit, but living duration of influence, not on a comparison with obscure forerunners, but with great and famous successors, we shall install this ragged and disreputable figure in a far higher niche in glory's temple than was ever dreamed of by the critic. It is, in itself, a memorable fact that, before 1542, in the very dawn of printing, and while modern France was in the making, the works of Villon ran through seven different editions. Out of him flows much of Rabelais; and through Rabelais, directly and indirectly, a deep, permanent, and growing inspiration. Not only his style, but his callous pertinent way of looking upon the sordid and ugly sides of life, becomes every day a more specific feature in the literature of France. And only the other year, a work of some power appeared in Paris, and appeared with infinite scandal, which owed its whole inner significance and much of its outward form to the study of our rhyming thief.

The world to which he introduces us is, as before said, black-guardly and bleak. Paris swarms before us, full of famine, shame, and death; monks and the servants of great lords hold high wassail upon cakes and pastry; the poor man licks his lips before the baker's window; people with patched eyes sprawl all night under the stalls; chuckling Tabary transcribes an improper romance; bare-bosomed lasses and ruffling students swagger in the streets; the drunkard goes stumbling homewards; the graveyard is full of bones; and away on Montfaucon, Colin de Cayeux and Montigny hang draggled in the rain. Is there nothing better to be seen than sordid misery and worthless joys? Only where the poor old mother of the poet kneels in church below painted windows, and makes tremulous supplication to the Mother of God.

In our mixed world, full of green fields and happy lovers, where not long before Joan of Arc had led one of the highest and noblest lives in the whole story of mankind, this was all worth chronicling that our poet could perceive. His eyes were indeed sealed with his own filth. He dwelt all his life in a pit more noisome than the dungeon at Méun. In the moral world, also, there are large phenomena not cognisable out of holes and corners. Loud winds blow, speeding home deep-laden ships and sweeping rubbish from the earth; the lightning leaps and cleans the face of heaven; high purposes and brave passions shake and sublimate men's spirits; and meanwhile, in the narrow dungeon of his soul, Villon is mumbling crusts and picking vermin.

Along with this deadly gloom of outlook, we must take another characteristic of his work: its unrivalled insincerity. I can give no better similitude of this quality than I have given already: that he comes up with a whine, and runs away with a whoop and his finger to his nose. His pathos is that of a professional mendicant who should happen to be a man of genius; his levity that of a bitter street arab, full of bread. On a first reading, the pathetic passages preoccupy the reader, and he is cheated out of an alms in the shape of sympathy. But when the thing is studied the illusion fades away: in the transitions, above all, we can detect the evil, ironical temper of the man; and instead of a flighty work, where many crude but genuine feelings tumble together for the mastery as in the lists of tournament, we are tempted to think of the Large Testament as of one long-drawn epical grimace, pulled by a merry-andrew, who has found a certain despicable eminence over human respect and human affections by perching himself astride upon the gallows. Between these two views, at best, all temperate judgments will be found to fall; and rather, as I imagine, towards the last.

There were two things on which he felt with perfect and, in one case, even threatening sincerity.

The first of these was an undisguised envy of those richer than himself. He was for ever drawing a parallel, already exemplified from his own words, between the happy life of the well-to-do and the miseries of the poor. Burns, too proud and honest not to work, continued through all reverses to sing of poverty with a light, defiant note. Béranger waited till he was himself beyond the reach of want before writing the Old Vagabond or Jacques. Samuel Johnson, although he was very sorry to be poor, “was a great arguer for the advantages of poverty” in his ill days. Thus it is that brave men carry their crosses, and smile with the fox burrowing in their vitals. But Villon, who had not the courage to be poor with honesty, now whiningly implores our sympathy, now shows his teeth upon the dungheap with an ugly snarl. He envies bitterly, envies passionately. Poverty, he protests, drives men to steal, as hunger makes the wolf sally from the forest. The poor, he goes on, will always have a carping word to say, or, if that outlet be denied, nourish rebellious thoughts. It is a calumny on the noble army of the poor. Thousands in a small way of life, ay, and even in the smallest, go through life with tenfold as much honour and dignity and peace of mind, as the rich gluttons whose dainties and state-beds awakened Villon's covetous temper. And every morning's sun sees thousands who pass whistling to their toil. But Villon was the “mauvais pauvre” defined by Victor Hugo, and, in its English expression, so admirably stereotyped by Dickens. He was the first wicked sansculotte. He is the man of genius with the moleskin cap. He is mighty pathetic and beseeching here in the street, but I would not go down a dark road with him for a large consideration.

The second of the points on which he was genuine and emphatic was common to the Middle Ages; a deep and somewhat snivelling conviction of the transitory nature of this life and the pity and horror of death. Old age and the grave, with some dark and yet half-sceptical terror of an after-world—these were ideas that clung about his bones like a disease. An old ape, as he says, may play all the tricks in its repertory, and none of them will tickle an audience into good humour. “Tousjours vieil synge est desplaisant.” It is not the old jester who receives most recognition at a tavern party, but the young fellow, fresh and handsome, who knows the new slang, and carries off his vice with a certain air. Of this, as a tavern jester himself, he would be pointedly conscious. As for the women with whom he was best acquainted, his reflections on their old age, in all their harrowing pathos, shall remain in the original for me. Horace has disgraced himself to something of the same tune; but what Horace throws out with an ill-favoured laugh, Villon dwells on with an almost maudlin whimper.

It is in death that he finds his truest inspiration; in the swift and sorrowful change that overtakes beauty; in the strange revolution by which great fortunes and renowns are diminished to a handful of churchyard dust; and in the utter passing away of what was once lovable and mighty. It is in this that the mixed texture of his thought enables him to reach such poignant and terrible effects, and to enhance pity with ridicule, like a man cutting capers to a funeral march. It is in this, also, that he rises out of himself into the higher spheres of art. So, in the ballade by which he is best known, he rings the changes on names that once stood for beautiful and queenly women, and are now no more than letters and a legend. “Where are the snows of yester-year?” runs the burden. And so, in another not so famous, he passes in review the different degrees of bygone men, from the holy Apostles and the golden Emperor of the East, down to the heralds, pursuivants, and trumpeters, who also bore their part in the world's pageantries and ate greedily at great folks' tables: all this to the refrain of “So much carry the winds away!” Probably, there was some melancholy in his mind for a yet lower grade, and Montigny and Colin de Cayeux clattering their bones on Paris gibbet. Alas, and with so pitiful an experience of life, Villon can offer us nothing but terror and lamentation about death! No one has ever more skilfully communicated his own disenchantment; no one ever blown a more ear-piercing note of sadness. This unrepentant thief can attain neither to Christian confidence, nor to the spirit of the bright Greek saying, that whom the gods love die early. It is a poor heart, and a poorer age, that cannot accept the conditions of life with some heroic readiness.

The date of the Large Testament is the last date in the poet's biography. After having achieved that admirable and despicable performance, he disappears into the night from whence he came. How or when he died, whether decently in bed or trussed up to a gallows, remains a riddle for foolhardy commentators. It appears his health had suffered in the pit at Méun; he was thirty years of age and quite bald; with a notch in his under lip where Sermaise had struck him with the sword, and what wrinkles the reader may imagine. In default of portraits, this is all I have been able to piece together, and perhaps even the baldness should be taken as a figure of his destitution. A sinister dog, in all likelihood, but with a look in his eye, and the loose flexile mouth that goes with wit and an overweening sensual temperament. Certainly the sorriest figure on the rolls of fame.


  1. Etude Biographique sur François Villon. Paris, H. Menu.

  2. Bourgeois de Paris, ed. Panthéon, pp. 688, 689.

  3. Bourgeois, pp. 627, 636 and 725.

  4. Chronique Scandaleuse, ed. Panthéon, p. 237.

  5. Monstrelet, Panthéon Littéraire, p. 26.

  6. Chron. Scand., ut supra.

  7. Here and there, principally in the order of events, this article differs from M. Longnon's own reading of his material. The ground on which he defers the execution of Montigny and De Cayeux beyond the date of their trials seems insufficient. There is a law of parsimony for the construction of historical documents; simplicity is the first duty of narration; and hanged they were.

  8. Chron. Scand., p. 338.

William Carlos Williams (essay date 1964)

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SOURCE: Introduction to The Complete Works of Francois Villon, Bantam Books, 1964, pp. ix-xv.

[In this essay, Williams cites Villon's intensity and directness as key reasons for continued interest in his work. Williams also delights in finding Villon to be consummately French.]

By a single line of verse in an almost forgotten language, Medieval French, the name of Villon goes on living defiantly; our efforts, as we seem to try to efface it, polish and make it shine the more. What is that secret that has escaped with a mere question, deftly phrased, the profundity of the ages:

Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

All that has been forgotten (or, better said, all that would gladly have been forgotten) by the poet Villon in his fifteenth-century France has remained so vividly alive, present in everything we are, that it lives on in answer to that eternal question.

There are no more than three thousand lines to the whole body of his verse, but they keep an intensity of consciousness about them that is not contrived. There is no invention about them. They are a recital about the man's life with the simple question that he permits himself in retrospect.

It is a recital of a tough life as a student of the arts about Paris. His father had died when he was a boy. They were poor. His mother whom he loved by evidence of one of his most poignant ballades must have kept pace with him during his student years; but rid of his father he was faced from the beginning with diaster and thrown on the town, a princely Paris, which, with his imagination raging among the rude splendors of those times, he was obliged to witness right at his back door—with an empty pocket.

A student, like all intelligent and high-spirited students, he must have been inclined to kick over the traces. But without the overt, insistent churchly insistences of his mother he must have wandered the city's shabbier dives whenever he felt the urge to go wherever the fancy took him. But his art, bred of his literary training, was a restraining influence that protected him. A scholar, schooled in the university, hard-headed and protected by a conservatism nothing could move, he had been reared in a tradition of scholarship which kept his head high—nothing could rob him of that pride.

A thief who had killed his man, though his life had been threatened equally, he had had to bear the early stigma of that accusation. No one could have been there to shield him; he was not ducking out. Poor, as he confessed he was in The Legacy, he had nowhere to go but to his attic room where the ink froze in his inkwell. Rather than yield to the bitter pressure of the circumstances he had to write to keep himself warm; his mind required it.

The striking thing is that, as with all such men, he never let a thought enter his head of smudging the surface of his art. The great Cézanne or Van Gogh and many lesser men have been the same—born fools as far as the pristine virtues of their inspiration are concerned.

But Villon was a poet strictly trained in his measures. He could not change the poet's meticulous training, or his view of the world that surrounded him, without giving up the whole game. He must have persisted in it, since everything else had been early lost. He was fixed in his conception of his task; he must, having found a release in his desperation, persist in a certain mode without varying—persist to the end. It was all he knew. His eager mind presented with its problem—the writing of a certain cast of verse, the ballade and the eight line stanzas of The Testament—did not know better than to repeat the pattern over and over, since he could not escape and retain his integrity.

So that his mind was beating about into all crevices of his being—while his invention, anchored in the technique of his craft, was stilled. It was a fixed form, fortunately for him, in which his invention could be released. There it could not contain itself: the minute dilemmas of his words in finding the exact niche for themselves into which they must have fitted to satisfy his spirit. Invention? What the hell are you going to invent, he is certain to have said. The facts are there, properly named if a man has the courage to use them with art enough; and I have the courage and the art—and time to use it.

He was a curiously factual person. A fact is a fact and a name is a name however you or the liars about you seek to hide it. It can be marshalled as in a poem, drilled until it falls into its proper place in the line, but you cannot escape it. Is it not the truth? Everything else is an escape from the truth and by my mother's memory there is nothing sacred but the truth.

“As far as art or the technical part of poetry goes, …”1 (Then begins a statement typical of some critics, especially some British, who allow their disapproval of the uncompromising candor of Villon's statements to influence their judgments of the man's literary honesty.) “… in this way he was no better than, say, his patron, Charles d'Orléans.” (True enough, I presume, but as subtle an understatement as could be conceived. The true situation, as far as the poet Villon is concerned, is that Charles d'Orléans cannot even be said to exist.)

(The logical figure must now be resolved with the same suavity with which it began; well written, I must say!) “Villon's The Legacy and The Testament are made up of eight-line stanzas of eight-syllabled verses, varied in the case of The Testament by the insertion of ballades and rondeaux of very great beauty and interest, but not formally different in any way from poems of the same kind for more than a century past. What really distinguishes Villon is the intenser quality of his poetical feeling and expression, and what is perhaps arrogantly called the modern character of his subjects and thought. Medieval poetry, with rare exceptions, and, with exceptions not quite so rare, classical poetry, are distinguished by their lack of what is now called the personal note. In Villon this note sounds, struck with singular force and skill. Again, the simple joy of living which distinguishes both periods—the medieval, despite a common opinion, scarcely less than the ancient—has disappeared. Even the riot and rollicking of his earlier days are mentioned with far less relish of remembrance than sense of their vanity. This sense of vanity, indeed, not of the merely religious, but of the purely mundane and even half-pagan kind, is Villon's most prominent characteristic. It tinges his narrative, despite its burlesque bequests, all through; it is the very keynote of his most famous and beautiful piece, the Ballade des dames du temps jadis, with its refrain, ‘Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?’ as well as of his most daring piece of realism, the other ballade of La Grosse Margot, with its burden of hopeless entanglement in shameless vice. It is nowhere more clearly sounded than in the piece which ranks with these two at the head of his work, the Regrets de la Belle Hëaulmiere, in which a woman, once young and beautiful, now old and withered, laments her lost charms. So it is almost throughout his poems, including the grim Epitaphe, and hardly excluding the very beautiful Ballade pour prier Nostre Dame, with its description of sincere and humble piety. It is in the profound melancholy which the dominance of this note has thrown over Villon's work, and in the suitableness of that melancholy to the temper of all generations since, that his charm and power have consisted, though it is difficult to conceive any time at which his poetical merit could be ignored.”

The man, a young man when he first became known to posterity, must have had a premonition of death from his earliest years which affected him not at all. What is so noteworthy about death that we are called on to give it any heed? But the art of making a distinguished poem is something else again.

He was intensely concerned with his art, but lost all interest after he had made use of it. That protected him from being, in the slightest way, the self-conscious maker of a mode of composition. He was his art and could not be separated from it. His poem by an extension of all its perquisites was himself. He lived in his accounts of even his own mother whom he celebrated in one of the least sentimental ballades. He saw her there before him and so she lives indestructibly.

The singular poem known as The Legacy contains his will, knowing he was a candidate for death from the first! This is a very early work written nonchalantly when he was twenty-five. It is perfect Villon. As a document it may not be as valuable as the later and more detailed and more virulent comment on his times The Testament, but the end with the ink frozen in the inkwell gives a note on his life as a student which can never be ignored.

Villon had only one poetical theme—himself: his life and his sorrows about Paris, the university of which he was very proud, the intellectual life of his times, the life of the streets and of the court. In all of these he had a literary pride without reservations. The life of the court and the life of the streets and the cultured life of the student—as of the poet—were of the same block.

So that when the poet speaks of The Fair Armoress he was speaking of a woman he undoubtedly knew well, making his comments on the details of her life and of how the times have neglected her and himself.

But the pride of the sensitive man, shown in his poetic invention, forces itself directly on the eye in the course of his words. An artist, and the sensitivity of the artist can never have been more inviolately patent, more incontrovertible than in this student poet.

His mode is set. It was a subjective preoccupation; nothing else concerned him. In that narrow range he found his release. Typically French. Nothing could jar him from his track. That gave him all the freedom of invention he required.

But the pride of invention was his own, something that cannot be foretold. Nothing to do but follow the lead of the times which surrounded him, inventing with the sensitive ear with which he had been endowed and to which he clung—his comfort as an artist.

Direct is the word for every word that Villon set down. There was no intermediate field to his address. He was directly concerned in the affairs of his life, took his responsibilities deeply and, as he grew older, bitterly, but saw no reason to seek to avoid them or to confess them. He was a poet, needed no intermediary, secular or sacred. Indeed his first victim in a brawl was a priest. In his poems he speaks frequently of priests and of popes as of men he might well have met about the world, men on an equal footing with himself. He acknowledged no superior.

This direct approach to his material came, most likely, from the small world he inhabited, the Paris of his studenthood.

That directness of a wholly responsible man among his peers entered into the very structure of his verse. When he uses a figure of speech it was not “as if” but coming from himself in one of the “disguises” that the world forces us to wear: prince or pauper, rich man or groveler—except that no one could make him grovel even on the gibbet.

To Villon, any ruse, or indirect approach, even at the excuse of art, savored of the lie. Mallarmé's “beautiful” symbolistic inventions were the antithesis of Villon's nature. Say what you have to say until hell freezes over! When setting down his words, little mattered save for art, save for his art against which he measured the world's devices.

So that when a modern literary critic seeks an approach with which to compare current attitudes, he must think inevitably, most readily of Villon.

The immediacy and impatience with the disguises of history must appeal to a modern reader, making it particularly timely to have a new reading of his poems at the present—especially one that conveys their uncompromising nature and surpassing excellence as art. Nothing like them had ever been written in the past—in spite of his fifteenth-century critics and those who had followed them.

The name of Villon is peculiarly alive in our world today; there is immediacy about it that makes him a contemporary in all our lives. We can still learn from him how to write a poem.

A recent comment by a critic (Hugh Kenner) may be worth noting. Le mot juste had come up for discussion: it was justly stated that if there were the faintest feeling that Villon ever wrote to be effective, it would have destroyed the validity of what he had to say. Le mot juste is the ready word—it has no other significance. This is fundamental. In literature there can be no seeking for words. For a writer to so indulge himself is to tread dangerous ground. But good writing is rare. In Villon, if he had even been conscious of an alternative, if there ever were the faintest sense of his wanting to be effective, the game would have been up. It never occurred.

To him a man was a man. To have called him a “male” would have been completely misleading. The same in his use of the word “woman” … nothing to be confused about that. The term might be interpreted vulgarly, as perhaps in our own day; but Villon used it vulgarly when the necessity called for it.

He was the complete Frenchman in that, as well as the child of his times—the fifteenth century. Every nation of Europe, as well as of the Orient, had its own characteristic bias in its attitude toward woman; but Villon had the French, even the Parisian attitude, which marked him singularly.

The evasion of forthrightness was not found in Villon, it never occurred to him; but that he ignored sensitive sense perception was unthinkable. He was vigorous but not crude; his feelings for words, flooding over his writing (though he never evaluated it) is the quality of beauty, the beauty of his individual lines.

He was French, as French as was Rabelais. Briefly to the point—he was a Parisian much the same as we understand the term today. He was typically French—not French in association with Italian, which the English acquired through their Dante—but more of Chaucer of an earlier day when the English themselves were half French.

The French were, in their own minds, the most advanced people of their world, the most light-hearted, the gayest, most daring. They were Parisians—with Parisians' pride in their city, their city the center of the world and all the world of culture; and, no doubt, of fashion, and as well of the learning that went into its making.

It is important to emphasize that as a poet Villon was a student of the University not of Oxford, not Padua, but of Paris inhabited by the French! His pride in his city was something he could bite into. He was possessed by French devil-may-care, a French sensitivity—in such a song as the famous poem written on the gallows.

Freres humains qui après nous vivez

No one but a Frenchman (and a Parisian) could have written that song! Imagine anyone that would have had the qualities to bring off that song but Villon the Parisian, the young student.

And who but a Frenchman could have had the special feeling for the cocotte, for women, tender but daring; and as informed about them as shown in the ballade of The Fair Armoress. As well for La Grosse Margot: low down as it is, a typical French tart beautifully realized with all a Frenchman's artistry and wit and humor—and design.


  1. Quoted passages by courtesy of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Evelyn Birge Vitz (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: “‘Contamination’ and the Central Metaphors,” in The Crossroad of Intentions: A Study of Symbolic Expression in the Poetry of François Villon, Mouton, 1974, pp. 29-63.

[In this excerpt, Vitz examines patterns of erotic and gustatory metaphors to establish the major contrasts in Villon's work. For Vitz, “contamination” describes the way in which metaphor seems to work by proximity in Villon's poetry, as symbolic connotations seem to seep from one line to the next.]

I propose, as an initial approach or avenue into Villon's Testament and accessorily his other works, a study of certain aspects of his use of symbolic expression: a study of certain words and groups of words which seem central to this problem.

The erotic symbolism in the Testament is a particularly useful place to begin this study, for the simple reason that it is both frequent and problematic. Occasionally the reader comes upon passages of blatant and open sexual meaning. Far more frequently, however, he is confronted with passages whose erotic overtones and implied double meanings are very subtle. The subtlety of this symbolism poses serious problems for the reader who wishes to read accurately and fully, without reading anything into the text.

In trying to understand why one so often has the vague impression that there is a hidden sexual meaning—even when it is not totally justified in the passage in question—I realized that this phenomenon is related to the accumulation of sexual nuances over the course of the work. A symbolic equivalence, once established between two words or objects, extends in its general effect to other words with more or less the same meaning, or to words pertaining to the same domain of reality. Such groups of words will be referred to as ‘families’ or ‘semantic fields’. In some cases these other words take on themselves a clear and direct erotic meaning, which will be termed a ‘denotation’ or ‘denotative meaning’. Often, however, they receive only a sexual ‘contamination’, or ‘connotation’, by analogy with the original metaphor. The word ‘contaminate’ seems rather unsatisfactory because of its moralistic, pathological, and nuclear connotation. Unfortunately no other word seems to suggest as adequately as ‘contamination’ the importance of proximity in the building up of symbolic nuances and the tenuousness with which words and notions ‘taint’ each other in Villon's poetry. This process of contamination is basically a metonymic one—determined largely by contiguity, and characterized by great contingency.

To take an isolated strophe as an example: in huitain XCIX we read:

Item, donne a mon advocat,
Maistre, Guillaume Charruau,
Quoy qu'il marchande ou ait estat,
Mon branc; je me tais du fourreau.
Il aura avec un rëau
En change, affin que sa bource enfle …

(T. [Testament] 1022-1027)

Branc in fifteenth-century French had a dual suggestiveness. There is a long tradition of phallic swords in medieval French literature.1 The sound branc in French also meant ‘dung’, when spelled bren. Branc by itself, out of context, possesses these double meanings only potentially. In this case, our uncertainty as to the realization of this potential and as to the actual presence of a second meaning (or meanings) is dispelled by the word “fourreau”. In a striking example of the suggestive power of praeterition2 Villon associates the “branc” with an ‘unmentionable’ sheath.3 We now know that the “branc” itself, symbolically contaminated by its sheath, hides some deeper and ‘shocking’ significance. We still do not know whether this other sense is phallic or excremental, for the sheath can be either vaginal or anal.4 In short, the suggestiveness is now clearly present, but remains unfocused. In the next two lines we find a coin, a “rëau”, given so that Charruau's “bource”, ‘purse’, will “swell”. Such objects would have no symbolic relevance to branc as ‘dung’ and fourreau as ‘anus’. They, quite definitely, are significant if branc is ‘sword’ and fourreau ‘vagina’. They complete the sexual sense of this huitain, by suggesting that not only does Charruau need a new phallic sword but even a handful of ‘coins’ to swell his sexual purse. The coins and purse have thus fully clarified the meaning of branc and fourreau. Their own exact semantic content, however, is not completely clear: bource would seem to mean scrotum (as it still can today), but are the rëaux specifically testicles or simply sexual potency in general?

At any rate, in this particular case, the strophe suffices unto itself to establish the presence and nature of its underlying symbolism. Here, the sexual meaning would seem the more important one: Villon draws attention to it and stresses it by his praeterition, while refusing to develop it openly. Moreover, it is the only reading in which the strophe would seem to make any sense.

In the following strophe, huitain C, Villon leaves to his lawyer Fournier “En ma bource quatre havees”.5 This statement, which otherwise could have been a perfectly simple, if humorous, one (Villon having just represented himself as poverty stricken), is contaminated by the meaning of bource in the preceding strophe: it takes on an undeniably erotic connotation. Even the “cent solz6 that Villon leaves to Michault Cul d'Oue and Charlot Taranne in huitain CXXXV make us suspicious, as they belong to the same family as rëaux. We cannot affirm that they are a completely nonsexual gift, especially since they are accompanied by “house de basanne”, ‘sheep-leather stockings’, which in the fifteenth century could mean ‘(intercourse with) an old, dried-up woman’.7

The symbolic meaning of the branc of strophe XCIX will make itself felt every time we meet a sword, by whatever name. Sometimes, this meaning will be a clearly denotative one. In the Ballade de la Grosse Margot, Villon says:

Se j'ayme et sers la belle de bon hait,
M'en devez vous tenir ne vil ne sot?
Elle a en soy des biens a fin souhait.
Pour son amour sains bouclier et passot …

(T. 1591-1594)

In these first four lines of the ballade Villon presents himself as a courtly lover, ‘serving’ his lady. It would be quite appropriate for him to don a sword in her honor, to fight for the love of her. If it is a little odd that it should be a dagger, and not a sword, that he wields, it will soon become abundantly clear that Margot is no courtly lady but a prostitute, and that Villon is her pimp. The only kind of sword which figures in their wooing in the poem is an erotic one.

In other cases, the meaning that ‘sword’ takes on will be more vague, more open to question—more ‘connotation’ than ‘denotation’. Villon tells us:

Item, ne vueil plus que Cholet
Dolle, tranche, douve ne boise,
Relie broc ne tonnelet,
Mais tout ses houstilz changier voise
A une espee lyonnoise,
Et retiengne le hutinet;
Combien qu'il n'ayme bruyt ne noise,
Si luy plaist il ung tantinet.

(T. 1102-1109)

No more shaving wood, sawing, making staves, joining nails and barrels for Cholet. All these tools he shall exchange for a ‘sword’. But let him keep his barrelmaker's mallet. The presence of ‘sword’, with its high sexually symbolic potential, is troubling in a passage like this one. Such details as Villon's suggestion that he keep his ‘mallet’—which could signify some sort of sexual power—only heighten the sexual connotation, but cannot resolve it into clear denotation. Two strophes later the symbolic ambiguity of this huitain will be even more radically heightened, but still not resolved. In stanza CXI, Villon says:

Item, a l'Orfevre de Bois,
Donne cent clouz, queues et testes,
De gingembre sarrazinois,
Non pas pour acouppler ses boetes,
Mais pour conjoindre culz et coetes,
Et couldre jambons et andoulles,
Tant que le lait en monte aux tetes
Et le sang en devalle aux coulles.

(T. 1118-1125)

One motif in particular here seems to me relevant in considering huitain CIX. No sword appears, but here the notion of ‘joining’ becomes clearly, denotatively, sexual: “conjoindre culz et coetes”, “couldre jambons et andoulles”. The fact that ‘to join’ here means ‘to join sexually’ does not necessarily mean that it meant the same thing in any denotative sense two strophes earlier. It nonetheless throws a still more strongly sexual cast over that already troubling huitain.

As is apparent from the above example, the diffusion of erotic connotations—the contamination—in Villon's work is not a purely linear phenomenon. We do not just notice as we read along that words take on more and more nuances. The contamination works backwards as well as forward. It throws into question, retroactively, words and passages which we have already read, seeing at the time (or fully justified in seeing) only their surface content. A few more examples of this phenomenon may further clarify the point. In huitain XC Villon gave a gift to his amye Marthe:

Item, m'amour, ma chiere Rose,
Ne luy laisse ne cuer ne foye;
Elle ameroit mieulx autre chose,
Combien qu'elle ait assez monnoye.
Quoy? une grant bource de soye,
Plaine d'escuz, parfonde et large;
Mais pendu soit il, que je soye,
Qui luy laira escu ne targe.

(T. 910-917)

In this huitain Villon is in a quandary as to the most suitable gift for Marthe. He is trying to decide what she would most appreciate. In one sense, Villon is telling us here that he will give her neither his love nor his faith (his promise of faithfulness). She would rather have something else: a big silken purse full of coins. By going back to the literal meaning of cuer and by his pun on foye, Villon is also saying: I leave her neither my heart nor my liver. That “something else” she would rather he give her is now, by implication, some other organ. And that other organ is a grant bource de soye. We may well suspect that the purse in question is a testicular one. It is only nine strophes later, however, when the sexual meanings of “sword”, “sheath” and “purse”8 are fully clarified that we can verify retroactively our hypothesis: that the silken purse full of coins—at least at one level of interpretation—meant symbolically and elliptically, the sexual love of a rich and potent man; of a man whose sexual purse is full, and who is dressed in silk. In this case, the sexual meaning of the strophe, which would appear to be fully denotative, is not the only or even the more important meaning. Both the literal sense and the figurative, sexual, sense are valid. Both are informative about Marthe's character, each completing the other. What emerges from this dual meaning is the portrait of an uncourtly, ‘unidealistic’ woman who is interested in the concrete, in what can be of immediate use to her: money and carnal love rather than vows of eternal fidelity. Villon's ultimate reaction to Marthe—his expression of his feelings about her—contains a double meaning. In the last two lines of the strophe Villon declares on the one hand, “May he be hanged—or may I be—who gives her escu or targe”. Just as in the case of rëau, the coin that fills the sexual purse is itself contaminated. Villon here disapproves of any sexual expenditure on Marthe. Whether this is from resentment or for reasons of morality is unclear. On the other hand, Villon here would also seem to be exploiting a possible erotic meaning of pendu: let only a sexually competent, “well hung” man undertake to give Marthe seminal “money”.

In the above example the second, sexual, meaning which appeared retroactively fulfilled and developed the original, literal sense. In the following case the opposite is true. Villon quotes a supposed maligner of prostitutes:

“S'ilz n'ayment fors que pour l'argent,
On ne les ayme que pour l'eure;
Rondement ayment toute gent,
Et rient-lors que bource pleure …

(T. 577-580)

Literally, this critic of prostitutes is warning Villon against their greed and against their fundamental indifference to men. But we come to understand later on that symbolically and unintentionally he was saying (being made to say, by Villon) something quite different: such women want only to be loved and are only happy when a man's “purse” overflows in tears—“weeps”.

This tendency for certain words and real objects to exercise a contaminating influence—to irradiate symbolic meaning—throughout the entire work suggests that the notion of ‘symbolic centers’ may be a helpful one. In the examples studied thus far, the male sexual organs would seem to act as such a center. They have a powerful symbolic effect on their immediate context.9 This effect, or contamination, often results from an analogy to reality. Bource became sexualized by analogy to its proximity to branc and its real functions: “swelling”, “weeping”, and so forth.10 They also radiate contaminations out onto other passages, often by semantic analogy: passot11 became erotic as if by analogy to branc.

A still more powerful symbolizing center is female sexuality, the semantic field of the sadinet,12 which transforms into erotic metaphor an enormous sector of reality. The female and the male centers tend to affect overlapping sectors of reality and have a mutual influence on each other. On occasion, as we shall see, they function symbolically as a unit exercising a very powerful sexualizing influence.

The primary metaphors for the female sex organs in Villon's work are rose, fourreau, trou, cage; food also has a strongly sexual tendency, centered around the union of male and female. Each of these metaphorical names contaminates more or less completely and more or less precisely, depending on the case, the family of words and domain of reality to which it belongs.

To consider the image of man and woman and their sexual organs as food, we might start by turning once again to Villon's gift for the goldsmith:

Item, a l'Orfevre de Bois,
Donne cent clouz, queus et testes,
De gingembre sarrazinois,
Non pas pour acouppler ses boetes,
Mais pour conjoindre culz et coetes,
Et couldre jambons et andoulles,
Tant que le lait en monte aux tetes
Et le sang en devalle aux coulles.

(T. 1118-1125)

The first four lines of this stanza are perfectly anodyne—except that saracenic ginger was an aphrodisiac. Suddenly in the fifth line Villon explains most unambiguously the purpose of this gift: to join arses and tails. In the next line he gives a synonym: to sew together hams and sausages. And the last two lines make it still more abundantly clear that the union in question is a sexual one. As we shall see, the equation here between food and sex organ will have a troubling effect on other passages in the poem. First, however, one curious thing about the sexual imagery in this stanza should be noted. The combination of culz and coetes jambons and andoulles, is unmistakably erotic. The male half of these two pairs is clearly phallic: coetes (queues) and andoulles; but in the evocation of the female half we perceive a certain distancy of expression: first “ass” and, still more so, “ham” describe only a general area of the body, not an organ. (Incidentally, the absence of any clearly female organ in this union might be taken to suggest the possibility that the couple is a homosexual one. However, later in the poem, the feminity of one partner is postulated “tant que le lait en monte aux têtes”.)

In the next two strophes, Villon leaves his legacy to Jehan Riou:

Au cappitaine Jehan Riou,
Tant pour luy que pour ses archiers,
Je donne six hures de lou,
Qui n'est pas vïande a porchiers,
Prinses a gros mastins de bouchiers,
Et cuites en vin de buffet.
Pour mengier de ces morceaulx chiers,
On en feroit bien ung malfait.
C'est vïande ung peu plus pesante
Que duvet n'est, plume, ne liege.
Elle est bonne a porter en tente,
Ou pour user en quelque siege.
S'ilz estoient prins a un piege,
Que ces mastins ne sceussent courre,
J'ordonne, moy qui suis son miege,
Que des pealx, sur l'iver, se fourre.

(T. 1126-1141)

Having just read about sexual jambons and andoulles, we cannot but be suspicious of “wolf meat”. Although the literal meaning remains perfectly acceptable, there is also here an underlying, denotative, sexual meaning. These “six head of wolf meat”, that is, low-grade meat, may refer to a particularly unappetizing group of feminine morsels, snatched from their butcher-lovers (“Prinses a gros mastins de bouchiers”), ‘stewed’ on “vin de buffet”. These “morceaulx chiers” are good for use only when no one else is available—during a battle or a siege. It is only safe to “se fourrer” with their skins when the butcher-curs, their lovers, are caught in a trap somewhere and incapable of attack.

Let us note that in this passage as in the one which preceded it food is identified with sexual femininity, but not specifically with any female sexual organ.

If in the two examples just discussed, food has taken on a clear, denotative, sexual meaning, such is by no means always the case. At the end of the Ballade de la Grosse Margot, Villon concludes: “Ventre, gresle, gelle, j'ay mon pain cuit”.13 In the context of this strongly sexual poem, Villon's “bread” is most suggestively phallic. That one of the names in medieval slang for one's ‘woman’ was boulangère14 intensifies this connotation.

Another example from the Margot is significant. In the first strophe we read:

Quant viennent gens, je cours et happe ung pot,
Au vin m'en fuis, sans demener grant bruit;
Je leur tens eaue, frommage, pain et fruit.
“S'ilz paient bien, je leur dis: “Bene stat;
Retournez cy, quant vous serez en ruit,
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat!”

(T. 1591-1600)

Here the food imagery as it appears in the brothel is naturally associated with fleshly pleasures in general, but no more. We are perhaps sensitized to the sexually contaminative effect that food has in Villon's poetry, but we are certainly not justified in reading ‘sex’ instead of ‘food’. Two stanzas later Margot is in bed with Villon and he tells us:

Tous deux ivres, dormons comme ung sabot.
Et au resveil, quant le ventre luy bruit,
Montre sur moy, que ne gaste son fruit.

(T. 1615-1617)

The ‘fruit’ in the first stanza was only vaguely suggestive. This second one, however, clearly denotes sexual pleasure. This ‘fruit’, and the ‘baked bread’ of the envoi, retroactively heighten the suggestive intensity of the first strophe's “eaue, frommage, pain et fruit”.

In concluding on this aspect of food symbolism, we should note that its sexually contaminative effect in the work is unsystematic. Moreover, we will see later that food and nourishment have other symbolic meanings in the Testament as well as their erotic implications.

‘Rose’ is a still more striking example of the contaminative power of a symbolic center in Villon's poetry. Here one feels a real symbolic extension of the metaphor15 reaching out to encompass an ever greater sector of the world and of experience. First, “rose” assimilates into sexual imagery the more general word “flower”, as well as, by analogy to the aging of the sexual rose, the verbs designating the decline of the blossom: Villon warns Marthe, his “chiere rose”,

Ung temps viendra qui fera dessechier,
Iaunir, flestrir vostre espanye fleur.

(T. 958-959)

Fleur in a passage like this one refers both to Marthe's sexual “flower” and in a larger sense to her beauty and youth and sexual attraction in general.

The place where the flower grows is clearly, denotative, subsumed: the “Old Hëaulmiere” looks down on her physical corruption and asks where are

Ces larges rains, ce sadinet
Assis sur grosses fermes cuisses,
Dedans son petit jardinet?

(T. 506-508)

With this notion of the jardinet in which the sexual flower grows go the various verbs that imply the cultivation of that field: in the Lais, Villon complained of being mistreated by his lady and concluded: “Planter me fault autres complans.16 In the Testament, Villon speaking for Robert d'Estouteville says:

Si ne pers pas la graine que je sume
En vostre champ, quand le fruit me ressemble.
Dieu m'ordonne que le fouÿsse et fume …

(T. 1398-1400)

Here we see that with this notion of fecundity and fecundation goes the “fruit” as ‘child’. But with “fruit” we are back to food imagery …

The case of fourreau is equally rich. “Sheath”, as we have seen, contaminates the sword and the dagger (and/or it is contaminated by them). Battle is erotic battle: the Hëaulmiere evokes her past jousting.

… hanches charnues,
Eslevees, propres, faictisses
A tenir amoureuses lisses;

(T. 503-505)

Casual swipes are sexual, too: Villon complains that he had never had a chance to love Marthe: “Et qu'esse cy? Mourray sans coup ferir?17 Finally even the opposite of war, peace is endowed with a clearly erotic meaning: after a battle with Margot in the brothel, Villon tells us: “Puis paix se fait …”18—meaning then we were reconciled, then we made love.

This tendency for military vocabulary to appear in Villon's work with sexual connotations is fully manifest in the very name the “Hëaulmiere”.19 This name, the feminine form of the term ‘helmet-maker’, would mean literally the helmet-maker's wife or woman. Symbolically, however, her name expresses her sexual way of life as prostitute.

We then find a woman called la Machecoue:

Item, quant est de Merebeuf
Et de Nicolas de Louviers,
Vache ne leur donne ne beuf,
Car vachiers ne sont ne bouviers,
Mais gens a porter espreviers,
Ne cuidez pas que je me joue,
Et pour prendre perdris, plouviers,
Sans faillir, sur la Machecoue.

(T. 1046-1053)

Machecoue, or machicoulis is part of the fortification of a medieval fortress: it is a hole or opening in a parapet through which heavy objects or boiling water could be dropped on the heads of attackers. Just as in the preceding case, the Hëaulmiere's profession contaminated her military name, so in this case the military name makes us wonder if the Machecoue is not also a prostitute.

Two of the most interesting metaphors are trou and cage, which are obviously related, and whose symbolic resonance and far-reaching impact will be studied together. First of all, insofar as trou means, literally, hole or aperture of some kind in a wall, we have just experienced its erotic potential in the person of Machecoue—that military aperture! Its precise sexual denotation is also manifest in Villon's evocation of an obscene song:

S'elle eust le chant “Marionette”,
Fait pour Marion la Peautarde,
Ou d'“Ouvrez vostre huys, Guillemette”,
Elle allast bien a la moustarde.

(T. 1780-1783)

Aller a la moustarde referred to the popular and obscene songs sung by bands of children on their way to buy mustard, and also meant in slang ‘to make love’.20

Villon complains about the treatment his lady has forced upon him:

Ainsi m'ont Amours abusé
Et pourmené de l'uys au pesle.

(T. 705-706)

That is, thus has Love abused me, lured me out and locked the door behind me. And that ‘locked door’ is hers—both literal and sexual.

The Hëaulmiere warns her girls:

“Et vous, la gente Saulciciere
Qui de dancier estre adestre,
Guillemete la Tapiciere,
Ne mesprenez vers vostre maistre:
Tost vous fauldra clorre fenestre;
Quant deviendrez vielle, flestrie,
Plus ne servirez qu'ung viel prestre
Ne que monnoye qu'on descrie.

(T. 541-548)

Here again, the “window” that they will have to close is that literal window that opened from their rooms onto the street and through which they solicited. It is also the sexual uys that they will have to close in their old age.

Even when the “hole” in question is not denotatively or even connotatively a sexual one, it retains a strong suggestive power: Villon witnesses a couple of lovers through a chink in the plaster.

Sur mol duvet assis, ung gras chanoine,
Lez un brasier, en chambre bien natee,
A son costé gisant dame Sidoine,
Blanche, tendre, polie et attintee,
Boire ypocras, a jour et a nuytee,
Rire, jouer, mignonner et baisier,
Et nu a nu pour mieulx des corps s'aisier
Les vy tous deux, par ung trou de mortaise …

(T. 1473-1480)

In other words, holes, chinks, windows tend to appear in passages involving the sexual act, in one or another of its aspects.

This is equally true of the word trou in another of its acceptations: as bar or tavern. The taverns in Villon's poetry are very frequently presented with erotic suggestiveness: the Trou Perrete for instance, where the woman's name identifies her as owner and willing hostess of both a literal and a metaphorical trou. Villon renders still more explicit the atmosphere which reigns in the world of the tavern by the string attached to the gift:

S'il sceust jouer a ung tripot,
Il eust de moy le Trou Perrete.

(T. 1958-1959)

Jouer a un tripot meant ‘to play tennis’ in fifteenth-century French, and ‘to make love’ in slang.21

Bordeau is the final and logical extension of trou as a place, combined with its privileged association with the sexual act. This is the one word that unites the double postulation “Tout aux tavernes et aux filles”.22

As for “cage”, it appears with a denotative erotic sense which fully exploits its fifteenth-century slang potential:23

Item, je donne a frere Baude,
Demourant en l'ostel des Carmes,
Portant chiere hardie et baude,
Une sallade et deux guysarmes,
Que Detusca et ses gens d'armes
Ne luy riblent sa caige vert,
Viel est: s'il ne se rent aux armes,
C'est bien le deable de Vauvert.

(T. 1190-1197)

The “green cage” which old Brother Baude is in danger of losing is quite clearly his young mistress. And note that the gift which Villon gives Baude to enable him to hold her is a helmet and two double-edged battle-axes …

“Cage” also pulls the notion of ‘trap’, ‘nets’, into the sexual sphere:

Se celle que jadis servoie …
Se dit m'eust, au commencement,
Sa voulenté (mais nennil, las!)
J'eusse mis paine aucunement
De moy retraire de ses las

(T. 673-680)

When cage and trou are related in their common meaning, ‘dungeon’, small imprisoning hole, we find that they touch by their symbolizing force another very important world in their semantic field: the prison.

En ce temps que j'ay dit devant …
Me vint ung vouloir de brisier
La tres amoureuses prison
Qui souloit mon cuer debrisier.

(L. [Le Lais] 9-16)

Two points must be stressed here: by virtue of the explicitly or implicitly sexual meanings which garden, tavern, prison have all taken on, they throw a vague, a slight but nonetheless certain erotic tinge onto all the words of their common family—that of the enclosed space, the container. They add a nuance to the semantic content of all the numerous ostels, logis, jardins that Villon leaves to people or to which he alludes.24 To give but one example, in huitain CXXXVI:

Item, au seigneur de Grigny,
Auquel jadis laissay Vicestre,
Je donne la tour de Billy
Pourveu, s'uys y a ne fenestre
Qui soit ne debout ne en estre,
Qu'il mette tres bien tout a point.
Face argent a destre et senestre:
Il m'en fault et il n'en a point.

(T. 1346-1353)

The presence of these motifs (window, door, money), whose meaning has been so contaminated in various contexts by sexual symbolism, contaminates this building, too. It adds an imprecise but unmistakable nuance of meaning to the strophe. And it is this very nuance which renders traditional textual analysis so difficult in Villon's poetry.

Second, if there is a general tinge of eroticism imparted to the work as a whole by this symbolic process, it would most certainly be abusive to assert that every time we meet in the text one of the words which I have discussed it is explicitly or even implicitly sexual. Even when it is not, however, in any sense used sexually, it nonetheless takes its meaning in part by relation to this general pattern.

The contamination, or symbolic attraction, in Villon's poetry is not just at the service of erotic symbolism; the point of all this is not to reduce the meaning of Villon's work to its sexual repercussions. Rather, this symbolism itself is part of a larger context: it is but one aspect of the whole experience of loving and being loved, holding and being held, containing and being contained.

If sex is the center of a powerful symbolizing force, it is but one extension of a still richer symbolic structure, one which embraces nearly all of reality as Villon represents it. The core, or center of this symbolizing field is the word or idea fosse. We have seen how fosse, as trou or cage can be a sexual metaphor. But it is also the word to describe the place where one lies dead: in ordering the arrangement of his sepulchre, Villon orders “Item, vueil qu'autour de ma fosse …”25 And it describes the place where one is imprisoned: “En fosse gis, non pas soubz houx ne may”.26 The very fact that one central image—the fosse—is used to express radically different human situations, implies that Villon posits a symbolic similarity among them—that in some sense he perceives or feels them to be alike. To use the same word for woman and sex as for death and prison is to imply, among other things, that even death or prison can have some positive meaning. And Villon does present them as places of security, repose: “REPOS ETERNEL DONNE A CIL, SIRE”.27 But to use one word for them all might also suggest that sex and love can be confining, or deadening, or even fatal, as well as pleasurable.

These implications are rendered quite explicit in the text by Villon's use of mixed metaphor. He uses death vocabulary to describe prison:28 originally by applying the word for grave-hole to dungeon: “En fosse gis …” To be freed from prison is to be delivered from death:

Escript l'ay l'an soixante et ung
Que le bon roy me delivera
De la dure prison de Mehun,
Et que vie me recouvra …

(T. 81-84)

Villon uses prison vocabulary to describe love: the “tres amoureuse prison29 and the “las30 of passion.

The “sword”, weapon of death, is also the instrument of love. Villon seems to pass over in general the courtly and metaphysical notion of the death of each lover to and in the other, but he obviously conceives of passion as resulting in death or intense suffering: “en amours mourut martir”.31 More curious, when Villon speaks of the anguish of dying, whom do we find as examples of death's victims? Paris and Helen—whom we would ordinarily associate with more symbolic forms of death, the courtly or sexual.32

Et meure Paris ou Helaine,
Quinconques meurt, meurt a douleur
Telle qu'il pert vent et alaine;
Son fiel se creve sur son cuer,
Puis sue, Dieu scet quelle sueur! …

(T. 313-317)

Villon insists on the body of the beautiful young woman, naked, desirable, as particularly vulnerable to death. The appropriateness of the choice may stem in part from the erotically suggestive nature of the death described here:

La mort le fait fremir, pallir,
Le nez courber, les vaines tendre,
Le col enfler, la chair mollir,
Joinctes et nerfs croistre et estendre.
Corps femenin, qui tant es tendre,
Poly, souef, si precieux,
Te fauldra il ces maux attendre?
Oy, ou tout vif aller es cieulx.

(T. 321-328)

If the only escape is to “tout vif aller es cieulx” it is perhaps because the Virgin alone never ‘died’ in love.

The symbolic fabric of Villon's poetry is still more complex: fosse, as we have seen expands geographically and symbolically to encompass the general idea of prison, involves ultimately in its meaning all the vocabulary of walls and towers. Walls and towers can enclose in both a negative, imprisoning way, but also in a positive, protective one. Among the enormous numbers of walled cities and fortresses (which takes us back to weaponry …) in Villon's works, some are clearly beneficent, welcoming:

Combien qu'au plus fort de mes maulx,
En cheminant sans croix ne pille,
Dieu, qui les pelerins d'Esmaus
Conforta, ce dit l'Evangille,
Me monstra une bonne ville
Et pourveut du bon d'esperance; …

(T. 97-102)

Paris is a mother:

Le droit luy donne d'eschevin,
Que j'ay comme enfant de Paris …

(T. 1059-1060)

The Virgin is described as a “chastel”, a “fortress”,33 offering protection and refuge. Saint Generou has a pleasantly mysterious aura, like a fairyland:

Se je parle ung peu poictevin,
Ice m'ont deux dames apris.
Elles sont tres belles et gentes,
Demourans a Saint Generou
Pres Saint Julien de Voventes,
Marche de Bretaigne ou Poictou.
Mais i ne di proprement ou
Yquelles passent tous les jours;
M'arme! i ne seu mie si fou,
Car i vueil celer mes amours.

(T. 1059-1069)

The symbolic importance of its location, of its almost magical power, is revealed by Villon's refusal to discuss it further.

Other cities are maleficent—in fact, the “dure prison de Mehun” is compared to a city and opposed to “bonne ville” by a pun:

Si prie au benoist fils de Dieu …
Qui m'a préservé de maint blasme
Et franchy de ville puissance.

(T. 49-54)

Even if one were not sure just what the historical references were concerning Douai and Lille,34 it is clear to the reader, at least, that he would not want to visit them:

Si prieray pour luy [Thibault d'Aussigny] de bon cuer
Et pour l'ame de feu Cotart.
Mais quoy? ce sera donc par cuer,
Car de lire je suis fetart.
Priere en feray de Picart;
S'il ne la scet, voise l'apprendre,
S'il m'en croit, ains qu'il soit plus tart,
A Douai ou a l'Isle en Flandre!

(T. 33-40)

Still other cities are metaphors from criminal slang: aller à Montpipeau means voler en pipant, aller à Rueil means détrousser,35 and they are both dangerous spots, deux lieux where one tends to lose his skin.36Bordeau, of course, is a highly ambivalent place:

Vente, gresle, gelle, j'ay mon pain cuit.
Ie suis paillart, la paillarde me suit.
Lequel vault mielx? Chascun bien s'entresuit.
L'ung vault l'autre; c'est a mau rat mau chat.
Ordure amons, ordure nous assuit;
Nous deffuyons onneur, il nous deffuit.
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.

(T. 1621-1627)


Moy, povre mercerot de Renes,
Mourray je pas? Oy, se Dieu plaist …

(T. 417-418)

Just as Villon here is any man, Rennes seems to be anyplace, and noplace. In short, the symbolic and equivocal nature of the walled city as protection and confinement pervades all the Testament, and the Lais.

The symbolic pattern which we have been discussing has several radical effects in the text. Themes which are theoretically very different, which in an ossified allegory would be irreconcilably opposed, lose their quality of polarization by being expressed with the same words or images. Life and death, sexual and religious or maternal love, freedom and imprisonment, though they may be intellectual dichotomies, are shown to be, affectively, very close indeed.

Thus, as I suggested earlier, woman is food and repose; a sheath for a sword, a garden, a place to hide. But she is also death, and imprisonment—be she Marthe, mother, or the Virgin Mary. She is protection, she is the ‘inside’. But a woman's love can also mean, for a man, being inside wanting out, and exile: being outside wanting in.

The Ballade des dames du temps jadis offers one excellent example of the way in which Villon symbolically invalidates traditional thematic—and intellectual—oppositions. After evoking in the first stanza women of classical legend and myth famous for their love, Villon in the second strophe asks:

Ou est la tres sage Helloïs,
Pour qui chastré fut et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart a Saint Denis?
Pour son amour ou ceste essoyne.
Semblablement, ou est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust geté en ung sac en Saine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

(T. 337-344)

Here we find two couples. In each of the two, the man suffered for his love either mutilation or death. Though Helloïs was sage—a wise and virtuous woman—Peter Abelard ‘paid’ for his love for her by being castrated and then becoming a monk. As for the fate of Buridan,37 he unites the triple symbolic postulation in Villon's poetry: love, prison, death. For the love of the queen he was tied up in a sack, at once prison and shroud, and was thrown to his death in the Seine.

Then we pass to the third strophe, where we first meet another queen:

La royne Blanche comme lis
Qui chantoit a voix de seraine,
Berte au grant pié, Bietris, Alis,
Haremburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine
Qu'Englois brulerent a Rouan;
Ou sont ilz, ou Vierge souvraine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?

(T. 345-352)

The queen Blanche comme lis is probably Blanche de Castille, the mother of Saint Louis.38 The first line, stressing her lily-like purity, suggests an opposition between her and Buridan's cruel mistress. But this opposition—itself sabotaged by the erotic suggestion which the flower, lis, brings with it—will be of very short duration. In the next line Villon continues his description of the queen: she chantoit a voix de seraine. Blanche may be pure, but her voice is that of a siren. Is even a mother's love39 dangerous?

In the rest of the poem Villon evokes first women famous for their families: Alis and Bietris were mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, in the chanson de geste Hervi de Metz. Berte, Charlemagne's mother, was also Bietris's niece.40 Haremburgis was the daughter and heiress of Hélie, the Compte de Maine.41 Finally, Villon evokes Jehanne la bonne Lorrainne, the Pucelle d'Orléans, famous for her patriotism, her love of country, as well as for her purity and holiness.

One thing that stands out in this poem is that every kind of love portrayed here proved dangerous. That Helloïs was sage was no protection to Abelard. Jehanne suffered no less than Buridan: he drowned, she burned. If anything, she suffered more—in some versions of the Buridan legend he had a boat waiting on the river under the Queen of Navarre's window … Blanche was no less dangerous, no less a seductress than Buridan's queen. Every kind of love presents a deadly threat, as this poem makes clear. But it is not just love that is fatal. Villon asks in the two ballads immediately following this one,42ubi sunt the pope Calixtus and King Arthur and Du Guesclin and the preux of Vienne and Grenoble, and many, many others, and we realize that life itself is ‘fatal’.

In seeking to understand the nature of Villon's symbolic language one must study the opposition between ‘outside’ and ‘inside’ which is fundamental in the poem.

Villon, the filles de joie, and all the poor in general have one important characteristic in common: they are all described as being on the outside, and more specifically, on the outside looking in. The relation of the poor to the banquet (in all the broad sense of that idea in Villon's poetry) of life is one of exclusion: they are naked, unprotected, starving:

Et les autres sont devenus,
Dieu mercy! grans seigneurs et maistres;
Les autres mendient tous nus
Et pain ne voient qu'aux fenestres;
Les autres sont entrez en cloistres
De Celestins et de Chartreux,
Botez, housez, com pescheurs d'oistres.
Voyez l'estat divers d'entre eux.

(T. 233-240)

They only see life by looking through windows into the homes and shops of the rich.

The Belle Hëaulmiere warns her girls, as we have seen:

“Et vous, la gente Saulciciere
Qui de dancier estes adestre,
Guillemete la Tapiciere,
Ne mesprenez vers vostre maistre:
Tost vous fauldra clorre fenestre;
Quant deviendrez vielle, flestrie,
Plus ne servirez qu'un viel prestre,
Ne que monnoye qu'on descrie.

(T. 541-548)

We see here exactly what the situation of the prostitute is in society—that of the spectator with a first-row seat. And this is the very cause for her anguish—she sees but can never experience la vraie vie, ever absente. She is only directly involved in this desirable world as something which it uses, as a piece of merchandise, or money. And it is as a piece of merchandise that she—like prostitutes today in certain cities of Europe—is seen through the window. With old age and its ugliness, she cannot even enjoy this vicarious participation; she is a coin which has passed from circulation, she must close her window on life.

Finally, we turn back to the passage where Villon describes himself as the spectator to a love scene.

Sur mol duvet assis, ung gras chanoine,
Lez ung brasier, en chambre bien natee,
A son costé gisant dame Sidoine,
Blanche, tendre, polie et attintee,
Boire ypocras, a jour et a nuytee,
Rire, jouer, mignonner et baisier,
Et nu a nu, pour mieulx des corps s'aisier,
Les vy tous deux, par ung trou de mortaise …

(T. 1473-1480)

The humurous sensuality of the first seven lines turns bitter in our mouth as we reach the last one, and find Villon thus degraded, even to get the most paltry and second-hand taste of life.

These three windows are all, we sense, one window—and all in the same wall: that which separates those who live from those who watch, those on the inside from those on the outside. Through this window we see the “chambre bien natee”,43 with plump and polished lovers; the rich interiors of the cloisters into which “some” have “entered”;44 the “bons ostels45 and the homes of the Jacques Cuers of the world, who later reside “soubz riche tombeau”.46

What does this notion of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ allow us to explain—what in the Testament which may have been incomprehensible before, takes on a new meaning, a new relevance to the work as a whole? Rather, can this image reveal a coherence in Villon's work which otherwise might pass unnoticed? For otherwise, all this analysis is just a sterile notation of formal oppositions.

It is not an obscure historical reference, I think, but Villon's impression of being forever ‘outside’ that would explain the humor of a passage like the following:

Item, viengne Robin Turgis
A moy, je lui paieray son vin;
Combien, s'il treuve mon logis,
Plus fort sera que le devin.

(T. 1054-1057)

There is no danger that Robin Turgis will find his house, because Villon is essentially a ‘houseless’, ‘homeless’ man, an outsider. That he may actually have had a place to live is not necessarily relevant.

Moreover, that explains why it is a joke for Villon to leave even the simplest, smallest chapel of his own. It should be noted that he almost always leaves people either public property, or land or buildings belonging to someone else.

Item, a Chappelain je laisse
Ma chappelle a simple tonsure,
Chargiee d'une seiche messe
Ou il ne fault pas grant lecture.

(T. 1836-1839)

The mass is “dry”, that is, without consecration, and there is no reading of scripture necessary, because there is no chapel.

It is in this light that the Virgin's role as his only home, the only place he can take refuge, takes on its full import:

Autre chastel n'ay, ne fortresse,
Ou me retraye corps et ame,
Quant sur moy court malle destresse,
Ne ma mere, la povre femme!

(T. 869-872)

The role of a modern Alexander in his life would have been, precisely, to take him from that anti-home, poverty. As Villon quotes his fortunate double Diomedes, poverty is a singularly unhappy place to be:

Et saiche qu'en grant povreté
Ce mot se dit communement,
Ne gist pas grande loyauté …

(T. 150-152)

An Alexander would have ushered him into happiness (or Happiness):

Se Dieu m'eust donné rencontrer
Ung autre piteux Alixandre
Qui m'eust fait en bon eur entrer …

(T. 161-163)

Poverty, and misery and unhappiness in general, can be described both as being inside the wrong place (like being ‘in’ prison), or being on the outside of the right place. So we find a strophe like:

Je plains le temps de ma jeunesse,
(Ouquel j'ay plus qu'autre gallé
Jusques a l'entree de viellesse),
Qui son partement m'a celé.
Il ne s'en est a pié allé
N'a cheval: helas! comment don?
Soudainement s'en est vollé
Et ne m'a laissié quelque don.
Allé s'en est, et je demeure,
Povre de sens et de savoir,
Triste, failly, plus noir que meure,
Qui n'ay ne cens, rente, n'avoir …

(T. 169-180)

In this example we first see Villon's quasi-geographical passage from a pleasant place to an unpleasant one—from Jeunesse to Vieillesse. But then Villon drops that image, and adopts another: suddenly we see him not leaving Jeunesse but being abandoned by her—she flies off and leaves him, alone, and nowhere. We also see here, as in numerous other passages, the close link between being ‘outside’ and being poor—for as Jeunesse flies off, she leaves him sans don.

There are even passages where it is not clear to the reader whether Villon is complaning that he is inside wanting out or outside wanting in. In stanza X of the Lais, Villon says:

Item, a celle que j'ai dit,
Qui si durement m'a chassié
Que je suis de joye interdit
Et de tout plaisir dechassié
Je laisse mon cuer enchassié,
Palle, piteux, mort et transy:
Elle m'a ce mal pourchassié,
Mais Dieu luy en face mercy!

(L. 73-80)

One's immediate reaction to this huitain is, I think, that Villon is bewailing his rejection by “her”: she “drove him out”. But chassier, in French, does not only mean ‘drive away, chase out’ but also ‘hunt’ or ‘chase’. And only sixty lines earlier Villon had said:

En ce temps que j'ay dit devant,
Sur le Noel, morte saison,
Que les loups se vivent de vent
Et qu'on se tient en sa maison,
Pour le frimas, pres du tison,
Me vint ung vouloir de brisier
La tres amoureuse prison
Qui souloit mon cuer debrisier.

(L. 9-16)

At the season when most people want to draw near to the warm fires of home, Villon wanted to break out of the prison of love in which she had enclosed him. So, in this passage, has she driven him away, or is he trying to escape from her?

What is the geographical location of the ‘outside’? In the out-of-doors: the poor, like the wolf, live hungry in the forest—

Necessité fait gens mesprendre
Et faim saillir le loup du bois.

(T. 167-168)

It is in part for this reason that nature, when it does appear in Villon's poetry, appears in such a negative light. His poems are scarcely the song of the open road: to be outside, in the countryside literally or metaphorically is to be on the ‘outside’, exiled from the city, the home, the ‘inside’.

Therefore, no matter what they think, Gontier and Hélène are crazy to find poverty—sleeping “soubz le bel esglantier47—preferable to life in the city, in a warm, carpeted room:

Tout leur mathon, ne toute leur potee,
Ne prise ung ail, je le dy sans noysier.
S'ilz se vantent couchier soubz le rosier,
Lequel vault mieulx? Lict costoyé de chaise?
Qu'en dites vous? Faut il a ce musier?
Il n'est tresor que de vivre a son aise.

(T. 148-192)

Chambre bien natee48, with an elegant woman and good food, that is the “doulce vie49 which Villon—if not the cloddish country lovers—desires.

Exile is not an abstract idea in Villon's poetry—it does not just mean being in another land, or even being far from friends or family, but, very concretely, straying through the country, wandering around everywhere and nowhere: “cheminant sans croix ne pille”.50

Et je croy bien que pas n'en ment;
Car chassié fut comme ung souillon
De ses amours hayneusement,
Tant que, d'icy a Roussillon,
Brosse n'y a ne brossillon,
Qui n'eust, ce dit il sans mentir,
Ung lambeau de son cotillon,
Quant de ce monde voult partir.

(T. 2004-2011)

Nature is thus not green leaves and fields and flowers, except insofar as a woman, through her love, is nature and flowers and fruit for a man: Ambroise is Robert d'Estouteville's “lorier souef”, his “olivier franc”.51 Nature itself is fundamentally a negation, an absence; it is no-place, the anti-home.

But the poor, and le povre petit Villon, do have a sort of home: the brothel. Despite all the disgust in the Ballade de la Grosse Margot, one gets from it a very real sense that Villon is contained by this place—he is at home, he is host here:

Se j'ayme et sers la belle de bon hait,
M'en devez vous tenir ne vil ne sot?
Elle a en soy des biens a fin souhait.
Pour son amour sains bouclier et passot;
Quant viennent gens, je cours et happe un pot,
Au vin m'en fuis, sans demener grant bruit;
Je leur tens eaue, frommage, pain et fruit.
S'ilz paient bien, je leur dis: “Bene stat;
Retournez cy, quant vous serez en ruit,
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat!

(T. 1591-1600)

This is where he and Margot ply their trade, but this is their household, too—the place which is built, structured around them: the brothel indeed is where—anywhere—they are. In the envoi there may well be horror but there is also, one feels, a rueful sense of recognition; this is where Villon belongs: the very circularity of the syntax reflects the enfolding, encircling power of this place. Indeed, in its broadest significance, this home, this bordeau may well symbolize the world itself to Villon.

Vente, gresle, gelle, j'ay mon pain cuit.
Ie suis paillart, la paillarde me suit.
Lequel vault mieulx? Chascun bien s'entresuit.
L'ung vault l'autre; c'est a mau rat mau chat.
Ordure amons, ordure nous assuit;
Nous deffuyons onneur, il nous deffuit.
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.

(T. 1621-1627)

These ersatz-containers do have an attractive force—the tavern and the brothel draw unto themselves all the homeless, the outsiders. This is where the peasant and the poor man and the criminal belong:

“Car ou soies porteur de bulles,
Pipeur ou hasardeur de dez,
Tailleur de faulx coings et te brusles
Comme ceulx qui sont eschaudez,
Traistres parjurs, de foy vuidez;
Soies larron, ravis ou pilles:
Ou en va l'acquest, que cuidez?
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.

(T. 1692-1699)

To seek refuge in labor, to pretend not to belong here, is vain:

“De telz ordures te reculles,
Laboure, fauche champs et prez,
Sers et pense chevaux et mulles,
S'aucunement tu n'es lettrez;
Assez auras, se prens en grez.
Mais, se chanvre broyes ou tilles,
Ne tens ton labour qu'as ouvrez
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles?
“Chausses, pourpoins esguilletez,
Robes, et toutes vos drappilles,
Ains que vous fassiez pis, portez
Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.

(T. 1708-1719)

It is inevitable that the brothel and bar be the ultimate destination of the homeless, and their belongings.

Such ‘containers’ have a definite influence on their inhabitants—they make a sort of (anti-)family. The name, or still more concrete the enseigne, is a ‘sign’ specifying the particular symbolizing power which a given place—brothel or tavern or street—possesses, and with which it marks, or infects, its inhabitants.

Item, a maistre Jacques James,
Qui se tue d'amasser biens,
Donne fiancer tant de femmes
Qu'il vouldra; mais d'espouser? riens.
Pour qui amasse il? Pour les siens?
Il ne plaint fors que ses morceaulx:
Ce qui fut aux truyes, je tiens
Qu'il doit de droit estre aux pourceaulx.

(T. 1812-1819)

Women who have lived on Sow's Street are pigs—and deserve to belong to pigs.

It is in this framework that Villon's mother, as he presents her to us, takes on her full meaning; not only is the Virgin for her, as for her son, her only chastel, her only real home. She is completely contained by the fortress of her love and faith in the Virgin and in Christ. She is the perfect container—“Comblée de foy”,52 second only in her perfection to the Virgin, who bore her son “sans rompure encourir”.53 Villon presents her as full to the brim with God, with no room for doubt or questioning. And she is the perfectly contained: “En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir”.54 She alone among the poor and the homeless finds her home fully in faith.

The brothel is an anti-home, a parody of a home, in the sense that if it enfolds, it enfolds everyone indiscriminately. And thus, it is described as a public school:

Item, a Marion l'Idolle
Et la grant Jehanne de Bretaigne
Donne tenir publique escolle
Ou l'escollier le maistre enseigne.

(T. 1628-1631)

Anyone can go to this school. It attracts all, and it has no inner structure, no order: the pupil can teach the teacher.

If the tavern or brothel is already a parody of a home, the prison is doubly so. It is the only place which is beyond the reach even of that all-encompassing institution, the publique escolle;

Lieu n'est ou ce marchié se tiengne,
Si non a la grisle de Mehun;
De quoy je dis: “Fy de l'enseigne,
Puis que l'ouvraige est si commun!”

(T. 1631-1635)

Prison is more like death than life: to be in jail is to be doubly cut off from la vraie vie, for there even the spectacle of life is gone; the prisoner is blinded by the thick walls:

Ou gist, il n'entre escler ne tourbillon:
De murs espoix on lui a fait bandeaux.
Le lesserez la, le povre Villon?

(IX. [Poèmes variés] 18-20)

Indeed, prison is more like death than death itself: for even the cemetery attracts prostitutes, who must be forbidden to seek clients in it:

Item, pour ce que scet sa Bible
Ma damoiselle de Bruyeres,
Donne preschier hors l'Evangille
A elle et a ses bachelieres,
Pour retraire ces villotieres
Qui ont le bec si affillé,
Mais que ce soit hors cymetieres,
Trop bien au Marchié au fillé.

(T. 1507-1514)

Another example, or a further extension, of the ‘anti-home’ is the place, the home, which Villon prescribes for his enemies Jehan and Françoys Perdrier, by the synecdoche of their tongues. They are not to be wounded or killed, but rather the ballad-recipe consists of a series of disgusting liquids and semi-liquids presented as a sauce in which their ‘tongues’ shall be fried:

En realgar, en arcenic rochier,
En orpiment, en salpestre et chaulx vive,
En plomb boullant pour mieulx les esmorchier,
En suif et poix destrempez de lessive
Faicte d'estrons et de pissat de juifve,
En lavailles de jambes a meseaulx,
En racleure de piez et viels houseaulx,
En sang d'aspic et drogues venimeuses,
En fiel de loups, de regnars et blereaulx,
Soient frittes ces langues envieuses.

(T. 1422-1431)

They are to be humiliated and degraded by their envelopment in this garbage gumbo.

How does death fit into this picture? and religion, insofar as it proposes destinations for the good and the wicked, or rather the absolved and the unabsolved? Let us return to the Virgin's role in the structure of Villon's universe. She is a temporal fortress, a chastel for the poor and the homeless. She also has a spatial role in relation to God: she is “chambre de la divinité”,55 almost the enfolding home which holds the Trinity together. She is “dame du ciel”,56 empress of God's highly structured and hierarchical57 house, Heaven. After death the body lies in the Cemetery of the Innocents. Here, as in the brothel, the notion of anti-home is rendered by a lack of internal structure: the cemetery reduces all to the same indiscriminate dust.

Quant je considere ces testes
Entassees en ces charniers,
Tout furent maistres des requestes,
Au moins de la Chambre aux Deniers,
Ou tous furent portepanniers:
Autant puis l'ung que l'autre dire,
Car d'evesques ou lanterniers
Je n'y congnois rien a redire.

(T. 1744-1751)

Leaving the body, the soul seeks its eternal home:

Plaise a Dieu que l'ame ravie
En soit lassus en sa maison,
                              Au retour!

(T. 1791-93)

If the soul is refused entry to Heaven, if God refuses His pardon—l'Enfer. On the one hand, Villon presents Hell as having “seigneurie58 on the damned and sees the damned as being punished by fire there.

Mors estoient, et corps et ames,
En dampnee perdicion,
Corps pourris et ames en flammes,
De quelconque condicion.
Toutesfois, fais excepcion
Des patriarches et prophetes;
Car, selon ma concepcion,
Oncques n'eurent grant chault aux fesses.

(T. 801-808)

The words en dampnee perdicion do suggest, however, that Hell is less a place than a state of being: the damned are ‘in’ a state of ‘loss’ of alienation, of estrangement from God.

Perhaps the Ballade des Pendus expresses most fully the essential nature of Hell for Villon:

Freres humains qui après nous vivez,
N'ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis,
Car, se pitié de nous povres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tost de vous mercis.
Vous nous voiez cy attachez, cinq, six:
Quant de la chair, que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est pieça devorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et pouldre.
De nostre mal personne ne s'en rie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre!

(XIV, 1-10)

In this first strophe, where we see Villon and his companions in death, not only is their flesh eaten away, rotted, but they themselves, their souls—nous—are compared to, assimilated to their bones: like their bodies, they are ashes, dust.

In the second strophe, Villon begs for prayers for mercy to God and to Jesus, son of Mary. Then he returns to his terrible description of the pendus:

La pluye nous a debuez et lavez,
Et le soleil dessechiez et noircis;
Pies, corbeaulx, nous ont les yeux cavez,
Et arrachié la barbe et les sourcis.
Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes assis;
Puis ça, puis la, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charie,
Plus becquetez d'oiseaulx que dez a couldre.
Ne soiez donc de nostre confrairie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre!

(XIV, 21-30)

In this brutal and moving poem Villon expresses the anguish, the torment, mental and spiritual, of the damned. Their lot, unless God's absolution opens to them the doors of Heaven, is to be eternal wanderers, eternally homeless—for they are ‘imprisoned’ in their bodies, and their bodies are nowhere: “Puis ça, puis la, comme le vent varie.

Two other semantic and symbolic fields—each of which is interesting in itself—may shed further light on certain basic structures of the imagery in Villon's poetry.

The first is the group of words of which we have just seen a striking example in “Freres humains …”: that which indicates family relationships. This group of words is a very rich one: the words mere, pere, ante, frere, seur, enfant, filz, fille59 are remarkably frequent in this poetry. Obviously, one could object that it is quite natural that in a will there should be many references to relatives. It is precisely that which is so remarkable: only rarely do these words appear in that context; that is, rarely are they used to designate relatives of Villon whom he names as his heirs.

These terms are mostly used in a very positive sense, and Villon is perhaps at his most moving when he uses them. When he leaves a gift, even a silly one, to Guillaume de Villon:

Item, et a mon plus que pere,
Maistre Guillaume de Villon,
Qui esté m'a plus doulx que mere
A enfant levé de maillon:
Degeté m'a de maint boullon,
Et de cestuy pas ne s'esjoye,
Si luy requier a genouillon
Qu'il m'en laisse toute la joye …

(T. 849-856)

By the combination of the words plus que pere and mere, we feel, and we feel that Villon felt, the richness of the love and protection which the canon Villon gave or tried to give to his adoptive son.

Although conventionally it may be blasphemous for Villon to address an Old Testament Father as Pere Noé,60 this familiarity, and the whole poem (the Ballade et oroison) in its exuberance, seem above all an expression of affection, and respect, for those who love and loved life.

Villon is very familiar with God all through the Testament; he teases and almost bosses Him as an ‘executor’. But it is never under the name ‘Father’, never as a paternal figure, that he mocks Him.

Villon's mother, his povre mere, as we see her, is the living proof that poverty can be a source of strength and saintliness; as a mother she would seem assimilated, in the poet's mind, to the Virgin Mother whom she worships.

Finally, perhaps the most famous of Villon's ballads begins, as we have seen, with a cry for brotherhood, for human solidarity.

Villon is deeply sensitive to the warmth of family love and to the qualities of the parents whom he shows us. He uses familial metaphors to describe human love in general. He defines selfishness and greed, precisely, as a lack of the sense of family:

Item, a maistre Jacques James,
Qui se tue d'amasser biens,
Donne fiancer tant de femmes
Qu'il vouldra; mais d'espouser? riens.
Pour qui amasse il? Pour les siens?
Il ne plaint fors que ses morceaulx:
Ce qui fut aux truyes, je tiens
Qu'il doit de droit estre aux pourceaulx.

(T. 1812-1819)

In this strophe which has generally been considered incomprehensible, I would suggest that Villon is prescribing for the selfish James a punishment to suit the crime: the impossibility of ‘marriage’, with, obviously, a double meaning.

Despite this sensitivity to the family it is nonetheless true that Villon is undeniably hostile to people with too many protective relations:

Item, et a filles de bien,
Qui ont peres, meres et antes,
Par m'ame! Je ne donne rien,
Car j'ay tout donné aux servantes.

(T. 1567-1570)

It is not just because they are rich, filles de bien, that Villon refuses them the slightest gift. It certainly is not because he has nothing left—his penury has never kept him from giving a gift before! It is because they have peres, meres et antes.

What is more, he even refuses a gift to orphans who have been “found”, adopted:

Item, riens aux Enfants Trouvez;
Mais les perdus faut que consolle.

(T. 1660-1661)

Why this closed fist to happy children? Perhaps because Villon sees himself not so much as an adult who accessorily might have a mother or a father, but in some fundamental way as a child. He is an “enfant de Paris61, “un povre petit escollier”.62 He is no angel's son:

Si ne suis, bien le considere,
Filz d'ange portant dyademe
D'estoille ne d'autre sidere.

(T. 297-299)

He will think about reforming “quant seray hors d'enfance”.63 That he says he is thirty years old, that his days “s'en sont allez errant”,64 that “de viel porte voix et le ton65: make his ‘child-ness’ no less deeply true. He is moreover an unhappy child: Villon may have been a real “enfant perdu”, a delinquent; he is also one metaphorically. Though Villon may have a mother and a more-than-father, and though he had a real father of whom he speaks,66 he seems to feel essentially vulnerable and alone. This sense of isolation he expresses in terms of family, of being a child outside of the protective bosom of the family. He feels abandoned by les siens.

Des miens le mendre, je dis voir,
De me desavouer s'avance,
Oubliant naturel devoir
Par faulte d'ung peu de chevance.

(T. 181-184)

If the Court is “mere des bons et seur des benois anges”,67 Villon makes it clear that she is no relative of his.

The isolation of each human being before death is described as his having no family. Or else—this passage is ambiguous—before death even a family is no protection, is nullified. At any rate, we are each alone:

Et meure Paris ou Helaine,
Quiconques meurt, meurt a douleur
Telle qu'il pert vent et alaine;
Son fiel se creve sur son cuer
Puis sue, Dieu scet quelle sueur!
Et n'est qui de ses maux l'alege:
Car enfant n'a, frere ne seur,
Qui lors voulsist estre son plege.

(T. 313-320)

The anguished cry for human brotherhood takes on a new urgency. We are all vulnerable, all lost children, in the face of death. And there is a possibility for a brotherhood even beyond death: through their prayers men help their dead brothers to find access to heaven, their eternal home, their ultimate family: “Pere Eternel”,68glorieuse Mere”,69 and Christ, who is “le fils de la Vierge Marie”.70

Paradoxically, by warning others away from their ghastly fraternity, the dead, the pendus, are brothers to the living:

Ne soiez donc de nostre confrairie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre!

(XIV, 29-30)71

Thus far we have been concerned with Villon as if he were an object: as contained by, or excluded from, love, prison, death; city, home, brothel; Heaven; family. But he is also a subject: he is also, himself, a container. There is a double movement in the Testament, that of being possessed (or rejected) and that of taking possession. So let us turn to this second postulation in Villon's work, to what one could term the language of ‘interiorization’.

The Testament opens with the affirmation:

En l'an de mon trentiesme aage,
Que toutes men hontes j'eus beues …

(T. 1-2)

Of course in one sense what this line emphasizes is Villon's past humiliations, his degradation. It also says a great deal more than that; but for the moment, what concerns us is the use here of a metaphor taken from the language of eating and drinking, to describe a way of relating to life and to experience in general: one drinks one's shame.

One drinks down joy, too. The advice which Villon gives to his amye may be hostile in many respects, but he tells her to drink down life, to enjoy and profit from her youth, even if it is with another man:

Or beuvez fort, tant que ru peut courir;
Ne donnez pas a tous ceste douleur …

(T. 963-4)

If Cotart is wonderful, it is because of his thirst, his constant and unquenchable thirst for life:

Brief, on n'eust sceu en ce monde serchier
Meilleur pyon, pour boire tost et tart.
Faictes entrer quant vous orrez huchier
L'ame du bon feu maistre Jehan Cotart!
Prince, il n'eust sceu jusqu'a terre crachier;
Tousjours crioit: “Haro! la gorge m'art.”
Et si ne sceust oncq sa seuf estanchier
L'ame du bon feu maistre Jehan Cotart.

(T. 1258-1265)

Food is indeed the food of life. And hunger and thirst are an affirmation of the goodness of life. This is one reason why starvation—physical privation—is so terrible. To go hungry is to be cut off from the possibility of love:

Bien est verté que j'ay amé
Et ameroie voulentiers;
Mais triste cuer, ventre affamé
Qui n'est rassasié au tiers
M'oste des amoureux sentiers.
Au fort, quelqu'ung s'en recompence,
Qui est ramply sur les chantiers!
Car la dance vient de la pance.

(T. 193-200)

It is to be cut off metaphorically as well as literally from a life source. To see bread only through windows72 is doubly significant:

Item, varletz et chamberieres
De bons hostelz (rien ne me nuyt)
Feront tartes, flans et goyeres,
Et grans ralias a myenuit
(Riens n'y font sept pintes ne huit),
Tant que gisent seigneur et dame;
Puis après, sans mener grand bruit,
Je leur ramentoy le jeu d'asne.

(T. 1559-1566)

To be old is to lose one's teeth, to be no longer able to bite into life:

Ung temps viendra qui fera dessechier,
Jaunir, flestrir vostre espanye fleur;
Je m'en risse, se tant peusse maschier
Lors; mais nennil, ce seroit donc foleur:
Viel je seray; vous, laide, sans couleur;
Or beuvez fort, tant que ru peut courir …

(T. 958-963)

We have not simply fallen back into ‘exclusion’ imagery. Being hungry, and suffering, being on the ‘outside’ of the joy of life, even that can nourish. As we saw, in the first two lines, shame can be bue—not just subie, or, to maintain the liquid metaphor, avalée. It is drunk down, digested. And for Villon pain feeds our understanding:

Or est vray qu'après plainz et pleurs
Et angoisseux gemissemens,
Après tristesses et douleurs,
Labeurs et griefz cheminemens,
Travail mes lubres sentemens,
Esquisez comme une pelote,
M'ouvrit plus que tous les Commens
D'Averroÿs sur Aristote.

(T. 89-96)

Villon has drunk down his travail: he has assimilated it, been opened by it, and grown,

Even torture can nourish:

Dieu mercy et Tacque Thibault,
Qui tant d'eaue froide m'a fait boire,
Mis en bas lieu, non pas en hault,
Mengier d'angoisse mainte poire.

(T. 737-740)

Though there may be a pun here, a poire d'angoisse meaning both a certain kind of pear and a form of torture,73 the fact remains that in Villon's eyes pain is food. One does not have to be fed in order to eat, because life is food: it is enough just to be alive.

The Testament is an extension of Villon's self, as a containing, structuring, and expanding (ouvert by travail) body. Full as the poem is of hostility and anger, this positive, embracing aspect stands out, at least as powerfully. As Villon begins the will proper, he asserts:

Somme, plus ne diray qu'ung mot,
Car commencer vueil a tester:
Devant mon clerc Fremin qui m'ot,
S'il ne dort, je vueil protester
Que n'entens homme detester
En ceste presente ordonnance,
Et ne la vueil magnifester
Si non ou royaume de France …

(T. 777-784)

This desire to include everyone is carried through to the end. In Villon's inventory of the world and its inhabitants and furniture, there is some simple enumeration, considerable venting of bile, a real sense of magic power by the very wielding of names—but there is also a delight in exploring the minute details of this world:

Regarde m'en deux, trois, assises
Sur le bas du ply de leurs robes,
En ces moustiers, en ces eglises;
Tire toy pres, et ne te hobes;
Tu trouveras la, que Macrobes
Oncques ne fist tels jugemens.
Entens; quelque chose en desrobes:
Ce sont tous beaulx enseignements.

(T. 1543-1550)

There is here a joy in expanding, embracing as great a sector of reality as possible; in the Ballade des femmes de Paris, after two strophes packed full of names of places, Villon continues:

Brettes, Suysses, n'y sçavent guieres,
Gasconnes, n'aussi Toulousaines:
De Petit Pont deux harengieres
Les concluront, et les Lorraines,
Engloises et Calaisiennes,
(Ay je beaucoup de lieux compris?)
Picardes de Valenciennes;
Il n'est bon bec que de Paris.

(T. 1531-1538)

Even the Recipe for the frying of tongues has this same exuberance in its rattling off of filth.

As he is getting in his last swipes at his enemies, those “traistres chiens matins”,74 he includes, unites them, too, in his riotous Testament, along with the “cuidereaux d'amour transsis chaussans sans meshaing fauves botes”,75 the “filletes monstrans tetins pour avoir plus largement d'ostes”,76 the “sotz et sotes, qui s'en vont siflant six a six”.77

Qu'on leur froisse les quinze costes
De gros mailletz, fors et massis,
De plombees et telz pelotes.
Je crie a toutes gens mercis.

(T. 1992-1995)

Villon then ‘closes’ his work “Icy se clost le testament”.78 But that is not the end: he adds a final, flamboyant gesture:

Prince; gent comme esmerillon,
Sachiez qu'il fist au departir:
Ung traict but de vin morillon,
Quant de ce monde voult partir.

(T. 2020-2023)

This subtle rappel of the opening of the Testament underlines the finely structured though discreet symbolic pattern of the work. Villon ends his will, as he began it, on an affirmation of life, even in the face of death—an affirmation of the drinking down, the accepting and the relishing of this world.

From the oppositions which we have been discussing, a certain image of man, and of the poet, emerges. Acted on by life and by the world, Villon also reacts. He tries to take possession of the world (both literally and symbolically …). He attempts to eat and to digest it, to make it his own. The poem itself is both an expression of this experience of interiorization and an attempt to go beyond it. The poem represents the poet's struggle to reëstablish a positive contact with the outside by communicating to and sharing with others his intimate experience, his inner world.


  1. See, for example, François Villon, Oeuvres, Thuasne edition, Vol. II, p. 15.

  2. Praeterition is that rhetorical device which stresses something while pretending not to: “Far be it from me to draw attention to the fact that …”

  3. Je me tais du fourreau …

  4. Thuasne is of the opinion that this ‘sheath’ is an anal one. See Vol. II, p. 282.

  5. Testament, line 1033.

  6. Testament, line 1340.

  7. See Thuasne, Oeuvres, Vol. III, p. 352, for a discussion of this expression.

  8. That is, in the Testament, lines 1022-1027.

  9. My apologies for the unintentional puns, which make this passage sound like a study on venereal disease.

  10. In the Testament, lines 580 and 1027.

  11. In the Testament, line 1594.

  12. Testament, line 522.

  13. Testament, line 1621.

  14. Pierre Guiraud, L'Argot (Paris, 1963), p. 57.

  15. The sexual sense of “rose” comes, in large part, from Jehan de Meung's Roman de la Rose.

  16. Lais, line 31.

  17. Testament, line 955.

  18. Testament, line 1611. See Thuasne, Œuvres, Vol. III; p. 425, on this reading.

  19. Testament, line 454 ff.

  20. See Thuasne, Œuvres, Vol. III, p. 500-501.

  21. See Thuasne, Œuvres, Vol. III, p. 533.

  22. Testament, line 1699 ff.

  23. See Thuasne, Œuvres, Vol. II, p. 320.

  24. In huitains XCV, XCVII, XCVIII, CIII, CXX, CXXXI, and so forth.

  25. Testament, line 1876.

  26. Epistre, line 3.

  27. Testament, line 1892 ff.

  28. The idea that love is a prison, or is fatal, is certainly not unique to Villon. What does seem peculiar to him, and original, is the complexity and intense ambivalence of the symbolic structures which give life to such poetic commonplaces.

  29. Lais, line 15.

  30. Testament, line 680.

  31. Testament, line 2001.

  32. In English, “to die”, meant quite specifically ‘to die in intercourse’.

  33. Testament, line 869.

  34. Douai and Lille were cities where witches were tried and burned during Villon's lifetime. See, for example, Thuasne, Œuvres, Vol. II, p. 88.

  35. See Longnon-Foulet, Glossary.

  36. Testament, lines 1668-1675.

  37. Buridan was rector of the University of Paris, around the middle of the fourteenth century. See the Longnon-Foulet Index.

  38. See the Longnon-Foulet Index, and Thuasne, Œuvres, Vol. II, p. 151.

  39. Or if not a mother, a pure, lily-white woman.

  40. See Thuasne, Œuvres, Vol. II, pp. 151-152.

  41. See Longnon-Foulet Index.

  42. The two ballades each entitled Autre ballade, and called, respectively, Ballade des seigneurs du temps jadis and Ballade en vieil langage françoys, lines 357-412.

  43. Testament, line 1474.

  44. Testament, line 237.

  45. Testament, line 1560.

  46. Testament, line 288.

  47. Testament, line 1499.

  48. Testament, line 1474.

  49. Testament, line 1484.

  50. Testament, line 98.

  51. Testament, lines 1388-1389.

  52. Testament, line 901.

  53. Testament, line 890.

  54. Testament, line 882 ff.

  55. Testament, line 836.

  56. Testament, line 873.

  57. Testament, line 838: “les dignes neufs Ordres des cieulx.

  58. Ballade des Pendus, line 32.

  59. See André Burger's Lexique de la langue de Villon for a complete index of these words.

  60. Testament, line 1238.

  61. Testament, line 1059.

  62. Testament, line 1886.

  63. Débat, line 9.

  64. Testament, line 217.

  65. Testament, line 735.

  66. Testament, lines 273-280.

  67. Louenge a la Court, line 10 ff.

  68. Testament, line 793.

  69. Testament, line 826.

  70. L'Epitaphe Villon, line 16.

  71. This notion of the human fraternity will be discussed at greater length in chapter IV.

  72. Testament, line 236.

  73. Testament, line 740.

  74. Testament, line 1984.

  75. Testament, lines 1973-1974.

  76. Testament, lines 1976-1977.

  77. Testament, lines 1980-1981.

  78. Testament, line 1996.

Joseph J. Hayes (essay date 1977)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4798

SOURCE: “Gothic Love and Death: François Villon and the City of Paris,” in Journal of Popular Culture, Vol. 11, No.3, 1977, pp. 719-29.

[In this essay, Hayes focuses on the theme of death and dying to demonstrate how Villon wrote “city” poetry, in contrast to the courtly poetry of the aristocracy. In addition to literary analysis, Hayes draws from the culture of Medieval France and the art of the late Gothic era to establish Villon's place in the development of a more popular literature.]

In the popular imagination one literary figure from the close of the Middle Ages towers above all others, Francois Villon. Later ages have made much of his death-defying scrapes, underworld connections and grotesque cynicism. For the poets of nineteenth-century France he was the archetype of the romantic Bohemian. Robert Louis Stevenson described him as the “sorriest figure on the rolls of fame.” Our own, more cynical, age takes his phrase, “I laugh through tears,” for ironic motto. Whatever model his life may provide for the imagination of an era, the art of Villon has not lost its popular appeal since the appearance of the first printed edition of his works in 1489, for he is perhaps the first widely-known city poet of the Western world. I wish to address myself specifically to this notion, that Villon's art, forged out of the union of “courtly” and “popular” literary traditions, marks the first important appearance of an “urban imagination” in medieval letters.

My argument is threefold. First I wish to place Villon within the context of medieval poetic practice, particularly the conditions and themes of court poetry. Secondly, I present a discussion of Villon's particular view of the city of Paris as a locus for the transaction of amatory and commercial ventures. Finally I wish to suggest that the fusion of popular and courtly elements in Villon's Testament is accomplished by inverting the usual eros/thanatos conflict, wherein eros (the life principle) is seen as separating and dividing, and thanatos (the death instinct) is seen as uniting and equalizing.


The literary context of Villon's oeuvre is important because “poetry” in late Gothic Europe was nominally a court art and Villon was an independent poet. His peers and predecessors, the medieval court poets (Guillaume de Machaut, Eustache Deschamps, Othe de Graunson), were often no more than entertainers for the king, and, of course, social inferiors. For these court poets writing lyrics could only be an avocation and not a vocation. Their livelihood depended on a noble patron, who might influence them in the subject matter, style and form of the work. Indeed the principal and sometimes sole means of social intercourse between the bourgeois poet and the court audience was the presentation and reading of poetry.

At best the system of patronage could encourage innovative and creative writing. More often, however, it could prohibit experimentation in subjects and styles objectionable to the patron. The interests of the medieval court poet, then, were inevitably those of the court circle, and politically and culturally conservative.

In the early Middle Ages the court itself was usually located in the countryside and the locus for most court poetry is the idealized bucolic setting, frequently modelled after descriptions of the golden age. In this pastoral setting the conventional contest between the lover-poet's hopeless ardor and the lady's cold aloofness (her danger) is displayed within the narrow confines of the court perspective. Literary love at court may be described as a series of small skirmishes between the poet and his lady, in which death—of the heart or the body—lurks decorously at the periphery of the erotic play. Moreover, we need to understand that this attitude was thought exclusive to the court circle and that it was a mark of nobility. As Johan Huizinga sums up so neatly: “Life [at court] is regulated like a noble game. Only a small aristocratic group can come up to the standard of this artistic game. … The aspiration to realize a dream of beauty in the forms of social life bears as a vitium originis the stamp of aristocratic exclusiveness” (Huizinga, pp. 39-40).

To state the case somewhat briefly, the tension between the lovelorn poet and the unresponsive lady turns eros into the process of separation and stratification. The court circle makes itself separate from the commons by giving elaborate conventions to literary love. Moreover, men and women in the court circle are seen as irreconcilable in erotic warfare, with man subjected to woman as sinner is subjected to saint. At the basis of the conflict are the wish for and hopelessness of achieving redemption through erotic union.

So pervasive is the medieval tradition of an erotic contest of wills in a bucolic setting that its features are retained even after the courts become more closely associated with the cities and, thus, a wider audience. While the themes and subjects of the lyric may not have changed radically in the late Middle Ages, the growing association of the court with an urban center did bring about an expansion in the audience for literature. The increasing economic and social power of the cities' magnates and the emergence of a commercant class eager to imitate genteel customs extended the reach of poetry outside of the narrow confines of the court (See Mathew, pp. 53; 107). Paradoxically, though, the interest of a city audience in amorous poetry of the old bucolic manner did not decline, but rather increased, probably because of aristocratic prestige. Increasingly, then, love poetry at the close of the Middle Ages, although reaching a wider audience, was in danger of becoming standardized and rigid, arid in its themes and attitudes. The expression of feeling and emotion, reduced to the contest between ardor and ladylike hauteur (danger) risked being formulated merely as a set of bald literary conventions.

I would like to suggest here that the important contribution of Francois Villon to literary culture is the revolt against this static, old bucolic ideal. In his poetic will, The Testament, the penniless rogue and sometime scholar replaces the old style with a new one, by the fusion of “popular” and “courtly” elements, to provide a new style which I wish to call “urban.”

By “courtly” I am referring to the concerns, mannerisms and fashions of the aristocratic, bucolic ideal. It is formal and discreet in its address, indirect in its reference to the object of erotic union and conventional in its language. The court poet is expected to exhibit courtesy (court manners) and never to provoke or chastise.

The term, “popular,” in medieval culture is more difficult to define. Indeed we should not think of courtly and popular concerns as mutually exclusive. For the purpose of discussion, I am construing the term “popular” as a free and unfettered mode of address (i.e., uncourtly) whose subjects and themes are not drawn from aristocratic circles. The popular poet may address whomever he wishes as he wishes; he may use informal and obscene language. Most importantly, his audience is not clearly defined. He may write to “all the ladies” or to “fellow drunks” or to no one in particular. If the court poet is formal and discreet in his address, Villon is slangy and reproachful. If the court poet refers only indirectly to erotic union, Villon brags of sexual contests, both his own and others'. If the court poet only alludes to unnamed ladies and allegorical personages, Villon celebrates the whores of Paris by name and invokes the likes of Pity and Death to bring pestilence on women who have mistreated him. What is important to understand here is that Villon acted as a reformer or reinterpreter of the courtly traditions themselves. He did not create his poetry de novo, but stayed with the externals of courtly form, which he wed to popular elements.

Villon's major innovations, I think, are twofold: 1) the presentation of a new kind of poetic persona, and 2) an original approach to the theme of love. He continued writing with the forms and genres of the courtly style, using the moral ballade and the lover's complainte as well as some of the familiar themes, but created a new persona out of the popular traditions of the drinking songs, sotes chansons and mocking poems.1 Thus he solved the problem of finding a voice for his poetry by uniting a picaro persona with an aristocratic form. In so doing he created a revitalized poetry with a distinct style. I wish to suggest that this amalgam of the courtly and the popular has come to represent what we call a city poetry, in much the same manner that urban “aristocrats”—the cities' magnates—mingled courtly manners and commercial practices.

This new style is sardonic and cynical rather than romantic and idealizing. In blending the courtly with the popular modes, Villon made the formerly exclusive material of the bucolic court accessible to the city, and so, in turn, accessible to the widest audience. The freedom to develop this new style surely comes directly from Villon's freedom from the constraints of patronage.

His second innovation, the treatment of the theme of love, moves Villon securely into this new, urban tradition. In place of pining lovers and cold maidens, there are whores and pimps, in brothels and taverns, to populate the world of The Testament. In fact, Villon conceives of the city as a place principally inhabited by gamblers, counterfeiters, jesters, itinerant musicians, wandering players and drunks:

Then go work in the fields with the farmers
and patch up the sores on horses and mules
                    if you don't even know how to read:
you'll be all right, if you're not too impatient.

(ll. 1709-1712)

Paris and its lowlife become the sole context for the expression of love. Thus Villon's art is best understood through his view of fifteenth-century Paris and its special milieu.


For Villon, as for all medieval Christians, the universe contained two metaphors for the urban center—the City of God and the City of Man. Dante adds a third, or infernal city, Dis. It is a perverse place, made of an ever-narrowing funnel: I AM THE WAY TO THE CITY OF WOE. / I AM THE WAY TO A FORESAKEN PEOPLE. / I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW (Canto III, Inferno [Ciardi]). It was the goal of every Christian to reach a celestial city: in life to achieve the earthly cathedral and the sacred city of Jerusalem, at the end of life's pilgrimage to pass out of the earthly city to the Heavenly Jerusalem.

Compared with the overwhelming light of the celestial city, the city of man was a dark shade, a meager and imperfect inversion of the Great Jerusalem. Since it was a secular city, and a place of sin, medieval literature often singled it out as the appropriate stage for lust, and contrasted the love of man unfavorably with the love of God. In the moral literature of the period human love is consistently depicted as sickly, fleeting and subject to death, whereas divine love is unchanging and eternal. As a man of his age, and a city poet, Villon seizes as his central image the fact that human love alone is irrevocably associated with death and decay.

In the celestial city, eros is ultimately transformed into agape. In the medieval city of man, eros leads only to thanatos. In the heavenly city human love is widened into spirituality; in the earthly city human love is narrowed into nothingness. What unites the celestial and earthly cities, then, is the nexus of love and death. In response to the paradox of love (celestial) achieved by death in the City of God, medieval man posits the certainty of love (human) leading inexorably to death and decay in the city of man. In the literature of the Middle Ages the obsession with death and its inextricable union with love becomes almost a mania at the end of the Gothic age:

Since the thirteenth century, the popular preaching of the mendicant orders had made the eternal admonition to remember death swell into a sombre chorus ringing throughout the world. Towards the fifteenth century a new means of inculcating the awful thought into all minds was added to the words of the preacher, namely the popular woodcut. These two means of expression, sermons and woodcuts … could only represent death in a simple and striking form … the sense of the perishable nature of all things.

(Huizinga, ch. 8)

Nowhere else were all the images tending to evoke the horror of death assembled so strikingly as in the churchyard of the Innocents of Paris. There the medieval soul, fond of a religious shudder, could take its fill of the horrible. … Day after day, crowds of people walked under the cloisters, looking at the figures and reading the simple verses, which reminded them of the approaching end … it was a public lounge and a rendezvous. Shops were established before the charnel-houses and prostitutes strolled under the cloisters. … To such an extent had the horrible become familiar.

(Huizinga, ch. 10)

In line with this growing emphasis on the physical aspects of death in the waning Middle Ages Villon transforms the idealizing and formal description of love in the court lyric into a physical and concrete representation of it. For Villon death is more than a convention. We might say that in Villon's work death is the only reality. But since death has only a decorous place in the bucolic setting of court poetry, Villon had to move the poetic locus from the court to the city. I would suggest that with an increased sense of realism and physicality in late medieval art comes an inevitable shift of scene to the city (Swigart, pp. 32; 151).

If the union of love and death in the Heavenly City is to be found in the image of Christ's passion, where is it to be found in the secular city? In the human body and our attachment to it, matter which will decompose and vanish. Only through the flesh can sensual love be made known, only through the flesh can we find the manifestation of death in the city of man. Thus Villon focuses on the flesh in The Testament through three important themes—commerce, deception and metamorphosis.

Perhaps nowhere is Villon's attitude toward love made clearer than in the Ballade for Fat Margot. In this poem the commerce of love is the central theme, and two differing styles are used to develop it. Villon alternates the language and style of court poetry with the slangy idiom of low-life Paris. The first stanza is composed by alternating lines in the two styles for comic effect:

          If I love and serve my lovely lady willingly,
should you therefore think me vile and stupid?
          She has all the charms a man could want.
          For love of her I gird on sword and shield:
                    when people come I run and grab a pot
                    to go get wine, as quietly as possible;
          I serve them water, cheese, bread and fruit.
                    If they pay me well I say, “That's good,
and please come back whenever you're in rut,
                    to this brothel where we ply our trade.”

(ll. 1591-1600)

The old courtly ideals of gallantry and the heroic quest are turned inside out to become the service of a pimp to his whore and heroic expeditions to get wine and food for the lady/prostitute's clients/knights. The quest of love—a staple of medieval love poetry—is here reduced to a mercantile quest, the pursuit of greed by means of the lowest occupations. Ironically, Villon is not the noble lover striving valiantly for his chaste lady's love, but an amatory entrepreneur who offers her to other men. Her love is not sought as his exclusive property, but is offered to as wide an audience as possible. The milieu for exchange is Margot's bed; Villon acts as doorkeeper. Like an earnest member of the local chamber of commerce, Villon invites the clients to return during the next rutting season (Kuhn, p. 30). The pursuit of filth and the flight from honor are the principal occupation, but he concludes that at least it is a living, if a dishonorable one:

          Through wind, hail or frost my living's
                    I am a lecher, and she's a lecher with me.
                    Which one of us is better? We're both alike:
the one as worthy as the other. Bad rat, bad cat,
                         We both love filth; and filth pursues us;
                         we flee from honor, honor flees from us,
                         in this brothel where we ply our trade.

(ll. 1621-1627)

The manner in which people use each other in their attachment to the flesh—openly and cynically—is an important part of Villon's commercial metaphor.

The Testament's larger theme of death and fleshly decay subsumes the metaphor of commercialism. In the Lament of the Belle Heaulmiere (“the old lady's longing for the days of her youth”), Villon presents the prostitute's, rather than the pimp's, view of bordello life. La belle Heaulmiere is Fat Margot grown old. At the center of her lament she contrasts the way she was—“my beauty used to give me [great power] over merchants, clerks and chuchmen”—with her present state:

Now my forehead's wrinkled, my hair gray,
          my eyebrows drooping, my eyes clouded—
                    those eyes whose glance and laughter
                                        was to many their undoing;
                              my nose is hooked—its beauty gone,
                    my ears hang down like moss,
          my face is pale, dead, and faded,
my chin puckered, my lips withered.

(ll. 509-516)

This catalogue of the ravages of time concludes with this observation, an echo of the late medieval cry, momento mori!:

                              So this is human beauty's end!
                    The arms short, the fingers stiff,
          the shoulders completely humped.
The breasts, you ask? All shrivelled—
                                        hips and paps, alike.
                    The vulva?—Horrors! The thighs
No longer thighs but skin and bone
                              mottled like some sausage.

(ll. 517-524)

If the sale of flesh provides Margot and Francois with a living, the decay of the flesh and its diminishing economic power are the themes of la belle Heaulmiere. Her lament is for “human beauty's end,” but her subsidiary theme is the end of human love. The change from youth to old age signifies for the old woman the loss of power which only her (evanescent) beauty had given her:

          Ah! You treacherous, fierce Old Age,
why have I been beaten down so soon?
                    Who will care if I strike myself
          and with that blow give up my life?

(ll. 457-460)

The poem's concluding vision of the “povres vielles sotes” (“poor old fools”) who are squatting on their haunches around the hemp-stalk fire summarizes the course of human beauty—youthful love flares up, burns brightly and briefly, and dies out quickly. Obviously the fate of la belle Heaulmiere is the fate of everywoman. If Margot's brothel is, in a sense, a metaphor for the world, where flesh is bought and sold, so too, we must see in the old prostitute's fate that all the world also comes to her fate: “But so it goes with one and all,” she says. The courtly lady and the daughter of joy are both prone to decay of the flesh. La belle Heaulmiere advises both to enjoy their youth. To the refrain, “love must find a place of virtue,” la belle Heaulmiere points out that age and poverty work to corrupt virtue, that honesty is the luxury of youth and wealth.

Villon urges the theme of death's inevitable corruption of love more directly in his Ballade to his Girlfriend. Here he depicts in grotesque detail the physical decay that comes in old age, urging Martha to put aside her pride. One of the conventions of the theme of carpe diem is the use of witty and indirect arguments. Villon breaks all these conventions by arguing with her directly, reproaching her with the cry: “See what you've done to me!” As a serious man, who frequently mingled sexual and financial commerce, and who values the women of the streets above all others, the courtly lady's danger is an exasperating affectation, to be mocked by time's harsh treatment:

A time will come when your flower, now in bloom,
                                        will dry up, wilt and turn yellow;
                    then I'll laugh, if I can still move my jaws;
                                             but no, that would be madness:
                              I'll be old, you ugly and without color.
                         So drink deep before the stream runs dry;
                    don't bring down this misery on everyone—
                              help a poor man without crushing him.

(ll. 958-965)

In sum, the placement of human love within the larger perspective of the decay of the flesh emphasizes two common and related themes of the late Middle Ages, the mutability of the world and the deception of women. Specifically, Villon sees woman's deception as a result of the inability to envision the end of life. Were Villon's women to feel, as he does, the link between copulation and death, they would not reserve themselves “for later.”

In the most famous and enigmatic of Villon's lyrics, the Ballade of the Ladies of Bygone Times, there is a haunting sense of the evanescence of the flesh and the transitoriness of earthly love which all critics find difficult to describe. To his usual themes of the commercialism and deception of human love, he adds a third theme, the concept of metamorphosis. Although the ballade's subject is once again the decay of the human flesh, the poem's range touches on many different kinds of love, from the profane to the mythological to the divine.

Most of the women in the poem undergo a transformation in love which allows them to transcend the decay of the body through myth or legend. Each of the dead women is the subject of a famous love legend. There are two prostitutes (Flora and Thais), a woman who dies injured for love (Echo), a queen who used and destroyed her lovers (Jeanne de Navarre), three heroines of the chanson de geste (Beatrice, Alice and Berthe), a woman who died for love of God and country (Jeanne d'Arc), another who became victim of the conflict between spiritual and human love (Heloise), and the only woman to transcend death through love (the Virgin).

The enigma of Villon's haunting refrain—“Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?”—reminds us that the decay of the flesh is eternal, but that the legend of love may survive beyond death. Death, the shadow of the infinite, is the common lover of all these women—saint, sinner and princess alike. Only human love, which decays with the flesh, may live on in poetry, and thus achieve a metamorphosis through poetry. Since all must reach the same end only the fleshly pleasure of youth and the memory of love after death will be eternal. Perhaps this is why Villon's answer to the question, “where?” is another question:

                              Prince, do not ask in a week
                    or yet in a year where they are;
                              I could only give this refrain:
But where are the snows of bygone years?

(ll. 353-356)


The interlocking circles of Villon's Paris—university, tavern, prison, and church—neatly hold everyone within the same precincts and contain their common struggles. Paris is its own universe and all its citizens share a common fate.2 At court, the poet's role was to idealize and flatter his subjects, and the mark of his artistry was the separating and exclusive quality of the work. I wish to suggest that the city poet, in contrast to the court poet in his bucolic setting, makes all persons equal. His role is to show us more of what we have in common than how we differ. If we are not equal in the society of this world, we are all equal in the society of death.

The figure of Death leads us in the danse macabre, joining the hands of emperors with those of peasants:

                                        I know that rich and poor,
fools and wisemen, priests and laymen,
          nobles, peasants, princes and misers,
                    small and large, fair and ugly,
                              ladies with upturned collars,
          and of any class whatever, wearing
                    costly hats or simple bonnets,
               Death seizes without exception.

(ll. 305-312)

This image of death is one of the most important features of the late Gothic imagination throughout all of Europe. As Norman O. Brown has said, “the dance of life [is] the whole story of our wanderings; in a labyrinth of error, the labyrinth of this world” (Love's Body, p. 40). As a manifestation of the error of life, which is the error of the flesh, sexual love represents the consummate original error, the fall, and the act of making unequal: “The woman penetrated is the labyrinth. … Every coitus repeats the fall; brings death, birth, into the world” (p. 48). As Villon sees it, the city of the world is the body of the world. The decay of each body prefigures the decay of the race.

To the extent that the courtly, bucolic ideal of love denies the existence of death, except at the periphery of the erotic play, it attempts to elevate the court beyond the grip of thanatos. The bucolic setting suggests the prelapsarian etas prima. This may account for the coy treatment of themes of sexual fulfillment and death in court poetry. Villon changed this convention, however, by placing thanatos at the very center of eros, and in so doing, changed the bucolic ideal of separation into the urban ideal of equalization.

Psychologists tell us that eros is the instinct to make “whole,” whereas thanatos is divisive and destructive. I think that we must reverse this metaphor if we are to understand the popular mind of the Middle Ages. We must see that contrary to accepted theory love is what stratifies, divides, separates, drives asunder; is insecure and uncertain, a shadow of higher love, as it is codified in the court literature of Gothic Europe. Only when human love is finally described as subject to the death of the flesh is it possible to have “wholeness.” The city is the post-lapsarian state, the locus for observing the human condition. The city channels energy toward death or money, which is the same thing.3 At the waning of the Middle Ages, the poetic metropolis cannot be called the erotopolis; it is rather the necropolis.

By inverting the common metaphorical relationship between eros and thanatos Villon made possible a new kind of writing, wherein the identification of the self and the body—ordinarily reserved only for popular verse—can be combined with courtly subjects and themes. The late medieval obsession with the vision of death finds vivid representation in the works of Villon, paradoxically bringing new life to late medieval culture. No longer is the world of the self kept separate from the world as inhabited—a courtly rather than a popular sentiment—but that very self becomes itself, its own state: “The real apocalypse comes not with the vision of a city or a kingdom which would be external, but with the identification of the city and the kingdom with one's own body.”4 For the popular mind in art, at the dawn of the European Renaissance, eros was the way to separation from self, thanatos the road to union and equality. This is the lesson found in Francois Villon and his pursuit of love and death in the city of Paris.


  1. Villon‘s ballad, “Des contres verites,” is written in the style per antiphrasim. “Epitre a Marie d'Orleans” is a royal panegyric. “Ballade a s'amye” is a lover's complainte as is the “Ballade de la Belle Heaulmiere.”

  2. Augustine, City of God, XVIII.2; “The city of man, for all the width of its expansion throughout the world and for all the depth of its differences in this place and that, is a single community. The simple truth is that the bond of a common nature makes all human beings one.” Norman O. Brown, Love's Body (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 40: “For the true form of unification—which can be found either in psychoanalysis or in Christianity, in Freud or Pope John, or Karl Marx—is: ‘we are all members of one body.’”

  3. “The dehumanization of man is his alienation of his own body. He thus acquires a soul …, but the soul is located in things. Money is the world's soul. And god is … the death of the body. … What then is a city? A city reflects the new masculine aggressive psychology of revolt against the female principles of dependence and nature” [N.O. Brown, Life Against Death (Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press, 1959), pp. 281-282]. Thus Villon's bequests of worthless coins, or goods which he does not possess, lifts from him the onus of money's corrupting influence: radix malorum est cupiditas.

  4. Northrop Frye, Fearful Symmetry: A Study of William Blake (Boston: Beacon Press, 1947), p. 431.

Galway Kinnell (essay date 1977)

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SOURCE: Introduction to The Poems of François Villon, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1977, pp. xi-xx.

[In this excerpt from the introduction to his translation of Villon's poems, Kinnell contrasts Villon's Laiswith his Testament as forms of mock-testaments, arguing that the later poem, despite its frequently comic tone, offers a very serious and unflinching view of death and mortality.]

François Montcorbier, also known as François des Loges, was born in Paris in 1431. He took his bachelor's degree in 1449, and his master's degree in 1452, according to records at the University of Paris. Villon is a nom de plume taken from his friend and benefactor, Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of the church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné.

Whatever else we know about Villon comes mainly from police records. In 1455 he got into a fight with a priest and killed him, but was pardoned a few months later on grounds of having acted in self-defense. A year later, the same year in which he wrote The Legacy, Villon and four accomplices broke into the College of Navarre and made off with a substantial amount of money. Then in 1461, Villon tells us in The Testament, he spent the summer in the prison of the bishop of Orléans, at Meung-sur-Loire (on what charge he doesn't say), and was released in the fall by Louis XI, who had ascended to the throne earlier that year. (It was customary for a newly anointed king to grant amnesty to prisoners when he passed through a town; records confirm that Louis passed through Meung on October 2, 1461.)

In 1462, Villon was arrested in Paris on a charge of theft. The charge was evidently baseless, but Villon was not released until he had signed a pledge to restore his share of the money stolen six years earlier from the College of Navarre. (Villon's part in the robbery had become known through the confession of Guy Tabarie, one of his accomplices.) In 1453 he was again arrested, following a street fight in which he may have been only a spectator. This time he was sentenced to be hanged, a judgement commuted on appeal to ten years' banishment from Paris.

This is the last bit of information we have about Villon. Except for two tall tales told by Rabelais—one that has him visiting England, and one in which he spends his last days at Saint-Maixent in Poitou—François Villon now vanishes from history. He was thirty-two.

Because nothing is known to have been written by him after 1463, it is assumed that Villon died not long after his banishment. In The Testament he indicated that he was sick, very poor, and prematurely aged, and we may fear that he died wretchedly. But we know nothing for a certainty beyond the information given above.

It is on this frail basis of fact that the great edifice of Villon biography and legend has arisen. No matter in which guise he is invoked—vagabond king, criminal, poète maudit, young gallant who tosses off verses between revels—Villon's life has so far proved more compelling than his poetry. Where biographical matter was lacking, vast amounts of it have been dreamed up. Indeed, to the extent the poetry has received critical attention, it usually has been treated as material for biography, and, in turn, subjected to heavily biographical interpretation.

One reason for this neglect of the work is simply that it is very hard to understand. Parts of those sections of The Legacy and The Testament, for example, in which Villon makes his bequests are quite obscure and were difficult even in 1533, less than a hundred years after they were written. In that year, Clément Marot, Villon's first editor, admitted his bafflement in his famous introduction:

As for the artistry of the bequests that Villon made in his testaments, to understand it truly one would have had to live in the Paris of his day and to have known the places, events, and men he speaks about; and the more the memory of them fades the less the skill of these bequests will be understood. For this reason whoever wishes to create a poem which will endure will not take as his subject such vulgar and particular matters.

Toward the end of the last century, there was an attempt to clear away the obscurities. A group of French scholars turned up references in fifteenth-century archives to most of the “vulgar and particular matters” that appear in Villon's poems. Occasionally these identifications help. When we learn, for example, that the “poor orphans” Villon speaks of so pityingly were in fact a financier, a salt speculator, and a rich pawnbroker, we at least confirm our sense of his tone of voice. Unfortunately, most of these identifications are rudimentary and tell us almost nothing about the person's relationship with Villon or his role in the poem. Even at its best, then, the “archivist” school of Villon scholarship throws little light on the poems. But this failure is not without its benefits. Having learned that historical information—at least the small amounts of it we are able to dig up—cannot clarify what is obscure in Villon, we have no choice but to look at the poems themselves.

The first full length study to take Villon's poetry completely seriously—David Kuhn's La Poétique de François Villon—was published only ten years ago. In this work Kuhn assumes that many difficulties in Villon's poems are due not to our lack of historical information, not to gaps in the biography, not to the unreliability of the manuscripts, and not (the last resort of critics) to Villon's often-evoked miseducation and addled brain, but rather to the complexity of the poems themselves. Kuhn examines the texture of the poetry closely, describing and elucidating its intellectual and emotional nuances. As far as possible he tries to hear in Villon's poetry the richness of meanings it must have had in Villon's own time. To this daunting task he brings a powerful intuitive understanding and great eruditon in medieval poetry and in fifteenth-century idioms and usages, including the double meanings used in the erotic jargon of the time. My own remarks below—in which I try to suggest ways of seeing The Legacy and The Testament as unified poems—owe much to David Kuhn's approach and borrow some of his specific interpretations.

The literary prototype of both The Legacy and The Testament is the mock testament, a widespread medieval form in which a dying testator, sometimes an animal, bequeaths the various parts of his body to different individuals. These bequests are often of an obscene nature and often involve ecclesiastical satire. A characteristic example is the anonymous testamentum porcelli, “The Pig's Testament”, in which a pig leaves his bones to the dicemaker, his feet to the errand runner, and his penis to the priest. Both The Legacy and The Testament, as the titles suggest, fall into this mock-legal genre—and, in fact, many of the legatees they name are the same. In almost all other respects, however, the two poems differ very sharply from each other.

The Legacy's ambiguity begins with its very tone. To some it will sound like the liveliest horseplay, while to others it will seem a work of considerable romantic sadness, at least in part. Both qualities exist in the poem. But it is hard to make an ultimate judgment because of the curious way The Legacy plays with styles. (This is also why it cannot be translated successfully!) The opening section, a congé d'amour in the tradition of Alain Chartier's Livre de la belle dame sans merci, depicts in a high-flown courtly style the conventional plight of a poet martyred by his cruel mistress. The middle section, the mock giving-away of the testator's belongings, uses a swift, wiry, hard-edged style suggesting that the leave-taking is not only from a cruel mistress but also from a false or conventional way of being. In the final section the style parodies the abstract language of Aristotelian psychology.

Did Villon put these three styles together out of caprice, or with some intention? The question may be unanswerable, for stylistic allusions and mockeries of this kind may have become impossible for us to catch. But let us suppose that the shift from style to style is purposeful. We may then note that the mock-courtly style at the beginning suits the farewell to courtly love, and that the swift style of the middle sections fits the satirical and sexual bequests. The reason for the stylistic parody at the end is less evident, however. Perhaps through the absurd abstractions of this third section Villon is merely commenting on the arid solipsisms of the Schoolmen. But the section also appears to suggest an act of masturbation: expressed in this preposterous language, it is an obscene joke completing the flight from idealized love.

The Testament adheres even more closely than The Legacy to the legal form of the genre. It begins by stating the testator's age and mental competence; it declares that the present document represents his last will; it gives the date. After much apparent digression it asserts that the document supersedes but does not annul its predecessor. It lists the testator's bequests, first to the Virgin Mary, the Earth, his parents and girlfriend; then to friends and acquaintances; and finally to institutions, hospitals, and charities. It names an interpreter for the will, specifies the burial place, provides the epitaph, and appoints the bell-ringers, executors, probator, and pallbearers.

Thus Villon makes full use of the legal framework of a form thought suitable up to this time only for comedy or satire. Villon retains (and heightens) the comic and satiric elements; at the same time he turns the form to such a personal, intensely serious, almost tragic use that among medieval examples of the genre, this testament is in a class entirely by itself.

At the opening of The Testament all the playful, literary, light-hearted mockery of The Legacy, written five years earlier, has vanished. In the opening stanzas of the later poem, one hears a cold hatred behind the correctness of tone. In The Legacy such terms as “prison,” “jailer,” and “death” were used as conventional romantic metaphors; in the opening of The Testament there is a real prison, a real jailer, and, more and more clearly as the poem continues, actual death. Villon's sense of degradation has now gone far beyond the mere conventional despair of being spurned in love; more particularly now it comes from his having been held in irons in a dungeon and subjected to torture and sexual abuse.

In the wondrously varied poem that follows from this grim beginning, Villon sets out to exorcise the physical and moral humiliations he suffered during that summer in the “hard prison” at Meung. He tells how he came to have hope of being able to change his life:

It's true that after laments
And tears and groans of anguish
After sadnesses and sorrows
Hard labor and bitter days on the road
Suffering unlocked my tangled feelings
About as sharp as a ball of wool
More than all the Commentaries
Of Averroës opened Aristotle.
And there in the depths of my woe
As I walked on without heads or tails
God who inspired the Emmaus
Pilgrims as the Gospel tells
Let me see a fair city
Blessed with the gift of hope
Even the most wretched of sinners
God hates only his perseverance.

Experience has changed and opened him and as a result he is able to see the City of God1 and draw hope from it.

Evidence of the change Villon has undergone, from the playful satirist of The Legacy into the complete and serious poet of The Testament, is best seen in the long passages—about three hundred lines—on old age and death. Few writers have evoked these subjects with such harrowing reality as Villon does here or with less concern to sweeten or to compensate for them. His death verses begin with a conventional ubi sunt theme, but this is soon left behind. By the end nothing at all conventional remains. The poet's lament over decay and death begins among the beautiful, the famous, and the mighty, and ends among ordinary people. It begins in fable and in the distant past, and ends in the actual streets of Paris. Villon does not ever speak seriously of peace in heaven or moralize at all on the vanity of human life. He writes out of a peculiarly fierce attachment to our mortal experience. Sentiments, in the usual sense, are not involved. What he holds on to is only an unspecified vitality, the vitality of decay, perhaps, or of sorrow, or simply of speech. In these poems, which start out with conventional mourning for the passing of human glory, we are made to realize all of a sudden that this glory is, as much as it is anything, the vivid presence of an ordinary man or woman. The lament reaches deep into nature. It is a cry not only against the brevity of existence and the coming on of death but also against this dying life itself, this life so horrified by death and so deeply in need of it.

Soon after the death passages comes Villon's first statement that he himself is dying:

I feel my thirst coming on
White as cotton I spit …

That he is dying is, of course, a convention called for by the literary form, and we understand it as a spoof when he summons Fremin, the imaginary secretary, to his bedside in order to dictate the will—namely, the poem itself. But as the taste of the death poems is in our mouths, we are aware of reality devouring the convention. Explicitly death is still a conventional metaphor for lost love, as it was in The Legacy. (Sadly, the only love poem in The Testament, other than that actually very touching ballade addressed to the prostitute Margot, is composed to be spoken by someone else.) But in the course of the poem, as Villon speaks of sickness, baldness (perhaps the result not of disease but of having been shaved in prison), impotence, pain (possibly due to syphilis), hoarseness, and premature old age, we come to understand that his mock testament is a true testament also.

Villon is, among other things, a marvelous social satirist. Both in the opening section of eight hundred or so lines, which contains some of the most masterful poetry ever written, and in the twelve hundred or so lines of bequests that follow, Villon inveighs against hypocrisy and corruption, especially as found in the Church. And though it may seem that this poet is poorly placed to attack the vices of others, he takes advantage of his low station. Since he does not claim any virtue for himself, his voice remains free from self-righteousness. Indeed, he insists on placing himself at the very bottom, as in the following passage (the last two lines of which are quoted from Pontius Pilate) where he seems to be associating himself, in reverse, with Jesus, the most perfect of all:

I'm no judge nor a deputy
For pardoning or punishing wrongs
I'm the most imperfect of all
Praised be the mild Jesus Christ
Through me may they be satisfied
What I have written is written.

In this way Villon takes for himself, on the moral level, a position equivalent to the one taken by Socrates on the intellectual level, and he is able to show from this vantage point that the others who claim to be holy are just as sinful as he is—if not more so. The point of the Diomedes parable, told early in The Testament, is to establish this position.

The other main strand of the poem is its sexuality. From the beginning of the bequests proper to the end of the poem, sex is the dominant theme and the principal action is the distributing of sexual objects and qualities. Kuhn argues convincingly that whatever their surface meaning, Villon intended most of the items given away as bequests to have an erotic secondary meaning—with tools, purses, and coins, for example, serving as symbols for the penis, and gardens, houses, shoes, hats, stockings, and so on, representing the vagina. Villon assembles in The Testament a vast catalogue of erotic jargon, making its list of bequests a tour de force of sexual double meanings. In his life Villon claims to have given freely of his sexuality. In this poem he bequeaths his own remembered sexuality, as if to give life to the dead, and becomes a kind of “sacred fount”: in giving away his sexual powers, he gives away, in effect, his life itself. This is the sense in which, at the end of the poem, Villon is love's “martyr.”

One of the final bequests in The Testament is made to the same sick lovers to whom Alain Chartier a generation earlier had willed the power to “compose songs, speeches, and poems” so that they could win the hearts of their beloveds and thus be cured. To this gift Villon adds another:

Item I give the sick lovers
Along with Alain Chartier's legacy
A Holy Water basin for their bedsides
Which will soon fill up with tears
And a little sprig of eglantine
Always green as an aspergillum …

The ancient rite of exorcism Villon appropriates for his own purposes. The water to be sprinkled is lovers' tears; the ritual branch has been transmuted into the eglantine, the flower of poetry. This ceremonial healing is perhaps the true undertaking of the poem, even if only in an obscure, partly glimpsed way.

At the end of the poem come the funeral preparations and two final ballades. In this section especially, The Testament stands apart from The Legacy. For the first time Villon's voice assumes a tranquillity. It does not become elevated or tragic, and the poetry is still full of ironies, jokes, sexual puns, insults, and so on. But the fever has passed, things have come back to themselves again, and, as if inevitably, his voice takes on authority and calm, purified through the ordeal of the poem.

In the dyptich at the very end, these two strands of social satire and sexuality reappear. The first of the two ballades purports to make peace with society, the second to say farewell to sexual love. A reversal of intention takes place in both poems. The first ballade starts with Villon proceeding down the list of all the human types and asking forgiveness of each in turn. As long as he is addressing actors, cardsharps, clowns, and the like, he does this cordially. But the moment he turns to those who jailed him—bringing the poem back to its beginning—this ballade, whose intention is to make peace, explodes into violent denunciation.

The other ballade, ostensibly a farewell to sexual love, turns into a hymn in praise of it—or, at least, of its pain and importunity. This last ballade represents one of poetry's amazing acts of transformation. The sense of blessedness pervading it, in which the “spur of love” marvelously stabs Villon once more as he dies, is not dispelled by hints already given throughout The Testament that this spur is not only sexual desire but also perhaps venereal disease. There is nothing “poetic” anywhere in Villon's poetry.


  1. See the note to line 101 of The Testament.

Selected Bibliography

Burger, Andre, Lexique de la langue de Villon (Genève-Paris, 1957).

Guiraud, Pierre, L'Argot (Paris: PUF [Que sais-je?], 1963).

Villon, François, Oeuvres, ed. crit. avec notices et glossaire, par Louis Thuasne, 3 vols. (Paris: Picard, 1923).

———, Oeuvres, ed. Auguste Longnon, 4e ed. revue par Lucien Foulet (Paris: Champion [CFMA], 1964).

Norris J. Lacy (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: “The Flight of Time: Villon's Trilogy of Ballades,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 22, No.3, 1982, pp. 353-78.

[In this essay, Lacy, an important Villon scholar, suggests that the latter two ballades of the trilogy on the ubi sunt theme—“Ballade des seigneurs”” and “Ballade en vieil langage françoys”—have been undervalued by modern critics. Lacy argues that as a unit, the ballades represent Villon's continuing development of a unified theme, that of fleeting fame and the relentless forgetfulness of history.]

Villon's three ballades concerning the flight of time and the ubi sunt topos have rarely been studied as an ensemble. This failure is doubtless due both to the traditional penchant for excerpting parts of the Testament, without considering context or respecting the integrity of his poem, and to the conviction that the second and third members of the trilogy are seriously inferior to the Ballade des dames du temps iadis. Gaston Paris, for example, found the Ballade des seigneurs “banale et médiocre,” and Spitzer noted that “tout ce qui était suggestion rêveuse dans la première ballade est devenu ici plate déclaration,” adding that Villon has simply drawn up a list of puissants inconnus who offer no real interest.1

If the second ballade incurs the censure of critics, the third is often not even accorded the dignity of criticism; it is generally passed over in silence. The Ballade en vieil langage françoys, with its numerous errors of Old French, is of course a philologist's delight, but few critics have even asked whether the poem might possess redeeming features, whether Villon might have had a purpose in mind in choosing to write an Old French that he probably knew to be flawed.

If we acknowledge Villon as the consummate poet of the closing Middle Ages, we cannot lightly dismiss any portion of his text without asking such questions. If he wrote three ballades on the same subject and inserted them into his work one after the other, then there can be no justification for retaining one and discarding two others. Certainly, it does Villon a serious injustice to assume, as some have done, that he was carried away by his poetic achievement in Dames [Ballade des dames du temps iadis.] and simply tried to repeat his success in two additional but largely misguided efforts. The three pieces constitute, as Danielle Kada-Benoist points out, “une unité poétique”,2 and it can be shown that their theme is far more effectively conveyed by the progression from one ballade to another than it could be merely by its presentation in any one of them—or by the three taken separately.

The most obvious fact about Dames (and a fact that sets the direction of the trilogy) is its composition by questions. Villon avoids assertions in this poem (the only ones he uses are in subordinate clauses; e.g., “la Royne Blanche … qui chantoit,” vss. 345-6); a poem composed entirely of questions, as this one is, may prove quite suggestive, but whatever its evocative appeal, it remains largely incapable of forceful, specific statement. This is however in harmony with the poet's apparent intent, which is to question rather than draw conclusions.

It is significant that, although the ladies who populate this ballade are generally celebrated, Villon tends to immortalize them not for their own merits but because of their effects on others or because of incidental attributes. In other words, their poetic treatment transfers emphasis from the characters' identities to their functions.3 And, in most instances, that function is destructive. Heloïse, for example, is memorable not for her brilliance, but only for her love for Abelard and, more significantly, for the tragic effect of that love—on him; that is, she is immortalized by Abelard's castration. The next woman mentioned in the poem is similarly treated: she is recalled because Buridan was supposedly thrown into the Seine on her account. Moreover, we do not even learn her name (she is referred to simply as la royne qui …, vss. 341-2); she is apparently less important than what happened to Buridan. This reference to a character's destructive effect on someone else is reduced somewhat in the following stanza, but Villon continues to emphasize a single characteristic of each person. “La Royne Blanche” offers us a name (or perhaps an attribute), and then she is described simply in terms of her singing voice: she has the voice of a siren (vs. 346), an appropriately ambiguous reference to both beauty and danger. After listing several other women, Villon defines Joan of Are not as a liberator or a heroine, but purely as a victim of an English pyre. It is characteristic of Villon's irony—and illustrative of his themes—that those who are recalled are memorable for the wrong reasons: for their destructive influence or, in the case of Joan, because of her death rather than her life and accomplishments.

The point in the first ballade is that these are ladies from time well past, and their temporal distance from us is accompanied by poetic distance: the poem makes a poignant case which the reader is likely to accept intellectually, but which is unlikely to impress upon us the urgency of death and time's flight. With the Seigneurs, [Ballade des seigneurs] Villon begins to diminish the distance separating his subjects from the present, by listing men who died less than a decade before he wrote the Testament. While we may admire, and agree with, the sentiments expressed in the first poem, this one must speak to us with more immediacy, but, ironically, we must also be struck by the narrator's uncertainty—all the more notable because it concerns near contemporaries. For example, he must rely on hearsay (“le roy scotiste qui demy face ot, ce dit on,” vss. 365-6, my emphasis), an uncertainty that never entered his voice in Dames, despite the interrogative refrain. The identity of certain men mentioned in this poem is far from firmly established, and in some cases their relative insignificance is pointed up ironically by their bearing illustrious names. Artus, for example, is not King Arthur, but only Arthur III of Brittany; Lancellot too evokes chivalry and the Round Table but is actually Ladislas or Lazlo, le roy de Behaygne (vs. 378). Villon's uncertainty in Seigneurs increases when he speaks of the king duquel je ne sçay pas le nom (vs. 371). This humorous and brilliant poetic detail both underlines the narrator's fallibility and, especially, dramatizes the fleeting nature of fame; even the name escapes. Sic transit gloria mundi.

While we may question Spitzer's contention that this ballade offers a list of unknowns, these men are undeniably less remarkable and interesting than are the ladies enumerated previously; but this fact, rather than diminishing the poem's worth, clearly increases its value as a contribution to the trilogy and to the entirety of the Testament. What better way to dramatize the ubi sunt motif than to illustrate it with examples of men who, once famous and powerful, are very recently dead and, yet, already half forgotten? The saddest commentary on fame is the line quoted earlier: “… le bon roy … duquel je ne sçay pas le nom.” This king has been identified, convincingly enough, as Henri II, but in fact, speculation about his identity obscures the text instead of clarifying it. The point, quite evidently, is not who he is, but the fact that the poet does not know who he is. He could be any king, and therein lies the tragedy the poet wishes to communicate to us.

The refrain of the second ballade is the converse of that of the Dames. In the earlier piece, the author mentioned famous women and then asked where were past snows (i.e., that which is most fragile). That is, if the likes of Thaÿs, Echo, Heloïse have disappeared, can we wonder at the transitoriness of what lasts but a moment? This refrain prepares the second ballade; but there, after naming recent illustrious, but relatively little-known, men, Villon then wonders at Charlemagne's disappearance.4 He is turning his own method on its head, beginning by those closest to him and emphasizing their loss and their relative insignificance by measuring them against the preux Charlemaigne.

Reichenberger sees the third ballade as a departure from the first two, in that it dispenses with names and offers instead a list of categories, “une série de titres sociaux” (p. 262): ly sains appostolles, l'imperieres, le roy, etc. However, it is a departure that is perfectly justified, for this piece simply continues the development already established. The first poem lists ladies of genuine fame; the second enumerates men whose fame is far more fleeting. In the final case, names are not necessarily forgotten: they are simply irrelevant. The individual is now subsumed by his function. It no longer matters who he was, a fact that reveals less the flawed memory of others (as the first two ballades might suggest) than the fundamental insignificance of the individual. From this point of view, the third poem must be seen not as a pale and ineffective imitation of, but an indispensable conclusion to, the first two.

There remains the question of the language, the Old French that was archaic when Villon wrote it. Kada-Benoist contends (p. 308) that the Old French points up the way language “résiste à la mort.” I think the exact opposite is true. Although the poet himself must die, at least his monuments, his words, should resist death—but this poem implies that even words are not immune to the ravages of time. Villon is merciless here: he shows the impermanence not only of worldly fame and life but of poetic inspiration and its product—his own poem. In a sense, this piece is even more effective than its predecessors; they expressed their subject in words and suggested it in a variety of ways, while this one communicates it directly. That is, the very vehicle of expression serves as the best confirmation of the theme. The medium is quite literally the message. We cannot of course know with certainly that Villon was aware of making errors in his Old French, but if he was not, they are a most happy accident and, in any case, a brilliantly effective illustration of his refrain: Autant en emporte ly vens!

The subject of Villon's linguistic flaws calls to mind another of his celebrated errors: the presence of one Archipïadés in the first of the poems. It is generally recognized that this name, listed alongside Flora, Thaÿs, and Echo, is an apparent reference to Alcibiades, who, we are told, was commonly thought in the Middle Ages to be a woman. I have no reason to doubt the identification. Nor do I have any specific reason to think that Villon knew it to be erroneous, but we must conclude that Alcibiades's miraculous sex-change was no less felicitous than were Villon's linguistic lapses. In poems characterized uncertainty about facts and even identities, confusion of a person's gender is as appropriate as the loss of a name. Whether Villon erred intentionally or not, we must acknowledge that the subject of the work justifies “Archipïadés's” inclusion.

Without going into greater detail, I think we can contend with some confidence that, at this point in the Testament, Villon did not commit one success and two failures. First of all, the three ballades constitute a single movement in the work; secondly, they offer a continuous and logical development of a single theme. Yet, it is far from a simple development. Villon progressively narrows his focus and moves from the distant past toward the present; but instead of moving in the direction of the concrete and specific (the ultimate movement of the Testament), the trilogy becomes increasingly vague and imprecise, as identities are obscured and finally lost. But by an ironic twist, justified by the trilogy's theme, imprecision and vagueness constitute a specific and very effective statement of the ubi sunt motif. The first ballade presents the motif, the second illustrates it further, and the final one takes it very nearly to its logical conclusion. To separate the ballades is to limit and distort their value. To perceive and retain their intensity, we must respect their integrity.


  1. These judgments are quoted by Kurt Reichenberger, “Actualité et critique littéraire: problèmes de l'esthétique de la réception: la Ballade des Seigneurs du Temps Jadis de Villon,” in Studies on The Seven Sages of Rome and Other Essays in Medieval Literature, ed. H. Niedzielski et al. (Honolulu, 1978), pp. 259-69.

  2. “Le Phénomène de désagréation dans les trois ballades du temps jadis de Villon,” Le Moyen Age, 80, No. 2 (1974), 301-18. Similarly, Jean Rychner and Albert Henry observe that “on notera d'abord l'unité dialectique de contenu. … On peut parler, en outre, d'une unité dialectique par la forme. …” See their Le Testament Villon (Geneva: Droz, 1974), II, 65.

  3. See also Evelyn Vitz, The Crossroad of Intentions: A Study of Symbolic Expression in the Poetry of François Villon (The Hague: Mouton, 1974), p. 46.

  4. Spitzer notes that Charlemagne “… vient écraser de son poids des plus petits et des moins puissants que lui”; see his “Etude ahistorique d'un texte: Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis,” Modern Language Quarterly, 1 (1940), 17. Notably, the line preceding the first appearance of the refrain asks where is Charles VII, qualified as le bon; see vs. 363. The next line, with its reference to le preux Charlemaigne, establishes an inevitable contrast between the two Charleses, to the obvious disadvantage of the former.

David A. Fein (essay date 1984)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5523

SOURCE: “Final Preparations (Verses 1844-1995),” “Three Readings of the Final Ballad (Verses 1996-2023),” and “Conclusion” in A Reading of Villon's Testament, Summa Publications, 1984, pp. 69-83.

[In this excerpt, Fein turns to the conclusion of Villon's Testament, suggesting that behind its sarcasm and apparent celebration of dissipation the poem reveals an enthusiasm for life and offers a serious meditation on both humanity and eternity.]


Now that all the bequests have been made, Villon turns his attention to the last few remaining formalities: provisions for the execution of the will, the choice of a burial site, the composition of an epitaph, the appointment of pallbearers, and other necessary details. Jehan Calais, a notary of the Châtelet charged with verifying wills and a man whom Villon admits he has never met, is named to interpret the will and adjudicate any disputes that may arise. Villon gives the notary practically unlimited power to construe and even modify the document:

De le gloser et commenter,
De le diffinir et descripre,
Diminuer ou augmenter,
De le canceller et prescripre.


(To gloss and annotate it
To define and clarify it
To shorten and lengthen it
To void it and scratch it out).

Playfully handling terms borrowed from the semantic fields of scholastic and legal terminology, Villon loosens and reinvigorates a normally rigid and lifeless form of language. At the same time he makes us aware of the vulnerability of the written word. Just as the will must be interpreted after the testator's death in order to be properly carried out, the literary text must be continually interpreted and reinterpreted in order to remain valid. We should take Villon's instructions to his notary as a warning, for it is we who have now become the real executors of Villon's will, glossing, annotating, and defining his text. Although this act of interpretation is incumbent upon each new generation of “executors,” we must remember, as Villon subtly reminds us, that this process entails a risk of distortion or even misrepresentation.

Parodying a common testamentary provision concerning the disposition of a bequest in the event of an heir's death, Villon envisions a different eventuality:

Et s'aucun, dont n'ay congnoissance,
Estoit allé de mort a vie


(And if unknown to me an heir
Has passed from death into life).

The words “de mort a vie” appear in medieval French literature as a verbal formula traditionally applied to Christ.1 This religiously weighted phrase announces a series of Christ images that occur, concealed by comic effects, in the concluding ballad of the Testament. In broadest terms, the movement of Villon's poem has been one of life toward death. Now the phrase “de mort a vie” suggests an extension of the same movement beyond death to an enduring life.

To the stipulation that his sepulchre be located in the convent of Saint Avoye (patron saint of the dévoyés, the black sheep, whom she was believed capable of leading back to a righteous life), he adds a further request:

Et, affin que chascun me voie,
Non pas en char, mais en painture,
Que l'on tire mon estature
D'ancre, s'il ne coustait trop chier.


(And so everyone may see me
Not in the flesh but in painting
Have my full-length portrait done
In ink if there's money for that).

If we take the estature d'ancre to be the verbal self-portrait contained in the Testament, then it becomes clear that Villon has already fulfilled his own request. This reading is reinforced by the fact that in the other two occurrences of ancre to be found in Villon's poetry the word is specifically connected to the act of writing a will.2 Since we cannot see him en char, we can only see a picture of him en painture. To rearrange the famous phrase from the Gospel of John, the flesh becomes word.

Having named his resting place, Villon now proceeds to specify the details of his epitaph:

Soit escript en lettre assez grosse,
Et qui n'auroit point d'escriptoire,
De charbon ou de pierre noire.


(Inscribed in rather large letters
Lacking something to write with
Use charcoal or a lump of coal).

Although the primary meaning of grosse in this context is apparently “large,” the word can also signify “common” or “vulgar.”3 The inscription that Villon envisions scribbled in charcoal over his grave take the form of a kind of graffiti, and the epitaph does in fact contain the kind of obscene term (cul) that one would expect to find in such a crude inscription. Again we see an act of debasement, this time self-imposed. Making a mockery of his epitaph, Villon is faithfully following his practice of desecrating that which his society regards with reverence. But the graffiti on the grave may also represent a deeper revolt. If the tomb symbolizes death, the epitaph symbolizes man's submission to death, his acceptance of the inevitable. Villon's inscription, scrawled in large black letters, insults the sanctity of the grave, and evokes laughter in the face of death. As with the final gulp of wine at the end of the poem, it may be taken as a gesture of defiance.

In the epitaph Villon cites his full name for the first and only time in the Testament. Death has reduced the omnipotent benefactor of the legacy section to a humble cleric by the name of François Villon:

Ung povre petit escollier,
Qui fut nommé Françoys Villon.


(A poor obscure scholar
Who was known as François Villon).

Referring to himself in the third person, and looking momentarily beyond his death, Villon begins to prepare his departure, and announces the eulogy to be delivered by an anonymous voice at the end of the poem. The words petit escollier, translated above as “obscure scholar,” literally mean a “small schoolboy.” The Testament moves simultaneously in a forward direction toward the poet's death, and backward through his past, the future and past merging in the epitaph that looks backward and forward at once.

The image painted by the epitaph, the inscription that will supposedly fix his memory for all posterity, is that of a man completely stripped—stripped of love, possessions (all of which he claims to have given away), stripped even of the hair on his face and head. But the pathos of the image is undercut by an ironic bit of courtly language:

Qu'amours occist de son raillon


(One love's arrow struck down),

and a reminder that the poet's tomb is to be housed in the sollier (1884), “upper room,” of a convent. Villon clearly intends to leave a mock epitaph on a mock tomb. The prayer quoted in the inscription, containing the word cul as well as a traditional liturgical phrase, is also a mockery. At another level, however, Villon is conceiving his death, his grave, the memory he will leave behind, is requesting that a requiem prayer be recited for his soul, is confronting the most difficult and anxiety-filled questions facing every intelligent human being, all beneath the mask of humor. The association of death and humor, moreover, is completely normal. Jokes about death are as old as jokes about sex, and both, as it is well known, betray an understandable uneasiness and insecurity. If Villon is to introduce his own encounter with death into the Testament, and still keep the distance he has attempted to maintain between the poem and the personal experience it reflects, then he has no choice but to approach the subject through the means of humor, even to the extent of self-deprecation.

The final preparations for death fail to depress the resilient spirit of the dying testator. Instead they provide him with a last opportunity for a little satirical sport as he appoints the bell ringers and his executors. An obscene pun is tossed at a former schoolmate, Thomas Tricot, now a priest. Just as the flippant tone of the legacy section seems about to reassert itself, Villon cuts short the string of jokes with a reference to physical suffering:

Trop plus mal me font qu'onques mais
Barbe, cheveulx, penil, sourcis.
Mal me presse, temps desormais
Que crie a toutes gens mercis.


(Worse than ever they're killing me
My beard, hair, crotch, and eyebrows
Pain closes in, it's high time now
To cry everyone's pardon).

With this reminder of the agony of dying the poem revolves back to the grim reality confronted in Villon's painfully graphic description of the agonisant (313-328). The attempt to elude the ultimate threat of death has failed, and the vague awareness of mortality perceptible in the opening verse of the Testament returns with greater definition and intensity as the final moments of the poem and of the dying protagonist coincide.

In an act of confession the writer of the will, pressed by death and with little time remaining, focuses his last thoughts on those he has wronged, enumerating various groups of people in the ballad with the refrain, “Je crye a toutes gens mercis” (1968-1995). Yet when we observe the procession to whom Villon's plea is addressed, we find very few of those he has maligned in the poem. Members of several religious orders are included, but nowhere does Villon refer to the magistrates, the municipal officials, the wealthy bourgeois, and the others who have borne the brunt of his abuse. Instead we see mainly people of the street, especially those who occupy a marginal social position: prostitutes, thieves, brawlers, itinerant entertainers, jesters, actors. These are the people Villon knows best, the ones who form his true social milieu, and it is to them that he now turns before departing. The poem which began in the privacy of personal memories, and which has retained a highly introspective orientation now moves into the street to embrace a colorful array of human figures, practically all of whom are, like Villon, alienated to some degree from their society. The sense of intense isolation evident throughout the Testament briefly yields to a sense of communion and solidarity. At the same time, the introspective nature of the poem does not totally disappear. In reaching out to the monk, the thief, the jester, the actor, the rejected lover, Villon is also reaching out to and gathering together the various constituent elements of his total personality.

The apparent humility and good will of Villon's “confession” is undermined by the ballad's ending in which the poet curses those who kept him jailed in the prison at Meung-sur-Loire. Villon cannot ask forgiveness for his harsh verbal treatment of his jailers. On the contrary, he assails them with some of the most vehement language of the Testament:

Qu'on leur froisse les quinze costes
De gros mailletz, fors et massis,
De plombees et telz pelotes.


(Let their fifteen ribs be mauled
With big hammers heavy and strong
And lead weights and that kind of balls).

The memory of his recent experience in prison which opened the poem is obviously still quite fresh in Villon's mind. While previous allusions to Thibault d'Aussigny and Meung-sur-Loire remain couched in sarcastic terms, Villon makes his final assault in uncharacteristically blunt, unequivocally violent language. Having fully vented his anger and purged himself of resentment, he returns to his plea for pardon. The cursing of the jailers, coming at the end of a petition for forgiveness, underscores the fallibility of the petitioner. In the awesome moment at which he should be making peace with the world before departing, he cannot find within his heart the will to forgive his enemies. Still, the final verse of the ballad, and of the will proper, suggests an attitude of reconciliation, humility, and penance.

Taken literally and within the context of the whole poem, the phrase “Je crye a toutes gens mercis” incorporates a larger meaning. “Je crye” represents the entire verbal act of the Testament, the crying out, the urgent demand for attention. Those to whom Villon cries out, “toutes gens,” are not only those he knows personally, but all those who read his poem, all those who hear his cry. And the plea he makes to us is that we, his readers, grant him “mercis,” compassion and understanding, miséricorde. Read in this manner, the refrain restates a verse of Villon's famous “Ballade des pendus:”

N'ayez les cuers contre nous endurcis


(Don't let your hearts harden against us).

It is significant that the last utterance of the dying voice dictating the will is a word charged with religious implications, and whose meanings touch the very core of Christianity. As “mercy,” “pity,” or “compassion” mercis encompasses the essential qualities characterizing Christian behavior. As “forgiveness” or “grace” it embodies the hope for salvation. The man who has given so much of himself—his poetry, his emotion, his intellect—who, according to his epitaph, has given all he has, ends his testament in a gesture of supplication, finally asking, even pleading, to receive.


The Testament closes with an epilogue in the form of a eulogy delivered by a disembodied voice. Like the epitaph of which it is an extension, the final ballad succinctly summarizes the life of the deceased, stressing the hardships and humiliations he was forced to endure. Because of its function as a conclusion to the Testament, and the privileged status it acquires by affording Villon an ultimate opportunity to comment on the preceding text, the closing ballad merits scrupulous attention. The epilogue offers us, in fact, a number of clues to help decipher the meaning of this mysterious work. According to which clues we collect, we may read the ballad and the long poem it concludes in at least three different ways. Moreover, these readings are not mutually exclusive, but rather superimposed, each interpreting the poem at a different level.


Adding an obscene twist to a stock rhetorical device lifted from courtly tradition, the speaker of the eulogy describes Villon's death as an act of martyrdom:

Car en amours mourut martir
Ce jura il sur son couillon.


(For he died a martyr to love
This he swore on his testicle).

The physical loss implied by the singular, son couillon, reinforces and concretizes the victimization which the preceding verse renders in more abstract imagery. Villon, who has worn so many masks throughout his poem, has chosen for his exit the mask of the martyred lover that he first tried on five years earlier in the Lais.4 The final ballad culminates a series of images portraying the povre Villon as a pathetic victim. The martyr, as we learn, lived in a state of perpetual exile, leaving pitiful traces of his presence wherever he went:

Tant que, d'icy a Roussillon,
Brosse n'y a ne brossillon
Qui n'eust, ce dit il sans mentir,
Ung lambeau de son cotillon.


From here to Roussillon
There isn't a shrub or a bush
That didn't get, he truly speaks,
A shred from his back).

Not only has the povre Villon parted with all his possessions, but he has even left behind his cotillon, the tunic worn as an undergarment, parcelled out in shreds and leaving its owner in a virtual state of nakedness. Now the anonymous voice describes the martyr's end, depicting in vivid terms the moment of his death:

Qui plus, en mourant, mallement
L'espoignoit d'Amours l'esguillon;
Plus agu que le ranguillon
D'ung baudrier luy faisoit sentir.


(What's worse, as he died, sorely
The spur of love pricked into him
Sharper than the buckle-tongue
Of a baldric he could feel it).

Again the abstract is conceptualized in graphic terms. The adverb mallement can also be read as mâle-ment, “in male fashion.”5 The epitaph states that the poet was killed by a raillon, a word sometimes loosely translated as “arrow,” but actually designating the bolt of a crossbow, a short, square-headed missile. The image of a buckle-tongue strongly connotes phallic penetration (as Kinnell's felicitous translation of verse 2015 implies), and combined with the phallic nature of the raillon and the reading of mâle-ment suggests a novel form of martyrdom which elicits our astonishment:

C'est de quoy nous esmerveillon


(And that is what we marvel at).

The theme of victimization culminates in a brutal sexual assault.6

For Villon to take his proper place among the other martyrs of love, he must first die a martyr's death. But what are we to make out of this final mockery? Summoned by the bells, we have dutifully arrived at the poet's funeral dressed in the appropriate garb for commemorating a martyr's death (1998-2000). As we listen to the eulogy, we reverently await the re-enactment of the “martyr's” final moments. And now, as the anticipated moment arrives, we suddenly realize that we are watching a farce. It is not only the hapless hero of the poem who is being mocked, but we ourselves, as we stand solemnly and properly in our vermilion, watching this unexpected and totally undignified scene.

The last gesture of the moribund martyr is one of despair:

Sachiez qu'il fist au departir:
Ung traict but de vin morillon.


(Hear what he did as he left
He took a long swig of dead-black wine).

In the face of a long series of personal misfortunes, the drinking of the wine represents an act of desperation, an attempt to escape the pain and shame which have just been inflicted. It is the exaggerated gesture of a puppet manipulated into grotesque positions by the smiling puppeteer. The note of tragedy, for which we have been so carefully prepared, never rings. Instead, the last sound echoing from the world of the Testament, after all the raucous noises have subsided, is one of haunting laughter.


If the final ballad may be read as a fitting slapstick finale to a long tragicomic farce, it may be taken with equal validity as the heroic conclusion to a tensely dramatic struggle. Throughout the Testament we have followed the conflict between the two primal forces of life and death. At one extreme the poem moves through the painful motions of the danse macabre, lamenting the brevity and fragility of human existence, evoking scenes of cemeteries, boneyards, tombs, deathbeds. At the other extreme, the poem moves to the rhythm of life, brimming with humor, gaiety, and vitality. Fluctuating constantly between the force of life and the force of death, the Testament finally succeeds in fusing the two. For although the closing ballad depicts a scene of death and invokes the dead, it also exudes laughter and life.

The epilogue of the Testament can hardly be said to bear no relation whatsoever to Villon's life as we know it. The references to destitution, banishment, and physical abuse all correspond in some degree to biographical fact. Beneath the obvious travesty of the final ballad lies a core of truth without which the poem would drift meaninglessly detached from the rest of the work. The heroism of the closing moments of the Testament consists in the poet's will to rise above his suffering through an act of self-mockery. Death will break Villon just as we have seen it break his effigy, but the esprit of the poem, reflecting the spirit of the man, will not be destroyed.

In speaking of himself in the third person, Villon separates himself into the observer and the observed, the je and the il, one deceased and one who continues to live. In so doing, he has in a sense managed to outlive himself, conquering death. At the same time, the voice of the eulogy, speaking for the now voiceless martyr, comes to us in effect from the other side of the grave. Even before he has died, Villon is already addressing us from the realm of the dead.


Still another reading of the ballad points to a different hero, and consequently a different ending. Whether a mask deliberately assumed by the poet, or a figure unconsciously summoned, an image of the crucified Christ may be seen, without unduly straining the imagination, in the final verses of the Testament.7 Moreover, the connection between the poet and Christ is one for which the reader of the poem should not be totally unprepared. First, there is the matter of Villon's age—thirty years at the writing of the Testament. More important is Villon's relationship with Society. Constantly coming into conflict with civil and ecclesiastical authority, he too was something of an outcast, moving in a milieu considered dangerous by the social establishment. Also, Villon's self-portrayal is that of a sacrificial victim, a martyr, a man who has received far harsher treatment than he deserves, yet who claims he is prepared to give up his life if his death would benefit the bien publicque, the “common good” (121). Finally, the phrase, “Car en amours mourut martir” (2001) applies equally well to both martyrs, one of whom died for a higher form of love than did the other.

To see in the shredding of the martyr's tunic, left behind on every bush “d'icy a Roussillon” (2007), a parallel to the division of Christ's clothing among the Roman soldiers hardly requires an extraordinary leap of imagination. Whether carried out by human or natural agents, the distribution of clothing is accomplished in an equally random manner, leaving the victim to face his death in a state of virtual nakedness. But not completely naked:

Il est ainsi et tellement,
Quant mourut n'avoit qu'ung haillon.


(It was like this, so that
By the time he died he had only a rag).

This poor excuse for a garment, according to popular belief and almost every late medieval painting of the scene, was Christ's only clothing on the cross.

One martyr is wounded by an arrow immediately prior to his death; the other is pierced by a lance immediately after his death. The last recorded act of the povre Villon and the last recorded act of Christ (according to the Gospel of John) are identical: the drinking of wine. The wine offered to the victims of crucifixion was a cheap soldier's drink; Villon, wishing to make his exit with a little class, treats himself to a vin supérieur. It is the act, however, and not the quality of the wine that should claim our attention. While the stripping of the garments, the haillon, the arrow wound may be individually construed as vague or fortuitous parallels to the Crucifixion, the consumption of wine as the final act preceding death cannot be so easily discounted, especially when taken in conjunction with the other evidence.

Clearly the type of wine, morillon, is not a random selection. First, appearing in the penultimate verse of the Testament, the word allows Villon to partially sign his work (illon). The word may also be taken, given the poet's frequent use of ellipsis, as a slight abbreviation of mort Villon. It is in usage as well as in name a sort of “death wine,” a wine to be consumed at the moment of death. But also, perhaps, a wine to be consumed in memory of a death. The drinking of the wine, therefore, along with its other connotations, takes on a eucharistic function.

The word morillon in Villon's time was commonly associated with the color black, being used to designate either a black grape, a black duck, or a cloth of the same color.8 The last color image of the Testament is one which is rich in symbolic significance and fittingly emblematic of the poem's duality. On one hand, black connotes despair, melancholy, death, and is, of course, the color of mourning. On the other hand, it symbolizes sleep, eternity, the womb, and also the fertility of the earth.9 In the context of the Testament the image of blackness marks both an ending and a beginning.

The figure of Christ that emerges in the final ballad of Villon's poem suggests one answer, and perhaps, in the context of medieval thought, the only valid answer to the quest whose progress may be traced through the Testament. In the course of his will, Villon has methodically devalued various ideals to which men dedicate their lives. Material security and the acquisition of financial wealth (Jacques Cuer in his riche tumbeau) lose all meaning inside the darkness of the tomb. The Belle Heaulmière's epicurean attitude toward life can hardly provide more than temporary relief from the crushing burden of mortality. Love, while it may work for Robert and Ambroise, causes more pain than happiness in the eyes of Villon. Human justice is a sham. Kindness and goodness are no match for cruelty and malice. Having revealed the fallibility and illusory nature of all these values, Villon is left with the only value that has resisted the derisive force of his poem. For all his anger, bitterness, and apparent scorn of social respectability, Villon never comes close to profaning the truly sacred. And it is only the truly sacred, in the end, which survives. The evocation of the Crucifixion may indicate, or at least suggest, that the persona of the Testament is moving toward a state of grace. By identifying the martyr of his poem with Christ on the cross, Villon elevates the suffering of the former, endowing it with new meaning.

The journey through the private space of the Testament ends then with a scene that at one level represses past pain, injustice, and anguish by means of a comic device, while at another level redeeming these memories by placing them within a Christian context. The closing ballad which may appear at first reading to represent the nonsensical climax of a nightmarish passage through the darkest recesses of the human spirit, also contains a promise of restored meaning, a faint resurgence of hope, a tentative illumination, the prelude to another stage of the journey.


Why did Villon choose the form of a will for his most ambitious and important poetic effort? Having already experimented with the form five years earlier when he wrote the Lais, he was obviously well acquainted with its potential as a vehicle for irony and humor. The satirical testament, of course, was not invented by Villon who was only one of a long line of writers to try his hand at this literary convention.10 His Testament, however, extends far beyond the traditional confines of the genre. To grasp the essence of Villon's poem, one must turn not to the literary tradition from which it evolved, but to the nature of fifteenth-century wills.

We tend today to think of a legal will as a rather dry document filled with legalistic language and technical detail. The medieval will, by contrast, had a much broader function, ordering the testator's spiritual as well as his material affairs, specifying the place of burial, requesting requiem masses, and containing a variety of religious formulas acknowledging the mortal limits of humanity, the necessity of penance, and summarizing the Christian creed. As Jean Englemann points out in his study of fifteenth-century French wills, these texts represent more than mere secular concerns:

Les invocations pieuses si universelles et si développées qu'ils contiennent nour permettent de conclure, sans pouvoir être taxé d'exagération, qu'au point de vue purement formaliste, le testament du xve siècle est un acte riligieux.11

The fifteenth-century will, addressing all important aspects of a man's life, embracing both spiritual and worldly concerns, amounts to a kind of self-definition in the face of death. Approaching his certain end, the testator deliberately and coherently identifies that which he cherishes most in his life. In this sense the will represents a statement of values. This clarification of priorities inevitably results in a sharp distinction between spiritual life and secular life. The fifteenth-century will typically treats the religious matters at the outset before proceeding to mundane concerns, leaving no doubt as to where the priorities lie.

The Testament, in spite of its many digressions, is loosely framed within the form of a will, and in spite of its obvious burlesque elements, possesses, as this study has attempted to demonstrate, a definite religious aspect in its multi-faceted character. Like other great products of the late medieval period, The Canterbury Tales, The Decameron, The Celestina, for example, the Testament shows evidence of a didactic intention. By undercutting all temporal values in an act of wholesale destruction, the poem leaves only the spiritual values standing intact. Now that its creator is actually dead, the Testament acquires validity as a real will, and we may truthfully count ourselves among the heirs. Villon has left us not only his poetry and wit, but also his own understanding, at once deeply personal and deeply medieval, of the meaning of human existence.

A will looks simultaneously to the past and to the future, as does the Testament. From the opening verse of the work, the theme of time asserts its importance. In the course of the Testament Villon repeatedly attempts to situate his poem in time, working with two broad frames of reference. First, he locates the poem within what might be termed “personal time,” setting it against an autobiographical background: his age, the recent experience of imprisonment, the distance that separates the present moment from his early youth. The second frame might be labeled “historical time”: the year 1461, references to well-known people and events, past and present, that place the poem in a more objective temporal perspective. While the early section of the Testament looks primarily toward the past, the poem's conclusion, especially in the epitaph and eulogy, is oriented more toward the future. There are also moments in the poem that altogether transcend the concept of time. The “Ballade des dames du temps jadis,” the “Ballade pour prier Nostre Dame,” and the “Ballade pour Robert d'Estouteville” all lift themselves above the destructive flow of time, pointing to the eternal.

A last will and testament can hardly be described as an inherently humorous document. Yet Villon's poem cannot adequately be described without reference to its humor. Mockery becomes a potent weapon when wielded by Villon, and he uses it expertly and pitilessly against those he despises. More important, he knows how to mock himself, his poverty, his humiliations, his suffering. If the writing of the will with all that this act implies—the survey of a life, the meditation on death, and the anticipation of that which lies beyond death—if all this is no more than a sham in Villon's poem, then the Testament's humor is shallow and facile. If, however, the will and all the difficult issues it raises can be taken seriously at some level, then Villon's humor acquires a different meaning. Faced with the inevitable certainty of his mortality, the poet laughs at the illusory nature of temporal existence. Like almost every other aspect of the Testament, this laugh is deeply equivocal. It is the cynical cackle of a dying old man, and the unrestrained mirth of a child radiating life. It both ridicules us and encourages us, derides our weaknesses while offering us a source of strength. Villon is both laughing at us and with us.


  1. Thuasne III, 518.

  2. Prens ancre tost, plume, papier;
    Ce que nomme escry vistement.

    (Testament, 789-790)

    (Hurry, get ink, pen, paper
    Write down quickly what I dictate).
    Je cuidé finir mon propos;
    Mais mon ancre trouvé gelé.

    (Lais, 307-308)

    (I tried to finish my task
    But my ink was frozen).
  3. See, for example, Villon's use of gros in verse 286.

  4. See verse 47 of the Lais.

  5. It is Kuhn who originally suggested the reading of mâle-ment for mallement. He attaches the adverb to mourant instead of espoignoit and sees an act of sexual prowess in the death of the povre Villon (p. 333).

  6. I first proposed this interpretation in “The Povre Villon and Other Martyred Lovers of the Testament” (in Neophilologus, 64, 356).

  7. The religious symbolism to which I refer has only recently come to light. Jean-Charles Payen was the first to draw attention to this aspect of the closing ballad (“Le coup de l'étrier: Villon martyr et Goliard ou comment se faire oublier quand on est immortel?” in Etudes Françaises 16, 21-34). In a paper written before the publication of Payen's article and published slightly later, I examined the same evidence and drew similar conclusions (“The Conclusion of the Testament: An Image in the Shroud?” in Fifteenth-Century Studies, 5, 61-66).

  8. The fact that the word is consistently associated with the color black may be explained by its etymology. Morillon derives from the Old French morel, an adjective primarily applied to horses (moreau in modern French), and indicating a dark brown or black color, derived in turn from the vulgar Latin maurellus, a corruption of Maurus, originally designating a dark-skinned inhabitant of Africa. Given its history of linguistic associations with blackness, the word morillon appearing at the end of Villon's poem clearly conveys, among other things, an image of color. While the play on mort-illon has been pointed out by various critics (e.g. Kuhn 334, Thuasne III 548, Rychner II 275), the connotation of color, and the symbolic values attached to this connotation remain unexplored.

  9. See, for example, the Dictionnaire des symboles (Paris: Laffont, 1969).

  10. See Winthrop Rice, The European Ancestry of Villon's Satirical Testaments (New York, 1941).

  11. Les testaments coutumiers au xve siècle (Paris: Macon, 1903), p. 80.

Julie A. Storme (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: “Love in Le Testament,” in Romance Notes, Vol. 24, No. 3, 1984, pp. 270-76.

[In this essay, Storme argues that in avenging his own domination, Villon—as the narrator of Le Testament—victimizes the women he writes about, particularly in ballades such as “Les regrets de la belle Heaulmière” and “Ballade de la Grosse Margot.”]

The strength of Villon's poetry comes not from conventional poetic forms or didacticism, but rather from the poet's presence in his art which engages him in a struggle to define and resolve his feelings about himself and his life. He reaches, however, neither definition nor resolution; the internal struggle remains and dominates, accounting for much of the poetry's dramatic tension. Villon is trapped in a never-ending dialectic between the poles of self-condemnation and self-justification. Not hesitating to pass negative judgment upon himself, he will freely admit to being a sinner: “Je suis pecheur, je le sçay bien” (XIV, 105);1 his wasted and frivolous youth is seen as the foundation of his failures as an adult (XXVIII, 217-224). These self-evaluations, however, are never static, and he soon washes himself of guilt by refusing to accept moral responsibility for his past actions. He turns from sorrowful lament to a defensive tone, writing “Des miens le mendre, je dis voir, / De me desavouer s'avance, / Oubliant naturel devoir / Par faulte d'ung peu de chevance” (XXIII, 181-184). This is the voice of the “innocent” who blames circumstance rather than himself. His “apologie” gains credibility through the citation of supportive and respected authorities such as Le Roman de la Rose, making his innocence a matter of fact rather than a personal assessment. Ever dissatisfied with the strength of his own defense, he takes yet another step towards self-justification: he transforms himself into a victim. Every victim needs a villain, and villains are not lacking in Le Testament: poor or contradictory counsel (XXVII, 209-216), individuals (I, 1-6), circumstance (XXI, 161-168). This defensive structure absolves him of guilt by transferring the moral responsibility for his offenses to his victimizing villains.

The portrait of love in Le Testament embodies and reflects the struggle between Villon's sense of failure and his need to be exonerated. He admits to being a dismal failure at love; one woman rejects him (XCII, 928-931), while another, Katherine de Vauselles, betrays him (“Double Ballade,” 657-661). Known as “L'amans remys et regnyé”, he renounces all interest in love: “Amans je ne suyvray jamais: / Se jadis je fus de leur ranc, / Je desclare que n'en suis mais” (LXX, 718-720). The responsibility for his romantic failures is a burden too painful to bear for any great length of time and he soon finds someone else to blame. The list of culprits is long and familiar, beginning with misfortune; poverty prevents him from being a lover: “Bien est verté que j'ay amé / Et ameroie voulentiers; / Mais triste cuer, ventre affamé / Qui n'est rassasié au tiers / M'oste des amoureux sentiers” (XXV, 193-197). Love itself becomes a formidable and destructive force: “Folles amours font le gens bestes: / Salmon en ydolatria, / Samson en perdit ses lunetes” (“Double Ballade,” 629-631). By referring to the defeat of these heroes, Villon makes his own failures seem more forgivable and less significant while consoling himself with miserable company. The transformation into victim is complete; he writes of love, “De moy, povre, je vueil parler: / J'en fus batu comme a ru telles” (“Double Ballade,” 657-658). The sentiment of victimization appears throughout Le Testament.2 Villon deserves pity rather than blame.

The tension, never resolved, renews itself in yet another attempt to diminish his sense of responsibility. Love and its tools, women, are portrayed as great deceivers. In “Ballade a s'amye,” love and woman converge into one, and are called “Faulse beauté” and “ypocrite doulceur” (942 and 943). The strongest complaint appears in the passage about Katherine de Vauselles: “Abusé m'a et fait entendre / Tousjours d'ung que ce fust ung aultre, / De farine que ce fust cendre, / D'ung mortier ung chappeau de faultre” (LXVII, 689-92). After compiling this list of her deceptive powers, he concludes: “Ainsi m'ont Amours abusé / Et pourmené de l'uys au pesle” (LXIX, 705-706). This provides a fortified defense; unable to perceive reality, robbed of his own power to judge, he unwittingly falls into love's clutches. The object of Villon's attraction, whoever she might be, does not enjoy such innocence; she is as deceitful as love itself: “Quoy que je luy voulisse dire, / Elle estoit preste d'escouter / Sans m'acorder ne contredire; / Qui plus, me souffroit acouter / Joignant d'elle, pres m'accouter, / Et ainsi m'aloit amusant, / Et me souffroit tout raconter, / Mais ce n'estoit qu'en m'abusant” (LXVI, 681-688).

There are no ready authorities to cite in support of the argument, but Villon remains undeterred in his efforts to elevate opinion to the ranks of fact. The personal aspect of his judgment dissolves into his creation of a universal system of which he is only one isolated element. The system itself is quite simple: all men are victims of love, and all women are villains of love. Any man can disavow his romantic failures because they originate in woman's deceitful and abusive character.

In order for Villon to establish the system's universality, he must have all men share a common destiny in the face of love. Indeed they do: “Je croy qu'homme n'est si rusé, / Fust fin comme argent de coepelle, / Qui n'y laissast linge, drappelle, / Mais qu'il fust ainsi manyé / Comme moy, qui partout m'appelle / L'amant remys et regnyé” (LXIX, 707-712). That men should lose in love is a natural law: “Or ont ces folz amans le bont / Et les dames prins la vollee; / C'est le droit loyer qu'amans ont: / Tout foy y est viollee, / Quelque doulx baisier n'acollee. / ‘De chiens, d'oyseaulx, d'armes, d'amours,' / Chascun le dit a la vollee / ‘Pour ung plaisir mille doulours’” (LXIV, 617-624). The “Double Ballade” makes the point that even the most noble and celebrated men suffer this destiny, including Orpheus (633-640), Sardana, a “preux chevalier” (641-644), David (645-648), as well as Samson and Solomon (629-632) in its list of defeated lovers.

One must not forget the other side of the coin: women are love's villains. Villon is emphatic on this point; he even manipulates myth so that a non-existent female villain materializes. Narcissus, who fell in love with his own image, becomes her victim in the “Double Ballade” (637-639). There's no such thing as a good mistress. This is a major point in the “Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” The entire ballad is a lament for the absent heroine. The refrain “Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan” takes on additional significance if the “neiges d'antan” are taken to mean “les dames du temps jadis.” The fact that Villon uses the image of snow, which typically represents purity and innocence, particularly when serving as a referent to women, suggests that he cannot find any woman who is innocent. The futility of the search is conveyed by the ballad's envoi, “Prince, n'enquerez de sepmaine / Ou elles sont, ne de cest an, / Qu'a ce reffrain ne vous remaine: / Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?” (353-356). Even the romantic heroines of the past lack innocence in their involvements with men; in the second strophe where the heroines are seen as castrators and murderers of their lovers, the perspective is clearly that of a victimized male: “Ou est la tres sage Helloïs, / Pour qui chastré fut et puis moyne / Pierre Esbaillart a Saint Denis? / Pour son amour ot ceste essoyne. / Semblablement, ou est la royne / Qui commanda que Buridan / Fust geté en ung sac en Saine? / Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?” (337-344). Woman's inclination to abuse men is fundamental to her femininity. Woman's incessant desire for many lovers is part of her nature: “Qui les meut a ce? J'ymagine, / Sans l'onneur des dames blasmer, / Que c'est nature femenine / Qui tout vivement veult amer. / Autre chose n'y sçay rimer / Fors qu'on dit a Rains et a Troys, / Voire a l'Isle et a Saint Omer, / Que six ouvriers font plus que trois” (LXIII, 609-616). The charge is made, only to be refuted, that he finds no decent women because he speaks only of those with poor reputations:

Je prens qu'aucun dye cecy,
Si ne me contente il en rien.
En effect il conclut ainsy,
Et je le cuide entendre bien
Qu'on doit amer en lieu de bien:
Assavoir mon se ces filletes
Qu'en parolles toute jour tien
Ne furent ilz femmes honnestes?
Honnestes si furent vraiement,
Sans avoir reproches ne blasmes.
Si est vray qu'au commencement
Une chascune de ces femmes
Lors prindrent, ains qu'eussent diffames,
L'une ung clerc, ung lay, l'autre ung moine,
Pour estaindre d'amours les flammes
Plus chauldes que feu saint Antoine

(LX-LXI, 585-600).

Good women, women beyond reproach and blame, exist only in a romantic vacuum, separated from men and love; the moment they love they become villains. By “relinquishing” the role of critic to la belle Heaulmière, Villon lends “objectivity” to his accusation. What more credible testimony than having a woman preach the female ethic: victimize and exploit men through love? She cries “Or est il temps de vous congnoistre. / Prenez a destre et a senestre; / N'espargnez homme, je vous prie” (“Ballade au filles de joie,” 536-538).

The argument has come full circle; the condemnation of women in the final analysis is personal and abusive. Epithets such as “Orde paillarde” (XCIII, 941), and “mauvaise ordure” (CXXII, 1213) are not uncommon. The hostility is thus an essential element of his defensive strategy: women deserve ill-treatment and Villon takes it upon himself to punish them. He is not satisfied, however, with the severity of this treatment; the “poetic” justice is to strip her of her power over men, that is to say of her physical beauty.

Sexuality thus pervades and dominates his female portrait. In the lament over the loss of her “Petiz tetins, hanches charnues, / Eslevees, propres, faictisses / A tenir amoureuses lisses; / Ces larges rains, ce sadinet / Assis sur grosses fermes cuisses, / Dedens son petit jardinet” (LIII “Les regrets de la belle Heaulmière,” 503-508), la belle Heaulmière shows woman's “virtue” to be fundamentally sexual. Men were the pawns of her sexual power: “Tollu m'as la haulte franchise / Que beaulté m'avoit ordonné / Sur clers, marchans et gens d'Eglise: / Car lors il n'estoit homme né / Qui tout le sien ne m'eust donné, / Quoy qu'il en fust des repentailles” (XLVIII “Les regrets de la belle Heaulmière,” 461-466). As the belle Heaulmière knows, such sexual beauty is soon lost and with it the power women have over men. The loss of the latter is suggested by the refrain “Ne que monnoye qu'on descrie” in the “Ballade aux filles de joie.” The force of the punishment comes in the knowledge of this loss; the narrator suffers tremendously as she contemplates the decayed state of her beauty: “Quant je pense, lasse! au bon temps, / Quelle fus, quelle devenue! / Quant me regarde toute nue, / Et je me voy si tres changiee, / Povre, seiche, megre, menue, / Je suis presque tout enragiee” (“Les regrets de la belle Heaulmière,” 487-492).

Villon has created his villain, condemned her through her own testimony, and properly punished her, but his assumption of the role of victim leaves his vengeance uneasy and dissatisfied. This situation is rectified in two very different portraits of love: love as described in the “Ballade pour Robert d'Estouteville” and the “love” shared by la grosse Margot and her pimp.

The “Ballade pour Robert d'Estouteville” is a positive portrait, that is to say it depicts a happy love free of sin. Even sinless love is fundamentally physical in nature; the first stanza of the ballad defines the coupling of animals as “noble coustume” (1379), noble, given its purpose. Procreation, not lust, provides the motivation. Such is the moral message of the poem's refrain “Et c'est la fin pour quoy nous sommes ensemble.” The religious sanction permits physical love to be free of sin. The procreative purpose is made very clear through the metaphor of planting: “Dieu m'ordonne que le fouÿsse et fume” (1400).

This portrait of love compensates Villon and all men because the woman no longer victimizes the man, but instead supports and comforts him. The persona calls his wife “Lorier souef qui pour mon droit combat, / Olivier franc m'ostant toute amertume” (1388-1389). This woman's worthiness, however, is quickly tempered by Villon's animosity as revealed in “Si ne pers pas la graine que je sume / En vostre champ, quant le fruit me ressemble” (1398-1399). Even the most worthy of women do not merit man's total trust. Furthermore, we are carefully reminded that good love, or rather, a good woman, is a rarity. Villon prefaces the poem by writing of Robert d'Estouteville “Auquel ceste ballade donne / Pour sa dame, qui tous biens a; / S'Amour ainsi tous ne guerdonne, / Je ne m'esbaÿs de cela / Car au pas conquester l'ala / Que tint Regnier, roy de Cecille, / Ou si bien fist et peu parla / Qu'onques Hector fist ne Troïlle” (CXXXIX, 1370-1377). To portray love as good is only wishful thinking.

Villon's ultimate misogyny produces the “Ballade de la Grosse Margot”:

Puix paix se fait, et me fait ung gros pet,
Plus enflee qu'ung vlimeux escharbot.
Riant, m'assiet son poing sur mon sommet,
Gogo me dit, et me fiert le jambot.
Tous deux yvres, dormons comme ung sabot.
Et, au resveil, quant le ventre luy bruit,
Monte sur moy, que ne gaste son fruit.
Soubz elle geins, plus qu'un aiz me fait plat;
De paillarder tout elle me destruit


Unlike the couple in “Ballade pour Robert d'Estouteville,” these lovers revel in sin and filth. If one interprets line 1617 to mean that Margot is pregnant, the sinful nature of the love is amplified, because her pregnancy destroys the possibility that this sexual act will lead to procreation. Despite these obvious differences, this portrait of filthy love also functions as part of Villon's revenge against women. In reversing the universal system so carefully developed, he creates a male persona cruel and indifferent to women, a man who beats his “love” when she doesn't bring him enough money (1601-1610).


  1. All citations refer to the 1977 Champion edition of Villon's Œuvres edited by Auguste Longnon and revised by Lucien Foulet. Arabic numerals designate lines.

  2. See LXV, 673-680; “Ballade a s'amye,” 945-957; “Ballade et Oroison,” 1240-1243; “Autre Ballade,” 2012-2019.

Robert D. Peckham (essay date 1985)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3572

SOURCE: “Francois Villon's Testament and the Poetics of Transformation,” in Fifteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 11, 1985, pp. 71-83.

[In this essay, Peckham considers the mix of high and low—spiritual and crude—in Villon's Testamentas a sign of the transformation of the narrator that takes place within the poem.]

Readers have long observed ambiguities in François Villon's Testament (T.). Some of these have been deemed the incidental results of an extended period of composition,1 but more recent scholarship tends to view them as the deliberate acts of a truly protean poetic voice.2 Furthermore, studies by Jean Dufournet within the last two years show them to be numerous, and one might well conclude that they are fundamental rather than exceptional elements of Villon's testamentary poetics.3

Transformation and substitution are two processes which often create these ambiguities. Their mechanics are quite visible, especially in the T.'s narrative frame, which is in large part a fiction about the work's composition. In this paper we shall examine the principal varieties of transformation and substitution in T., their poetic functions and several rhetorical devices associated with them.

To begin, there are nearly a dozen instances of conformatio in T. where the infusion of the narrator's persona is intense enough to be called character transformation. For la Belle Heaulmière, the narrator signals his rhetorical empathy with a number of parallels. Both he and she are old and poor, thin and dry. In both cases the image of a consuming fire or flame is used to convey the all too rapid passage of time. For Villon as narrator, T. 217-22 states:

Mes jours s'en sont alez errant,
Comme dit Job, d'une touaille
Font les filletz, quant tixerant
En son poing tient ardente paille:
Lors s'il y a nulbout qui saille
Soudainement il le ravit.(4)

For la Belle Heaulmière and her companions, we read in T. 529-31:

A petit feu de chenevoctes,
Tost alumees,tost estainctes …
Et jadiz fusmes si mignotes!

Both Villon and la Belle Heaulmière have been hurt emotionally by lovers who seemed more interested in money than in love (T. 910-17 T. 475-76). Both portray themselves at one time or another as naked and beaten, alone and rejected by the opposite sex.

It is in his thirtieth year “En l'an trentiesme de mon aage” (T. 1) that Villon delivers a warning lesson to younger men or boys who are following the same crooked path as he did. However, his “Belle leccon aux enfants perduz” (T. 1668-91), which begins as a fairly serious condemnation of the dissolute life, waxes lyrical and carpe diem in the “Ballade de bonne doctrine” (T. 1692-1719), where the refrain refers to money: “Tout aux tavernes et aux filles.” Similarly, la Belle Heaulmière, thirty years after her first lover's death, regrets the errors of her youth and the ravages of time on her human form. She too changes the tone of her lament with a carpe diem ballad of instruction to younger prostitutes (T. 533-60). Again the refrain speaks of money: “Ne que monnoye qu'on descrie”. These two passages, near the end and beginning of the Testament respectively, are both mirror images of the Testament itself, opening with regrets and ending with advice bequeathed to a variety of people who are designated either by name or by what they do to get their money.

Villon accomplishes the transition between his initial first person narrator and la Belle Heaulmière through an intermediate persona, “le povre vielart” (T. 424), depicted entirely in the third person (a kind of mime character). Rychner and Henry in the notes to their edition call him “… représentant collectif de tous les hommes accablés par l'âge et la misère.” to which they add “… grace à ce caractère général et symbolique il fait la liaison entre Villon et la Belle Heaulmière”.5 For both characters, solidarity with others of their kind is suggested through somewhat derogatory non-human terms: “Toujours viel cinge est desplaisant” (T. 431) for “le povre vielart”, and “Tout en ung tas, comme peloctes” (T. 528) for la Belle Heaulmière and her companions. To show us the negative changes wrought by time, la Belle Heaulmière gives the reader an explicit before-and-after anatomical effictio of herself (T. 489-524). For the old man, we are told of negative reactions to the wit and antics which brought him positive acclaim in his youth (T. 437-44). It is interesting to note also that both contemplate but do not commit suicide (T. 459-60, T. 433-36). With this intermediate persona structure in mind, it is not surprising to see that the mysterious third person narrator who describes Villon's death in the final ballad (T. 1996-2023) appears to serve as a kind of chrysalis for an emergent narrative “I” and “we”, seen in T. 2004: “Et ce je croy bien que ne ment” and T. 2018: “C'est de quoy nous esmerveillon”. In effect, the narratee is transformed into a new narrator.

Another equally complex character transformation can be seen in the famous “Ballade pour prier Nostre Dame” (T. 873-909). Part of Villon's ambiguity emerges in the introductory octave (T. 865-72) as a kind of binary system, with the interpretatio “chastel … ne forteresse” (T. 869), the normally antithetical concepts “corps ne ame” paired to signal completeness or wholeness (T. 870), a topical orientation of the stanza which is balanced between mother and son and structurally identical to the pattern of the stanza introducing Villon's bequest to his adoptive father (T. 849-56). This poetic bisexuality is a lyric structuring device in the ballad, where a son gives his words to his mother to address another mother for the favor of her son. There are no less than three male-female pairs in the poem: Villon and his mother, Jesus and the Virgin, Thëophilus and l'Egipcïenne. In addition, the ballad's first stanza is essentially a set of beliefs about the Virgin while the envoy is a credo about Jesus. We sense the same binary system in the poem's tone, which shifts from the latinized language of the first stanza to the still bookish but popular legends of l'Egipcïenne and Thëophilus in the second, both more readily associated with the clerky Villon than with his mother. The second half of the ballad continues with a shift from the elliptical but popular liturgical image of Christ as the bread of the Eucarist in the Virgin's womb to the less complex artistic representations of heaven and hell painted in the parish church, and the often spoken formula of the credo in the envoy. This half is more easily associated with Villon's illiterate and church-going mother.

From a rhetorical standpoint, the mystical process of transubstantiation mentioned in the mathematical center of the ballad (T. 891) seems to highlight the significance of two other elements of transformation. The first is the truth claim: “je n'en suis jangleresse” (T. 881), here the term “jangleresse” is quite possibly an ironic play on the word “jongleresse”, a female jongleur. The double irony lies in the fact that his mother is using Villon's works (his song) to pray, and at the same time, Villon is using his mother's voice to speak (or sing). The second element is the envoy's feminine acrostic VILLONE, interesting because “Villon”, the poet's pseudonym, is feminized and passed from son to mother rather than from mother to son.

An identical feminine accrostic is found on the other side of T., in what Professor Karl Uitti considers, with some minor adjustment, a counter balance position.6 However, this time it is part of a ballad describing the narrator's vision of cohabitation with la Grosse Margot, where the central line in the envoy establishes parity between pimp and prostitute: “L'un vault l'autre, c'est mau rat mau chat” (T. 1624). Here also we find a phonetically constructed chiasmus or commutatio: “Je suis paillart, la paillarde me suyt” (T. 1622). It may be more than a figure of speech, because, along with the acrostic, it seems to reinforce the theme of transformation.

Other examples of this binary system include what might be a rhetorical centering attempt in Villon's bequest to Saint Amant's wife in T. 1011-13:

Pour le Cheval blanc qui ne
Lui changë a une jument,
Et la Mulle a ung asne rouge.

The passage stands out because the testator is referring directly back to a bequest made in Lais 92-95, not to Saint Amant's wife, but to Saint Amant himself. Also the exchange mandated in the T. seems a violation of the promise made earlier concerning the Lais's bequests: “Pour les revocquer ne le diz” (T. 761). Jean Dufournet has aptly pointed out that this substitution is physically and symbolically one of sexual potency and lubricity for sterility.7 More importantly though, it forms a pattern which reflects symmetrically the process of exchange: That of a male animal for a female and then a female for a male, a-b-b-a. This commutatio or chiasmus is not simply ornamental, but an important rhetorical device in Villon's testamentary poetics, as we shall see again and again.

Another central bequest, this one to sire Denis Hynselin in the next stanza, presents an interesting substitution:

Item, donne a sire Denis
Hyncelin, esleu de Paris,
Quatorze muys de vin d'Aulnys
Prins sur Turgis a mes perilz;
S'il en buvoit tant que periz
En fust son sens et sa raison,
Qu'on mecte de l'eaue es bariz:
Vin pert mainte bonne maison.

(T. 1014-21)

After bequeathing “Quatorze muys de vin d'Aulnis” (T. 1016), Villon suggests that the wine be exchanged for water. A burlesque image of the Cana wedding miracle, this carnavalesque process is one of three elements in a rhetorical balance. The other two operate in tandem like an expanded epanadelepsis (thematic rather than lexical). In T. 2, Villon begins to say that his work was written “Que toutes mes hontes j'euz beues”. The word “hontes” is the figurative representation of prison water, as T. 14 and T. 738 demonstrate. However, by T. 2022 Villon is drinking quite a different beverage: “Un traict but de vin morillon”. Thus we have a central substitution of water for a wine bequest and a change of water to wine made manifest in the second and second to last lines of T.

This antipodal symmetry or epanadelepsis can be multiplied or extended inward if one considers the mention of personal suffering and abuse in T. 4 “Non obstant maintes peines eues” and on the other end, T. 2014-17:

Qui plus, en mourant mallement
L'espoignoit d'Amours l'esguillon;
Plus agu que le ranguillon
D'un baudrier lui faisoit sentir.

As we continue toward the center from the beginning, we note that Villon transforms a prayerful curse on Thibault d'Aussigny into a Deus laudamus and then a benediction on Louis XI and his heirs (T. 30-64). In the antipodal position, T. 1968-95, our poet turns his plea for forgiveness in the “Ballade de mercy” into another curse on Thibault d'Aussigny. Interestingly enough, Villon, who claims to be neither “son serf ne sa biche” in T. 12, portrays the bishop and his people as hunting dogs “traitres chiens matins” in T. 1984. Going still further inward, we see that Villon transforms his “… gracieux galans / Que je suivoye ou temps jadiz” (T. 225-26) into a three-class human cosmology: those who are “grans seigneurs et maistres” (T. 234), those naked beggars of whom he says “Et pain ne voient qu'aux fenestres” (T. 236) and those who prosper in religious orders (T. 237). In the counter balance position, T. 1736-67, it is the transforming power of decay and the spacial exigency of the Innocents cemetery that finally reunites members of these groups in a truly classless society, a carnival of souls in a world inside-out:

Ensemble en ung tas, pesle mesle;
Seigneuries leur sont ravies,
Clerc ne maistre ne s'i appelle.

(T. 1757-59)

Other forces operate within the T. to turn the world inside out and upside down. One of these, mad passionate love, has the power to change nice girls into prostitutes, as Villon hypothesises in T. 590-616. We note how he uses commutatio to reflect this change at its beginning, in T. 592-93: “Ne furent-ilz pas femmes honnestes? / Honnestes si furent vrayement”. Famous men both wise and powerful are not exempt, as we discover in the gallery of Love's fools, the “Double Ballade” (T. 625-72). “Folles amours font les gens bestes” says Villon in T. 629. Victims of this folly include Solomon, Samson, David and the poet himself. After explaining to his readers how his mistress demonstrated her interest and friendship, he complains of her insincerity, using another commutatio between stanzas: “Mais ce n'estoit qu'en m'abusant. / Abusé m'a et fait entendre / Tousjours d'un que ce fust un autre:” (T. 688-90). Villon goes on to show readers the credulous lover's perspective with a litany of absurd contrevérités. These substitutions can be summarized in the much discussed lapidary in T. 695-96: “—Tousjours trompeur autruy engautre / Et rend vecyes pour lanternes—”.

Carnival-like also is the poetic universe where a sinner vehemently adjures love in T. 713-14: “Je regnye Amours et despite / Et deffie a feu et a sang”, then dies a martyr of love in T. 2001: “Car en amour mourut martir”, is buried in saintly red with bells ringing at his funeral, and has a church shrine (Saint Avoye) complete with pilgrim-like visitors. Ah, but is this not the same poet who said: “Il n'est foy que d'homme qui regnye” in v.7 of his “Ballade des contre vérités”?8 We muse silently and ask ourselves if the central position and sexual nature of the Saint Amant bequest (T. 1006-13) do not lend some hagiographical overtones to the Testament.

This same world-inside-out theme is further reinforced by another kind of commutatio structure in Diomedes' reply to Alexander's accusation that he is a pirate:

Pourquoi laron me faiz clamer?
Pour ce qu'on me voit escumer
En une petïote fuste?
Se comme toy me peusse armer,
Comme toy empereur je feusse

(T. 140-44)

This time the a-b-b-a pattern is thematic rather than lexical. We have only to see T. 140 and T. 144 as lines that label the two individuals, whereas T. 141-42 and T. 143 state why the labels were used.9

Finally there is the poor-man-on-top depiction of the hereafter in an interesting vernacularization of the Lazarus-Dives parable from Luke 16:

C'est de Jhesus la parabolle
Touchant du riche ensevely
En feu, non pas en couche molle,
Et du ladre de dessus ly.

(T. 813-16)

Within the larger context of this same vernacularization (T. 799-824), there is an illustration of Villon's transformation or subversion of tone which I do not find discussed in Professor Evelyn Vitz's The Crossroad of Intentions.10 Villon, using his testamentary invocation as a launching pad for a digression, is discussing rather pedantically the state of those who died before Christ came. Suddenly in T. 807-808, his diction waxes comic with creaturial realism. Using a kind of internalized debate mechanism, he questions not the appropriateness of his tone, but rather the theological soundness of the statement, claiming that the narrator has no degree in theology. In response, the narrator cites the Lazarus-Dives parable and reasons through a fairly well constructed argument in support of his statement. Finally, in T. 821-24, he again contaminates the tone, which is beginning to wax serious, by claiming the parable shows that heavy drinkers would suffer much in hell from the paucity of drink.

Shifting tone, as well as the many transformations in the Testament's poetic voice have caused speculation that this multiform lyrico-narrative work is an anthology, perhaps even a casual conflation.11 This seems unlikely to me for two reasons. One is the previously outlined rhetorical design, consisting in part of an expanded and multiple thematic epanadelapsis, along with mathematically centered bequests to Saint Amant's wife (T. 1006-13) and to sire Denis Hyncelin (T. 1014-20). The second is the artfully casual approach of Villon, who manufactures the curious illusion that his work is not a finished product, but rather a text in process, a first draft bristling with raw material and defects. Indeed, the Testament seems at times to be a wasteland littered with incomplete sentences, like the first, where there is no verb to go with the initial long-winded adverbial clause (T. 1-6). Often our poet pretends that he has accidentally strayed from the subject, and then strives to regain his focus on it: “En cest incident me suis mis, / Qui de riens ne sert a mon fait.” (T. 257-58). In addition, he alleges self-censure with formulae such as “et reliqua” (T. 743, T. 1175), “D'en plus parler je me desiste” (T. 373), and the like. The very name he gives his fictitious scribe, “Firmen l'Estourdis”, is intended to arouse his reader's suspicion. Villon complains in T. 53-60 that his earlier work, which we call the Lais is changing, out of his control, and has already been given an unauthorized title. Yet, he gives to Jehan de Calais, a man who does not know him, official permission to make changes, correct errors, glose and comment, diminish and augment his work; in short, anything he sees fit to do (T. 1844-59).

At the same time that the above-mentioned narrative frame may confuse the reader and hide a rhetorically balanced design, it also participates in the poetic process we have been discussing all along, that of transformation or change, which is itself an alleged motivation for the creation of the T.:

Escript l'ay l'an soixante et ung,
Lors que le roy me delivra
De la dure prison de Mehun
Et que vie me recouvra,

(T. 81-84)

This change from an atmosphere of despair to one of hope is also reflected in T. 97-102:

Combien, au plus fort de mes maulx,
En cheminant sans croix ne pille,
Dieu, qui les pelerins d'Esmaulx
Conforta, ce dit l'Euvangille,
Me monstra une bonne ville,
Et pourveut du don d'esperance:

The rest of the stanza sheds some light on my final element of transformation, one which has spawned much discussion: repentance (“les regrets”). Describing God's attitude toward sin, Villon states: “Combien que pechiez si soit ville, / Riens ne het que perseverance.” (T. 103-104). Obviously, though even the blackest sin is forgivable, obdurate sinfulness is for the narrator (as it is in much medieval thought) a static existence, and anathema in the eyes of God, who does not want the poet's death, but rather that he turn from his wickedness and be transformed:

Je suis pecheur, je le scay bien
Pourtant ne veult pas Dieu ma mort,
Mais convertisse et vive en bien,
Et tout autre que pechié mort.

(T. 105-108)

On a metaphorical level, this major theme suggests a kind of static-versus-dynamic dialectic, which would be interesting to investigate. But for now, let us place Villon's preoccupation with repentance back in its carnival context and ask ourselves why it is that some consider the two themes to be incongruous and therefore proof of the Testament's disunity. Is the juxtaposition of “cette introduction grave et poignante, pleine d'amertume et de science douloureuse” truly inconsistent with “… la suite abracadabrante de gaillardises, de plaisanteries, d'équivoques et de parodies” as it is in Siciliano's view of the Testament's regrets and bequests?12 My response is no, not any more than frivolous Carnival is inconsistent with the gravity of Lent, for one is a kind of preparation for the other, and both are consubstantial in the process of transformation.


  1. Italo Siciliano, François Villon et les thèmes poétiques du moyen âge (Paris: A.-G. Nizet, 1967), pp. 445-57; Louis Petit de Julleville, Histoire de la langue et de la littérature française, des origines à 1900. (Paris: Armand Colin, 1926), pp. 389-90; Antoine Campaux, François Villon. Sa Vie et ses oeuvres (Paris A. Durand, 1859), pp. 247-48.

  2. Norris Lacy, “Mouvement and Montage in Villon's Testament, in A Medieval French Miscellany. Papers of the 1970 Conference on Medieval French Literature, University of Kansas Humanistic Studies, 42 (Lawrence: Univ. of Kansas Publications, 1972), pp. 79-85; Pierre Demarolle, L'Esprit de Villon: Etude de style, Collection “Style et Esprit Français (Paris: A.-G. Nizet, 1968) and Villon, un testament ambigue, Thèmes et Textes (Paris: Larousse, 1973), pp. 190-96; Jean-Claude Muhlethaler, Poétiques du quinzième siécle. Situation de François Villon et Michault Taillevant (Paris: A.-G. Nizet, 1983; E. Vitz, The Crossroad of Intentions. A Study of Symbolic Contamination in the Poetry of François Villon, De Proprietatibus Litterarium, Series Practica, 93 (The Hague: Mouton, 1974).

  3. “La Permanence d'une figure mythique, ou Villon-Merlin,” Europe, Revue litteraire mensuelle, 61, No. 634 (octobre 1983), 83-92 and “Les Formes de l'ambiguïté dans le Testament de Villon,” Revue des langues romanes, 86, No. 2 (1982), 191-219.

  4. Jean Rychert et Albert Henry, éds., Le Testament Villon, Textes Littéraires Français, 207-208 (Geneva: Droz, 1974) and Le Lais Villon et les Poémes Variés, TLF, 239-240 (Geneva: Droz, 1977). In both cases, Vol. I is Texte and Vol. II is Commentaire. All quotations of Villon's work are from these editions.

  5. Le Testament Villon, II, p. 70.

  6. “A Note on Villon's Poetics,” Romance Philology, 30, No. 1 (August 1976), 188.

  7. Recherches sur le Testament de François Villon, seconde édition revue et augmentée (Paris: SEDES, 1971), Vol. I, pp. 292-94.

  8. Le Lais Villon et les Poèmes Variés, I, p. 56.

  9. Other examples of commutatio include the terms “valleton/viel/viel/jeune cocquart” (T. 733-36), variations on the base verbs amer and renier in “L'amant remis et renye. / Je regnye Amours et despite” (T. 712-13) and the subject-infinitive-infinitive-subject pattern in “Neccessité fait gens mesprendre / Et fain saillir le loup du bois.” (T. 167-68). Note that all three are thematically associated with change and ambiguity.

  10. See note 2.

  11. See note 1.

  12. Siciliano, pp. 454-55.

David A. Fein (essay date 1989)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8154

SOURCE: “Audience” and “Another Poet, Another Audience” in François Villon and His Reader, Wayne State University Press, 1989, pp. 15-27, 111-22.

[In the first excerpt, Fein informally theorizes a historically aware reader-response approach to Villon's Testament drawing from the work of literary scholars Stanley Fish and Hans R. Jauss, establishes an identity for Villon's contemporary readership, and discusses Villon's deft maneuvering between obscure historical detail and universal themes. The second excerpted chapter compares Villon's Testament to the work of his patron Charles d'Orléans, discussing the role of the interpretive community.]


Any reader-oriented study should begin with a clarification of the term “reader,” a word all too loosely used in reader-response criticism. Many critics assume tacit agreement on the question of the reader's identity or else dismiss this identity as irrelevant, thereby considerably weakening the foundation on which all their hypotheses will ultimately rest. Stanley Fish defines his construct of the “informed reader” as someone who is a competent speaker of the language employed by the author, in full possession of the semantic knowledge required to understand the text, and who possesses literary competence.1 The definition, while clearly specifying the qualities with which Fish wishes to endow his hypothetical reader, neglects the degree to which the reading of a given text will be influenced by the reader's historical relationship with the text, that is, the degree of distance (if any) separating him from the cultural values and social attitudes that underlie the literary work. In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, Fish fails to draw a rigorous distinction between the seventeenth-century and twentieth-century reader, implying that both would perceive the poem in the same basic manner, despite the appreciable cultural, social, and historical factors separating the two.2 The construct of a universal reader, while possibly legitimate when applied to contemporary works of literature, poses serious risks when applied indiscriminately to literary works created during historical periods vastly different from our own, works we will always read as “foreigners,” regardless of how much semantic knowledge we may possess. The further the chronological distance separating us from the text, the greater the risk of misreading, if we insist on using a “unilateral” approach in performing reader-response analysis.

In describing the reading process, Louise Rosenblatt acknowledges the influence of “the cultural, social and personal context of the transaction.”3 From Rosenblatt's observation it follows that a medieval reader or listener could not be expected to perceive a text in the same manner as a modern reader. To refer, therefore, to “the reader” in Villon's Testament would be misleading, confusing, and perhaps meaningless, unless at the outset I clarify the identity of the reader. The logical point of departure, then, for the present study is a consideration of Villon's intended reader, the audience to whom the poem was originally directed.

The last statement implies, of course, certain assumptions that may warrant a brief explanatory comment. First, I am assuming that Villon did not write only for himself. However obscure, hermetic, and inaccessible his poetry may appear to the modern reader, Villon wrote with the intention of communicating. This does not mean that we, as twentieth-century readers, will necessarily grasp the gist of a given passage; nevertheless, the desire to communicate remains obvious. Much of Villon's poetry may be fairly characterized as obscure but not opaque. The hidden messages—the acrostics, examples of antiphrasis, veiled allusions—would be pointless if not intended to be decoded by an initiated audience, however restricted that audience might be. Furthermore, as Wayne Booth points out, any work of literature that has survived the test of time must incorporate at least a minimal amount of rhetoric, thus proving that the work is more than a private exercise in introspection:

Regardless of how we conceive the core of any literary work, will it be entirely freed of a rhetorical dimension? On the contrary, at the very moment of its initial conception … a rhetorical aspect is contained within the conception: the subject is thought of as something that can be made public, [sic] something that can be made into a communicated work.4

Second, in my attempt to identify the immediate audience of the Testament I assume that the poet did in fact direct his writing toward a specific public. The reasons leading to this conclusion are basically the same as those used to justify the first assumption. The highly personal nature of the Testament presupposes certain knowledge on the part of the reader, without which the poem would lose considerable meaning. Unlike the modern author who essentially writes into a void, having no way to personally acquaint himself with his vast, diverse, and widely dispersed readership, the medieval author was able to direct his work to a small and relatively homogeneous public, many members of which might be personally acquainted with the author.

Despite its importance, Villon's immediate public has attracted surprisingly little critical attention.5 Although it is clearly impossible to determine the precise identities of Villon's intended readers, a careful examination of internal evidence will lead to certain reasonably well-grounded conclusions concerning the general character of Villon's “target audience.” The most revealing and numerous clues to the public of the Testament are the names cited in the poem. Names in the work fall into three categories: (1) those designating mythological, legendary, biblical, and historical figures; (2) those of well-known contemporary public figures; and (3) those of less prominent residents of Paris, many of whom were probably well acquainted with Villon. The third group obviously offers the most useful information.

The last category of names may in turn be broken down into four basic groups. The first group is comprised of “petits bourgeois,” shopkeepers and guildsmen known to Villon but by no means prominent citizens of Paris: Jean Moreau, owner of a rotisserie; Jean de Provins, a baker; Robin Turgis, proprietor of the local tavern Pomme de Pin; Jacques Raguier, a royal cook who frequented Turgis's tavern; Catherine de Bruyères, owner of the hostel Pet au Diable; Colin Galerne, a barber-surgeon whose shop was on the same street as the Pomme de Pin. The second group consists of individuals with whom Villon was better acquainted: his mother, to whom he dedicates a ballade; Guillaume de Villon, the chaplain who adopted and raised the young François; Jean Cotart, the attorney who represented Villon in ecclesiastical court; Guy Tabarie, a participant in the Navarre robbery who eventually denounced Villon and the other accomplices; Colin de Cayeux, also involved in the Navarre affair and hanged in 1460 for crimes of larceny; Marion l'Idole and Jeanne de Bretagne, prostitutes; Catherine de Vausselles, probably a former girlfriend; Noël Jolis, an acquaintance who betrayed Villon in an unexplained incident involving Catherine de Vausselles. Members of the clergy constitute the third group: Frère Baude de la Mare of the Carmelite order; professor of theology Pierre Richier; ecclesiastical judge Pierre Lomer; bishop's attorney François de la Vacquerie. The fourth and largest group is comprised of individuals representing civil authority, members of the municipal police, and officials of the infamous prison and law court, the Châtelet—for example, Jean Raguier, Jean Valette, Pierre Basanier, Perrenet Marchant, Nicolas Rosnel.

If Villon intended that the vast stretches of the Testament in which he names his heirs and designates their gifts remain intelligible and accessible to his audience, then he must have expected the majority of names to be readily recognized. The initial step, therefore, in determining Villon's primary audience is to locate the intersection of the four groups of names outlined above. The only readers who could be in a position to recognize all the names, or at least the vast majority of names, would be the poet's friends. As fellow clerics and graduates of the Faculté des Arts, they would appreciate his satirical treatment of ecclesiastical officials, his parodies of scholastic reasoning, and especially (given the animosity between student and civil authority, a tradition proudly upheld by Parisian students to this day) his sardonic comments on the municipal police. As residents of the university quarter of Paris, they would be well acquainted with the various shops and taverns mentioned by Villon. Even a cursory glance at the list of local place names cited in the Testament reveals the prominence of taverns: le Barillet, le Cheval Blanc, le Grand Godet, la Mule, la Pomme de Pin, all surely familiar to the poet's drinking partners.

In addition to forming the locus of intelligibility for many names cited in the Testament, Villon's friends would be the only readers capable of comprehending the numerous autobiographical allusions scattered throughout the poem. The whole episode of Villon's imprisonment in Meung-sur-Loire, for instance, never receives the slightest explanatory comment, despite its obvious influence and recurring mention during the poem. The lack of circumstantial information, while perhaps perplexing to the modern reader, would seem perfectly natural to a reader well acquainted with the poet and fully apprised of the details surrounding his arrest and imprisonment during the summer of 1461. The Navarre affair, although never explicitly mentioned in the poem, clearly underlies Villon's hostility toward Guy Tabarie, the accomplice who “squealed.” Again, the circumstances to which the poet implicitly alludes would be clear only to those familiar with his past. The incident involving Catherine de Vausselles and Noël Jolis, like the imprisonment of Meung-sur-Loire, remains today shrouded in mystery. Villon draws once more on the privileged knowledge of his reader to supply the omitted details.

Further corroboration of the nature of Villon's immediate audience is provided by two passages in which Villon directly addresses his readers. In the section of the poem popularly known as the “Belle leçon aux enfants perdus” Villon assumes the guise of a teacher instructing the enfants perdus, who are to be found “sur Marion l'Idole,” the prostitute:

Beaulx enfans, vous perdez la plus
Belle roze de vo chappeau;
Mes clercs pres prenans comme glus.(6)
[Sweet children, you're throwing away
The prettiest rose in your caps
My clerks with fingers like glue.]

The teacher/pupil relationship is clearly a thinly disguised parallel to the poet/reader relationship. Granted, it is possible to naively construe the enfants perdus as dissolute individuals with whom the original readers of the poem are not meant to identify, but the equivocal use of clercs and the sense of irony and collusion that characterizes the passage argue against this interpretation.

The leçon is followed by the “Ballade de bonne doctrine à ceux de mauvaise vie,” and then a final admonition:

A vous parle, compains de galle,
Mal des ames et bien du corps:
Gardez vous tous de ce mau halle
Qui noircist les gens quant sont mors.


[I mean you, comrades in revels
Healthy in body but sick in soul
Watch out all of you for that dry rot
That turns men black when they're dead.]

The prepositional phrase that opens the stanza, “A vous parle,” may be read in two different ways: (1) Villon is singling out a specific portion of his audience that he wishes to address at this point in the poem; or (2) Villon is alerting his readers to his awareness of their presence and, still playing the role of the pious pedagogue, emphatically and rhetorically urges his wayward pupils to heed his advice. Although the first explanation cannot be categorically refuted, it is more difficult to justify than the second. There is simply no compelling evidence that Villon has ever been addressing any other audience than the one to whom he is speaking at this moment. In fact, as I have tried to demonstrate, all evidence points to the compains de galle as the one audience to whom the Testament is consistently and logically directed.

Yet another source of information on Villon's intended audience for the Testament is the language itself. Hans R. Jauss has suggested that a literary text “be understood as creating a dialogue.”7 It follows, then, that the author's diction—his lexical range, tone, style, register, essentially every component of the author's voice—will be partially determined by the type of reader or listener engaging in the silent part of the dialogue. One has only to look at the shorter poems that Villon composed for a specific purpose and a designated public to perceive the extent to which he tailors his language to fit the audience. The “Requête à Monseigneur de Bourbon,” asking the duke for a modest loan, the “Louange et requête à la cour de Parlement,” requesting a three-day delay in his banishment from Paris, the “Dit de la naissance de Marie d'Orléans,” composed in honor of Charles d'Orléans's daughter, are all written in a suitably elevated style; the requests or praises are couched in formalistic and even stilted language. The language of the Testament, by contrast, is heterogeneous, natural, lively, playful, and often gives the impression of complete spontaneity. It is the language of a man speaking in familiar terms to a familiar audience, a comfortable, even conversational discourse full of colloquial expressions, proverbs, slang, obscenities, innuendos. It is, in short, the language of intimacy. The unstated implication of this relaxed linguistic posture is: “You know me. You know what I've been through. You know what I'm really saying.”

Despite the enormous popularity that the Testament quickly attained once in printed from, it is obvious from all available evidence that the poem was never intended for mass distribution. On the contrary, its subversive character, its many attacks on prominent municipal and ecclesiastical authorities, along with numerous manifestations of its authorship, would undoubtedly have brought the poet serious difficulties, had the manuscript ever fallen into the wrong hands. Given the politically sensitive nature of this seditious document, it is probable that the dissemination of the manuscript to its first readers was rather carefully controlled and even surreptitious. To be allowed access to the Testament would have required a certain trust, a trust reserved for those who could be relied upon not to betray the author of this potentially incriminating piece of writing. The intended audience of the Testament, then, by the very act of reading the poem was drawn into not only literary collusion but also political conspiracy. Once again, the preeminent condition for the poem's success, and in this case for the poet's security as well, was a close acquaintance between poet and audience.

Who were the compains de galle, these “comrades in revels”?8 Pierre Champion describes the subclass to which Villon and his fellow clerics belonged:

Les clercs ont formé à la fin du Moyen Age la classe par excellence des dévoyés et parfois des vagabonds. Les registres du Parlement et des officialités nous montrent que souvent leur conduite n'était pas différente des mauvais écoliers: comme eux, ils jouaient aux dés, ravissaient des jeunes filles, chantaient le soir, par les rues, des chansons moqueuses ou d'amour, portaient des bâtons et jouaient des farces qui tournaient parfois au tragique.9

[The clerics at the end of the Middle Ages preeminently formed the class of “black sheep” and sometimes vagabonds. The registers of Parlement and of the courts show us that often their conduct was not different from that of naughty schoolboys: like them, they played at dice, forced themselves on young girls, sang at night, in the streets, mocking songs or songs of love, carried staffs, and played out farces that sometimes turned to tragedy.]

Insofar as limited knowledge of Villon's milieu permits, a very general but reasonably well-grounded profile of a typical fifteenth-century Parisian cleric may be outlined: The young man, readily identifiable by his tonsure, possessed at least a minimal university education; he was hardly well off, frequently unemployed, and forced to rely on his own resourcefulness to secure any income. Although the degree of his involvement, if any, in illicit activities would vary according to the individual, one may reasonably assume that he was well acquainted, if not through first-hand experience at least through the experience of more adventurous fellow clerics, with the darker side of Paris—its taverns, prisons, prostitutes, corrupt police, and a wide assortment of related criminal activities. The typical cleric, like Villon, occupied a marginal position in his society.10

In the introduction to his edition of Villon's poetry, Clément Marot draws attention to both the specificity of the bequests in the poetic wills and the corresponding knowledge of Villon's immediate milieu that they require in order to be properly understood:

Quant à l'industrie des lays qu'il feit en ses testaments pour suffisament la cognoistre et entendre, il fauldroit avoir esté de son temps à Paris, et avoir cogneu les lieux, les choses et les hommes dont il parle: la mémoire desquelz tant plus se passera, tant moins se coignoistra icelle industrie de ses lays dictz.11

[As for the ingenuity of the legacies that he made in his testaments, in order to understand and appreciate it, one would have to have lived in the Paris of his [Villon's] day and would have to have known the places, things, and men of whom he speaks; the more the memory of these things disappears, the less will be recognized the ingenuity of these legacies.]

Thus, even in 1533, only seventy years after the composition of the Testament, large portions of the poem had already been rendered inaccessible, if not totally incomprehensible, to a reader separated from Villon by barely two generations. Yet, a poem filled with allusions to people, places, and events that are practically unknown today has not only survived more than five centuries of changing literary taste but has also incontestably established itself in the canon of French literary classics. This fact would be completely baffling and unexplainable if not for the poem's dichotomous nature. The Testament is actually a melding of two distinct modes of poetic discourse. The will proper, including the lengthy prologue, constitutes the skeletal framework of the poem, providing a minimal structural unity and loosely tying together the sixteen ballades dispersed at irregular intervals throughout the work. However, in the ballades the Testament primarily achieves its greatest artistry, lyrical intensity, universality. Without them, the poem could never have attained the wide popularity and respect that it has enjoyed since its inception.

The present study focuses mainly on the will proper, rather than the inserted ballades. Although each ballade merits a separate reader-response analysis and these analyses would undoubtedly reveal a wide variety of techniques by which universal reader participation is elicited, such an ambitious critical endeavor would exceed the scope of this study's primary objective, namely to examine the relationship between the poet and his original audience. To comprehend the essential meaning of the “Ballade pour prier Notre Dame,” for example, requires no personal knowledge of Villon or his mother. To understand the poet's vindictiveness toward Noël Jolis, on the other hand, requires a knowledge of the poet's past that we cannot possibly command.

It is a generally accepted axiom of reader-oriented criticism that a relationship between author and reader is established the moment any reader begins to read any text written in a comprehensible language. I do not, therefore, mean to suggest that the segments of the Testament on which I will concentrate evoke no response at all from a modern reader. Given the distance, however, that separates us from Villon's milieu, the modern reader, although aided in his struggle by the collective erudition produced by generations of Villon scholarship, finds himself involuntarily engaged in an adversarial relationship with the poet rather than enjoying the privileged collaborative relationship that bound Villon to his original audience. If the reading process, as Rosenblatt posits, is analogous to the performance of a musical score, then the modern reader has surely not been properly trained to “perform the text.”12 Owing to a lack of knowledge, the performance, reflecting the reader's limited understanding of the composition and his best attempt at interpretation, will at best poorly approximate the kind of performance anticipated by the “composer.” It should be understood, therefore, that the term “reader,” unless otherwise specified, will be used from this point to designate Villon's original reader, whose general identity I have attempted to establish.

The problematic nature of the reader's role in the Testament sets the work apart from the vast majority of medieval French texts, most of which were accessible to a far less restricted public. The Chanson de Roland, the Roman de la Rose, the works of Marie de France and Chrétien de Troyes, although all aimed at a relatively select audience, did not require a personal knowledge of the author's character or past in order to be fully understood and appreciated. All the essential elements of Erec et Enide could theoretically have been as easily apprehended by any well-educated speaker of the champenois dialect as by an intimate acquaintance of the author. A bourgeois contemporary of Villon, on the other hand, living in Paris but unfamiliar with the poet and his milieu, would lose the significance of many personal allusions of the Testament, finding himself thereby excluded from much interplay between author and reader. A contemporary reader living in the provinces (Orléans or Poitiers, for example) would understand even less of the poem. Both these hypothetical readers, perhaps surmising the existence but failing to grasp the meaning of the “inside jokes,” would share the sense of estrangement experienced to some degree by Marot and all subsequent readers.

Nor can I satisfactorily explain the “closed” character of Villon's work as an inherent characteristic of medieval lyric poetry. Any student of early French verse will attest to the accessibility of Guillaume de Machaut, Christine de Pisan, Eustache Deschamps, and Charles d'Orléans, compared to François Villon. However personal the poetry of these writers may be, it generally allows entry to those who show patience and perseverance, and difficulties generally arise from unfamiliar vocabulary and syntactical constructions more than from deliberate concealment of the poet's thought. Medieval lyric poetry, from its troubadour origins through the fifteenth century, tends to merge affective content with abstract expression. Charles d'Orléans, writing during his exile in England, protests the inadequacy of poetry as the only means of communicating with his wife:

Se vouloye raconter plainnement
En cest escript mon ennuieux martire,
Trop long seroit; pour ce certainnement
J'aymasse mieulx de bouche le vous dire.(13)
[If I wished to fully recount
My painful martyrdom in this writing
It would be too long; certainly for this reason
I would prefer to tell you by word of mouth.]

Although the context and message of the poem are highly personal, the poet's thought remains translucent, if not transparent, to the “unprivileged reader” whose ignorance of the specific circumstances surrounding the ballade does not deny him entry into the poem.

To some who are familiar with Villon's work, the observation that the Testament is directed primarily to the poet's circle of close acquaintances may appear so evident that any justification will be considered superfluous. I have chosen, however, to present the observation as a hypothesis, an a posteriori conclusion, rather than as a self-evident premise, for several reasons. First, there exists to date no thorough investigation into the nature of Villon's primary audience. A methodical examination of internal evidence from which the identity of this audience may be deduced, even if amounting to no more than a pro forma exercise, yields a certain amount of information about Villon's relationship with his intended public, information vital to the present study. Second, more than any other medieval French writer, Villon has repeatedly proven his ability to divide and stir controversy among literary critics. Thus, to take any assumption for granted presupposes a unanimity of critical opinion that is becoming increasingly rare among those who study Villon's poetry. Finally, since the bulk of the present study rests on the premise that the Testament is directed to a specific audience very different from the twentieth-century public that has inherited the work, I would be remiss if I did not attempt to validate this premise, and to draw as sharply as possible the distinction between the two readerships. To naively and irresponsibly ground the entire study on nothing firmer than an appeal to the charity of my own intended audience would place the whole critical enterprise in danger of almost certain collapse. Having, I hope, established a reasonably secure basis for my investigation, I will now examine in greater detail the interplay between Villon and his reader.



François Villon is not the only late medieval poet whose work reflects an influential awareness of a specific audience. However, a thorough examination of reader-response patterns in fifteenth-century French poetry would far exceed the scope of the present study. Furthermore, this aspect of medieval poetics is so complex that a broad overview would only present, at best, a superficial, vastly simplified assessment, which would contribute very little toward the appreciation of Villon's distinctive rapport with his audience. Rather than attempt a synoptic characterization applying to all poetry of the period, I prefer, in the interests of concision and clarity of focus, to limit myself to a single poet. The purpose of this chapter is not to illustrate a poetic norm against which Villon's originality detaches itself but rather to show how “private poetry” of the period easily lends itself to a variety of interactions between author and reader.

The poetry of Charles d'Orléans offers a number of convenient parallels with the poetry of Villon. The work of the doulx seigneur, as Villon refers to him in the “Louange à Marie d'Orléans” (v. 19), is roughly contemporaneous with the poetry of the povre escolier (v. 132). Like the bulk of Villon's work, most of Charles's ballades were composed for a highly restricted audience. From internal evidence it is obvious that many of the duke's ballades, serving the function of poetic correspondence, were intended for a specific recipient. As in the case of Villon's poetry, Charles d'Orléans's verse frequently attests a clear awareness of the reader's presence, an awareness expressed by a variety of explicit or implicit acknowledgments. In both cases the relationship between poet and reader remains dynamic and supple. Finally, the audience is variously represented in the text itself, as the poets dramatize their interaction with the readers.

Throughout his exile in England (1415-1440), Charles maintained contact with his homeland through a steady flow of written messages. Some of these took the form of ballades. Approached as specimens of epistolary correspondence, the poems yield little autobiographical data. Still, it is clear that they were written to serve a communicative as well as a literary function. They confirm the writer's health or state of mind, occasionally convey a minimum of circumstantial information, acknowledge receipt of correspondence, and often encourage the lady (generally assumed to be his wife Bonne) to continue writing.

In one such ballade, the poet responds to a recently received missive:

Je ne vous puis ne sçay amer,
Ma Dame, tant que je vouldroye;
Car escript m'avez pour m'oster
Ennuy qui trop fort me guerroye:
“Mon seul amy, mon bien, ma joye,
Cellui que sur tous amer veulx,
Je vous pry que soyez joyeux
En esperant que brief vous voye.”(14)
[I neither know how nor am able to love you,
My Lady, as much as I would like;
For you have written to rid me of
Worry which wages cruel war against me:
“My only friend, my wealth, my joy,
He whom I wish to love above all others,
I beg you that you be joyful
While waiting for me to see you soon.”]

The stanza is symmetrically divided between two voices: the first represents the poet; the second represents the woman to whom the poem is addressed. The last half of the stanza either presents a verbatim transcription taken from a recently received letter-poem or a versified paraphrase of a prose statement contained in the letter. Although the degree to which the text of the letter may have been altered cannot be determined, there is no basis to doubt that these verses either reproduce or are patterned after an authentic excerpt of correspondence. While the voice of the je, using the negative particle and the conditional vouldroye, conveys a sense of helplessness, ineffectuality, and constraint, the voice of the Dame, by contrast, evinces an unmistakable vigor and strength of purpose, an attitude that she invites the poet to share. With the excerpt from the letter, there is a transposition of roles as the reader becomes the writer; the writer, reader.

Having conveyed in the opening verses a sense of passivity, even paralysis, the poet eventually ceases to speak at all, yielding to the Dame, who brings the stanza to a forceful conclusion. In the very act of writing, the woman seems to somehow assert a dominant force, for, while the first person of the ballade appears as a subject pronoun in the first two verses, it is abruptly transformed into an object pronoun following the word escript: “m'avez,” “m'oster,” “me guerroye.” The grammatical dominance of the feminine voice is further strengthened by the indirect command implicit in the subjunctive clause: “Je vous pry que soyez joyeux.” Thus, the reader, given an active presence in the poem, momentarily effaces the poet completely. Reproducing the content, if not the exact verbal image of her message, the poem becomes a mirror in which the reader is shown a reflection of her own presence.

With the incorporation of the excerpt from the letter, the reader is given a voice in the ballade, and she thus becomes, in a literal sense, cocreator of the poem. Although her collaborative contribution is limited, strictly speaking, to only four verses, her imagined presence may be clearly discerned as the primary creative force. Unlike those ballades of Charles d'Orléans characterized by a decidedly introspective orientation, often so self-reflexive that the poet appears to be writing only for himself, this poem is completely centered on the presence of a specific reader, the woman who is at once the source and the object of the poetic inspiration—the very raison d'être of the ballade. The poem is less an attempt to initiate fresh communication than an acknowledgment of communication received and a demonstration of its effect upon the recipient. It is hardly accidental that virtually in the precise center of the poem are found the words vostre message (“Que vostre message m'envoye” [12]), graphically illustrating the centrality of the message received rather than the message presently formulated in reply.

The final verse of the quotation ascribed to the woman, “En esperant que brief vous voye,” becomes the refrain of the ballade. In one sense, the refrain signals the importance of the feminine voice, reinforcing the reader's collaborative role in the creation of the poem. However, in the two instances where the verse is repeated as a refrain, it is spoken by the je and follows as a logical conclusion to preceding statements in the stanza. The phrase, having thus become internalized, is now applied to a different object but with an identical meaning. In effect, the verse is ultimately spoken in unison, representing a fusion of desires. Poet and reader, separated in reality by formidable stretches of space and time, are allowed to reunite momentarily in the world of poetic imagination.

As we read today this ballade or similar ballades by Charles d'Orléans, we may be left with the impression that we have understood the general sense of the poem. Indeed, the fact that we even attempt to interpret such a poem betrays a belief that, in spite of its obviously private function, the piece may be productively subjected to literary analysis. Having uncovered patterns of imagery, verbal symmetry, structural unity, we may reach the illusory conclusion that we have actually grasped the essence of the poem. This conclusion is all the more easily reached in the case of Charles d'Orléans, owing to the unusual clarity and disarming simplicity of his language and the relative abundance of existing biographical information in which to loosely frame the reading of his poems. To the degree that the act of reading is an intellectual exercise, the impression of general comprehension may be partially justified. It must be recognized, however, that reading is a psychological process drawing heavily on emotional as well as intellectual responses, and the former, as Walter Slatoff observes, cannot be validly considered as secondary to the latter:

Moreover, the very meaning of a literary work depends on emotional responses. Most works could scarcely be comprehended by a reader who lacked all human emotions. Nor are emotional responses inherently less responsible than intellectual ones. One can read as irresponsibly intellectually as emotionally, exploit a text to satisfy intellectual needs as easily as to satisfy emotional ones. To respect a text doesn't mean to read impersonally or unemotionally any more than to respect another person means holding him at arm's length.15

The emotional response of the reader primarily differentiates the reading of this ballade by the intended recipient from the reading effected by any subsequent reader. To return to Rosenblatt's distinction between “text” and “poem,” the poem was created by Charles d'Orléans in such a way that it would be actualized in the mind of a specific reader. The text we read today results in a different actualization. Although each reader sees a different poem, all versions share one important lacuna, namely the emotional response that the ballade was designed to elicit from its intended reader.

The ballade in question offers several points of comparison with the Testament. In spite of obvious divergences—differences of length, tone, style, thematic content—both works are predicated on reception by an intimate audience. Given the single recipient of Charles d'Orléans's ballade, the well-defined nature of the relationship between poet and reader, and the brevity and relative simplicity of the piece, the role of the reader is more easily studied in the ballade than in the Testament. Nevertheless, both literary works illustrate different applications of a common creative principle. Each work, representing an act of communication with a specific audience, is written to be fully actualized only by this particular audience with which the poet maintains a privileged rapport.

Charles d'Orléans uses a variety of means to draw his privileged reader into his poetry. In an extended image he identifies his addressee with the radiance of sunlight:

Se Dieu plaist, briefment la nuee
De ma tristesse passera,
Belle tresloyaument amee,
Et le beau temps se moustrera:
Mais savez vous quant ce sera?
Quant le doulx souleil gracieux
De vostre beauté entrera
Par les fenestres de mes yeulx.

(67, 1-8)

[If it please God, the cloud
Of my sadness will pass,
Lovely lady, loyally loved,
And fair weather will show itself:
But do you know when this will be?
When the sweet, gracious sun
Of your beauty enters
Through the windows of my eyes.]

Although the ballade cited earlier in this chapter represents the interaction between the je and the vous largely in terms of written communication (escript, motz, mander, message), the relationship is now transposed into a purely metaphorical dimension. The woman is associated with beauty and natural light, but the poet, whose heart is sleeping in “la chambre de ma pensee” (9), is associated with confinement and darkness. Again the reader is represented as a dynamic force in contrast to the passivity and helplessness exhibited by the poet. The forceful entrance (one might even say “penetration,” were it not for the unfortunate Freudian connotations the word inevitably seems to carry) of sunrays into the darkened chamber of thought parallels the introduction of the reader into the ballade, itself a kind of chamber imprisoning the poet's thought. Again the reader is shown the dramatic effect of her presence upon the poet; through poetic transformation she finds herself reunited with him, dispelling his despair and liberating him from darkness.

Although the importance of the reader's emotional response may be less conspicuous in Villon's poetry, the element is one that, as Slatoff reminds us, cannot be dismissed from any serious consideration of the reading process. Emotional response, however, is problematic because it cannot be subjected to the same methodical scrutiny that may be imposed on intellectual processes. Image formation, perception of irony, identification of hidden messages, and other activities performed by Villon's reader may be isolated and analyzed as purely mental operations. But emotional response is a much more slippery area. Even in the case of Charles d'Orléans, many of whose ballades are clearly designed to evoke a strong emotional response from the intended reader, we cannot reconstruct the affective dynamics of a poem's reception without taking our interpretive operations onto dangerously thin ice. Although emotional response is not subject to rigorous analysis, it should not be ignored. That the reading of the Testament by its earliest audience was an emotional as well as an intellectual exercise, we may be sure. That the work was designed to and succeeded in calling forth a wide range of emotional responses—humor, joy, anger, fear, sympathy, surprise, admiration—is virtually certain. Without being able to confirm the precise emotion that a given passage probably elicited from its intended audience, we can confidently assume that the reading of the Testament was for its first readers an emotionally charged experience.

Much of Charles d'Orléans's poetry was addressed to more than a single reader. The rondeaux, written after his return to France in 1440, are directed to the duke's entourage and contain frequent references to various members of his domestic staff, largely comprised of well-educated young squires from wealthy families.16 Charles encouraged these young men to try their hand at verse, and his personal manuscript includes numerous exchanges of rondeaux. In the humor, wit, and banter of these lighthearted exchanges, a spirit of camaraderie may be readily perceived, a cheerful familiarity from which neither age nor social rank exclude the duke. In a rondeau to a certain Fredet, Charles refers to a monetary gift that he claims to regret:

Se regrettez voz dolens jours,
Et je regrette mon argent
Que j'ay delivré franchement
Cuidant de vous donner secours.(17)

(2: 349)

[And if you regret your sorrowful days,
I regret my money
That I generously delivered,
Believing I was giving you help.]

The details associated with the donation (the size of the gift, its purpose, any stipulated conditions, the use or misuse that eventually resulted) as well as other attendant circumstances (similar misappropriations, Fredet's financial reputation, the relationship between the two men, specific incidents to which the passage may subtly allude) all color the audience's reception of the verses. Like so many passages of the Testament, the passage draws on extratextual connections perceptible only to the immediate audience.

In another rondeau he playfully ridicules the sexual misadventures of his secretary, Etienne Le Gout, borrowing terms from Latin grammar to heighten the satire:

Quant rencontré a un acusatif
Qui sa robe lui a fait ablative;
De fenestre assez superlative
A fait un sault portant coups en passif.

(2: 301)

[When he encountered an accusative
Who made an ablative of his robe;
From a rather superlative window
He leaped, taking blows in the passive.]

Again, the humorous intent of the passage presupposes the reader's ability to juxtapose the poetic description with knowledge of the actual episode.

As in the case of the Testament, possible distortions in the poet's self-characterizations can only be perceived by measuring the portrait against its subject. In a seemingly morose assessment of his existence he states:

Le monde est ennuyé de moy,
Et moy pareillement de lui;
Je ne congois rien au jour d'ui
Dont il me chaille que bien poy.

(2: 397)

[The world is tired of me
And I of it;
I know nothing these days
For which I care more than a little.]

Taken as a frank admission of the feelings of boredom and uselessness brought on by old age, the passage is sometimes interpreted as evidence of an increasingly depressed state of mind.18 Such an interpretation, although possible, disregards the potential for irony. Like Villon, Charles d'Orléans proves quite adept at self-parody, as demonstrated in the following description of the poet taken from one of his later ballades:

Portant harnoys rouillé de Nonchaloir,
Sus monture foulee de Foiblesse,
Mal abillé de Desireus Vouloir …


[Wearing armor rusted by Indifference,
On a steed trampled by Weakness,
Poorly dressed in Craving Desire.]

What appears, therefore, to be a candid confession may simply be a bit of humorous hyperbole intended for the amusement of an audience capable of distinguishing between the man and the mask.

The poetry of Charles d'Orléans, like that of other late medieval poets, incorporates various details of the actual biographical circumstances surrounding its composition.19 These circumstances, as I have attempted to demonstrate, cannot be dissociated from the intended audience. But beyond the immediate personal connections between the poet and his audience, there is a larger question—and one much more difficult to address—involving the influence of a literary milieu. To what extent does the poetry of Charles d'Orléans reflect the aesthetic taste of a specific, well-defined audience? Daniel Poirion vaguely attempts at several points in Le Poète et le prince to answer the question:

La création à Blois est détendue, souriante, presque familiale.

[Creation at Blois is relaxed, smiling, almost familial.]

Cette collaboration poétique est beaucoup plus intime que celle d'un concours bourgeois. Elle dépend pour une large part des circonstances de la vie de cour.

[This poetic collaboration is much more intimate than that of a bourgeois competition. It depends in large part on the circumstances of court life.]

Blois où va s'installer Charles d'Orléans restera plutôt un salon qu'un centre d'industrie artistique.20

[Blois, where Charles d'Orléans is going to settle, will remain rather a literary salon than a center of artistic industry.]

In a later work Poirion attempts to broadly define the aesthetic criteria of the court of Blois, but he clearly indicates that his definition is tentative and conjectural rather than based on verifiable observations:

Les contemporains ont-ils apprécié le sourire du prince, à une époque où l'on était plus habitué au burlesque, à la farce, au gras libertinage, ou à la raillerie appuyée? Il semble que cette finesse et cette discrétion, dans le rire comme dans les larmes, définissent le goût du petit cénacle qui a entouré Charles d'Orléans.21

[Did the contemporaries appreciate the smile of the prince, at a time when people were more accustomed to burlesque, farce, frank licentiousness, or heavy-handed sarcasm? It seems that this finesse, this discretion, in laughter as well as in tears, define the taste of the little literary circle that surrounded Charles d'Orléans.]

Clearly, the role of milieu in the work of Charles d'Orléans cannot be neglected. Just as the pomp, splendor, and self-importance of the Burgundian court inspired an oratorical and somewhat grandiose strain of poetry, the effect of the festive atmosphere of Blois with its passion for refined amusement can be seen in the verse of the poet-prince and those who wrote under his influence. The problem in attempting to isolate the influence of Blois is that this milieu, with all its Italianate sophistication, elegance, and polished cultivation, was itself the creation of the poet. Thus, while the interaction of Charles d'Orléans with his literary coterie is evident and the possibilities for reciprocal influence are readily apparent, it is virtually impossible to assess the extent to which Charles's poetry responds to external aesthetic criteria.

Given the difficulty of isolating the influence of Charles d'Orléans's cénacle, a group about which we are relatively well informed, the task of defining the role of Villon's literary milieu is one which Villon scholarship, in its present state, is obviously not equipped to carry out. Nonetheless, Villon's little cénacle may well have played a significant part in the formation of his poetics. The most basic motive for writing, many would argue, is to please one's readers—to amuse, entertain, instruct, and favorably impress those who receive the work. To achieve this objective, it is essential that the author have at least some vague notion of the kind of reader he hopes to please and a general concept of the aesthetic values of his reader.

If Villon in fact directed much of his poetry to a particular public, then it follows that these portions of his work respond in some degree to the aesthetic taste exhibited by his audience. As in the case of emotional response, the fact that the aesthetics of Villon's audience cannot be accurately defined does not detract from their potential importance. Stanley Fish has popularized the term “interpretive communities,” arguing that a given group of readers may theoretically apply a common reading strategy.22 It should be remembered that Villon wrote for his own “interpretive community,” and his work therefore bears the imprint of the values, attitudes, and aesthetic standards of his public.


  1. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 48-49.

  2. Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (London and New York: Saint Martin's Press, 1967).

  3. Louise Rosenblatt, “On the Aesthetic as the Basic Model of the Reading Process,” Bucknell Review 28 (1980), 17-32.

  4. Wayne C. Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 104-105.

  5. Jean-Claude Muhlethaler, for example, in his recent Poétiques du quinzième siècle (Paris: Nizet, 1983) refers occasionally to the relationship between Villon and his public but refrains from commenting on the nature of the audience itself.

  6. Jean Rychner and Albert Henry, eds., Le Testament Villon (Geneva: Droz, 1974), 1668-1670. All subsequent citations from the Testament are taken from this edition. Citations from other poems by Villon, unless otherwise specified, are taken from Jean Rychner and Albert Henry, eds., Le Lais Villon et les poèmes variés (Geneva: Droz, 1977).

  7. Hans Robert Jauss, “Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory,” New Literary History 2 (1970-1971), 10.

  8. The translation is from Galway Kinnell, The Poems of François Villon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977), p. 135. All English translations of Villon's poetry (unless otherwise indicated) are from Galway Kinnell, The Poems of François Villon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977).

  9. Pierre Champion, François Villon (Paris: Champion, 1913), p. 65.

  10. Gert Pinkernell describes the audience to which the Lais is addressed as “un groupe de jeunes voyous cultivés, c'est-à-dire l'entourage du poète des années 1455/56, consistant avant tout en étudiants échoués et en prêtres restés sans prébende” (“a group of young, cultivated hooligans, that is to say the entourage of the poet in the years 1455-1456, consisting above all of unsuccessful students and priests left without a prebend”). See his “François Villon, La Ballade des contrevérités: Aphorismes pour un public criminel,” Zeitschrift für Romanische Philolgie 101 (1985), 28-44. Except for the dates, Pinkernell's characterization of the first audience of the Lais may be applied, with equal validity I believe, to the earliest readers of the Testament.

  11. Pierre Michel, ed., François Villon: Poésies complètes (Paris: Livre de Poche, 1972), p. vi.

  12. Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), p. 28: “The reader of a text who evokes a literary work of art is, above all, a performer, in the same sense that a pianist performs a sonata, reading it from the text before him.”

  13. Pierre Champion, ed., Charles d'Orléans: Poésies, 2 vols. (Paris: Champion, 1924-1927), 1: 37.

  14. Champion, ed. Charles d'Orléans: Poésies, 1: 55-56. All quotations from Charles d'Orléans's poetry are taken from this edition.

  15. Walter Slatoff, With Respect to Readers (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1970), p. 37.

  16. Enid McLeod, Charles d'Orléans: Prince and Poet (London: Chatto and Windus, 1969) describes the young men who made up the poetic court of Blois: “Each of them was attached to one or the other of the different departments of the household that looked after the provisioning of it in bread, wine, meat and so on, and their duties were the serving of the ducal family and their guests at meals, in the role of carver, cup-bearer and so on. Humble though these tasks sound, the young esquires who performed them were nearly always sons of good and sometimes noble families, who started as pages and occasionally rose in later life to the holding of high offices, not only under their original master but in the State” (p. 299).

  17. About Fredet, as in the case of many other contributors to Charles d'Orléans's album, we know practically nothing, Charles first made his acquaintance in Tours in 1444. His name appears frequently in the album, where he left a complainte and several rondeaux.

  18. For example, McLeod, Charles d'Orléans, 320.

  19. As an example of this phenomenon, see Ann Tukey Harrison, “Charles d'Orléans—the Reluctant Traveler,” Fifteenth-Century Studies 10 (1984), 79-90, a study of the various ways in which the poet's actual travel experiences are reflected in his poetry.

  20. Daniel Poirion, Le Poète et le prince (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), 182, 186, 50.

  21. Daniel Poirion, Le Moyen Age vol. II (Paris: Artaud, 1971), 218.

  22. Fish, Is There a Text in This Class?

Rouben C. Cholakian (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5689

SOURCE: “The (Un)naming Process in Villon's Grand Testament,” in The French Review, Vol. 66, No. 2, 1992, pp. 216-28.

[In this essay, Cholakian discusses Villon's widespread use of names in his Testament, suggesting that they serve to disempower those who are named and empower the narrator. The intense self-referentiality of the poem, he argues, further emphasizes Villon's use of naming as a means of asserting selfhood against dominating Others.]

Many scholars have delved into the university, police, and municipal archives of fifteenth-century Paris to identify the names appearing in Villon's pseudo-testament.1 My own interest in the Grand Testament's onomastic mysteries, however, is inspired by the psycho-literary principle that every text is invariably a fiction and even an auto-portrait.2 I wish to explore the naming process and the ways in which it reveals the narrator's attitudes toward his imagined testamentary universe.3

While critics like Thuasne (III, 588), Regalado (65), Fox (31), Siciliano (517), and others all attest to the intense subjectivity of the Villon text, only a few have explored the psychological implications of the profuse self-referentiality. Humphries remarks on the “confusion of object love and self love” (158) and Yve-Plessis speaks of the poet as an “obsédé de sa personalité” (71). The pronounced egocentricism of the Testament calls out for an analysis of its emotional substructures.

But this is no easy task, for any discussion of the Testament must begin with language, a language which defies easy access. It may be reasonably argued that time and distance have made this so. I would counter, however, that the poet chose to obfuscate, to create a linguistic universe which excluded, to invent a “texte déroutant” (Demarolle, Villon 195) in order to refashion and to subordinate the members of a hostile world. Discourse proved to be a gratifying fountainhead of power, especially in the imaginary perspective of an afterlife. Nowhere is this better demonstrated than in the subtleties of onomastic fantasy.

The Testament teems with names. They burst through the text, both disrupting and informing.4 Not even counting the actual recipients of the testator's ironic largesse, nearly one hundred persons are named, so many that any good edition necessarily comes replete with an onomastic glossary. Whether Villon in fact invented the mock testament,5 surely the choice of literary form is in itself noteworthy. What does it signify to opt for a text whose predominant characteristic is naming (heirs)?6

Accepting the assumption that “fiction makes good certain omissions in our lives” (Lesser 83), that it helps to control the otherwise uncontrollable, a text devoted to naming provides a particularly inviting source for psychological comment on the relationship between re-invented Self and Other. Fenichel brings home this point:

Tying up words and ideas makes thinking proper possible. The ego has now a better weapon in handling the external world as well as its own excitations. This is the rational content of the ancient magical belief that one can master what one can name.


The Testament is unmistakably a retaliatory restructuring of the universe. Readers of this text have long appreciated the clever ways in which the poet appears to reward his enemies when in fact he dispossesses them. One critic calls the entire text an “inventory of dispossession” (Humphries 161). For most it is a work of irascible, combative “protest” (Fox 103), a personal outcry for retaliation (Dufournet 172). Moreover, at the unassailable distance of imaginary death, revenge is sweet if, as here, one can be a witness to the results: “Le thème du Testament n'est pas l'immortalité mais la mémoire du mortel” (Regalado 68).

But enough has already been said of the biting sarcasms of the Villon text. At a more syntactically fundamental level of the Testament the defiant testator takes another, more “textual” kind of revenge, a psycho-onomastic phenomenon which I shall call UN-NAMING.

There is a rare moment when the poet comes close to defining this process. Huitain CXXXVII begins7: “Item, a Thibault de la garde … / Thibault? je mens, il a nom Jehan” (1354-55).8 The parenthetical interjection no doubt alludes to the double meaning of Jehan as “cocu,” but it is also an important psychological marker. It signals the need to re-invent, to re-form the emerging poetic universe with new names, new values, and new hierarchies. It is acknowledgement of the potential authority invested in the act of naming, and, by extension, the act of un-naming.

There are two identifiable techniques of “un-naming” in the Testament: collectivization and textualization. The first is the less subtle. It absorbs the singular into the collective, subordinating the specific to the general. As Bertaut notes, the testator conjures up a “flou de visages indéfiniment substituables” (144). But this goes beyond the medieval tendency toward characterological generalization. Let us examine a few prime examples.

There are fewer than a dozen female recipients in this text, so the exceptions are worth noting.9 In the introductory lines of the poem, the testator leaves his soul to “glorïeuse Trinité / Et la commende a Notre Dame” (833) and his body to “nostre grant mere la terre” (42). The reference may be passed off as a well-worn cliché, but in light of other female references, the antithetical double maternal image suggests something else.10

Later, with mock magnanimity, he bluntly offers to give nothing to the “filles de bien” (1567) because he has “tout donné aux servantes.” Un-named, the women have one feature in common. They all have “peres, meres et antes” (1568). Such a curiously unexpected generalization cannot go unnoticed. As Vitz writes:

It is not just because they are rich, filles de bien, that Villon refuses them the slightest gift. It certainly is not because he has nothing left—his penury has never kept him from giving a gift before! It is because they have peres, meres et antes.


The female un-naming becomes the place where onomastic lack points to an unfulfilled desire. The female collectivization serves a depersonalizing purpose: it defines a primordial lack and original hurt. Blakeslee may be quite correct in concluding that the love theme reflects in the most essential Freudian terms “culpabilité à l'égard de la mère désirée” (16).11 But I should like to put the emphasis here rather on that other trauma, the one which has to do with familial security and the comfort of identity in kinship. I shall need to return to this idea when I have more thoroughly examined the other manifestations of un-naming in the text.

As there are many more male recipients, not surprisingly there are more examples of the collectivization trope as regards the male heirs. One can discount an allusion such as the one to “Celestins et Chartreux” (1575) as little more than a commonplace satire of the religious orders. There are better examples which define the process of un-naming the named male.

The first is a reference to “Unze Vingt Sergens” (1086). Further along the testator speaks of “des auditeurs messeigneurs” (1206), judicial officers of the “Chambre des comptes.” At one point he alludes to “mes trois povres orphelins” (1275), and later to “mes povres clergons” (1306). He makes a bequest to “Enfanz trouvez” (1660) and another to the “Quinze Vings” (1728). Finally he has a special reward for “amans enfermes” (1804).

At first glance no logical similarity ties these together. Yet detailed scrutiny reveals that in all cases the language uncovers a conflictual relationship which is primarily class-oriented. The narrator seems to set against each other, at opposite ends of the socio-economic scale, the rich and the poor, the powerful and the dispossessed. It is a characteristic of his turn of mind:

Je congnois que pouvres et riches,
Sages et folz, prestres et laiz,
Nobles, villains, larges et chiches,
Petiz et grans, et beaulz et laitz. …


In this adversarial cosmos the male authority figure looms very large. One critic specifically comments on the testator's “haine et révolte à l'égard des figures masculines d'autorité” (Blakeslee 1). It is possible in fact to create three clear-cut categories of authority figures:

RELIGIOUS: 4, 1158, 1796, 1190

JUDICIAL: 990, 1026, 1067, 1086, 1095, 1118, 1214, 1222, 1230, 1362, 1406, 1828.

ECONOMIC: 1007, 1014, 1047, 1054, 1266, 1275, 1306, 1339, 1346, 1354, 1774, 1812.

Unmistakably, the testator envisions a pursuing multitude of cruel persecuters and exploiters.

Where there are victimizers there are inexorably victims seen as a collective body of un-named casualties of the system. He devotes an entire huitain to the “Quinze Vings” (1728). Although they are beneficiaries of a generous Saint Louis, they are still to be counted among the injured in a cruelly-structured world.

One might be inclined not to include the allusion to “amans enfermes” (1660) with the preceding examples, but the psychological link is unarguable. The poet is describing a fixed universe, a “hierarchy of beings” (Vitz 111) of victims and victimizers.

In short these first cases of collectivization seem to define the nature of things. They point to a discouraging world-view which sets some against others. On the other hand, in two important respects it is a kind of textual retaliation. Generalizing thus not only offers comfort in shared misery: it distances the pain, makes it less personal and therefore less hurtful. The commonality of suffering in life and death makes one feel “enferme” but not alone.

The second type of un-naming, textualization, draws far more of its emotional substance from the need to dehumanize and thus reduce the threat of the Other. In an important passage on proper nouns Meschonnic notes: “Le paradoxe de la théorie du nom est qu'il vide le signe” (75). Names defy definition and therefore do not belong to the reified world of designation. They are, as he goes on to point out, “conservatoire,” outside the universe of meaning and classification, “unsusceptible of definition,” as John Stuart Mill puts it (76).

The textualization technique has to do with the way in which testamentary names are literalized, made precisely into definable objects and therefore subordinated to the defining subject. The testator creates a kind of onomastic annominatio12 in which the person is transformed into homonymic object. The Testament offers many examples of this process, and while I am certainly not the first to notice them (see for example, Demarolle, L'Esprit 39), little has been said beyond relating the verbal humor to the historical referentiality of the person named.

In some instances, the onomastic joke is plainly scatological in nature:

Item, a l'Orfevre de Boys,
Donne cent clouz, queues et testes,
De gingembre sarrazinoys,
Non pas pour acouppler ses boictes,
Mais pour joindre cuz et couëctes.


In others, the humor is not sexual in its orientation, but merely a play on the objectifying homograph: “Item, a Chappellain je laisse / Ma chappelle a simple tonsure” (1836-37). In either case, the humor is never entirely innocent. The verbal game-playing does not deter the careful reader from discovering the “angoisse aiguë que le poète voile sous l'humour, l'ironie, la grivoiserie” (Blakeslee 2).

A parallel manifestation of the same phenomenon is the tendency to turn “signs” in the streets into signs in the text's discourse. When rewarding “maistre Pierre Saint Amant,” the narrator writes:

Me myst ou ranc de caÿmant,
Pour le Cheval blanc qui ne bouge
Lui changë a une jument,
Et la Mulle a ung asne rouge.


Whereas the person has elsewhere been rendered inanimate, here the sign is animated, given a place in the reality of moving things: “Cheval blanc” = “une jument”; “Mulle” = “ung asne rouge.” The re-invented poetic world makes possible such signifying exchanges of identification. Its inventor enjoys here the magician's power.

To Jacques Raguier he bequeaths “le Grand Godet” adding, however: “Se sans moy boyt, assiet ne lieve, / Au trou de la Pomme de Pin” (1045). If in the previous example animation was inherent in the sign, in this instance metonymic representation designates the activity: the object points to the person.

The most illustrious example of this practice appears in La Grosse Margot (1583). Is he addressing the woman or the tavern sign which bears her name? Is he giving the tavern to the tavern, the sign back to the sign? Signifier and signified, text and event become inextricably intertwined as the testator appears to reify the woman and humanize the place. The testator reveals in this commutation of “signs” the need to distance the woman. But she is but one source of injury and anguish, and the process of textualization is both more pervasive and more complex.

In an original and controversial study on double meanings and onomastic reification, Guiraud takes the whole argument of names reduced to their nominative definability one step further. In examining the text's “système cryptographique” (55), he alerts us to the fragmented syllabic clusters of proper nouns and in so doing defines meaning in terms of “new” particled sub-structures, thus drawing attention to an implied signifying system within the linguistic structures of the borrowed discourse of normal communication. But, eager to discover hidden second meaning at the etymological level of signification, Guiraud fails to push his analysis to its ultimate phonic reduction, the name qua phoneme. Yet this is by far the most impressive of the poet's various techniques to in-corp-orate the Other in the testating text. Subordinating the name to poetic function gives precedence to the word over the name, in short, it un-names “poetically.”

The first observation to make in this regard is that in virtually all cases where legatees are specifically named, the proper noun is conspicuously situated in the initial rhyme position: 910, 990, 1054, 1086, 1118, 1222, 1230, 1346, 1362, 1406, 1812, 1828. The customary syntactical formulae are either “Item à maistre Jehan Laurens” (1222) or “Item, je donne à Basennier” (1362). In only two cases (1070/1836) does the testator break with the recurring pattern (1970). In huitain CIII he syntactically distorts in order to bring about the desired effect of reducing the name to a homophonic exercise: “Item, viengne Robin Turgis / A moy, je luy paieray son vin” (1054-55).

Ecriture itself thus subsumes onomastic identity. Absorbed into text, surrendering personhood to poetic exigencies, the named is thus un-named for the sake of poetic discourse. In the established rhyme scheme of the huitain—ababbcbc—the legatee typically becomes the phonic pair of lines one and three:

Item, a maistre Jehan Cornu
Autre nouveau laiz lui vueil faire,
Car il m'a tousjours subvenu.


The process of harmonic absorption is further enhanced when, in at least two cases, the name is transferred to the second line (1007, 1508), for in that way it harmonizes with no fewer than four of the verse lines:

Item, pour ce que scet sa Bille
Madamoiselle de Bruyeres,
Donne prescher hors l'Euangille
A elle et a ses bachelieres,
Pour retraire ces villotieres
Qui ont le bec si affilé,
Mais que ce soit hors cymetieres.


The most extravagant subordination of onomastics to text comes when, in a number of huitains, the testator couples two names. For example, in speaking of the redoutable Perrenet (Marchant) of the Chatelet police guard, the testator enters the recipient's sobriquet at the second rhyme position and thus ties name to rhyme at six out of the eight rhyming lines:

De rechief donne a Perrenet,
J'entens le Bastart de la Barre,
Pource qu'il est beau filz et net,
En son escu, en lieu de barre,
Trois dez plombez, de bonne quarre,
Et ung beau joly jeu de cartes.
Mais quoy? s'on l'ot vecir ne poirs,
En oultre aura les fievres quartes.


This does not, however, prevent the imaginative poet from playing other clever word games at the same time. Since “barre” is often the symbol for illegitimacy, the repetition at line 1097 reinforces the reification. One system of un-naming does not preclude another.

Yet another impressive case of onomastic doubling in the rhyme position is that of Françoys de la Vacquerie (CXXIII), the much disliked “promoteur de l'Officialité”: “Item, donne a maistre Françoys, / Promocteur, de la Vacquerie.” The poet must have derived much pleasure from deflating and reducing this powerful personage to a pretext for text.

An especially interesting example of the type of phonic absorption I am examining here is the huitain CLI which names two presumed prostitutes. Along with the general phenomenon of onomastic textualization, at another level of un-naming, both women are made to seem representative and unspecified: “Idolle,” no doubt a sobriquet prompted by professional activity, is joined to another descriptive cognomen “Jehanne” (de Bretaigne), usually used to designate a woman of low esteem. Moreover the final half of the huitain helps to explain the psycho-linguistic motivation of the verse:

Lieu n'est ou ce merchié ne tiengne,
Synom a la grisle de Meun;
De quoy je diz: “Fy de l'enseigne,
Puisque l'ouvraige est si commun!”


In one fell swoop the testator devalues the woman by 1) defining her in terms of what she does, 2) absorbing her into the text, and 3) telling the reader/listener that the woman needs no “enseigne” (signifier) because here, as with the Grosse Margot, she is the “enseigne.”

If one accepts the notion that naming is a divine, life-giving power, then the processes of un-naming as I have identified them here are tantamount to onomastic annihilation. Textual absorption (death) of the Other makes possible textual space (life) for the Self, and that is where this analysis will finally lead us.

To acknowledge that the speaking persona is an interloper between discourse and reader is no doubt to express a critical platitude: “Le monde que nous créons est inséparable de vue de ce je poétique qui nous rapporte tout, qui s'interpose entre nous et le monde évoqué” (Regalado 65). But surely in this heavily onomastic text, the issue takes on special importance.

It is not only imminent physical death which distresses the testator but the fear of a terrifying genealogical void. He bewails the “Povreté” of his ancestors and longs for a namable past (275-76). That same apprehension engenders the hyperbolic naming of his “plus que pere”: “Maistre Guillaume de Villon, / Qui esté m'a plus doulx que mere” (850-51). To identify the father is to name oneself. Moreover, the “plus que pere” must be “plus doulx que mere” because name and genesis linked guarantee birth rights and legitimate selfhood.

In this context the process of the self-naming acrostic deserves another look. It is not without significance that the first case is in the ballade composed for the persona's un-lettered and un-named mother:

Vous portastes, digne Vierge,
Jhesus regnant qui n'a ne fin
ne cesse.
Le Tout Puissant, prenant nostre
Laissa les cieulx et nous vint secourir,
Offrit a mort sa tres clere jeunesse;
Nostre Seigneur tel est, tel le confesse.


To have embedded his name at this textual juncture conveys a twofold message. The self-naming supplies the creative substance at the same time that the maternal voice generates poetic discourse. In giving speech to the mother, the mother in turn names the son.13

Significantly both of the other two famous examples of auto-onomastic acrostics in the Testament appear in love poems. The search for the female Other has to be defined, it seems, in terms of the self-naming son. In the ballade addressed to his mother, the woman was given speech. She was provided with the son's text, composed for the unlettered female. In the Ballade to “La Grosse Margot” the woman is made to listen to the composed text of which she is the subject matter: “Qu'on luy lise ceste ballade” (1590).

As in the mother's ballade, he names himself in the envoi/signature:

Vente, gresle, gesle, j'ay
mon pain cuyt.
Je suis paillart, la paillarde me
Lequel vault mieulx? Chascun bien
L'un vault l'autre; c'est
a mau rat mau chat.
Ordure aimons, ordure nous affuyt;
Nous deffuyons honneur, il nous deffuyt.


The testator communicates through his own sign system, with a woman who is herself perhaps but a sign. Both defy identification and both reverse the accepted norms of speech. In brief, the entire exchange takes place outside the established signifying code. Naming challenges at the very point where personhood claims its reality and distinctiveness—in emotional bonding.

The third example is the so-called “Ballade a s'amye” (942-77). The entire poem is permeated by fierce satire, first, of the courtly manner and second, of the woman for whom it is supposedly composed. The tone is already set in the disparaging reference to his beloved as “Orde paillarde” (941). But I would like to go beyond the stylistic mockery and see the specific relationship between content and the auto-acrostic in the first stanza:

Faulse beauté qui tant
me couste chier,
Rude en effect, ypocrite doulceur,
Amour dure plus que fer a macher,
Nommer que puis, de ma deffaçon
Cherme felon, la mort d'un povre
Orgueil mussé qui gens met
au mourir,
Yeulx sans pitié, ne veult
Droit de rigueur,
Sans empirer, ung povre secourir?


The emotional focus of the text is situated in the “Nommer que puis, de ma deffaçon seur” (950-56). Naming the Female Other (MARTHE) provokes fear of selfhood: “Villon like Freud much later sees death [Love] as desfaçon” (Humphries 153).

At the same time, however, there is willful irony in the statement, since another kind of “undoing” is also suggested. Naming is, after all, what makes the poem possible; naming gives textual substance to the testator. It is the triumph of the namer over the named in that every name provides lexical nourishment to the making of text. All names are “undone” only to be restructured to feed the poet's ambition, to absorb Other for the sake of Self, to assure life over death through the sorcery of onomastics: “What magic ultimately defends the self against is psychic death” (O'Keefe 263). This is the psychological coherence which unites all the acrostics in the text.

To be sure, there are cases in which the testator names himself horizontally, where his name is generative in the normal direction of text-making. His generosity to the “enfans enfermes” is contingent on prayer for the named and inadequate donor: “Pourveu qu'ilz diront ung psaultier / Pour l'ame du povre Villon” (1810-11). Giving, as it so often happens in this text, is in fact taking.

On his “epitaphe” he asks that one inscribe:

Cy gist et dort en ce sollier
Qu'Amours occist de son raillon
Ung povre petit escollier
Qui fut nommé Françoys Villon.


What is striking in the language is the redundancy of the lexeme “nommé,” thus conspicuously associating fear of the loss of personal identity to the more obvious apprehension of physical death. The very inconsistencies of the text point to the informing anguish:

Item, vueil qu'autour de ma fosse
Ce qui s'enssuit, sans autre histoire,
Soit escript en lectre assez grosse,
—Qui n'auroit point d'escriptouorie,
De charbon ou de pierre noire,
Sans en riens entamer le plasture.


On the one hand, the testator wants to provide for his “identity” (“vueil qu'autour … soit escript en lectre assez grosse”); on the other, he half-seriously concedes his non-identity (“sans autre histoire”). He longs for indelible personhood (“Sans en riens entamer le plastre”), yet points to his socio-onomastic vulnerability (“De charbon ou de pierre noire”).

The last piece in the collection echoes these sentiments. This is the ballade to which Marot has given the seemingly unimaginative title of “Ballade de Conclusion.” But this “conclusion” summarizes the psychological informants of the Testament. It reports the struggle between death and defiance, the conflict between menacing Other and indomitable Self which underlies it.

Whereas, in the world outside text, death means loss of desire (“Car en amours mourut martir” [2001]) and social status (“Quant mourut n'avoit q'un haillon” [2013]), in the testating universe it promises the revenge of a still-speaking narrator who cunningly, ironically, and unforgivingly outlives both Self and Other. Death triumphs over death, and the emblem of the final act of defiance is auto-onomastic identification: “Icy se clost le testament / Et finist du povre Villon.” To testate is to name and to name is to be empowered.

Whatever the historical identity of names in the Testament,14 its onomastics has much to say about the narrating persona and his anger. Poirion sees in the testator “[u]n Moi opposant un monde intérieur au monde extérieur” (528). The Testament stands out among all the medieval texts known to us as a particularly scornful albeit witty discourse which cries out for justice and finds it in the pleasure of the “last word.” In the testamental format the right to speak uninterrupted and from the vantage of inaccessibility allows the disinherited Self to turn the tables so that the Other becomes giver and he, the testator, the recipient. The ultimate gift is onomastic identity itself transfused into text which is consubstantial with its “texter.”

Naming places the namer in a position of domination. But, beyond that, the power to name bears with it also the author-ity to un-name. Anguished by the vulnerability of his own precarious selfhood, the testator undoes the Other by clever and vindictive verbal deformations. Names are reified, collectivized, reduced to their phonic value, textually absorbed. As such they become the possession of the word-creator, the lexicographical material of his re-structured universe: “Villon has done more than simply re-order, or re-interpret the world. He has re-created it” (Vitz 82).

In three important senses the testator defies namelessness. Medieval aesthetics absorbed the actor into the act. The artist deciphered the symbols of a visible, lesser world which in the process exacted the price of creative anonymity. The poetic persona also suffered from his inferior place in the socio-political scheme of things:

Povre je suis de ma jeunesse,
De povre et de peticte extrasse;
Mon pere n'eust oncq grant richesse,
Ne son ayeul, nommé Orrace.


He bemoaned the unchanging structures which left him low and unimportant in the hierarchy: “es mon ne bougent de leurs lieux, / Pour ung povre n'avant n'ariere” (127-28). Such a point of view, moreover, seemed embedded in the very way the world was created:

hierarchy suggested two correlative ideas or attitudes. The first was that everything created by God was of worth, because God had created it and thus continued to reveal Himself in it. Secondly, the value of the creatures was itself hierarchical: some were higher up on the ladder than others, hence were closer to God, participating more fully in the divine nature.

(Vitz 111-12)

But that is not all. From the text emerges a deeper sense of namelessness, the one which in fact forces him to assume the name of his “plus que pere.” By willing his body and soul to his earthly and celestial “mothers” (833-48), by calling up the name of the father (852), he recreates himself. He longs to be the named son.

Distressed by the absence of genealogical security, thwarted by the unmovable political universe, the testator creates a textual cosmos which turns the world “inside out and upside down” (Peckham 77). If Villon chooses the Testament as his literary frame, it is not only because it provides an outlet for his virulent sarcasm: it is also his ultimate revenge on anonymity. It is his defiant response to a family and society which refuse to name him. In lieu of a socio-economic revolution, the disparaged and disappointed persona/testator assumes a surrogate identity—that of writer.15 In death he resurrects Self by onomastically possessing and dispossessing the injurious and dominating Other. To read the onomastics in this way is to uncover a crucial reason for the “testiness” of the Testament.16


  1. Onomastic research has been a favorite sport of Villon scholars for many years now. Peckham's recent bibliography offers a good compendium of sources. Glossaries in the Thuasne, Longnon/Foulet and Rychner editions all provide a good point of departure.

  2. Even historicist critic Siciliano finds himself saying at one point: “dans le sousconscient de Villon on remarque encore un refoulement” (522 n.2). It is clear that this text cries out for subtextual interpretation: “En plus clair: le rire ambigu de Villon n'est pas le sens (entendons: raison profonde) mais le signifié de l'œuvre” (Mela 776).

  3. Our learned journals continue to show evidence of active interest in the issue of authorial versus narrative “I.” With regard to Villon, one might profitably read Calin, Frank, and Lacy. I would merely say here that, while one can certainly fall into the naive position of equating creator and creator's fictional voice, to assume that they are unrelated is to argue that the text writes itself.

  4. Much has been made of that other hidden onomastic source uncovered by the poet Tristan Tzara (Cf. Dufournet, Fox, Le Gentil). I tend to agree with Fein's warning against losing ourselves too much in “literary cryptography” (François 56), and will concentrate here on the more accessible onomastics of the Villon text.

  5. Several critics have dealt with origins of the form, notably Siciliano and Rice, and more recently Rossman.

  6. It is worth noting in this respect that in many cultures naming was an important part of the cosmogony. For the Babylonians, for example, the world could not have existed without naming (Hogarth 10). Naming has been thought to be a divine function (Genesis 2:19) and by extension, the power to name has often been considered a way to subjugate the Other (O'Keefe 44). For the Egyptians name and person were believed to be so intimately intertwined “that if the name were blotted out, the man ceased to exist” (Clodd 224). Thus naming and magic power have been linked in many primitive religions: “The formal recital of personal names to secure control over their owners appears as a constant feature of magical procedures” (Webster 101).

  7. My basic text is Rychner/Henry, although I have checked both Longnon and Thuasne.

  8. Yve-Plessis sees the tendency to prevaricate as an important index of the poet's pathology (84-85).

  9. For every four men there is but one female. This and other factors have led some critics to argue for a homosexual bias (Dufournet, Legage). I would say that this is more precisely a piece of homosocial discourse.

  10. See my essay on the troubadour lyric in which I identify the prevailing double image of Mary/Eve as psycho-literary construct of the beloved.

  11. “Et tout au fond on entrevoit l'enfant qui appelle le premier object de son amour, celle qui lui ayant donné la vie s'est trouvée séparée de lui” (Poirion 526).

  12. Fox devotes an interesting part of his own essay on Villon's text to this rhetorical tradition of “playing with words through use of homonymes” (16).

  13. Pickens speaks of the “circular logic which proceeds from and returns to his mother” (50).

  14. In her perceptive article on historical referentiality in Villon, Regalado counters the excessive preoccupation with diachronic context by pointing out that the poet is in fact more interested in “effet de réel” than “effet du réel”!

  15. “Il vise avec les mots le modèle d'une réforme des structures créées. Avec un poème, le Testament par exemple, il réalise cette réforme parmi les hommes, leurs institutions, et leurs possessions” (Kuhn 480). Strangely, Vitz's intelligent definition of linguistic cleverness leads her to conclude quite the opposite. She points to the testator's “lack of confidence in language's ability to express even the ordinary human condition” (140).

  16. For an interesting etymological review of the word “testament,” see Rossman 32-33.

Works Cited

Barteau, Françoise. “Y a-t-il un cadavre dans le placard? De la difficulté d'être au rendezvous, lorsqu'il se nomme ‘François Villon’ ou même ‘Renart.’” Revue des Langues Romanes 86 (1982): 239-56.

Blakeslee, Merritt R. “Le Lais et le Testament de François Villon: essai de lecture freudienne.” Fifteenth Century Studies 5 (1982): 1-8.

Calin, William. “Observations on Point of View and the Poet's Voice in Villon.” L'Esprit Créateur 7 (1967): 180-87.

Cholakian, Rouben. The Troubadour Lyric: A Psychocritical Reading. Manchester: University P, 1990.

Clodd, Edward. Magic in Names and in Other Things. London: Chapman & Hall, 1920.

Demarolle, Pierre. L'Esprit de Villon: étude de style. Paris: Nizet, 1968.

—. Villon: un testament ambigu. Paris: Larousse, 1973.

Dufournet, Jean. Nouvelles recherches sur Villon. Paris: Champion, 1980.

—. “Deux poètes du Moyen Age en face de la mort: Rutebeuf et Villon.” Dies Illa: Death in the Middle Ages. Ed. Jane Taylor. Liverpool: Cavins, 1984.

Fein, David. A Reading of Villon's Testament. Birmingham: Summa Publications, 1984.

—. François Villon and his Reader. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1989.

Fenichel, Otto. The Psychoanalytic Theory of Neurosis. New York: Norton, 1945.

Frank, Grace. “Villon's Poetry and the Biographical Approach.” L'Esprit Créateur. 7 (1967): 159-69.

Fox, John. Villon: Poems. London: Grant & Cutler, 1984.

Guiraud, Pierre. Le Testament de Villon; ou le gai savoir de la basoche. Paris: Gallimard, 1970.

Hogarth, D. G., ed. Authority and Archeology: Sacred and Profane. London: John Murry, 1899.

Humphries, Jefferson. The Otherness Within Gnostic Readings in Marcel Proust, Flannery O'Connor and François Villon. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

Kuhn, David. La Poétique de François Villon. Paris: Colin, 1967.

Lacy, Norris J. “The Voices of Villon's Testament.” Dalhousie French Studies 4 (Oct. 1982): 3-12.

Le Gentil, Pierre. Villon. Paris: Hatier, 1967.

Lepage, Yvan G. “François Villon et l'homosexualité.” Le Moyen Age 92 (1986): 69-89.

Mela, C. “Je Françoys Villon.” Mélanges de langue et de littérature du Moyen Age et de la Renaissance offerts à Jean Frappier. Vol. 2. Geneva: Droz, 1970. 775-96.

Meschonnic, Henri. Le Signe et le poème. Paris: Gallimard 1975.

O'Keefe, Daniel Lawrence. Stolen Lightning: Social Theory of Magic. New York: Continuum, 1982.

Peckham, Robert D. François Villon: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990.

—. “François Villon's Testament and the Poetics of Transformation.” Fifteenth Century Studies 11 (1985): 71-83.

Pickens, Rupert. “The Concept of the Feminine Ideal in Villon's Testament: Huitain LXXXIX.” Studies in Philology 70 (1973): 42-50.

Poirion, Daniel. “L'Enfance d'un poète: François Villon et son personnage.” Mélanges de littérature du Moyen Age au XX siècle offerts à Jeanne Lods. Vol. 1. Paris: Ecole Normale des jeunes filles, 1978. 517-29.

—. “La Fonction poétique des noms propres dans le Testament de François Villon.” Cahiers de L'Association Internationale des Etudes Françaises 32 (1980): 51-68.

Regalado, Nancy F. “Effet de réel, effet du réel: Representation and Reference in Villon's Testament.” Yale French Studies 70 (1986): 63-80.

Rice, Winthrop. The European Ancestry of Villon's Satirical Testaments. New York: Corporate P, 1941.

Rossman, Vladimir R. François Villon: les concepts médiévaux du testament. Paris: Delarge, 1976.

Siciliano, Italo. François Villon et les thèmes poétiques du Moyen Age. Paris: Colin, 1934.

Villon, François. Le Testament. Eds. Jean Rychner and Albert Henry. 2 vols. Genève: Droz, 1974.

—. Oeuvres. Texte établi par Auguste Longnon. Revue par Lucien Foulet. Paris: Champion, 1970.

—. Oeuvres. édition critique. Ed. Louis Thuasne. 3 vols. Paris: Picard, 1923.

Vitz, Evelyn Birge. The Crossroad of Intentions: A Study of Symbolic Expression in the Poetry of François Villon. The Hague: Mouton, 1974.

Yve-Plessis, R. C. La Psychose de François Villon. Paris: Schemit, 1925.

M. J. Freeman (essay date 1992)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 6926

SOURCE: “‘Faulte d'Argent M'a Si fort Enchanté’: Money and François Villon,” in Romance Studies, Vol. 24, 1992, pp. 59-70.

[In this essay, Freeman contends that the critical tendency to interpret Villon as a precursor to Romantic poets has caused scholars to overlook the importance of money and poverty in Villon's oeuvre. Focusing on Le Lais and Le Testament, Freeman suggests that the modern view of the Romantic starving artist cannot take into account Villon's real desire and need for material security.]

Since he was rediscovered at the beginning of the 19th century (one thinks of Théophile Gautier's seminal chapter in Les Grotesques for example), François Villon has become best known as the poet of passing time, of regret for misspent youth, of the pangs of dispriz'd love, and of the vanity of human wishes.1 His work has been widely—if patchily—anthologized, and what is perhaps his most famous line (‘Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?’) has passed into a number of languages with the status of a proverb. As a result of this foregrounding of the lyrical aspect of the poet's work (which is not surprising given that some of his verses on the universal themes mentioned above are often evocative and enchanting, whereas satirical poetry is frequently topical and thus over-contextualized), less attention has been paid to other possible sources of inspiration. It is true that as distinguished and sensitive a critic as Marcel Schwob could claim to see in Villon's Testament a pamphlet aimed at exposing the corruption of the moneyed elite of his day but, generally speaking, a view of Villon the proto-Romantic has prevailed.

It is worth remembering, though, that of the 3000 or so extant lines which can be safely attributed to François Villon, some 2300 (in fact 2343) are incorporated into works whose structure links them to the worlds of law and … finance.2 Villon's two major works are Le Lais (written probably at the beginning of 1457) and Le Testament, which he himself dates at 1461 and which he probably put together in its final form after his return to Paris in 1462. Both works are, then, mock wills and as such inevitably to do with money, being largely made up of spurious bequests in which the poet distributes his fictional goods and/or money to various figures drawn from contemporary Paris society. Villon's tongue is firmly in his cheek, and he pointedly bestows his gifts on the haves rather than the have-nots. With typical black humour, he leaves to the blind his ‘grans lunectes’ (Testament, v. 1733), while to each of those unfortunates forced to sleep rough under Paris market stalls he gives a punch in the eye, and wishes them continued poverty and ill health (Lais, vv. 235-40).

The first of these works, Le Lais, is on the whole good-humoured and without bitterness. The poet claims to be leaving Paris because of a broken heart. The real reason may well have been quite different. Some time around Christmas 1456, Villon was involved in a major robbery. The wealthy Collège de Navarre, a constituent college of the University of Paris of which he had been a member, was broken into and robbed of some 500 escus. Now it might be argued that this was just part of an elaborate act of derring-do.3 The truth is that he almost certainly needed the money. Though well educated, he was not from a wealthy background, and the sort of lifestyle he wished to cultivate needed more money than he could muster. He signs off his work by referring to himself archly as ‘le bien renommé Villon’, but there are enough indications in this short and breezy work to suggest that lack of money is already getting to him. He ends by jokily claiming, for example, that he has given all his worldly goods to his friends (as one would, of course, in a will), adding significantly that he has only a little money left, which will soon be all gone:

Et n'a mais q'un peu de billon
Qui sera tantost a fin mis.

(Lais, vv. 319-20).

In this work, written when the poet was perhaps no more than 25 or so and when he appears not yet to have experienced real suffering, he shows his awareness of what he already no doubt saw as the good things in life. Many of his jokes are at the expense of his legatees, pointing up their physical or sexual shortcomings, but reference to luxury items (no doubt entirely imaginary) such as the gloves and silk cloak he bequeaths to ‘mon ami Jacques Cardon’, in fact a wealthy draper with a shop on the place Maubert, suggests that neither is a stranger to fine living, an impression strengthened by the gift of generous quantities of food and drink with which he completes this huitain (Lais, vv. 121-28).

After the robbery at the Collège de Navarre, the poet effectively took to the roads, presumably for fear of being implicated and arrested. Now his troubles were to begin in earnest. From the spring of 1457 until his (brief) return to Paris in 1462 he was to know hardship, hunger, prison, deprivation and, of course, lack of money. Not surprisingly, money was to become an obsession with him, one that he shared with the age as a whole. After the departure of the English from Paris in 1437, the city recovered remarkably quickly. By the time Villon was a student at the Sorbonne in the 1450s, the atmosphere in Paris was one of unbridled enthusiasm for material pleasures, something which had of course been missing from the lives of Parisians for so long. Villon must have participated fully in this pursuit of pleasure. The only trouble was that he did not really have the sort of money that it took to run with the smartest hounds. Living by your pen was not really an option, even if he did so occasionally and on a smallish scale. As Bronislaw Geremek has shown, career prospects were not good for arts graduates (Villon was made a Bachelor of Arts in 1449 and was awarded an M.A. in 1452) in fifteenth-century France.4 All things considered, it is no surprise that many a young man with wit, a ready tongue, and a keen interest in fast living should look favourably on a life of crime as a way out of his dilemma. It must all have looked so easy to François Villon in the spring of 1457. Four and a half years later, when he was released after spending the summer in the ‘dure prison de Mehun’ he saw things very differently.5

In Le Testament, his greatest work, he tells us from the start that he is a sadder and wiser man. He has suffered at the hands of corrupt judges and policemen, had more than his share of bad luck (he is, as always, careful never to divulge the extent of his criminal activities) and allowed himself to be bamboozled by women. But then again, he asks, who hasn't? The leitmotiv of the work, which is always detectable even if it comes to the surface only sporadically, is his obsession with money. He describes himself as being ‘foible … de biens’ (Testament, vv. 73-74) and speaks of tramping the roads of France, in the slough of despond (‘au plus fort de mes maulx’) and without a penny (Testament, vv. 97-98).

References to his poverty, and consequent lack of opportunity in life, abound in his work. Sometimes in the form of aphorism or proverbial expression, as when he remarks that he can no longer compete with well-fed rivals for women's favours, since a ‘triste cueur, ventre affamé’ (Testament, v. 195) are not the best qualifications for a successful lover, especially as ‘la dance vient de la pance’ (v. 200) … At times he can develop the theme at length, recounting the story of the pirate Diomedes who had the good fortune to meet up with the emperor Alexander, taking advantage of this encounter to treat him to a disquisition on inequality. Villon tells us that for a poor man ‘les mons ne bougent de leurs lieux’ (neither forwards nor backwards, he gratuitously adds to undercut the seriousness of his point with sly humour) and shows how Alexander took pity on the pirate and gave him his chance to reform and prosper. Sadly, no such understanding patron had come the poet's way, and he ruefully points out that

Neccessité fait gens mesprendre
Et fain saillir le loup du boys.

(Testament, vv. 167-68).

(Mea culpa, no doubt). Elsewhere, real bitterness comes through. He claims, although with what truth we cannot know, that members of his family turned their backs on him, ‘oubliant naturel devoir’, because he lacks money—‘par faulte d'un peu de chevance’ (Testament, vv. 183-84).

An overall picture has, then, begun to emerge early on in Le Testament. Villon blames lack of money for his predicament and personal failings. In one of the most revealing passages in this work, he tells us with obvious anguish that he is perfectly aware that if he had only studied more in the days of his wild youth and behaved more responsibly, he would now have a house and a soft bed:

Bien sçay, se j'eusse estudié
Ou temps de ma jeunesse folle
Et a bonnes meurs dedié
J'eusse maisson et couche molle …

(Testament, vv. 201-04)

No mention of spiritual enlightenment or the getting of wisdom. No, what he regrets—and here, for once, we do not need to doubt his sincerity—is the missed opportunity to find material security. When he goes on to examine the careers of former drinking companions from his university days (no names mentioned, of course), he shows how some have done well, while others have been reduced to beggary, and ‘pain ne voient qu'aux fenestres' (Testament, v. 236). Some of the ‘gracieux galans' he once knew have become ‘grans seigneurs et maistres’, while others have fallen on hard times. His description of their different fates is expressed entirely in material terms; the fine wines and dishes of the rich are put before us merely as examples of the sort of thing a poor man like Villon never had the chance to taste. He is, after all, he tells us, of ‘povre et de peticte extrasse’ (Testament, v. 274), and lack of money is the root of all evil. He was born poor, and is likely to die poor unless a generous Maecenas will lend a sensitive ear to his tale of woe. He tries to console himself with the thought that death takes the high and the low and that even the likes of the ‘riche pillart’ (Testament, v. 422) he sees and envies as they advertize their wealth on the streets of Paris will have to face death and judgement. There can be little doubt, though, that his obsession with his poverty is at the heart of his satirical (and indeed lyrical) impulse.

The episode of the Belle Heaulmiere illustrates this very well. One of Villon's best known creations, she is portrayed as an ageing woman of the streets, abandoned to her fate now that her looks have faded. The message she delivers in the ballade Villon has her address to younger and still active ‘filles de joie’ is a harsh and cynical one. Essentially, it is that young women should not trust either their looks or their men, for

          vielles n'ont ne cours ne estre
Ne que monnoye qu'on descrye.

(Testament, vv. 539-40).

For her—and of course for Villon himself—women are reduced (as are poets whose faces do not fit, he would seem to be implying) to a currency that has been devalued. There could be no clearer indication of the way in which the poet views human relationships. He is no moralist, except perhaps in his cups, but he is clearly aiming to strike a chord with his readers by drawing attention to the harsh laws that govern such matters. Everyone is mercenary, he says. Money rules, and dog eats dog in the tough, unsentimental world of post-war (post-Hundred Years War, that is) Paris. Loyalty, love, generosity are as nothing once the desire for money gets the upper hand, as it appears to have increasingly done in the France of the time. Numerous contemporary texts paint a similar picture, but Villon's testimony is without doubt the most graphic evidence we have, perhaps because he felt it the more keenly, having suffered more than most. Suffice it to say that, for him, it would seem that sex, good living and what he would appear to see as the good life are inextricably linked to one's ability to pay.6

He outlines his personal philosophy, which is in essence that nothing compares to living in comfort, in a clever parody of two famous poems, written by Phillipe de Vitri (c. 1290-1361) and Pierre d'Ailly (1351-1420), on the theme of Franc Gontier, the poor countryman who delights in his freedom and frugal existence far from the temptations of court and city life. Villon pokes merciless fun at these self-indulgent and basically hypocritical poems. He derides the world-view of the fictional Gontier, whom he claims not to fear as he is also poor—il n'a nulz hommes / Et mieulx que moy n'est herité’ (Testament, vv. 1465-66)—and engages in a debate with him about the relative merits of poverty and wealth. To underline his point, he invents a fat canon who is shown lolling on a soft bed (vows of chastity, etc. notwithstanding) with a lady of dubious morals. They deny themselves nothing, taking advantage of a warm well furnished room, ‘hypocras’,7 and a soft bed on which they indulge their naked bodies. Only when I saw them—through a crack in the wall, he knowingly adds—did I fully understand that: ‘Il n'est tresor que de vivre a son aise’. So much of Villon's attitude to life is summed up in these lines! How many times when he was on the run, or spending an uncomfortable night in some draughty barn, must he have dreamt of a warm room and a bed with sheets? To be able to drink fine wines, eat good food, mingle with ‘grans seigneurs et maistres’ and enjoy the favours of pretty women, however, one needs money in abundance. There is no mistaking the bitterness in lines such as ‘Car povres gens ont assez maulx’, or ‘A menues gens menue monnoye’ (Testament, vv. 1647 and 1651). The little man gets little money, these are the rules of the game. For someone like Villon, who could not find a patron wise enough to recognize his talents and take him on warts and all, it would seem that crime was the only way out. If only, he seems to be implying, some understanding soul would come along and free me from this vicious circle. It all comes back, in his version of events, to a ‘peu de chevance’. For everything and everybody can be bought and sold. The famous ‘Ballade de la Grosse Margot’ makes this clear. In this poem Villon portrays himself as a pimp, living with and off Margot, whom he does not hesitate to beat up

Quant sans argent s'en vient coucher Margot

(Testament, v. 1602).

But when the clients pay well, all is fine between them. Once again, love is reduced to sexual desire; in other words, to a commodity which can be merchandized. For Villon, the brothel in which they live ‘in state’ symbolizes not so much depravity as a form of realism. This is a provocative poem which is perhaps not all it seems. None the less, the sub-text remains that money is what really matters, not respect or love or honour, which he specifically derides. Villon sets this poem in the Parisian underworld with which he was familiar, the world in which outlaws lived dangerously (and perhaps, to him, excitingly) but where, having earned their money at the risk of their necks, they invariably threw it away ‘aux tavernes et aux filles’. Perhaps this is the secret of success: the really clever villains, the well-heeled judges, churchmen, pillars of the Establishment to a man, knew how to hang on to their ill-gotten gains. The marginaux, the petty crooks, the street musicians, the young whores showing off their breasts ‘pour avoir plus largement hostes’ (Testament, v. 1977), the bohemian crowd of eternal students among whom Villon moved, had never learned how to keep what little money came their way. They were small fry, anyway. But they were his people, the ones with whom he felt most at ease, and whose joys and sadnesses he could identify with and give voice to. As for the others, especially those who had imprisoned and tortured him, he would, he defiantly claims, willingly fart and belch in their faces, were he not sitting down. He turns once more to schadenfreude for consolation. Looking at what remains of the bodies of the rich in the Paris cemetery of the Innocents, he notes that it is impossible to tell a wealthy skeleton from a poor one. In this place, he remarks, there are no fun and games (presumably sexual, above all), and he asks us to consider what use to the rich their wealth is now—the word ‘chevances’ again. They once frolicked in luxurious beds, drank as much wine as they could and filled their bellies (‘panses’) with rich food. Where they are now, the very memory of such pleasures will have been lost. It is surely significant that even the dead are categorized in terms of their purchasing power, and of the creams and powders with which they pampered their bodies. It is as if Villon welcomes death as a means of relieving the rich of their money, of reducing all mankind, rich and poor alike, to a shared anonymity.

Villon defines himself, then, in terms of his poverty. He is, after all, merely a ‘povre petit escollier’ (Testament, v. 1886), both penniless and humble. He also extends this self-identification, and that of his milieu, to the dead and those who (all of us in fact) are what the Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa calls corpses in-waiting. All humanity is thus defined in terms of money. It is the key to success and, in his case, failure. Much of his satire is aimed at the financially secure and at the dishonesty (or so he suggests) which has allowed them to achieve wealth and status. It is no surprise to find Villon comparing himself with the famous financier Jacques Coeur and maintaining (in a passage which is probably a twist on a biblical theme) that he would rather be alive and poor than dead and rich like Coeur. However much he tries to persuade himself of such a view (and he does so, too, in poems such as the ‘Ballade de bon conseil’ and the ‘Ballade de Fortune’, significantly not in Le Testament), it is apparent that lack of money is not only the key to the poet's life but also to his work. It runs throughout Le Testament and informs his attitude to life and to literature.

It is nowhere more obvious, however, than in the ballade which is usually known as the ‘Requeste à Monseigneur de Bourbon’. It is something of a mystery why this poem has not received more critical attention than it has, for it seems to me to go to the very heart of Villon's dilemma. A certain reluctance on the part of critics to engage with it may stem from the fact that it is difficult both to date and to localize. It appears in the Chansonnier de Rohan manuscript (thought to date from about 1475 and now in Berlin) and in two later (early sixteenth-century) ones, as well as in the Pierre Levet edition of 1489. But only in the printed edition of 1489 (and in later editions which derive from it) and one of the sixteenth-century manuscripts does it come with a title, identifying it as a poem dedicated to ‘Monseigneur de Bourbon’. The Duke of Bourbon in question would presumably be Jean II, who became duke in 1456 and who was a patron of the arts. He was a friend of Charles d'Orléans, and a member of his poetic circle. Villon scholars have traditionally followed Lucien Foulet in believing that the poem was indeed sent to (or at least written for) the Duke of Bourbon and support their case by drawing attention to the passage in Le Testament in which the poet appears to suggest that at some point in his painful past he paid a visit to the town of Moulins, where the Duke had his seat, in order to plead for help. His pleas would appear not to have fallen on deaf ears, and he describes himself as being eternally grateful. It has to be said that huitain XIII of Le Testament does seem to lend weight to such a view. Villon could well have appealed, then, to the Duke during his wanderings—and at his lowest point—and would be tempted to do so again. It is all very plausible. Recently, however, critics have begun to doubt this version of events and wondered whether the poem was not addressed instead to Charles d'Orléans, dating it from the time Villon was at Blois, or after he was released from the prison at Meung.8 It could be argued that all this constitutes external and not especially relevant evidence and that the poem should be looked at with purely internal evidence in mind. The difficulty is that this ‘requeste’ is of interest primarily for biographical reasons, and failure to agree on date, place and intention is not unreasonably seen as a major obstacle to interpretation.

Another factor which has perhaps dissuaded critics from taking the piece seriously is its tone, at times mischievous and witty but otherwise embarrassingly grovelling in its unashamedly naked appeal for help. This really is literature of the stomach. Villon admits to being weary, to having been ‘tamed’ (‘dompté’) by blows and beatings. Humility is now the name of the game, an uncomfortable (both for the poet and for his admirers) but necessary posture.9 In this text which, by its function, is effectively para-literary, there is no place for stylistic conceit. Villon is writing to be understood, and for a purpose. It can safely be assumed, therefore, that there is an element of sincerity in it, which is not always the case, by any means, in his work. This is especially clear in the opening lines of the third strophe:

Si je pouoie vendre de ma santé
A ung Lombart, usurier par nature,
Faulte d'argent m'a si fort enchanté
Que j'en prendroie, ce croy bien, l'avanture.
Argent ne pend a gipon n'a saincture.

(vv. 21-25)

Here Villon, in extremis, feels no compunction in displaying a life-long and major preoccupation, namely his lack of money. He ends the poem in what purports to be a note on the back of his begging letter by stating again that ‘faulte d'argent si m'assault’ (v. 39). Under the whimsical and deliberately light-hearted manner, the authentic voice of pain and humiliation comes through. The reference to beatings, to a previous loan of six escuz (v. 13) and, above all, to the fact that lack of money has effectively turned his mind (‘enchanter’ meaning to bewitch or spellbind) shows how close this apparently trivial poem is to Villon's coeur and to his corps. He had claimed in Le Lais that he was leaving Paris because of a broken heart, and that he is one of love's victims, an ‘amant martir’. In reality his sudden departure had more to do with the need to escape the clutches of the police. Not enough has been made of his no doubt conscious decision, at the close of Le Testament, to return to this same theme. So, when he proclaims that he is dying as a martyr to love—‘Car en amours mourut martir’ (v. 2001)—he is tipping the wink to those in the know (and just how many were there?) that his real problems lie elsewhere. Critics who have seized on these passages to talk at length about Villon and love may well have been missing the point. What they have failed to notice, in particular, is that in the same final ballade of his (mock) last will and testament he refers to his pitiful condition, telling his readers that ‘Quant mourut, n'avoit q'un haillon’ (Testament, v. 2013), an obvious allusion to the deleterious effects of lack of money. I would argue, indeed, that his sex life was likely to have been less traumatic for him than the discomfort caused by his financial plight. Perhaps he merely played at being a martyr to love. He was really more of a martyr to poverty.10 Having no house or warm bed, and no food to put in his stomach, was no literary joke. The unhealed trauma that lay at the heart of Villon's life and work was his inability, whether through his criminal or poetic activity, to find lasting material security. It would be foolish to pretend that lack of money doth a poet make, but it is obvious from his writings—and we must be careful to read all his works, and not just those which fit into a convenient ‘Romantic’ package—that he was permanently scarred by his failure to make a success of his life in the sort of terms which the age in which he lived best understood.

As we have seen, the Paris of the 1450s was notorious for its hunger for consumption and display, an understandable reaction, perhaps, after the real hunger its inhabitants had known for generations. Villon inevitably reflects this mood, and the poet cannot but see himself as a loser.11 Two recent publications make this same point. In his edition of Villon's poetry, Claude Thiry states that there is a ‘dialectique de la pauvreté qui anime l'oeuvre de Villon’,12 and in a thought-provoking monograph Jacques T. E. Thomas stresses the tone of ‘récrimination sociale’ which pervades Le Testament.13 Some eighty years ago the eminent critic Pierre Champion had been even more categorical: ‘Villon ne fut ni un altruiste ni un réformateur. Il manquait seulement d'argent; ayant désiré beaucoup d'en avoir il a maudit ceux qui lui en avaient refusé.14 But Villon's preoccupation with money goes further than being the source of his (often cruel) satire. It also colours his aesthetic and lyrical outlook. A true child of his time, he defines himself and others in terms of their wealth and outward appearance. Even the dead are not spared, from rich ladies who are pointedly reminded that they no longer have any need for creams and lotions to the criminals swinging on the gallows in the haunting ‘Epitaphe Villon’ (or ‘Ballade des pendus’)—for Thiry a ‘ballade de pauvres’—who admit to having once pampered their bodies, but neglected their souls. Speaking on their behalf, Villon refers ruefully to the ‘chair que trop avons nourrie’. Once again, his obsession with good living comes to the fore. Good living in the strictly material sense, that is.

Nineteenth- and twentieth-century critics have, on the whole, shied away from linking Villon's desire for wealth too closely to the wellspring of his satirical and, a fortiori, lyrical poetry. They have presumably regarded such a source of inspiration as demeaning. Yet everyone who has ever studied Villon's life and works in any depth knows that here was a man who stole and killed; it is more comfortable, however, to explain away his misdeeds as part of his ‘mystery’ or ‘enigma’ than to look at what we know of his personal history in terms of a need to live well and ‘a son aise’, to quote his own words.15 Readers of his poetry in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, on the other hand, seem to have had no such inhibitions. The ‘Requeste’, given short shrift by most modern commentators, was given pride of place by poets of the following generation who strove to capture the ‘Villon touch’. Jean Marot imitates it closely in a poem written, similarly, with financial gain in mind:

Et, comme dit Villon en ses brocars,
De ma santé je vendrois aux Lombards,
Voire mes ans, se argent vouloient produire!

And in an ‘épitre’ addressed to François Ier, the court poet Guillaume Cretin speaks approvingly of Villon's skill at extracting money from the Duke of Bourbon and congratulates ‘ce gentil Villon’ on receiving ‘soulas pour ung peu de billon’. Clément Marot, himself, penned in 1532 a huitain to ‘ung sien Amy’, who was in fact Jacques Colin, the king's secretary and lecteur, in which he makes an undisguised plea for a ‘gracieux prest’ by means of a variation on Villon's poem on the same theme. Marot clearly assumes that both his friend and his royal master will grasp the allusion and see the joke. And, naturally, come up with the money.16

There can be no better indication, though, of the reception of Villon's work in the years immediately after it was written than the existence of a series of verse tales known as the Repeues franches, which probably date from around 1490 and which show the various (largely disreputable) means by which an enterprising young man such as Villon could find ways of getting himself a free meal. The number of editions of these puerile and badly written stories is both a pointer to popular taste at the time and a guide to the durability of the self-created myth of Villon the ‘bon follastre’. For the first couple of generations of readers, at least, Villon was mostly appreciated for his mischievous (Marot and others would see it as quintessentially ‘Parisian’) charm. Writers of varying talents up to and including Rabelais seem to have seen him primarily as a ‘farceur’ and, to quote Pierre Champion, an ‘écornifleur joyeux’.17 But they were all acutely aware of a poet's need to debase himself on occasion simply to survive. Anyone attempting to live by his pen would have been constantly reminded of the power of money. This applied as much to a Cretin or a Marot as it did to Villon, and helps explain why aspects of his work which inevitably have limited resonance today were looked upon at the time as typifying a poet's condition, and duly memorized and repeated. Villon's painful but often witty exposition of what would have seemed to his original audience an obsessive but natural preoccupation with money could not fail, therefore, to strike a chord.18 Living, as we do, in quite different times, we are more sensitive to his genius for adding flesh to the bare bones of human existence in verses of stark and often haunting beauty. The snows of yesteryear, which were for Rabelais little more than an excuse for a joke, have come to symbolize for modern readers of Villon's poetry man's powerlessness when faced with the passing of time and pitiless death.19 Who can be sure what Villon meant?20 What we can say with certainty is that he was very much a man of his time, just as all those who read, admire and analyse his works are of theirs.


  1. The history of ‘Villon-Rezeption’ is expertly summarized by Jean Dufournet in his Villon et sa fortune littéraire (Saint-Médard-en-Jalles: Guy Ducros, 1970). It transpires that, from the middle of the sixteenth century until the early years of the nineteenth, Villon was not much read in France. His work had become too difficult, from a linguistic point of view, for most potential readers, and, due to a shift in taste from the 1550s onwards, too coarse for the cultured elite. Two recent bibliographies underline this point: see Robert D. Peckam, François Villon. A Bibliography (New York & London: Garland Publishing, 1990), and Rudolf Sturm, François Villon. Bibliographie et matériaux littéraires 1489-1988 (Munchen: K. G. Saur, 1990, 2 vol.). Gautier's study was first published in La France Littéraire in 1834, before reaching a wider public in Les Grotesques ten years later.

  2. All references to Villon's poems are taken from the critical editions published by J. Rychner and A. Henry, Le Testament Villon. I. Texte. II. Commentaire (Genève: Droz, 1974); Le Lais Villon et les Poèmes variés. I. Textes. II. Commentaire (Genève: Droz, 1977).

  3. Thanks to research undertaken more than a century ago, we know that Villon had been in trouble with the police before. On the evening of the 5th of June 1455 he had been involved in an argument with a priest which had ended in blows, … and with Villon's dagger in his adversary's groin. The priest later died of his wounds. For a recent examination of this incident and its consequences, see Pierre Braun, ‘Les Lettres de rémission accordées à François Villon’, in Villon hier et aujourd'hui. Actes du colloque pour le cinq-centième anniversaire de l'impression du Testament de Villon, réunis et publiés par Jean Dérens, Jean Dufournet et Michael Freeman (Paris: Bibliothèque Historique de la Ville de Paris, 1993), pp. 53-72. Archival investigation also yielded up the names of the gang-members who took part with Villon in the robbery at the Collège de Navarre. In view of the care he took to cover his traces, the poet would no doubt be horrified to know that scholars have managed to piece together crucial events in his life.

  4. See Bronislaw Geremek, Les Marginaux parisiens aux XIVe et XVe siècles (Paris: Flammarion, 1976), and especially pp. 175-84.

  5. It is by no means clear quite why Villon found himself in Bishop Thibaut d'Aussigny's prison at Meung-sur-Loire, near Orléans, for a ‘whole summer’ in 1461. What is clear, though, is that the experience was to mark him deeply.

  6. See Pierre Le Gentil's description of life in Paris in Villon's day: ‘Sous les yeux de Villon, Paris avait donc repris sa physionomie habituelle, sa prospérité, son animation. Après les privations des années sombres, on s'y employait à bien vivre, à condition d'en avoir les moyens: d'où les redoutables tentations auxquelles devaient faire face ceux que le sort avait moins favorisés et qui voyaient autour d'eux s'étaler le luxe de la table ou du costume’ (Villon, Paris: Connaissance des Lettres, Hatier, 1967, pp.77-78). A similar picture emerges from Jean Favier, François Villon (Paris: Fayard, 1982), and from the same author's Paris au XVe siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1974).

  7. ‘Hypocras’, a mulled wine made with sugar, cinnamon, cloves and ginger, was thought to be a powerful aphrodisiac. There is no evidence that it had any effect, other than in the mind.

  8. Rychner and Henry, in their edition of Villon's works (Le Lais, II, Commentaire, p.81), conclude that the poem was probably written for Charles d'Orléans, ‘vers la fin du séjour à Blois’. Gert Pinkernell, in his recent book on François Villon et Charles d'Orléans, (1457 à 1461): D'après lesPoésies diverses’, de Villon (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1992), has a chapter (pp. 163-78) whose very title makes it clear where he stands on the question: ‘La Requeste au Seigneur et Prince: une supplique adressée au duc Charles après la libération de Meung’. This is the fullest discussion of the piece to date. In an article published in 1987 Luciano Rossi also examines the ballade, but starts from the dubious premise that it is all an elaborate joke, written to amuse Charles d'Orléans and his circle of effete poetry lovers: see ‘François Villon et son prince redoubté: notes sur deux ballades’, in Romania ingeniosa. Festschrift für Gerold Hilty (Bern: 1987), pp.201-20. An article by Daniel Poirion on ‘Le fol et le sage “auprès de la fontaine”: la rencontre de François Villon et Charles d'Orléans’, in Travaux de linguistique et de littérature, VI, 1968, pp.52-68, similarly mixes intuition with fantasy.

  9. Pinkernell points out (op.cit., pp. 168-69) that ‘la critique moderne (…) a toujours goûté la pièce, sans la prendre trop au sérieux et sans lui consacrer de grands efforts exégétiques’. The examples he goes on to quote show this to be true; Gaston Paris wrote dismissively of the poem at the turn of the century as ‘un modèle dans l'art de quémander avec désinvolture et une sorte d'élégance, art qui resta en faveur parmi les beaux esprits plus de deux siècles après Villon. Nous sommes devenus peu sensibles à ce genre de talent’. In a book of 540 pages, Jean Favier devotes just four to the requête, presumably on the grounds that its ‘souffle poétique est court’, (François Villon, p.432). He accepts that the poem was written for Jean de Bourbon, but suggests that Villon need not have travelled as far as Moulins to deliver a poem to a wealthy aristocrat who was frequently on the move and who, in any case, maintained a large house in Paris.

  10. The interpretation of huitain XXV seems to me to be crucial in this respect. In it Villon bemoans the fact that lack of money, bringing in its train depression and hunger, prevents him from being a successful lover:

    Bien est verté que j'é aymé
    Et aymeroye voulentiers;
    Mais triste cueur, ventre affamé,
    Qui n'est rassassié au tiers,
    M'oste des amoureux sentiers.
    Au fort, quelc'um s'en recompence
    Qui est remply sur les chantiers,
    Car la dance vient de la pance!

    (Testament, vv. 193-200).

    He does, of course, tell us, and at some length, that he was one of Love's victims. Like Samson, Solomon and King David, among others, in fact. It is after all axiomatic that ‘Folles amours font les gens bestes’ (v.629). His intended reader could be expected to sympathize with Villon's description of himself as an example of man's inability to resist woman's charms, and the poet exploits this implicitly misogynistic theme to the full. The suffering he claims to have endured because of his unrequited love provides him with a perfect excuse for explaining away his ‘misadventures’ (for which we can now read ‘crimes’). He makes great play of the fact that some unnamed woman, whom he ‘served with good heart and loyally’, turned his head and made him act out of character, although we are invited to assume that by the time he was writing his Testament he had seen the error of his ways. Despite Villon's (deliberately playful?) protestations, one is forced to agree with André Lanly that ‘la peine d'amour invoquée n'est qu'un paravent’ and that ‘le poète a joué devant nous un rôle d'amant martyr selon la bonne tradition littéraire’. Like Lanly, I find it hard to see Villon, who boasts almost of his familiarity with the world of prostitution and crime, as ‘à trente ans, l'homme d'une grande passion amoureuse’: see François Villon, Oeuvres, Traduction en français moderne accompagnée de notes explicatives, par André Lanly (Paris: Champion, 2 vols., 3e édition, 1978) I. p.121.

  11. As Pierre Le Gentil rightly points out, ‘Villon se persuade que sa pauvreté est la vraie cause de ses déboires et de ses fautes’ (op.cit., p.105).

  12. See François Villon, Poésies complètes. Présentation, édition et annotations de Claude Thiry (Paris: Le Livre de Poche, 1991), p.33.

  13. See Jacques T. E. Thomas, Lecture du Testament Villon (Genève: Droz, 1992), p.102.

  14. Quoted by Jean-Claude Delclos in Villon, Le Testament, Le Lais, Poésies diverses, extraits, etc., (Paris: Bordas, 1987), p.126.

  15. As Bronislaw Geremek correctly states in a perceptive article on ‘Le rire et la souffrance chez François Villon’: ‘Les historiens ont de la peine à admettre qu'un poète ait pu être aussi un voleur habituel’ (p.157).

  16. These three well-known poems are quoted by Pinkernell (op.cit., pp. 167-68). The first two probably date from the very beginning of the sixteenth century. The authors of all three clearly assume that Villon's piece will be familiar to the recipients of their own poems, and to a wider audience. They can therefore be said to provide us with a fine example of premeditated intertextuality. The poets' imitation of Villon's humorous manner helps them deflect attention from their potentially humiliating subservience.

  17. See Pierre Champion, François Villon. Sa vie et son temps, 2e édition avec un nouvel avant-propos. Nouveau tirage, 2 vol., (Paris: Champion, 1967), II, p.279: ‘Il semble bien que vers ce temps là les Repues Franches, dont le succès fut considérable, données comme les gentillesses mêmes de François, ont fixé la légende de Villon qui sera décidément celle d'un écornifleur joyeux’.

  18. Even if few could have guessed at the real circumstances of Villon's life. His poems are consciously ambiguous, and by the time they found their way into print (in 1489) were already difficult to decode, as Clément Marot recognized in the remarkable preface to his edition of Villon's works in 1533.

  19. According to François Rabelais (Pantagruel, ch.XIV), the whereabouts of the ‘neiges d'antan’ was ‘le plus grand soucy que eust Villon, le poëte parisien’. The epithet ‘parisien’ is not without significance. None of Rabelais's references to Villon ever shows him in anything other than an amusing light, in which he displays all the typically Parisian characteristics of insolence and a ready wit.

  20. A fascinating new reading of the famous ‘Ballade des dames du temps jadis’ is proposed by Paul Verhuyck in his ‘Villon et les neiges d'antan’, in Villon hier et aujourd'hui, op.cit., pp.177-89. He suggests that the ‘neiges d'antan’ were in fact ‘de vraies figures de neige, que Villon a pu voir dans les rues de la ville’ (p.181). So the plot thickens, as the snows melt …

Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7590

SOURCE: “Persuasion and (Special) Pleading in Francois Villon,” in Fifteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 22, 1995, pp. 1-18.

[In this essay, Sargent-Baur examines possible influences for Villon's rhetorical style of addressing potential benefactors, especially those Greek and Roman models Villon would have studied in school. The author considers Villon's Testament as well as several of his Poèmes variés.]

“Le lesserez la, le povre Villon?” asks le povre Villon, clearly soliciting the answer No. This appeal to readers, developed in each strophe of the “Epitre a ses amis”1 and driven home four times by the refrain, is perhaps Villon's most concentrated composition in the persuasive mode; yet it differs only in degree from much of his other verse. Indeed, when he was not addressing requests to specific individuals or to a group more or less limited, although defined, he aimed at a more numerous, amorphous, and distant audience: those readers who somewhere, somehow, sometime might hear him understandingly and judge him kindly.

Insofar as he employed the resources of rhetoric both to promote action along desirable lines and to induce a favorable state of mind toward himself, Villon was the inheritor and conscious, skilled practitioner of a long tradition of the studied use of oral and written language to achieve a wished-for result. I propose to explore here some of the ways in which Villon breathed new life into conventional secular rhetoric, reminding us of the ancient roots of that art while turning it to ends at once highly personal and broadly human.

The use of language to move and to persuade, as practised by medieval writers, derived from the public speaking of the antique world. We should perhaps remind ourselves of the original raison d'être of verbal eloquence in classical times, for the conditions producing it stamped the art with a character that persisted long after its function changed, through the Middle Ages and beyond them. As developed by the Greeks and cultivated in their early centuries by the Romans, it was the study of free-born men, a preparation for active participation in civic life. Initially the art of the orator, it was employed sometimes in eulogy but oftener in political debate and in forensic pleading; its whole aim was to sway opinion and, most commonly, to move men to action in affairs of state, and to influence judges in legal cases. It was above all meant to persuade. Consequently its thrust was not primarily an aesthetic one; if a speech in its invention and arrangement, its periods and cadences, its topoi and vocabulary and phrases and epigrams, turned out to please the ear and taste of its audience (and was even accounted worthy of being preserved in writing), that was all to the good or at least was not bad, provided that it produced a state of mind favorable to the speaker and his cause. Nor did laudatory, deliberative, or judicial oratory aim at a cool and objective presentation of data; such speech differed from a scholarly exposé, and the facts (if they were facts) were prudently selected and cunningly arranged for maximum effect on the crowd or the Senate or the judges of a case.2

When the Republic was superseded by the Empire, oral Latin rhetoric became more and more a matter of written composition. From deliberative and judicial oratory as a practical activity, it evolved into a cultural ornament and moved from the Forum and the law courts into the school room, to become the academic and decorative art of school eloquence. It was this, in the manuals of the acknowledged authorities and in admired and imitated specimens of their written works, that was transmitted to the European Middle Ages.3 Yet traces of its original character remain, in all sorts of literary production both in Latin and the vernaculars. Medieval writers who were school-trained were educated in the arts of persuasion, and they turned them to their own ends, whether they were preachers, letter-writers, or lyric poets.4

As a schoolboy and then as a university man Villon received an education that was primarily verbal and bookish; this kind of intellectual training was prolonged during the three years when he was preparing his License and his Master's Degree in the Arts faculty at Paris. Like his fellows he had immersed himself in the study and imitation of the acknowledged classical masters and models, particularly Cicero and the author of the Rhetorica ad Herennium, whose prescriptive manuals figured in the curriculum along with those of their twelfth- and thirteenth-century successors. Also among the “set books” of school and university were works embodying and vivifying the theory of classical verbal composition: the prose and poetry of the Latin auctores, whom all educated medieval people were taught from childhood to venerate. Villon of course read these authors and read the “moderns” as well, and was familiar with the application by the latter of ancient compositional techniques to vernacular writing; he draws repeatedly on Jean de Meun and Alain Chartier (whom he names), and evokes more vaguely a host of contemporary and earlier courtly lyricists schooled in the Arts de seconde rhétorique (i.e. manuals on vernacular poetical composition). It was inevitable that someone of his intellectual formation would draw on accumulated poetical traditions if he turned his hand to poetry at all. Furthermore, potential patrons were also familiar with this kind of verbal system, expected to find it in new compositions, and were likely to reward its able practitioners.

Villon had his own reasons for targeting particular individuals and attempting to induce them to do something. One is saddened to observe that the something here is pretty concrete and existential, and that his oeuvre includes pieces in the unheroic sub-genre poésies de l'estomac. All his poems in the persuasive (more exactly, begging) vein belong to the miscellaneous corpus known as Poèmes variés (or Poésies diverses), the ordering of which generates differences of opinion among editors, for its chronology depends largely on internal evidence not abundantly supplied.5 Of these sixteen poems five make a more-or-less direct appeal for a benefaction of some sort. In the longest of them, known as the “Louange à Marie d'Orléans,” we encounter predominantly an exercise in epideictic composition: effusive praise of a personage interesting to the writer mainly because of the benefits she (or rather, in this case, the parents of this very small child) is able to bestow. Villon does not scruple to quote as epigraph a well-known line from Virgil's Eclogues6 forecasting the birth of a child who will restore the Golden Age, a line generally taken by medieval Christian thinkers as referring to the birth of Christ but which is here applied to the recent birth of an heir to his patron: flattery could scarcely be trowelled on more lavishly. The unstated objective is captatio benevolentiae; and we move through the assertions of the preternatural maturity and noble bearing of this child,7 the reiteration of the Virgilian line, the poet's expressions of entire devotion and submission, the evocation of archetypes biblical and classical, the wishes to her for a long and happy life, to arrive at last at the not-disinterested conclusion:

Entiere dame et assouvie,
J'espoir de vous servir ainçoys,
Certes, se Dieu plaist, que devie
Vostre povre escolier Françoys.

(I, 129-32)

The nature of this sooner-or-later service is not specified, and the poet coyly refrains from suggesting that the thought of compensation has even crossed his mind; yet these lines and in fact the entirety of this composition point in that direction.

Some such highly discreet hint at being at least in a receptive mood appears in another poem composed during Villon's undated stay at Blois; it is on a theme set by Charles d'Orléans (P. V. [Poèmes variés] II) and begins “Je meurs de soif auprés de la fontaine.” Here, after a series of one-line contradictory statements, comes the penultimate verse: “Que sais je plus? Quoy? Les gaiges ravoir.” The line stands out from the others; it has a different syntactic structure, and the thought informing it is different as well. I take gaiges to mean objects left in pawn (as do Rychner and Henry8); if this understanding is correct, then the line signifies “What do I know best? Retrieving what I've gaged”—with the rueful hint that the writer is in fact not very good at getting his possessions back, and the sub-jacent invitation to the “Prince” to guess the reason. Villon's poverty could have been no secret for the Duke of Orleans or anyone else; and his desire to please, and hope of reward, must have been all too patent. Another ballade, seemingly addressed to this same patron or hoped-for patron,9 is unabashedly a begging poem from first to last. On the surface, what is solicited is a loan:

Le mien seigneur et prince redoubté,
Fleuron de lis, roialle geniture,
François Villon, que Travail a dompté
A coups orbes, a force de batture,
Vous supplie par ceste humble escripture
Que luy faciez quelque gracïeux prest …

(P. V. IV, 1-6)

to be repaid if and when—as if great lords ever lent money to commoners! The wheedler proceeds to pull all the strings he can think of: you will surely be reimbursed, I've borrowed from no prince but you, your last loan went to buy food, I'll give back that sum when I repay this one, I'll scavenge acorns and chestnuts and present you with the proceeds, I'd sell my health if only I could, the crosses that appear to me are of wood or stone, whereas I hope for a “real” one (i.e., one stamped on coins)—all this on a playful note calculated to put the addressee into a good humor. But in the envoy the tone deepens:

Prince du lis, qui a tout bien complest,
Que pansés vous comment il me deplaist
Quant je ne puis venir a mon entente.
Bien m'entendez; aydés moy, s'il vous plaist;
Vous n'y perdrés seullement que l'attente.


The Poèmes variés comprise three more persuasive pieces, encouragements to action other than the bestowing of financial aid. Of P. V. XII, XI, and XVI, I conjecture the first (“Aiez pictié”) to spring from the imprisonment at Meung-sur-Loire, the second (“Freres humains”) to be inspired by the observation of public executions (and perhaps the anticipation of his own), and the third (“Tous mes cinq sens”) unquestionably to follow the successful appeal from the death sentence in early January 1463. P. V. XII draws on the archetype and situation of Job,10 and quotes Job's words, to galvanize his friends not to a monetary gift but to action: to intercede with the king and/or his ministers, to secure “graces et royaulx seaulx,” perhaps to visit him with hot soup or even attempt a rescue “en quelque corbillon.”11 As in P. V. IV, the poet attempts to capture the benevolentia of his readers by striking a note half-serious, half-jocular; the prisoner's kinship with Job the innocent sufferer, the particulars of his own wretched state in darkness, hunger, and confinement, his total inability to do anything by and for himself, all mix with references to his friends' none-too-respectable ways of life, their freedom, the noise and music and bustling activity of their world, which had been his also. Even swine rush to each other's aid when one of them cries in distress; and to shore up this final and unanswerable point comes for the fourth and final time the refrain “Le lesserez la, le povre Villon?”

Also in this trio of poems urging to action is one now best known as the “Ballade des pendus.”12 Here, no benefit to the living poet is for once envisaged, for his thought turns around dead bodies and perhaps redeemable souls. Even the conventional attachment of the ballade to the imprisonment and death sentence of 1462 is anything but solid;13 nor can one be sure that the “speakers” of the poem, the nous, include the poet:

Freres humains qui aprés nous vivez,
N'ayez les cueurs contre nous endurcis,
Car se pitié de nous povres avez,
Dieu en avra plus tost de vous mercis …

(P. V. XI, 1-4)

The collective voice is that of the cinq, six who are anonymous skeletons.14 Whether or not Villon imagines himself among the group, his speech joined with the others', the raison d'être of the ballade is persuasion: moving the spectators of this appalling scene to do the one thing that out of human solidarity they are able and ought to do: they can intercede with God on their behalf. The entire ballade constitutes a plea for prayer; the living are to act as advocates for the dead. The exhortation is aimed at those who have not (so far) got into trouble with the law, but otherwise are not very different from nous; we all make mistakes, and need what help we can get:

                                                  … vous sçavez
Que tous hommes n'ont pas le sens rassis.
Excusez nous, puisque sommes transis,
Envers le filz de la Vierge Marie …


While the speakers of this dramatic monologue appeal to Prince Jesus in the first two lines of the envoy, in all the rest of the poem “they” apostrophize the still-living members of the human family. Nothing temporal can now be of the slightest use, for eternity has overtaken the speakers. There is nothing for it but prayer; and the refrain “Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre” in four-fold repetition drives home the message that one supplication is not enough, no more than is the intercession of one person. The whole human brotherhood must be induced to attempt to soften God's judgement.

Villon's last poem in order of composition, as far as one can tell, is the ballade entitled in MS F “La Louange que feist Villon a la court quant fu dit que il ne mourroit point et puis requist trois jours de relache” (P. V. XVI). This title reflects the proportion of flattery and begging comprised in the poem. Of all of Villon's compositions in the persuasive vein it is the most clearly structured in thought and the least subtle in appeal. In three stanzas he exhorts all his five senses to come to his tongue's aid and then enlists heart, teeth, liver, lungs, spleen, and entire body into the chorus, while in the envoy, now reassembled into je, he directly addresses the Court (whose benevolence has so effusively been sought) with a request for three days' grace before his exile must begin. One would like to know whether this poem, which must have been composed in haste (just after the capital sentence was commuted on 5 January 1463), achieved its object, whether this application in thirty-five lines of an age-old tradition of deliberative rhetoric had the intended effect. The members of the Parlement de Paris, trained in rhetoric themselves, would have needed hearts incapable of being broken or pierced,15 to be insensible to a plea at once so artful and so sincere.

In the Testament we find another sort of eloquence at work. When composing his magnum opus Villon had other preoccupations than making ad-hoc appeals, and the audience he addresses is a wide one: the ideal reader and the world at large (as well as his drinking companions). Here are his expanded views, his own experiences and reflections, his deeds and misdeeds, his ambivalences, the scourge of his sweating self.16 Furthermore, he presents a picture of that self justified; the Testament is, among other things, his apologia pro vita sua. In telling his story he is at once client and advocate, accused and defense attorney; those addressed are judges, charged with hearing the arguments and rendering a verdict. The outcome will depend not so much on the factual evidence as on the presentation, on how the accused himself will be exhibited, on the degree of skill with which the defense will be conducted. Here it is very much in the interest of the homo reus and the juris prudens (who in this case are one and the same), standing at the bar of posterity, to guide posterity's judgement in a favorable direction. We recall that the whole matter is not being submitted either to a real tribunal or even to the verdict of his contemporaries and fellow-countrymen; the poet's bid for sympathy and indulgence is cast in the framework of a last will and testament, which perforce will be seen by no one until the testator is dead and no longer subject to any human sentence-passing. Here again he addresses his “Freres humains qui aprés nous vivez.” Here too his self-assigned task is to secure the goodwill of those he addresses; and to this end he employs techniques recommended in the Rhetorica ad Herennium and in Cicero's De oratore and De inventione. He does so not only in the initial part of the Testament but with much consistency throughout the 2000-odd lines of the work, thereby going far beyond the scope of the classical prescriptive manuals, which concentrated on the exordium. There, chiefly, did the practitioner of forensic oratory exert his best powers to gain the sympathy of his audience. Cicero, Quintilian, and others had much to say about ways of disposing a judge to give a favorable verdict: judicem benevolum parare, primarily by stressing the client's virtues and good intentions, secondarily by denigrating his accusers.17 Insofar as the Testament is largely (but with numerous digressions) an appeal for post-mortem exoneration, it is true to the spirit of classical law-court eloquence with its aim of moving and persuading.18

The passionate indignation of the first stanza is affecting in a way that a cooler and more rational opening could not achieve. The first three lines strike the testamentary note:

En l'an de mon trentïesme aage,
Que toutes mes hontes j'euz beues,
Ne du tout fol, ne du tout saige …


He has not been brought to complete folie or entire sagesse, although either might well have been the outcome of his sufferings, all of which are ascribed to a certain persecutor, a bishop who had acted as sentencing judge. For unspecified reasons the poet had been accused, condemned, and severely punished. Now at liberty, he makes it his first order of business to appeal to another tribunal, that of mankind at large. The modern reader's mind may turn to considerations of false arrest, abuse of power, cruel and unusual punishment, the confusion of ecclesiastical and secular authority. A man of the fifteenth century did not perhaps think in just such terms; but this particular man makes it plain that his rights had been violated and that neither mercy nor even justice had been extended to him. As a clericus Villon belonged to the Church, subject to her relatively mild discipline and entitled to her protection. Yet, far from being protected, the clerc-poète had been injured by someone well up in the ecclesiastical hierarchy who had exceeded his jurisdiction:

S'esvesque il est, signant les rues,
Qu'il soit le mien je le regny;
Mon seigneur n'est ne mon esvesque …


This is the adversarius, Thibault d'Aucigny, named as early as the sixth line. Throughout the first half-dozen octaves of the Testament Villon develops the contrast of accused and accuser, victim and persecutor, small man and great; and the alleged brutality of this Churchman is underscored by juxtaposition to the next character introduced, the King of France, a layman and the poet's benefactor and liberator. The king gets three thankful stanzas (VIII, IX, XI) that seem almost to hint at a conscious royal intervention. The poet's persona is speedily established: he is weak, sick, soon to die, conventionally pious, capable of gratitude to God and to one person who had assisted him; if he is angry with someone he has ample reason. Thus in the opening part of this long poem there is a vigorous resort to the ab nostra [persona] and ab adversariorum [persona] arguments, here intermingled. The fictitious will gives us a literary and highly selective autobiography, which leads us back to the (fictitious) pretext for the will: the writer has not only been subjected to a gross miscarriage of justice but has thereby been brought to death's door. He is beyond help; he barely has the strength to dictate his final bequests and make his peace with God and man.

In the light of this narrative framework we can more accurately evaluate the anacoluthon of the initial stanzas.20 The poem appears to escape from the poet's control as soon as it starts; it is an arresting opening move, and Villon had already experimented with something similar in the first octave of the Lais, but there retrieved the syntax in the following stanza. Here the false start is never corrected. The first nine stanzas have no main verb among them; they are linked in the loosest manner by beginning conjunctions (et, sy, combien) and by one relative pronoun (auquel). By the time we reach the end of this series the poet's rage seems to be abating, and X offers a self-contained and straightforward sentence with adverbial phrase (containing parenthetical remarks), pronoun subject, compound verb, and direct object. This sets in relief the violence and formlessness of the first seventy-two lines; their very incoherence testifies to the writer's overwrought state and eloquently underscores the posture he strikes: that of a man who has been abominably treated by a powerful adversary who kept him in ville puissance (55) and made him suffer maintes peines (4), to the point where his health is ruined and he can do nothing but make his testament and die. (He returns to this conceit in LXXIX: “Je sens mon cueur qui s'affoiblist / Et plus je ne puis papïer,” 785-6). His only recourse is to insert into the testament a reiterated assertion of why he is making it, how he has been driven to making it; he justifies himself at the bar of history and posterity.

The recent clash of homo reus and adversarius, to the former's detriment, has occasioned the composition of the Testament; it is consequently everywhere by implication present, even in the fairly extended sections in which it is not clearly evoked. All the elements in this work, even the fixed-form pieces that make of it a sort of poetical anthology (and some of which may originally have been conceived as independent poems), contribute to a versified will drawn up in anticipation of death and containing the poet's definitive views on his own situation, inter alia. This is how (we are to believe) a particular dying man saw his own life and acts. In this supreme hour he must be telling the truth.21 If he paints the bishop et compaignie as animated by motives both vile and inexplicable, and their treatment of himself as not only cruel but gratuitously so, we are intended to take this as veracious. Hence the play of opposites. The more he blackens his enemies the more innocent he makes himself appear; the more he develops his autoportrait as no arch-criminal or egregious sinner but by and large an average man, l'homme moyen sensuel, the more he insinuates himself into the good graces of his potential reader. Mon semblable, mon frère is the tone consistently struck, with a few exceptions.22 He concedes that his conduct has scarcely been austere, that when occasion offered he has lived it up and more than most:

Je plains le temps de ma jeunesse
Ouquel j'ay plus qu'autre gallé
Jusqu'a l'entree de viellesse …


True, he has spent something on food and drink and women, but not enough to cause problems for his friends (184-89); he has entangled himself with at least one venal woman (910-18); he has wasted the precious educational and professional opportunities that came his way:

Bien sçay, se j'eusse estudïé
Ou temps de ma jeunesse folle
Et a bonnes meurs dedïé
J'eusse maison et couche molle.
Mais quoy? je fuyoie l'escolle …


His self-acknowledgement of culpability is brief and couched in the most conventional terms:

Je suis pecheur, je le sçay bien;
Pourtant ne veult pas Dieu ma mort,
Mais convertisse et vive en bien,
Et tout autre que pechié mort.


One notes the slide from je to tout autre, deflecting any tendency on the reader's part to look at Villon's as a singular, and singularly bad, case. All men are sinners, and all men know it; so much the more reason not to think ill of this one. Besides, this one can and does adduce many an extenuating circumstance. His sins were those of youth, and therefore excusable; this is shored up with a reference to the Roman de la Rose,23 quoted as observing

C'on doit jeune cueur en jeunesse,
Quant on le voit viel en viellesse,
Excuser …


Further excuse is to be sought in the words of the Saige (=Ecclesiastes), words that had actually encouraged him in his pleasure-seeking: “Esjoïs toy, mon filz, / A ton adolessence” (211-12). On top of the usual faults of youth there is the factor of poverty, an affliction weighing on enough of Villon's contemporaries so that here too he could count on a comprehending and indulgent response. (This note is struck not only in the Testament but also at the end of the Lais, where the details of the frozen ink and his own thinness are eloquent. We see it as well in some of the Poèmes variés, of which I is signed “Vostre povre escolier Françoys,” and IV is a forthright begging poem.24) The association of ideas leads repeatedly back to poverty, most explicitly in XXXV:

Povre je suis de ma jeunesse,
De povre et de peticte extrasse;
Mon pere n'eust oncq grant richesse,
Ne son ayeul, nommé Orrace;
Povreté tous nous suit et trace …


As if confirmation were needed, it is supplied at the end of the work by a different voice, an independent witness, who asserts that when le povre Villon died it was in utter destitution: “Quant mourut, n'avoit q'un haillon” (2013). Poverty is a common affliction, though the poet suffered from it to an uncommon degree; it is also brought in here as an excuse for behavior that from time to time left something to be desired. This thought subtends the exemplum of Alexander and the pirate Diomedes, figuring early in the Testament and prolonged over five stanzas (XVII-XXI). Villon unambiguously assimilates himself to Diomedes in situation; but lacking “un autre piteux Alixandre” (162), he cannot rise to virtue. Diomedes/Villon pleads:

“Excusez moy aucunement
Et saichiez qu'en grant povreté,
Ce mot se dit communement,
Ne gist pas grande loyaulté.”


Here, as in other classical and medieval versions of the anecdote, Alexander finds the argument compelling; and Villon, moving on and out of the dramatic monologue, comments in his own poetical voice on the tale: if he had encountered a judge (cadés, 135) as humane as this one, a judge who also became his benefactor and turned his bad fortune to good (155-6), he would have been most severe towards himself had he subsequently gone astray: “… estre ars et mis en cendre / Jugié me feusse de ma voys” (165-66). To drive home the point errare humanum est and its universal application, even to the poet's future readers and judges, he turns to conventional wisdom and rounds out the passage with two proverbs: as everyone must acknowledge, “Neccessité fait gens mesprendre / Et fain saillir le loup du boys” (167-8).25

As for the causes of his own necessity, aside from one (uncharacteristic) reference to his own fecklessness cited above (201-5) his maux are usually blamed on his fortune (145), sometimes personified (1786; also P. V. XII, 5). In P. V. X, known as the “Ballade de Fortune,” the poet points the accusatory finger away from himself and toward a malevolent power beyond his control or understanding; here Fortune reminds poet and readers that she has destroyed many great men, far greater than he, as witness the impressive catalogue of biblical and classical figures presented: “‘Et n'es, ce sais, envers eulx ung soullon’” (10). Even some of his contemporaries and betters have a miserable time of it, slaving away in gypsum-kilns and stone-quarries, however virtuous they may be. Bad things can happen to anyone: “‘S'a honte viz, te dois tu doncques plaindre? / Tu n'es pas seul, si ne te dois complaindre’” (6-7).

Returning to the Testament, we find there a fairly consistent mental posture regarding responsibility and culpability. The poet has led a hard life; if there were a few moments of carelessness and gaiety in his student days and later, some carousing and wenching heedless of the consequences, they are by now far behind him; the present is composed of unrelieved insecurity, poverty, hunger and thirst, sexual frustration, bullying by the police, ill health, premature aging, bereavement of adoptive father and old friends, and the presentiment of death and decay. His only comfort is prayer, his only recourse that to Nostre Dame:

Autre chastel n'ay ne forteresse
Ou me retraye corps ne ame
Quant sur moy court malle destresse.


All this, of course, is to be read retrospectively; where the verbs in the text refer to the present of the narration, we readers are to shift them into the past: these are the words of a man now deceased. One of the fictions of the Testament is the urgent need for the writer to have his say and make all necessary arrangements, because time is running out. The theme returns with heavy stress toward the conclusion, occupied as it is with burial-place, epitaph, executors, bell-ringers, pall-bearers (for this is a literary, if often burlesque, will); and the testator only just manages to finish his dictation:

Trop plus me font mal c'oncques maiz
Barbe, cheveux, penil, sourcys.
Mal me presse, temps desormaiz
Que crye a toutes gens mercys.


This last line introduces the final ballade of the Testament proper,26 and furnishes its refrain. Here Villon recalls onto his stage not all but much of his cast, now designated generically: religious orders, well-off idlers, lovers, servants, prostitutes and their clients, entertainers of all sorts—a fair cross-section of the parts of society he knew best. To them all, as to a tribunal or a jury assembled to reach and pronounce a definitive judgement upon his case, he cries for pardon. The appeal is wide: not only to the more-or-less disreputable segments of the population but to the bien-pensants, the devout Filles-Dieu, the worldly mendicant orders and the cloistered Chartreux and Celestines, none of whom had earlier received good language from him. This ballade in fact reminds us of many groups previously depicted in the poem as a whole; other classes (rulers, merchants, peasants) mentioned elsewhere but not here, are implicitly embraced in “Je crye a toutes gens mercys.” Explicitly excluded is another set of people: the poet's adversaries and tormentors, the “traitres chiens matins” (1984). The memory of them brings on one final spasm of scatological language and one last breakdown in the sequence of ideas. Wrath seems to run its course in the third stanza, of which the last two lines are conciliatory; but it flares up again in the envoy. Rather than an address to a conventional Prince, comes a return to what was on the poet's mind in the preceding stanza; thought takes precedence over both syntax and the usual ballade form:

C'on leur froisse les quinze costes
De groz mailletz, fors et massiz,
De plombees et telz peloctes! …
Je crye a toutes gens mercys.


The leur, which ought to have its antecedent in the toutes gens of the preceding verse, in fact belongs to the traitres chiens matins of 1984. Here as in the first octaves of the Testament we encounter the figure of an implied author so indignant at the cruel treatment deliberately inflicted upon him that his fixed form breaks down along with his syntax, and he becomes illogical and incoherent. If he asks pardon of everyone, this must include the persecutors to whom he has just given nearly the whole third stanza; but at the beginning of that stanza he has pointedly excepted them. This ending of the Testament underscores the speaker's distress even more than did the beginning, since it is cast in the severe ballade form and yet has the fluidity and apparent carelessness of conversational speech. These are the last words of a dying man, crying out to humankind for indulgence toward himself and simultaneously calling for its indignation toward his adversaries.

As for these last, the poet is also consistent. Whatever peccadilloes he may have committed, they weigh light in the scale compared with the heavy afflictions he has endured, mostly caused by human agents (although Fortune too has opposed him). The hostility of his adversaries is detailed but never explained. Thibaut d'Aucigny is alleged at the outset, as we have seen, to have caused him much suffering, kept him on prison rations, been dur and cruel rather than misericors (22, 25); Villon returns to him later, claiming that he has ruined his health and robbed him of his youth (729-36), kept him underground and in fetters (and tortured him?) (737-41). With him are now associated certain confederates: a lieutenant, an official, and one “petit maistre Robert” (750), all clumped together in the poet's sarcastic love. In the final ballade of the Testament proper they again appear, not here named, and reduced to the bestial level; yet it is clear that it is those responsible for his incarceration at Meung that he has in mind: the

                              traitres chiens matins
Qui m'ont fait ronger dures crostes,
Macher mains soirs et mains matins,
Que ores je ne crains troys croctes.


He no longer fears them because he is dying; yet since it is they who are responsible for his state he can appropriately bring them back into his text at the end, with a plea to his readers to do what he himself would do if only he could: attack them physically, breaking in their ribs.

The bishop and his crew feature as the poet's principal adversaries but not the only ones. Women too have afflicted him, and particularly Katherine de Vauselles (661). He leads up to her in a long sequence of huitains on the lustful nature and the venality of women; clearly those he associates with, “ces fillectes / Qu'en parolles toute jour tien” (590-1), if once they were femmes honnestes, are honest no longer, are indeed promiscuous, sexually insatiable, greedy, and merciless to their men. The point receives a more formal shape in the double ballade having the refrain “Bien eureux est qui rien n'y a” (632 etc.), with its catalogue of illustrious male victims of love serving as prelude to the poet's personal anecdote. Just what happened to him is characteristically left vague; but the scene is sufficiently squalid none the less and is laid to Katherine's charge. The ballade ends on a rather general note tending to exculpate young men who chase after young women: young men are like that. Yet Villon still has not finished with this female enemy; the one-sided quarrel is prolonged for another half-dozen octaves. She was faithless, she was false, she led him on to tell her all his heart, “Mais ce n'estoit qu'en m'abusant” (688). He had tried his hardest to please her, had served her “De si bon cueur et loyaulment” (674). All he got, though, for his loyal service was “maulx et griefz” (675). One might think that this long ad-feminam attack would suffice; but Villon returns to the subject, if not to the same woman, in a later sequence of four stanzas and a ballade. (The ballade carries FRANCOYS in acrostic in the first strophe and MARTHE in the second, suggesting a shift in the poet's interest from one person to another.) In the recollection of these experiences the speaker's attitude is the same: bitter disappointment, frustration, trust betrayed, an impotent desire for revenge; to these is joined in the second passage a strong implication of gold-digging. He leaves “Marthe” no bequest: what he has, she does not want; what she wants, he does not have. To this “chiere rose”

Ne luy laisse ne cueur ne foye;
Elle aymeroit mieulx aultre chose,
Combien qu'elle ait assés monnoye.
Quoy? une grant bourse de soye,
Plaine d'escuz, parfonde et large.


She has exacted a price, one difficult for the poet to pay and costing him his happiness, self-respect, and trust in his fellows:

Faulse beaulté, qui tant me couste chier,
Rude en effect, ypocrite doulceur,
Amour dure plus que fer a macher,
Yeulx sans pitié, ne veult Droit de Rigeur,
Sans empirer, ung povre secourir?

(942-4, 948-9)

Here and in the following strophes accumulated reproaches lead to a rhetorical question. The appeal goes beyond her (she would presumably be deaf to it) to droit, the universal sense of justice; “tout franc cueur” (968) must grant this. If she does not, this is an additional ground of complaint; and although in the second stanza he half-heartedly mentions the possibility of pictié he also resolves in effect to take the law into his own hands (“Mouray sans coup ferir?” 955); and he proceeds to relieve his feelings by depicting to the faulse beaulté what old age will do to her and how he would laugh if then he could. In the envoy he turns finally from her toward a Prince amoureux, brought in as a sort of superior judge (at least in amorous matters) with a superior sense of justice and with an ability to recognize that “tout franc cueur doit, par Nostre Seigneur, / Sans empirer, ung povre secourir” (968-9).

This is Villon's consistent posture before his contemporaries and his future readers. Of what he might have done to merit such treatment from women, of any shortcomings or offenses on his side, no mention is made. Their hard-heartedness seems inexplicable, because the poet has opted not to furnish any explanation. We see his beloved(s) as former beloved(s), and through the eyes of a man who has done with her/them but still smarts from the experience. Yet he has the last word, accusing them unreservedly and at the same time drawing sympathy to himself. The intensity of his bitterness and the very substantial amplification of the topos inevitably sway all but the toughest-minded reader toward the side of a man presented as blameless and yet ill-used and whose case is being argued by an articulate defender. But the victim of women's wiles is also a man suffering from heavier afflictions: an egregious abuse of power, arbitrarily inflicted (since the je of the poem acknowledges no wrongdoing). The greater guilt belongs to the Bishop of Orleans rather than to her/them; she/they made the poet unhappy, but Thibault and his minions nearly killed him. It is owing to them that (he claims) he is dying now, not long after his release from their clutches. Two of the three rondeaux in the Testament protest against the law's rigors. The “Bergeronnecte” (1784-95) dwells on the “dure prison / Ou j'ay laissié presque la vie;” and the “Verset” (1892-1903), using the third person because the poet is now to be thought of as deceased, states flatly “Rigueur le transmist en exil,” along with which imprisonment went physical punishment and head-shaving (= loss of tonsure?). That the “Verset” is also part of his self-designed epitaph underlines the poet/testator's moribund state.27 Those who have brought him to it are utterly wicked, unmarked by any saving qualities, animated by the conscious intention to injure him and destroy him, and possessed of the power to do so. These, of course, are attributes of the Devil, as medieval readers of this text must have recognized.

Thus does Villon plead for Villon, alternately attacking his adversaries and stressing his own innocence: a barrister's proceeding. The links between this poetry and classical forensic eloquence are reinforced by the highly oral character of much of it: questions, exclamations, self-corrections, direct appeals to the reader, imaginary dialogues, dramatic monologues. The tone as well puts one in mind of public speaking and pleading; it is excited, partisan, emotional rather than cerebral, appealing to the pity and indignation of which the average judge or juror or spectator may be thought capable. It is calculated to convince the audience that the speaker is telling the truth; that this may not be the whole truth, and that the account presented may be selective and subjective, is nowhere hinted at. By such devices does Villon in some of his oeuvre seek to persuade certain persons to take action, in other parts endeavor to make all his hearers and readers into judges of his life and acts and to render a favorable verdict—or at least to temper justice with a massive admixture of mercy.


  1. This is XII of the Poemès Variés (henceforth P. V.). All quotations and English translations of Villon come from François Villon: Complete Poems Edited with English Translation and Commentary by Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1994).

  2. For overviews of classical rhetoric, see Henri I. Marrou, History of Education in Antiquity, tr. George Lamb (New York: Sheed & Ward, 1956), II, x, and III, vi; and Ernst R. Curtius, European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, tr. Willard P. Trask (New York: Pantheon, 1953), ch. 4. On medieval theory and practice, see James J. Murphy, Rhetoric in the Middle Ages (Berkeley and Los Angeles: California University Press, 1974).

  3. On the transition from school exercises (imaginary speeches in improbable situations) to imaginative written literature, see Marrou, 383-87.

  4. As Richard McKeon puts it, “the art of poetry came to be considered, after the twelfth century, not a branch of grammar but alternately a kind of persuasion.” See “Rhetoric in the Middle Ages,” in Critics and Criticism Ancient and Modern, ed. Ronald S. Crane (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1953), 291.

  5. I follow the order of these poems as given in my edition; it is also the order in Le Lais Villon et les Poèmes variés, ed. Jean Rychner et Albert Henry (Geneva: Droz, 1977).

  6. “Jam nova progenies celo demittitur alto;” Virgil, Eclogae, IV, 7.

  7. These details, if not pure hyperbole, seem to evoke not the birth of the princess in December 1457 but her joyeuse entrée into Orleans in July 1460. The poem may even have been composed in two stages.

  8. Rychner and Henry, Lais, II, 68.

  9. The identification of the seigneur et prince with the Duke of Bourbon appears only in MS R and the incunable I, both rather late and not very reliable. The arguments favoring Charles d'Orleans as Villon's patron are summed up by Rychner and Henry, Lais, II, 80-81. On the precarious position of writers needing patrons in the late Middle Ages, see Daniel Poirion, Le Poète et le prince: L'évolution du lyrisme courtois de Guillaume de Machaut à Charles d'Orléans (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1965), and Richard Firth Green, Poets and Princepleasers: Literature and the English Court in the Late Middle Ages (Toronto, Buffalo, and London: University of Toronto Press, 1980).

  10. See my Brothers of Dragons: Job dolens and François Villon (New York: Garland, 1990), 70-82.

  11. I discuss this in “‘Et me montez en quelque corbillon’ (François Villon, Poèmes variés, XII, v. 33),” Romania 110 (1989), 265-69.

  12. The title supplied by Clément Marot seems specific, but was presumably invented by him: “L'epitaphe en forme de ballade que feit Villon pour luy et pour ses compaignons, s'attendant estre pendu avec eulx.” It is called “Epitaphe” in sources MS F and incunable I.

  13. Rychner and Henry term this dating “sans aucune preuve” (Lais, II, 107).

  14. It is not necessarily true, as Rychner and Henry have it (Lais, II, 107), that “Villon s'imagine partageant le sort des pendus de Montfaucon (ou d'ailleurs) …”

  15. “Cueur, fendez vous ou persez d'une broche,” says Villon to his own, 1. 11.

  16. Gerard Manley Hopkins, “I Wake and Feel the Fell of Dark, Not Day.”

  17. Cicero designates these sorts of appeals as ab nostra [persona] and ab adversariorum [persona] (to which he adds ab iudicum persona and a causa); see Marcus Tullius Cicero, De inventione, De optimo genere oratorum, Topica, tr. Harry M. Hubbel (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1949), I, 15, 16; and also [Pseudo-Cicero] Rhetorica ad Herennium, ed. and tr. Harry Caplan (Cambridge, Mass.: Loeb Classical Library, 1954), I, 4.

  18. The digressions come mainly as fixed-form insertions and as comic bequests.

  19. For the implications of this statement, see André Burger, “La Dure Prison de Meung,” in Studi in onore de Italo Siciliano (Florence: Olschki, 1966), I, 149-54.

  20. See Le Testament Villon, ed. Jean Rychner et Albert Henry (Geneva: Droz, 1974), II, 15.

  21. See my “Truth-claims as captatio benevolentiae in Villon's Testament,” in Conjunctures: Medieval Studies in Honor of Douglas Kelly, ed. Keith Busby and Norris J. Lacy (Amsterdam and Atlanta, Ga.: Rodopi, 1994), 505-14.

  22. The most striking exception is the piece generally known as the “Ballade pour Robert d'Estouteville,” T. 1378-1405.

  23. The reference is erroneous; Villon had in mind another work of Jean de Meun, his Testament.

  24. The adjective povre is ambiguous; in such lines as T. 657 and P. V. XII, 10, 20, 30, 36, the meaning is closer to “pitiable.”

  25. The proverb figures in Joseph Morawski, Proverbes français antérieurs au XVe siècle (Paris: Champion, 1925), #1000; and in James Woodrow Hassell, Middle French Proverbs, Sentences, and Proverbial Phrases (Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Medieval Studies, 1982), #F1 and #N10.

  26. That is, the last segment of the text in which he designates the testator/poet.

  27. Between the octave of introduction, blaming the poet's decease on Amours, and the rondeau referring to judicial severities, there is an apparent contradiction that extra-literary information might resolve if we possessed it.

Karl D. Uitti (essay date 1995)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11693

SOURCE: “Villon's Le Grand Testament and the Poetics of Marginality,” in Modern Philology, Vol. 93, No.2, 1995, pp. 139-60.

[In this essay, the author reviews Romantic, Victorian, and Modernist interpretations of the legend of Villon, arguing that such legends have been detrimental to readings of Villon's most famous poem. With comparisons to Le Roman de la Rose and the genre of hagiography, Uitti demonstrates how Villon illustrates issues of marginality and power in the context of Medieval France.]

My discussion will focus upon François Villon's best-known work, the 2,025-line poem called Le Grand Testament. This work, usually dated around 1461, may be contrasted with an earlier poem, often labeled Le Legs (“The Legacy”) or Le Petit Testament, from which it largely derives and to which it responds. Le Grand Testament is made up of a series of huitains, or octaves, each containing eight lines of eight syllables each; this narrative-like discourse, spoken in the first person, registers ostensibly as autobiographical. The tone is set from the start (lines 1-2) when the narrator declares: “En l'an de mon trentiesme aage, / Que toutes mes hontes j'eus beues” (In the time of my thirtieth year / When I had drunk down all my shames).1 The huitains—about three-quarters of the poem—are periodically interrupted by certain lyric set pieces whose forms derive from the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century tradition of the Seconde Rhétorique of which Villon was a past master: ballades, rondeaux, virelais, and the like.2 The poem recounts how the narrator—who also often identifies himself in the third person as “le pauvre Villon,” bereft of material goods, victimized by those more powerful than he—formulates his last will and testament; it itemizes his bequests and terminates with a ballade in which a new narrator describes in the third person how “Villon” has died “a martyr in love” (line 2,001) and invites all and sundry to his funeral “when you [i.e., the audience: you and I] hear the carillon” (line 1,999). This new narrator further informs us of Villon that “He took a long swig of dead-black wine / As he made his way out of this world” (line 2,023). I shall return to this passage later.

Le Grand Testament is arguably medieval France's most famous literary work. It contains lyrics and lines known to every educated speaker of French: “Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?” (line 336), “Mais ou est le preux Charlemaigne?” (line 364), “En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat” (line 1,600). To many Romantic readers of the last century the injustices decried by the Testament—poverty, oppression—understandably seemed comparable to those which they continued to combat as heirs to the Revolutions of 1789 and 1830. These readers easily embraced Villon as their precursor. Also, in keeping with the Romantic taste for the “gothic” and the “grotesque,” poets and readers of the last century tended to see in the Testament an expression of the kind of bohemian spirit that some of them liked to affect; Villon's witty and sardonic fulminations against greedy commerçants were well received by those who felt revulsion at Guizot's injunction to his bourgeois constituency: “Enrichissez-vous!” They viewed the poem as a cri du coeur, as the direct articulation of the joys and cares of the Romantic, “alienated,” and rebellious young Parisian students they either had been or were themselves.

In 1859 the great Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve—who was attracted to much of the poetry of the Testament but denounced what he deemed the poet's scurrilousness and immorality—saw clearly that the “Villon” whose “story” is recounted in the poem had become a figure of legend: “Si Villon a eu bien des traverses et des mésaventures dans sa vie, il a eu bien du bonheur après sa mort, le plus grand bonheur et la meilleure fortune pour un poète: il a fait école; il a fait tradition, et a eu même sa légende.”3 There are several kinds of poets, Saint-Beuve goes on to say; the small group to which (like Victor Hugo?) Villon belongs consists of those who come to be known as “collective individuals,” who seem to sum up their time or a recognizable set of meanings, and who are no longer, as writers, taken literally.4 In fact, declares Sainte-Beuve, much in Villon's compositions escapes us—allusions to obscure events and to numerous unidentifiable people, slang, much annoyingly abstruse wordplay.

In another remark Sainte-Beuve warns against reading too much “melancholy” into Villon's poem; there is little to remind us, he notes, of a Lord Byron. Somewhat Jansenistically, he adds that Villon's sadnesses and his seeming bitterness belong to a past age when people were more tolerant of their own vices than we moderns are. We are, however, not justified in interpreting certain lines in Romantic fashion as “cries of a damned man” (p. 300). This is an interesting comment; I shall return to it.

For virtually a century after Sainte-Beuve's article—roughly, until the end of World War II—Villon's Testament served both to fuel the further elaboration of his legend as the poète maudit of the late nineteenth-century poets, the “Vagabond King” of Victor Herbert's popular operetta, the hero-poet of Ezra Pound's opera, and to stimulate more detailed historical or archival research and philological analysis.5 A number of scholars labored to establish and gloss Villon's texts—including the scabrous passages offensive to Sainte-Beuve—and to reconstitute more positively the facts of his life and its sociohistorical context. Man and work, in different ways and according to different criteria, thus became far more perfectly conflated than they had been for Sainte-Beuve. What for him as a critical historian of literature had been the Villon “legend,” a story not quite coterminous with Villon's poetry, became, along with that poetry, two varieties of or approaches to a single “reality” in the eyes of Sainte-Beuve's successors.

During this same period there emerged, particularly but not only among historians, the curious opposition that currently preoccupies numerous medievalist historians: that of ‘marginality’ versus ‘centrality’ (or power).6 I stress the binary character of this construct because, without some notion of what is “central” or, rightly or wrongly, construed to be “central” (as “power” tends to be viewed), the notion of “marginality” is hardly possible. Within a social structure predicated, say, on the monogamous heterosexual couple constructed for economic, political, and genealogical purposes and reasons—a couple dominated by a male partner concerned with his “lineage”—the homosexual or the harlot, or even women in general, would tend to be good candidates for “marginality.”7 Similarly, within a historiographic discourse focused on kingship, nationhood, and the powerful men of this world—soldiers, merchant princes, prelates—the day-to-day lives of simple peasants and housewives also frequently receive short shrift. A considerable injustice is involved here, of course, and also—perhaps more important—a disregard for truth. On the one hand, it was ideology that determined what was interpreted as “central”; on the other, understanding the “marginal” is not only indispensable to attempting to resolve the opposition of the “center” and the “margins,” but it opens the way to freedom from rigid categories that obfuscate more than they clarify. It might well be the case—indeed, I think it is true—that the further elaboration of the Villon “legend” from 1870 to 1914 in the formative years of literary modernism and the positivistically oriented philological research devoted to the glossing of Villon's deliberately “substandard,” even obscene language together contributed significantly to foment interest in the “marginal”—especially on the part of those who, during the second third of the twentieth century, would be labeled the Annales school and those contemporary historians who either derived from this school or reacted against it.

Sainte-Beuve's essay8 repeatedly identifies Villon—both negatively and positively9—as what nowadays would be called a figure of “marginality.”10 By contrast, for Sainte-Beuve and many who followed him, the aristocratic and courtly Charles d'Orléans is, at least socially speaking, “central.”11 Villon was a thief, a cheat, and a liar; he regularly betrayed those who had the misfortune to be kind to him. Only scattered bits and pieces of poetry justify taking any interest in him at all. Villon's “marginality” clearly registers as negative for Sainte-Beuve when he goes beyond strictures on Villon's character to chide the scholar Antoine Campaux for his overly romantic appreciation of Villon:

Je laisse volontiers parler M. Campaux qui a veillé et pâli sur cette œuvre gothique bizarre, et qui a pu y saisir un secret et un art de composition qui n'y paraît pas d'abord; il va même jusqu'à y remarquer trois inspirations bien distinctes et comme trois époques. Pour moi, sans me faire plus indifférent ni plus sévère qu'il ne me convient sur Villon, je me contenterai, après cette lecture, de reconnaître en lui un des plus frappants exemples de ces natures à l'abandon, devenues étrangères à toute règle morale, incapables de toute conduite, mais obstinément douées de l'étincelle sacrée, et qui sont et demeurent en dépit de tout, et quoi qu'ils fassent, des merveilles.12

According to Sainte-Beuve, Campaux, dazzled by the brilliance of Villon's poetry, deserves to be counted as the latest victim of Villon's astounding abilities as a confidence man.13

Whereas Campaux was either apologetic or “understanding” about Villlon's crimes, several Romantics (e.g., Théophile Gautier) and their post-Baudelairian modernist successors focused on what they considered the necessary and positive links between Villon's criminal behavior and his poetry.14 The Villon “legend” surely constitutes a kind of subtext for what has been labeled the “myth of Rimbaud.” Villon's frequent recourse to the Ubi sunt? topic, as in “Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?” with its haunting confrontation of a glorious past by a present devoid of purity and authentic passion, certainly bears comparison with the subject of Charles Baudelaire's “Le Cygne.” Villon's self-identification with the city of Paris could also be understood—“read” in Romantic and Post-Romantic terms—as an obsession with the seamier side of human passion and love (exactly what Sainte-Beuve could not abide).15 Villon could be—and was—read as denouncing the essential hypocrisy of any and all forms of “respectability.” He deserved to be counted among the poètes maudits, who by virtue of their malediction were “seers” like Arthur Rimbaud's le Voyant, and who celebrated truth.16 Had Villon not been condemned and sentenced by courts of law just as Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert were—or rather, in a piquant variation, their books were? Yet, when all was said and done, Villon's Testament perhaps attested to the authenticity of poetry: a discourse which, when well served in suffering and deprivation—perhaps especially then—by a perceptive poet, provides a glimpse for those few (the “socially” marginal?) capable of understanding it and grasping what things are all about. Proust once wrote that the artist's duty toward his reader is to elicit the certainty that the book the reader is reading is himself: “L'ouvrage de l'écrivain n'est qu'une espèce d'instrument qu'il offre au lecteur afin de lui permettre de discerner ce que, sans ce livre, il n'eût peut-être pas vu en soi-même. … La reconnaissance en soi-même, par le lecteur, de ce que dit le livre, est la preuve de la vérité de celui-ci.”17 For many in the period 1870-1914 Villon was just that kind of writer. Quite symptomatically in this line, the scholar Lucien Foulet wrote, shortly after the First World War: François Villon “est notre premier poète moderne, c'est un de nos grands poètes.”18

Truth, transcendence, the ideal—all are at issue here, in intimate conjunction with language and, in particular, with the rejection of formulas and clichés. Stéphane Mallarmé's experiments with syntax are well-known, as is his description of the poet's task as “giving a purer sense to the words of the tribe.”19 Certain writers, like the poet Jehan Rictus, took to “imitating” Villon's use of slang.20 For many modernists, Villon's wide-ranging tonalities, his wordplay, his apparent love affair with the Middle French equivalent of four-letter words, his deliberate uncourtliness (understood as his “rejection of cliché”), and, I would add, his very obscurity, constituted an important part of his “modernity” and “originality.” Many believed that Villon was the prototype of those who, to paraphrase Pound, wished to “Make It New.” Here again, “marginality” undergoes transformation into a precious example, a resource.

Analogously, for the generation of philologists trained by Gaston Paris and affiliated either with the École des Hautes Études or with the École nationale des chartes, the textual and lexical problems posed by Villon's oeuvre came to constitute a precious documentary resource.21 The first truly learned edition of this œuvre appeared in 1892;22 the young scholars of around 1900 (who had, of course, been schoolboys and university students during the final decades of the nineteenth century) studied Villon's writings passionately. They combed the archives to discover the meanings of his many allusions and references; they composed carefully documented word histories of his arcane vocabulary and criminal jargon. For them Villon became a means of approaching the facts—that is, the usage of spoken medieval French which they learned to consider as a language in itself, not merely a way station between vulgar Latin and modern French or material for the elaboration of intricate and necessarily somewhat abstract historical grammars, such as had been fashionable among central European Neogrammarians. Since Villon was taken to “speak” through his writings, he offered these philologist-linguist-textualists a key for opening up the use of written documentation (i.e., his works) in order to describe the popular spoken language of times past. Among the most outstanding of these scholars was Lucien Foulet, who, after World War I, published his marvelous Petite syntaxe de l'ancien fançais, the earliest major study devoted to Old French on its own terms. I believe that the very concept of this work owes a great deal to Foulet's earlier research on Villon.23 Such philological investigation led quickly to complementary historical research. In 1913 Pierre Champion published his massive reconstruction, François Villon: Sa vie et son temps, with its detailed factual investigation of fifteenth-century Paris student life (the basoche), of police records, and of criminal associations like the Coquillards—in other words, much of what in the France of that remote time could appropriately be termed “marginal.”24

For all the extraordinary value and interest of their work, both the scholars and the poets of the period we have been surveying failed to understand Le Grand Testament. This is not to say that these scholars and poets did not know and love that poem, nor that they did not have good reasons for trying to know it and love it as they did. Moreover, I do not mean in any manner to imply that Villon's “legend” was a useless thing. Ramifications of this “legend,” as I have already remarked, are to be found in the “myth” of Rimbaud;25 they also persist, surely, in Jean-Paul Sartre's curious and lengthy essay on the quite Villonesque Jean Genet, to whom Sartre ascribes the epithet “saint and martyr” with his customary brilliance and irony.26 The roles that Villon and his work were made to play in Romantic and post-Romantic France virtually down to our own day would, I am certain, reward an intensive study. I further believe, at least as far as Villon's Testament is concerned, that the “failure” of understanding noted above has something to do with the oppositions of centrality and marginality with which historians are currently so preoccupied. In my view such formulations have more in common with medieval hagiological constructs, above all in the vernacular, than with the kinds of fact that historians look for. Our understandings of “power,” “centrality,” and “marginality” differ profoundly from those that may be thought to have prevailed during Villon's lifetime. A worldview in which death possesses the kind of value it had for the author of the Testament simply does not ascribe to “centrality” and to “marginality” anything like the meanings attributed by a society for which issues of salvation and damnation are as nontranscendent as they have been over the past two centuries in much of the West. The “marginality” of the modern artist differs in kind from the “marginality” of Villon the exiled criminal, whose claim to the grace of God is no whit less than those put forth by princes and bishops. We moderns are not quite as sure as Villon was that God keeps us always in his sight.

Once again Sainte-Beuve, in a roundabout way, comes to our aid. Criticizing Campaux for having stressed the “originality” of Villon and other poets of his time in their use of the Ubi sunt? topic, Sainte-Beuve—followed by Leo Spitzer close to a century later27—asserts that the earliest source for this use traces to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux and other authors of the High Middle Ages: he cites Saint Bernard's Rythmus de Contemptu mundi. This work, composed of quatrains themselves made up “d'espèces d'alexandrins à césure marquée et se suivant sur quatre rimes plates, s'était dès longtemps demandé: Où est le noble Salomon? Où est Samson l'invincible? Dic ubi Salomon, olim tam nobilis? / Vel ubi Samson est, dux invincibilis?”28 Sainte-Beuve, to be sure, quickly states his disapproval of this kind of prosody and his preference for Villon's beautiful refrain lines, but, unlike the modernists—scholars as well as poets—carefully points out the properly medieval nature of the structure of topics that undergirds Villon's great poem; for him it is Villon's legend that is “modern,” not his poem. And his citing of Saint Bernard—Dante's teacher of Love—constitutes a remarkable flash of intuition.29 We remember that Sainte-Beuve warned against taking the Testament as “un cri de damné.” Although it might possibly be the shout of a poète maudit, it is certainly not that of a man damned. A poète maudit by necessity fits the criteria of “marginality”; a man who is decidedly not damned, or at least has hope and faith that he is not, should in all likelihood be sought at or near the “center”—perhaps at the very heart of its power.

Several of these issues and their backgrounds deserve further consideration. I began by noting the apparently autobiographical character of Le Grand Testament. In the vernacular literature of the French Middle Ages, between the eleventh and the fifteenth centuries, autobiography and much biography—two genres difficult to separate—almost invariably correspond to two poetic modes that I have found useful to identify, respectively, as “lyric” (first-person songs) and “hagiographic” (biographies of saints, especially those in which the narrator supports his own truthfulness by recounting his own life alongside that of his subject). Jean de Joinville's splendid Histoire de saint Louis (1309) offers an excellent case in point: it is biographical and autobiographical; it derives from a very old man's participation at the canonization trial of a beloved royal figure, Louis IX, and it bears personal witness to that figure's saintliness at the time of the author's own youth. The eleventh- or early twelfth-century Old French Life of Saint Alexis is a biographical work ostensibly based on the saint's own autobiography, written at the finish of his earthly life. Analogously, the Old Provençal canso and the French grand chant courtois—immediate sources for much West European lyric poetry—bear witness to the poet-singer's “personal” experience of love, his aspiring to joy, his coupling with a feminine Other, and his craft as poet-singer. His—sometimes her—identity is that of a lover and poet-singer, as well as that of a person named William IX of Aquitaine, or the Countess of Dia, or Conon de Béthune.30 Also relevant here are the “autobiographical” sections of nonhagiographic narrative like the Prologue to Chrétien de Troyes's Le Chevalier de la Charrette (Lancelot) or the Prologue to Marie de France's Lais, where the two author-narrators describe the genesis of their respective works. (The Lancelot is dated around 1180, and the Lais, in all likelihood, were composed during the 1160s.) Chrétien in effect performs a kind of totally obedient “clerkly” service to “ma dame de Champagne” that parallels the sort of “chivalric” service placed by his protagonist, Lancelot, at the feet of Queen Guenevere.31 Meanwhile, Marie de France is dedicating the fruits of her nocturnal labors to “you, noble king, flower of chivalry.”32 The lyric first person is very much in evidence in both instances.

These procedures are found in fusion at the very core of The Romance of the Rose. Guillaume de Lorris's twenty-year-old Lover (who is Guillaume himself some five or more years before the poem's writing) is identified as being in the twentieth year of “mon aage,” at the time of life when “Love takes its toll of young men.” This verse strikingly foreshadows the initial line of Villon's Testament. The matter of the Rose is mainly that of a very expanded lyric chant courtois, but with several significant twists. The clerkly narrator in his mid-twenties (who learnedly quotes Macrobius) claims to be making his poem at the behest of Love and on behalf of “cele qui tant a de pris / E tant est dine d'estre amee / Qu'el doit estre Rose clamee.”33 Furthermore, at the midpoint of the conjoined texts of Guillaume de Lorris and his successor, Jean de Meun, Guillaume is named by Jean and characterized by Love as being, together with Ovid, Catullus, and Tibullus, one of his mother Venus's “most faithful servants.”34

A number of “persons” are involved here. The Guillaume de Lorris who at age twenty has, so to speak, fallen in love with Love and who, embarking on the Rose adventure, undergoes a series of failures nevertheless does learn from and about Love as he proceeds. There is also the Guillaume who recounts the story of this adventure which is incomplete as a plot but which, in a romance narrative form specifically identified as such by the poet-narrator, is integrated into the twenty-five-year-old Guillaume's lyric love service of “her who deserves to be proclaimed Rose.” In part 2 of the Rose, Guillaume's original twenty-year-old Lover-protagonist continues his adventure. However, in a speech made by Love to his troops, he is promoted to the rank of a “servant of ‘Lady’ Venus.” Following this merging of lyric protagonist and clerkly representative of translatio, Guillaume is named. And here too Jean de Meun introduces himself as the one who will “continue” and “perfect” the romance narrative begun by Guillaume under a new title—the “mirror [or speculum] of lovers” (line 10,651). The ‘truth’ of whoever the ‘historical’ Guillaume de Lorris might have been thus participates in at least four poetic functions that correspond to generic attributes found in courtly lyric and in rhymed courtly romance narrative. Finally, the process of translatio—from Ovid, Catullus, and Tibullus to Guillaume—engenders a ‘Jean de Meun’ who in continuing Guillaume's roman “perfects” it, proclaiming anew the truth and the power of poetic activity. The roman becomes a poetic encyclopedia, a romance narrative summa to rival the “powerful” summas stemming from the thirteenth-century Paris schools.

It would be useful at this juncture to consider the disrepute into which both courtly lyric and rhymed romance narrative had fallen by the 1220s when Guillaume presumably embarked on his work. Such poetry not only suffered at the hands of moralists and satirists but it also bore the brunt of many attacks from those whom I shall call “philosophers” and “historians”—those for whom rhyme and its exigencies stood suspected of mendacity.35 This was the period when the old romances were being recast into prose “histories” and the first prose chronicles in French began to appear. Constraints of space prevent my proceeding farther into this question here, however.36 Nevertheless, I will state my belief that verse—especially verse narrative—was then becoming increasingly “marginalized.” Serious writing was identified with the ‘truthful’ language of prose or that of scholastic Latin. And is it not a fact that writing labeled “serious” is usually also associated with “power”? What is more, the courts of the increasingly powerful Capetian kings were quite inhospitable to the poetic arts—for example, around 1270 Louis IX commissioned the Grandes Chroniques de France in prose, taking no interest in romances or in secular lyric. I would argue that Guillaume de Lorris's effort was designed in a more than merely incidental way to respond to this criticism; in several significant respects it is a defense of courtly poetry. Does he not say—quoting Macrobius, an ancient encyclopedic authority who wrote in Latin prose—that dreams are not mendacious, that they foretell what will come to pass? The very subject matter of Guillaume's poem is, of course, the story of his own dream.

It would, I think, be hard to overestimate the value of The Romance of the Rose to Villon as well as to the poetic tradition from which he emerged. This is not to say that the Testament in any way constitutes a slavish “imitation” of that work. Rather, Villon builds on the precedent it offered him. I shall now try to show how he does this.

Like the Guillaume of the Rose, the Villon of the Testament is a number of “persons.” He is the third-person “poor Villon” mentioned earlier. He is the first-person narrator-protagonist who declares himself the victim of Thibault d'Aussigny's injustice; he is the impoverished though highly educated young man who lives on the margins of society among whores, thieves, con men, and the exploited, looking in on those materially better off than he. He is the person who itemizes the objects in the series of bequests constituting so much of the poem's narrative. In these capacities he is also the lyric poet who observes, for example, the Belle Heaulmière and who records in ballade form her “Regrets.” Finally, his chosen form of a last will and testament suggests a kind of personalized encyclopedia, a summa of the individual, when all these persons and autobiographical facts are assembled into what he, Villon, was and is.

But who is Villon? The stuff, as Sainte-Beuve said, that legends are made of? The poète maudit? For answers to these questions, I want to maintain, the precedent of The Romance of the Rose will be indispensable. I will proceed by examining four key excerpts from Villon's Testament. The first is the initial huitain of the poem, its “prologue,” so to speak (lines 1-8):

En l'an de mon trentiesme aage,
Que toutes mes hontes j'eus beues,
Ne du tout fol, ne du tout sage,
Nonobstant maintes peines eues,
Lesquelles j'ay toutes receues
Soubz la main Thibault d'Aussigny …
S'evesque il est, seignant les rues,
Qu'il soit le mien je le regny.

In the time of my thirtieth year / When I had drunk down all my shames, / Not all foolish and not all wise / Despite the many blows I had / Every one of which I got / In the clutches of Thibault d'Aussigny / He may be a bishop blessing the streets / But that he is mine I deny [translator's punctuation removed]

Here are several noteworthy facets of this strange text: (1) Despite its extraordinary, even stately, prosodic regularity, its syntax does not parse. Punctuating it is a modern editor's nightmare. A main-clause preterite verb is lacking. I have found no other example of such syntax—or lack of it—in the Testament. (2) The first line of verse harkens back to the first line of Guillaume de Lorris's narrative (“En l'an de mon vintieme aage”); here Guillaume's twentieth year is replaced by a thirtieth year. (3) A double temporality is built into the huitain; the narrator is saying: “[I am now (but when?) telling you that] when I was in my thirtieth year, at which point in time I had drunk all my shames”; and then the huitain veers off on a present and present-perfect tangent. This, I believe, recalls and reverses Guillaume's twenty-year-old Lover protagonist who became the twenty-five-year-old Lover narrator (he who loves and serves “her who is worthy of being called ‘Rose’”). It is here that we expect the preterite verb. What did the narrator-protagonist do in his thirtieth year? (4) The whole text is fragmented, shardlike, “incomplete”—perhaps in imitation of Guillaume's formally incomplete part of the Rose—but, unlike Guillaume's text, it gives no promise of some possible or desired union with “Rose” that will restore the lyric situation to wholeness. We are left with the broken shards. Our Villon is clearly more “marginal,” less “central” and “powerful” than the ostensibly aristocratic and courtly person of Guillaume de Lorris.37

But what of the union with a feminine Other that informs the grand chant courtois, the Roman de la Rose, and the French lyric down to Villon's own time? The initial huitain contains no allusion to a beloved lady or maiden. In the Rose-like context established by Villon's opening verses, this absence is striking. Let us take a look at another pair of excerpts from the Testament. The first, usually called “La Ballade pour prier Notre Dame,” is one of the many jewel-like set pieces (formes fixes) inserted into the body of the poem (lines 873-909):

Dame du ciel, regente terrienne,
Emperiere des infernaux palus,
Recevez moy, vostre humble chrestienne,
Que comprinse soye entre vos esleus,
Ce non obstant qu'oncques rien ne valus.
Les biens de vous, ma Dame et ma Maistresse,
Sont trop plus grans que ne suis pecheresse,
Sans lesquelz biens ame ne peut merir
N'avoir les cieulx. Je n'en suis jangleresse:
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.
A vostre Filz dictes que je suis sienne;
De luy soyent mes pechiez abolus;
Pardonne moy comme a l'Egipcienne,
Ou comme il feist au clerc Theophilus, …
Lequel par vous fut quitte et absolus,
Combien qu'il eust au deable fait promesse.
Preservez moy de faire jamais ce,
Vierge portant, sans rompure encourir,
Le sacrement qu'on celebre a la messe:
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.
Femme je suis povrette et ancïenne,
Qui riens ne sçay; oncques lettre ne lus.
Au moustier voy dont suis paroissienne
Paradis paint, ou sont harpes et lus,
Et ung enfer ou dampnez sont boullus;
L'ung me fait paour, l'autre joye et liesse.
La joye avoir me fay, haulte Deesse,
A qui percheurs doivent tous recourir,
Comblez de foy, sans fainte ne paresse:
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.
Vous portastes, digne Vierge, princesse,
Iesus regnant qui n'a ne fin ne cesse.
Le Tout Puissant, prenant nostre foiblesse,
Laissa les cieulx et nous vint secourir,
Offrit a mort sa tres chiere jeunesse;
Nostre Seigneur tel est, tel le confesse:
En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.

Lady of heaven, regent of earth, / Empress over the swamps of hell, / Receive me your humble Christian / That I may be counted among your elect, / This even though I was never of worth: / Your bounties, my Lady and my Mistress, / Are greater by far than my sinfulness / And without them no soul could merit / Or enter heaven, I'm not pretending now, / In this faith I wish to live and to die.

Tell your Son that I belong to him, / Through him let my sins be washed away, / May he pardon me like the Egyptian woman / Or as he did Theophilus the clerk, … Who through you was acquitted and absolved / Although he had compacted with the devil, / Preserve me from ever doing this, / Virgin who bore with hymen unbroken / The sacrament we celebrate at Mass, / In this faith I wish to live and to die.

I'm just a poor old woman, / Who knows nothing and can't read a word, / At my own parish church I see / A painted paradise with harps and lutes / And a hell where they boil the damned, / One scares me, one gives me joy and bliss, / Let mine be the joyful one, high Goddess, / On whom all sinners must rely / Brimming with faith, without sham or sloth, / In this faith I wish to live and to die.

Virgin so worthy, princess, you bore / Iesus reigning without end or term, / Lord Almighty who took up our weakness / Left his heaven and came for our succor, / Offered to death his precious youth, / Now is Our Lord, so I acknowledge him, / In this faith I wish to live and to die.

As this beautiful and noble ballade royale demonstrates, women occupy an important place in the set pieces of the Testament; here, specifically, Villon addresses female nature, experience, and relationships with men.

In the previous huitain the poet-narrator explains that he is giving this ballade to his “poor mother,” for her to use in praying to the Virgin to intercede with her Son on behalf of the petitioner, the poet's own mother. A circular movement predicated on one fundamental male/female relationship—that of mother and son—obtains, then, as a son's words are appropriated by his mother to pray to a Mother to implore salvation from her Son for the mother who addresses her. This is accomplished through Villon's lyric integration with his mother. Together, mother and son form a kind of unit.

The creation of this unit is enacted within the diction of the ballade. It begins with the Latinate, learned—almost aureate—French of stanza 1. “Emperiere des infernaux palus” evokes the language of a fifteenth-century cleric, certainly not that of the illiterate old woman described in stanza 3. In stanza 2 this schoolmasterly diction gives way to the ‘literary’ French found, say, in the poems of Rutebeuf or The Romance of the Rose. In fact, references to “Theophilus” and the “Egyptian” suggest that Villon had Rutebeuf in mind, for two of the latter's most famous poems concern the Faust-like Miracle de Théophile and Saint Mary the Egyptian, stories of two repentant sinners who are saved through the intercession of the Virgin. Already vernacularized, though still literary, the diction becomes more exactly that of an ignorant old Frenchwoman in stanza 3. Villon's written language here becomes the speech of his mother. As the dialects proceed from the most “powerful” form of the vernacular to the most humble and ostensibly most “marginal,” the couple of Villon and his mother is created.

In the seven-line envoi the language becomes far more accessible; it resembles the language of Clément Marot's translation of the Psalms, a rather “classical” French. The language here fuses the simplicity and concreteness of Villon's mother's speech with the elegance of a poet whose command of all registers of French was outstanding. The acrostic, moreover, is noteworthy: villone, not the villon plus an unemphasized “E” printed without bold type in modern editions like the one quoted here. Villon's nom de guerre is unquestionably, and deliberately, rendered in its feminine form: he and his mother are conjoined in a special union—in what I have called a unit—refracting that of Christ and his Mother.38 This is a remarkable avatar, I believe, of the lyric poet's traditional search for union with the feminine Other. And this union is something the poet achieves, as in the similar yet different case of Guillaume de Lorris.39 Furthermore, the union at least hints at the process of imitatio Christi so often associated with hagiographic (auto)-biography. The descent of “languages” from those in “power” to those of utter “marginality” has been, in this new context, dramatically inverted. Indeed, as with the saint who renounces the empty glories of this world, the implication is that “marginality” really connects with authentic power, with real and unswerving Truth.40 Something of the Blessed Virgin clings to Villon's “poor mother,” as the two women share the common attribute of motherhood.41 Analogously, through Christ's having been born the Son of Woman, something of him extends to Villon. It is the power of poetry meaningfully to convey this kind of analogy.

My third text is closely related to the one just examined:

Se j'ayme et sers la belle de bon hait,
M'en devez vous tenir ne vil ne sot?
Elle a en soy des biens a fin souhait.
Pour son amour sains bouclier et passot;
Quant viennent gens, je cours et happe ung pot,
Au vin m'en fuis, sans demener grant bruit;
Je leur tens eaue, frommage, pain et fruit.
S'ilz paient bien, je leur dis: «Bene stat;
Retournez cy, quant vous serez en ruit,
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat!»
Mais adoncques il y a grant deshait,
Quant sans argent s'en vient couchier Margot;
Veoir ne la puis, mon cuer a mort la hait.
Sa robe prens, demy saint et surcot,
Si luy jure qu'il tendra pour l'escot.
Par les costés se prent, «c'est l'Antecrist»
Crie, et jure par la mort Jhesucrist
Que non fera. Lors j'empoingne ung esclat;
Dessus son nez luy en fais ung escript,
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.
Puis paix se fait, et me fait ung gros pet,
Plus enflee qu'ung vlimeux escharbot.
Riant, m'assiet son poing sur mon sommet,
Gogo me dit, et me fiert le jambot.
Tous deux yvres, dormons comme ung sabot.
Et, au resveil, quant le ventre lui bruit,
Monte sur moy, que ne gaste son fruit.
Soubz elle geins, plus qu'un aiz me fait plat;
De paillarder tout elle me destruit,
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.
Vente, gresle, gelle, j'ay mon pain cuit.
I suis paillart, la paillarde me suit.
Lequel vault mieulx? Chascun bien s'entresuit.
L'ung vault l'autre; c'est a mau rat mau chat.
Ordure amons, ordure nous assuit;
Nous deffuyons onneur, il nous deffuit,
En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.

If I love my fair and serve her gladly / Must I be taken for a wretch or fool? / She has graces for the subtlest desires, / For her I gird on shield and dagger, / When company comes I run and grab a pot, / Hurry for the wine careful to be quiet, / I offer them water, cheese, bread and fruit, / If they pay well I tell them, “Bene stat, / Drop in again the next time you feel horney, / In this whorehouse where we hold our state.”

But then there's real ill-will / When Margot comes to bed without a cent, / I can't look at her, I loathe her in my heart, / I snatch her dress, the waistband and skirt, / And swear to her it will serve as my cut, / She sticks her hands on her hips, “Anti-Christ!” / She screams and swears by the death of Jesus Christ / She won't have it. At which I pick up a slat, / Across her nose I beat it in writing / In this whorehouse where we hold our state.

Then we make peace and she lets me a big fart / Puffed up worse than a poisonous dung-beetle, / Laughing, she sits her fist on my crown, / “Baby,” she says and whacks my tail, / The two of us dead drunk we sleep like a top / And when we wake and her belly cries / She climbs aboard so as not to spoil her fruit, / I groan underneath, pressed flatter than a plank, / As she wipes out all the lechery in me / In this whorehouse where we hold our state.

When it hails, blows, freezes, my bread's baked, / I'm a lecher, she's a lecher to suit, / Which one is better? We're a good pair, / One's worth the other, bad rat bad cat, / We go for filth and filth is our lot, / From honor we run and honor runs from us / In this whorehouse where we hold our state.

(Lines 1591-1627)

In the preceding huitain the poet instructs that his ballade be read to La Grosse Margot after (one guesses) his death; he loves her, “la doulce sade” (line 1,588). The first line of this lyric sets up a courtly situation of love service in a context as unbelievable as the Latinate diction employed by Villon's mother in stanza 1 of the “Prière.” Margot is hardly the esteemed and honorable lady of the traditional chant courtois. Surely, moreover, to be an ignorant and amiable harlot like La Grosse Margot is to be as “powerless” as the illiterate and impoverished old woman who is the poet's mother. The parallels between the mother and the poet's strumpet mistress are striking, especially in the close relation of both women to him, to his life, and to his art.

He is her pimp, and thus her “servant.” But when she fails to bring in enough money he “loathes her.” The “power” of money is depicted as vitiating their love; they squabble, strike each other, and exchange foul words—at least until they drink plenty of cheap wine and Nature wins out, and with Margot on top, they make love. They are a couple if ever there was one—what François Rabelais would call a “beast with two backs”—but a more “marginal” couple would be difficult to imagine. As in the “Prière,” Villon's clerkly training emerges also in this ballade, for example, in the cant phrase “Bene stat” with which he responds to the orders given him by Margot's clientele.

The refrain “En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat” responds directly to the “Prière”'s “En ceste foy je vueil vivre et morir”; the two refrains mirror each other. Jointly they relate these two different unions of Man and Woman and underscore the triumph of the two unions. Is the union of Villon and La Grosse Margot totally unrelated to that of Jesus and Mary Magdalene? Or does the redoubled analogy between Villon and his mother and between Christ and the Virgin stop short of the clerkly pimp and the belle whom he serves “de bon hait”?

A conflation by the same means observed in the “Prière” occurs in this ballade. In its envoi the acrostic reappears, once again ignorantly misspelled by our editors and translator: villone. The envoi underscores the coupling of the poet-narrator and Margot which operates on several linguistic registers. The purely lexical level is represented by an adnominatio construction: paillart/paillarde, masculine and feminine forms of the same entity. Syntactical pairings are also pressed into service: Ordure amons / ordure nous / assuit: Nous deffuyons onneur, / il nous deffuit. Nous as both subject and object creates a single-like being out of a duality. Distinctive, morphologically genderless constructions are fairly frequent: lequel / l'un-l'autre / chascun / s'entresuit. Even the proverbial set phrase emphasizes non-gender-specific animality: mau rat / mau chat.

My final text is the ballade which ends the Testament. It follows a rather lengthy series of set pieces in which the poet-narrator composes his own epitaph, reconciles himself to God, and asks pardon of all his fellow men. These little poems are moving; some are acerbic and quite funny. For example, the executors he names for his will are police officers, priests, miserly money-lenders—would-be “powerful” men, whose being depends on their association with the institutions of power, and on cheating:

Icy se clost le testament
Et finist du pauvre Villon.
Venez a son enterrement,
Quant vous orrez le carrillon
Vestus rouge com vermillon,
Car en amours mourut martir;
Ce jura il sur son couillon,
Quant de ce monde voult partir.
Et je croy bien que pas n'en ment;
Car chassié fut comme ung souillon
De ses amours hayneusement,
Tant que, d'icy a Roussillon,
Brosse n'y a ne brossillon
Qui n'eust, ce dit il sans mentir,
Ung lambeau de son cotillon,
Quant de ce monde voult partir.
Il est ainsi et tellement,
Quant mourut n'avoit qu'ung haillon;
Qui plus, en mourant, mallement
L'espoignoit d'Amours l'esguillon;
Plus agu que le ranguillon
D'un baudrier luy faisoit sentir
(C'est de quoy nous esmerveillon),
Quant de ce monde voult partir.
Prince, gent comme esmerillon,
Sachiez qu'il fist au departir:
Ung traict but de vin morillon,
Quant de ce monde voult partir.

Here ends and finishes / The testament of poor Villon, / Come to his burial / When you hear the carillon / Dressed up in red-vermilion / For he died a martyr in [to?] love, / This he swore on his testicles / As he made his way out of this world.

And I think it isn't a lie / For he was chased like a scullion / By his loves so spitefully / That all the way to Roussillon / There isn't a bush or ravine / That didn't get, he tells the truth, / A strip of cloth from his back / As he made his way out of this world.

This is how it was, so much so / He had only a rag when he died, sorely / The spur of Love was pricking him, / Sharper than the buckle-tongue / Of a baldric he could feel it, / (And this is what we marvel at) / As he made his way out of this world.

Prince, beautiful [noble] as a merlin, / Hear what he did as he left, / He took a long swig of dead-black wine / As he made his way out of this world.

(Lines 1996-2023)

“Poor Villon” is dead. But if this is so, who is telling us this? Who is inviting us to his funeral? The first-person narrator talks of a Villon in the third person! Yet he speaks in Villon's language, at least in the language which we, as readers of the Testament, have grown to know well. Consequently, as we listen, his familiar speech induces us to credit his witnessing of Villon's own witness.42 The narrator informs us that Villon died a “martyr in [or to, of] love.” “He swore this on his balls when he decided [made up his mind] to leave this world.” Middle French voult, a past definite, is equivalent to modern French voulut “he decided.” The English translation given here reads incorrectly, and the mistake is a serious one.43 Like Jean de Meun, who also wrote a Testament, our new narrator is continuing the work of a poetic predecessor who, however, was less Love's servant like Guillaume de Lorris than Love's witness and martyr.

At his death, we learn, Villon wore but a rag; he was pricked by the sharp spur of Love, and felt a pain more acute than if he had been stabbed by the buckle tongue of a sword belt. And “this is what we marvel at” (merveille in Old and Middle French has strong connotations of “miracle”). The imitatio Christi implications of the recounted circumstances of Villon's demise are startling and “marvelous.” The human Jesus expired after being stabbed by a lance; he was dressed in a loin cloth-like rag (and is depicted thus in countless medieval representations of the Crucifixion); he died a witness to Love. One final remark. In the envoi to this final ballade we learn that, once again like Christ before he gave up the ghost, Villon drank a swig of sour wine (or rotgut, something fairly close to vinegar).

I believe that the fist (did) and the but (drank) of the envoi bring up, and respond to, our puzzle about the missing preterite in the initial huitain of the Testament. There “in my thirtieth year, at which point in time I had drunk all my shames” left a sentence fragment dangling: “I had drunk all my shames” was not completed by a suitable main clause verb. The “he drank a swig” of the envoi links semantically to “I had drunk”—both clauses inflect boire. The first (je) and third (il) persons are quite in keeping with the self doubling that Villon displays in the masculine/feminine components of the acrostic villone. By completing the poem in this fashion as a “sentence,” that is, by causing it to buckle back to its starting point, Villon connects his Testament with Guillaume de Lorris's Romance of the Rose. Finally, he fulfills the life of a saintly sinner whose calling by God leads to “drinking up his shames,” and also to his real life (together with his efficacy as a saint as he dies, saved) bearing witness that his longing fully to experience the total power of God's Love is at last irrevocably satisfied.

A great deal more might be said concerning these matters; however, I believe that my main point has been substantiated. Villon's great poem addresses precisely, and in an authentically medieval way, the very complex issues of “marginality” and “power” in the Middle Ages. And it does so through the modalities and values we associate with the basic, originative, and structurally paradigmatic poetic genre of the vernaculars of medieval Europe: hagiography.


  1. Quotations from the Testament are taken from François Villon, Œuvres, ed. Auguste Longnon, 4th ed. rev. by Lucien Foulet, Classiques Français du Moyen Âge, vol. 2 (Paris, 1932); subsequent references to line numbers are to this edition and will appear in the text. The English translations are from The Poems of François Villon, trans. Galway Kinnell (New York, 1965).

  2. The term Seconde Rhétorique is generally applied to the poets after Guillaume de Machaut (1300?-1377) who adopted the lyric forms invented or popularized by him and described in detail by his pupil, Eustache Deschamps, in the latter's L'Art de dictier (1393). Among these poets are included Jean Froissart, Christine de Pizan, Alain Chartier, and Charles d'Orleans.

  3. Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, “François Villon: Sa vie et ses œuvres” (article dated September 26, 1859), in Causeries du lundi, 3d ed. (Paris, n.d.), 14:279. The English translation is: “If Villon encountered many frustrations and misadventures in his lifetime, he has known much happiness since his death—the greatest happiness and the highest good fortune a poet can aspire to: he created a school; he established a tradition, and has even inspired his own legend.”

  4. Sainte-Beuve writes of a “classe d'auteurs, à qui tout profite, même les défauts: ce sont ceux qui, une fois morts, tournent à la légende, qui deviennent types, comme on dit, dont le nom devient pour la postérité le signe abrégé d'une chose, d'une époque, d'un genre” (ibid., p. 282).

  5. Pound pressed forward with his appreciation of Villon to the point of composing the music and setting for an opera made up of lengthy excerpts from the Testament and other works of Villon; it was staged at the Salle Pleyel on June 29, 1926. Pound also provided translations for the English version of this work. The Salle Pleyel event took place when Pound was at the height of his fame and influence as the leader of Anglo-American poetic modernism. See Ezra Pound, Testament. Libretto. Selections/Paroles de Villon/Musique d'Ezra Pound; Exécutants: Yves Tinayre (ténor), et al. Salle Pleyel, 29 juin 1926 (Paris, 1926). (Also, in Make It New [New Haven, Conn., 1935], Pound identifies as the second “most intensive form of criticism” what he calls “criticism via music, meaning definitely the setting of a poet's words; e.g., in Le Testament, Villon's words” [p. 4]). Bloomsbury was not far behind. In 1927, under the auspices of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, the Hogarth Press published The Judgment of François Villon: A Pageant-Episode Play in Five Acts, by Herbert Edward Palmer (1880-1961), a book like Pound's above-mentioned Testament to be found in the Rare Books collection of Princeton's Firestone Library.

  6. French usage refers to criminals, the “underclass,” prostitutes, etc., as “des marginaux.” “Marginality”—perhaps in part because feminist scholars have tended to apply the term to women (e.g., Sidonie Smith, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography: Marginality and the Fictions of Self-Representation [Bloomington, Ind., 1987]; or Catherine E. Saunders, Writing the Margins: Edith Wharton, Ellen Glasgow, and the Literary Tradition of the Ruined Woman [Cambridge, Mass., 1987])—has become much used in literary-historical and historical analysis, and its connotations are far from being exclusively negative. Trail-blazing historical investigations of “marginality” in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Paris include two works by the Polish historian Bronislaw Geremek: Les Marginaux parisiens aux XIVe et XVe siècles (Paris, 1976), translated as The Margins of Society in Late Medieval Paris, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge, 1987), and La Potence ou la pitié: L'Europe et les pauvres du Moyen Âge à nos jours, Bibliothèque des histoires (Paris, 1987). According to Alain Demurger, Geremek was the first to stress “le lien entre criminalité et marginalité” (Temps de crise, temps d'espoirs [XIVe-XVe siècle], Nouvelle Histoire de la France médiévale [Paris, 1990], 5:195). This increased interest in the phenomena of “marginality” grows out of the concerns of many earlier historiens des mentalités associated with the Annales group. Even greater concern for the marginaux is being evinced by those “new historians” who are now distancing themselves from their Annales predecessors. See François Dosse, L'Histoire en miettes: Des “Annales” à lanouvelle histoire” (Paris, 1987); and Sabine Jockel, “Nouvelle histoireund Literaturwissenschaft (Rheinfelden, 1984).

  7. A great many more or less ideologically self-conscious attempts to remedy these very real deficiencies have appeared over the past decade and a half. Michael Mullett has studied the link between popular culture and social protest in his Popular Culture and Popular Protest in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe (London, 1987); the condition of the homosexual has been examined in John Boswell's Christianity, Social Tolerance, and Homosexuality: Gay People in Western Europe from the Beginning of the Christian Era to the Fourteenth Century (Chicago, 1980). See also Leah Lydia Otis, Prostitution in Medieval Society (Chicago, 1985). R. I. Moore attempts to define “marginalization” in his The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe (Oxford, 1987). Much is owed by these studies to earlier works by Jacques LeGoff, e.g., his Time, Work, and Culture in the Middle Ages (Chicago, 1980). Studies of medieval women are legion, e.g., Women and Power in the Middle Ages, ed. Mary Erler and Maryanne Kowaleski (Athens, Ga., 1987); and, as a guide to historiography, Women in Medieval History and Historiography. ed. Susan Mosher Stuard (Philadelphia, 1987). I would also single out Caroline Bynum's remarkable Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women (Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987).

  8. Preceding Sainte-Beuve's discussion of Villon by a considerable number of years is the portrait of a kind of “Romantic” Villon given by Théophile Gautier (begun already in 1833 during the heyday of Romantic enthusiasm in France) and later published in his volume entitled Les Grotesques (1844).

  9. It should be stated forthrightly that the matter is highly ambiguous. Thus, Nathan Edelman, studying what nowadays would be labeled Villon's “reception” by the Romantics, came to the conclusion that Villon was not particularly well liked by them. His argument draws a great deal on Sainte-Beuve. See his “La Vogue de François Villon en France, de 1828 à 1873,” Revue de L'Histoire littéraire de la France 43 (1936): 211-23, 321-29. Yet the very term “vogue” indicates Villon's strong presence among the literati of the first half of the French nineteenth century.

  10. Villon as a symbol of low-life, but understood positively and even praised, can be observed in the twentieth-century writer Francis Carco, who published Le Roman de François Villon in 1926; Carco's own novelistic oeuvre is almost entirely dedicated to the depiction of criminals and outlaws in French society; he makes generous use of slang, and his Le Roman de François Villon appears to acknowledge his debt to the fifteenth-century poet.

  11. Comparing and contrasting the courtly aristocrat Charles d'Orléans with his socially inferior contemporary François Villon and describing their possible association have become a scholarly commonplace. See Lucien Foulet, “Villon et Charles d'Orléans,” in Medieval Studies in Memory of Gertrude Schoepperle Loomis (Paris, 1927), pp. 335-80; Grace Frank, “Villon at the Court of Charles d'Orléans,” Modern Language Notes 47 (1932): 498-505; and, more recently, Gert Pinkemell, François Villon et Charles d'Orléans (1457 à 1461), d'après les “Poésies diverses” de Villon (Heidelberg, 1992).

  12. Saint-Beuve (n. 3 above), p. 292.

  13. “Eh bien! cet écolier que je me figure, qui a respiré la bonne âme de Villon et non la mauvaise, et pour qui le poète, même complètement connu plus tard, était démeuré une passion, il revit de nos jours, il est devenu maître et de la meilleure École, et c'est lui qui a été, cette fois, le commentateur, l'apologiste (là où c'était possible), l'interprète indulgent et intelligent de Villon par-devant la Faculté, et aussi devant le public” (ibid., p. 302).

  14. This is one of the issues no less a poet, and modernist, than Paul Valéry felt compelled to address (Villon et Verlaine [Maastricht, 1937]).

  15. In fact, does not Victor Hugo's splendid Notre-Dame de Paris (1831) offer a Romantic re-presentation of “Villon's Paris”?

  16. The term poètes maudits belongs to Paul Verlaine, whose Les Poètes maudits first appeared in 1872 and in a second edition in 1888. Arthur Rimbaud's Lettre du Voyant, dated May 1871, was sent by him to his friend Paul Demeny; it is frequently read as his ars poetica. In it Rimbaud speaks of the necessity for the poet to impose upon himself what might well be called, in the present context, a process of systematic disruption and “marginalization,” i.e., “un long, immense et raisonné dérèglement de tous les sens.” The poet “cherche lui-même et épuise en lui-même tous les poisons pour n'en garder que les quintessences.” “Poet” and Voyant are, of course, one and the same.

  17. Marcel Proust, Le Temps retrouvé, in À la Recherche du temps perdu, ed. Pierre Clarac and André Ferré, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade (Paris, 1954), 3:911.

  18. Lucien Foulet, “François Villon et la poésie dans le royaume de France après la guerre de Cent Ans,” in Histoire de la littérature française, ed. Joseph Bédier and Paul Hazard (Paris, 1923), 1:117.

  19. The expression belongs to Stéphane Mallarmé, upon whose Poet it is incumbent to “Donner un sens plus pur aux mots de la tribu” (“Tombeau d'Edgar Poë”).

  20. “Jehan Rictus” is the nom de plume of Gabriel Randon; see his Les Soliloques du Pauvre (1897). An example: “Vous savez ben … Ia Grande en Noir / Qui tranch' les tronch's par ribambelles / Et dans les tas les pus rebelles / Envoie son Tranchoir en coup d'aile / Pour faire du Silence et du Soir.” In this context we recall also that the 1880s and 1890s were the golden age of the cabaret—the quite Villonesque Chat Noir, in particular—and the racy, slangy songs of Aristide Bruant as rendered by Yvette Guilbert (who was also known for her interpretations of medieval complaintes). Scenes of the Chat Noir—including Yvette Guilbert—have been immortalized in numerous paintings by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. The relationship between Villon and Bruant is dwelled upon by Marcel Mouloudji in his presentation essay devoted to Bruant in Aristide Bruant: Chansons d'aujourd'hui (Paris, 1972), as in this 1924 quotation from G. de Pawlowsky, in the newspaper Le Journal: “Il faut du temps pour que certaines œuvres prennent leur place. On comprendra peut-être un jour que l'œuvre de Bruant n'a rien de commun avec celle de ses imitateurs pleurnichards qui encensent gigolettes et souteneurs, mais qu'elle se rattache plutôt à celle de François Villon” (p. 33). Closer to our own times, the postwar singer Georges Brassens was much appreciated for his versions of Villon's “La Ballade des dames du temps jadis.” We also ought not to forget the poet Jean Richepin who, in his slang-filled Chanson des gueux, identifies his work with the condemned books of Flaubert and Baudelaire (rev. ed. [Paris, 1915], p. xix). Also, along with numerous poems concerning the bas-fonds of Paris and a glossary of slang, he includes a ballade entitled “Ballade Villon,” the envoi of which reads: “Prince, arbore ton pavillon, / Et tant pis pour qui te renie, / Roi des poètes sans billon, / Escroc, truand, marlou, génie.” His book, Richepin warns us, “est non seulement un mauvais livre, mais encore une mauvaise action” (p. i). A more explicit connection between Villon's poetic genius, his criminal “marginality,” and his worthiness could hardly be drawn.

  21. Mention must be made at this juncture of the little known, but quite interesting, poet, prosateur, and savant Marcel Schwob (1867-1905), a “modern writer” celebrated in Rémy de Gourmont's Le Livre des masques (1896) as one of the most promising and curious of contemporary men of letters. Schwob combined literary work of a creative nature with works of erudition, a good many of which were dedicated to Villon, his poetry, and his language. Already in 1892, at age twenty-five, he summarized contemporary scholarship on Villon to the wide readership of the Revue des Deux Mondes (“François Villon d'aprés des documents nouveaux,” RDM, 3e période, 112 [1892]: 375-412). Other articles of his appeared in such specialized journals as Romania. Schwob's major contributions to Villon studies—articles, papers given at learned society meetings—were collected and published posthumously by Pierre Champion under the title François Villon: rédactions et notes (Paris, 1912). He thus bridges the distance between poets and writers, on the one hand, and, on the other, the professional philologists and historians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Schwob's rationale is unambiguously expressed in his reprinted “François Villon”: “C'est parce qu'il a su donner un accent si personnel à ses poèmes que le style et l'expression littéraire cédaient au frisson nouveau d'une âme ‘hardiment fausse et cruellement triste.’ Il faisait parler et crier les choses, dit M. Byvanck, jusque-là enchâssées dans de grandes machines de rhétorique qui branlaient sans cesse leur tête somnolente. Il transformait tout le legs du moyen âge en l'animant de son propre désespoir et des remords de sa vie perdue” (Œuvres [Paris, 1921], 1:10).

  22. This edition (see n. 1 above) was prepared by Auguste Longnon and later revised by Lucien Foulet, who was a student at the École Normale Supérieure during the 1890s.

  23. The chief representative of the Neogrammarian trend in Romance linguistics was Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke (1861-1936), whose many works of etymological lexicography, historical phonetics, grammar, and syntax illustrate the operations of what were referred to as linguistic “laws” of evolution and development, especially in the area of sounds. For Meyer-Lübke and his many disciples, Old French served mainly to provide documentation for the “scientific” illustration and study of these operations. Lucien Foulet's Petite syntaxe de l'ancien français (Paris, 1919 [2d ed., 1923; 3d ed., 1930]) consciously changed the focus of study from historicoevolutionary matters to a meticulously descriptive analysis of Old French usage as displayed in surviving Old French texts: “Au lieu de voir dans le vieux français un idiome instable et provisoire dont la fonction propre est de relier deux langues complètes et définitives, le latin et le français moderne, on en vient ainsi à s'arrêter avec complaisance devant des phénomènes linguistiques dont les contemporains n'ont nullement soupçonné le caractère transitoire” (2d ed., p. v). It is impossible to believe that Foulet's long-standing interest in Villon and in his language, which he understood in terms of its coherence, was without influence upon this important change in perspective. See Iorgu Iordan and John Orr, An Introduction to Romance Linguistics, Its School and Scholars, rev. with a supplement by Rebecca Posner (Oxford, 1970).

  24. Pierre Champion's two-volume study (François Villon: Sa vie et son temps) first appeared in 1913 (Paris); a second edition was published in 1934.

  25. The term is that of René Étiemble, whose two-volume thèse d'État was entitled Le Mythe de Rimbaud (Paris, 1952, 1954) and who, in this work and many others, and without ever pointing out the analogy with Villon, attempts to separate the historical Rimbaud from the myths and legends that grew up around him (as in the case of Villon) in such a manner as to create a fictional “Rimbaud story.” Both cases display values “normally” associated with “marginality” undergoing a transformation to “centrality.” It is not impossible that these mythic, or legendary, stories derive consciously or unconsciously from Sainte-Beuve's somewhat bilious attribution of a legendary status to Villon—a status which, it might be added, he also accords in thinly veiled terms to his own famous contemporary Victor Hugo: “Et ils le diront et déjà ils le disent, parce qu'ils ont besoin de faire de vous tout ce que vous auriez dû être: car vous êtes l'enfant du siècle, vous le personnifiez à leurs yeux, et là où le périlleux modèle ne répond pas pleinement à l'idée et fait défaut, ils y mettront la main, ils vous achéveront … Nous y applaudirons et nous y applaudissons déjà, à ce commencement d'illusion, parce qu'après tout votre renommée charmante, si elle dépasse un peu vos œuvres, ne fera pourtant qu'égaler votre génie” (Saint-Beuve [n. 3 above], pp. 283-84).

  26. Jean-Paul Sartre, Saint-Genet, comédien et martyr (Paris, 1952).

  27. See Leo Spitzer, “Étude ahistorique d'un texte: ‘Ballade des dames du temps jadis,’” Modern Language Quarterly 1 (1940): 7-22.

  28. Sainte-Beuve, p. 297. The English translation is: “of kinds of alexandrine-type lines, with caesura and rhyming aaaa, had long before inquired: Where is the noble Solomon? Where is Samson the invincible?”

  29. “Così ricorsi ancora a la dottrina / di colui [St. Bernard] ch'abbelliva di Maria, / come del sole stella mattutina” (canto 32, lines 106-8 in Paradiso, vol. 3, pt. 1, of Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, trans. with commentary by Charles S. Singleton, Bollingen Series, no. 80 [Princeton, N.J., 1975], p. 364).

  30. A number of women composers of cansos—trobairitz—have been identified who worked within the forms associated with their more numerous male counterparts, the troubadours. Certain Old French lyric genres, e.g., the very early chanson de toile, are associated with a first-person female voice.

  31. See the introduction to the edition, prepared by me in collaboration with the late Alfred Foulet, of Chrétien de Troyes's Le Chevalier de la Charrette (Lancelot), Classiques Garnier (Paris, 1989), pp. xxv-xxvi, xxix; and my study, with Michelle A. Freeman, Chrétien de Troyes Revisited, Twayne World Authors (New York, 1995).

  32. “En l'onur de vus, nobles reis, / ki tant estes pruz e curteis, / a qui tute joie s'encline, / e en qui quer tuz biens racine, / m'entremis des lais assembler, / par rime faire e reconter” (“Prologue,” lines 43-48, in Lais de Marie de France, traduits, presentés et annotés par Laurence Harf-Lancner, ed. Karl Warnke, Lettres Gothiques [Paris, 1990], p. 24).

  33. Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Ernest Langlois, Société des Anciens Textes Français (Paris, 1920), 2:3, lines 42-44. The English translation is: “She is the one who has so much merit and is so worthy of being loved that she deserves to be proclaimed Rose.” For previous analyses of some of the issues discussed here, see my “From Clerc to Poète: The Relevance of the Romance of the Rose to Machaut's World,” in Machaut's World: Science and Art in the Fourteenth Century, ed. Madeleine Pelner Cosman and Bruce Chandler, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (New York, 1978), 314:209-16, and my “‘Cele qui doit estre Rose clamée' (Rose, vv. 40-44): Guillaume's Intentionality,” in Rethinking the “Romance of the Rose,” ed. Kevin Brownlee and Sylvia Huot (Philadelphia, 1992), pp. 39-64.

  34. Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Ernest Langlois, Société des Anciens Textes Français (Paris, 1921), 3:164-65, lines 10,517, 10,522, 10,539.

  35. The author of the Old French prose translation of the Latin Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle—a certain “Johannes” who wrote at the start of the thirteenth century—may be considered typical of those who expressed this idea: “Et por ce que rime se velt afeitier de moz conqueilliz hors de l'estoire, voust li cuens que cist livres fust sanz rime selonc le latin de l'estoire que Torpins l'arcevesque de Reins traita et escrist si com il le vit et oï” (And because rhyme desires to clothe itself with words gathered from outside the story, the count wanted this book to be without rhyme, following the example of the Latin of the story which Turpin, Archbishop of Rheims, treated and wrote down just as he had seen and heard it), in Ronald N. Walpole, The Old French Johannes Translation of the “Pseudo-Turpin Chronicle”: A Critical Edition (Berkeley, 1976), p. 130. See also Jeanette M. A. Beer, Narrative Conventions of Truth in the Middle Ages, Études de philologie et d'histoire, no. 38 (Geneva, 1981), esp. chap. 2, “Truth and the Eye-Witness.”

  36. This period also witnessed the emergence of scribes who in transcribing the works of such twelfth-century romancers as Chrétien de Troyes deliberately downplayed the importance ascribed by these romancers to rhetoricopoetic “ornaments” like rich rhyme, adnominatio, chiasmus, and the like. Guiot, for one, tended in this way to “prosify” Chrétien in his transcription of the latter's works (MS Paris Bibliothèque Nationale, fonds français 794); he displays indifference—perhaps even hostility—toward these stylistic colorings. See Le Chevalier de la Charrette (Lancelot) (Uitti and Foulet, eds.), p. xxxviii.

  37. It is tempting to imagine that Villon envisioned the Guillaume of the Rose as a figure resembling his own older contemporary and sometime patron Charles d'Orléans, a courtly—indeed, princely—love-poet if ever there was one.

  38. This usage is still heard today in the French provinces, as in “Dites donc, père Simon, comment va la Simone?” “La Simone” can be no other than Simon's wife. Together, they constitute, as it were, a unit of “Simon-ness.”

  39. It is worth remembering here that “Villon” was not the poet's birth name, which was either François de Montcorbier or des Loges; he assumed later the name of his benefactor, the priest Guillaume de Villon, who oversaw his education. “Villon” was consequently his “poet's name.”

  40. In a sense, then, Villon's Romantic and modernist devotees, pace Saint-Beuve, got Villon right, although their understanding of their own “marginality”—if the generalization may be allowed—is based on entirely different grounds from those informing the Testament. Modernist ‘Truth’, at least when viewed alongside that professed by Villon, is aesthetic. One is frequently under the impression that the prevailing sin of modern times is its vulgarity and philistinism. Nor is Villon's protagonist—unlike Joyce's Stephen Dedalus—interested in forging anything like the “conscience” of his “race.” The medieval saint's power is not really his: he bears witness to the power, and love, of God.

  41. Without pushing the analogies too far, it can be recalled that both their sons lived in constant danger of capital punishment on the part of official justice; Villon had been several times exiled, jailed, and sentenced to death.

  42. I am reminded of the four witnesses to Christ's life and sayings which constitute the Gospels. These are at the same time the revealed Word of God and human witnesses to a human existence. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John narrate Christ's Word, much as the narrator here seems to be witnessing in speaking that of Villon.

  43. Despite this criticism, I have found Galway Kinnell's English version of the Testament to be among the best we have: it is idiomatic, mostly correct, and pleasant to read. It is ideal for English-speaking readers not familiar with Middle French.

Tony Hunt (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8138

SOURCE: “Writing and the Fragmentation of Authority,” in Villon's Last Will: Language and Authority in the Testament, Clarendon Press, 1996, pp. 13-33.

[In this excerpt, Hunt examines the methods by which Villon calls into question the authority of his narrator in Le Testament, including his asides to the “scribe,” his allusions to other sources, and his use of irony.]

Ce que j'ay escript est escript.(1)
[What I have written is written]

The testator places some emphasis on the writing of the Testament, that is, on its status as a written record—‘Escript l'ay l'an soixante et ung’ (81). There is never the slightest doubt that he is a highly literate man addressing an educated audience. Biographers will point out that in 1452 François Villon gained the Master of Arts degree of the University of Paris, but without departing from the text we are bound to take with a pinch of salt such self-deprecating descriptions by the testator as ‘povre de sens et de savoir’ (178) and references to ‘mon plain sens / Sy peu que Dieu m'en a presté’ (75), for learned allusions abound in his lively account of his experiences. The ‘povre Villon’ of the will plays down both the extent and value of his education,

Mais quoy! je fuyoie l'escolle
Comme fait le mauvaiz enffant.
[So what did I do? I played truant from school like a naughty child]


but this provocative (and preposterous) claim is ironically undercut by the testator's own reference to writing,

En escripvant ceste parolle
A peu que le cueur ne me fent.
[As I write these words, my heart is almost breaking]


and by the hollowness of his simulated regrets as he reveals the true nature of his remorse:

Bien sçay, se j'eusse estudïé
Ou temps de ma jeunesse folle,
Et a bonnes meurs dedïé,
J'eusse maison et couche molle.


[I know! If only I'd studied in my misspent youth and tried to behave properly, I'd now have a plush place of my own]

The ‘couche molle’ (‘comfortable pad’) as a desirable acquisition recurs in the Lazarus story at line 815. But the learned Villon is really here parodying Proverbs 24:3-4 by taking the verses literally, before proceeding to ironic manipulation of another sapiential book, Ecclesiastes, in the following stanza:

Sapientia aedificabitur domus
          et prudentia roborabitur;
in doctrina replebuntur cellaria
          universa substantia pretiosa et pulcherrima.


[Through wisdom is an house builded: and by understanding it is established:

And by knowledge shall the chambers be filled with all precious and pleasant riches.]

The testator likes to mock traditional beliefs and authorities. His pretence of regretting his failure to achieve the promised rewards need not delude us, for he promptly accords greater value to the School of Life than to the Academy:

Travail mes lubres sentemens,
Esguisez comme une pelocte,
M'ouvrist plus que tous les commens
D'Averroÿs sur Arristote.


[Hardship clarified my erratic thoughts, as sharp as a pelota ball, much more than all Averroës' commentaries on Aristotle]

The self-mocking irony of the antiphrasis ‘esguisez’ and the appearance of the word ‘lubres’ (‘erratic’) once again put us on our guard against taking the testator's statements too seriously, as does the irony with which he proceeds to undermine his own proposition by indicating that, so far from learning any lesson at all, he was saved ‘au plus fort de mes maulx’ (97) by divine intervention (99), an assertion which, like many of the testator's religious references, is kept at a critical distance by an appeal to authority:

Dieu, qui les pelerins d'Esmaulx
Conforta, ce dit L'Euvangille.

(99-100; cf. Luke 24: 13-35)

[God, who comforted the pilgrims of Emmaus, according to what the Gospel says]

The connection with the preceding lines (93-4) is established by the fact that in the Gospel Christ addresses the pilgrims as ‘stulti’ and proceeds to instruct them:

Et ipse dixit ad eos: O stulti, et tardi corde ad credendum in omnibus quae locuti sunt prophetae!


Tunc aperuit illis sensum ut intelligerent scripturas


[Then he said unto them, o fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken.

Then opened he [cf. m'ouvrist, 95] their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures.]

Whether hardship (travail) has really been so instructive we may be inclined to doubt. Certainly, at the outset of the Testament the testator seems to deny that the hardship of the prison at Meung at any rate has had any influence on him, refusing to Thibault the satisfaction of ‘teaching him a lesson’ or in any way reforming him. We should therefore be reluctant to see in travail a specific allusion to imprisonment, even though it is apparently distinguished from the rest of his suffering (plains et pleurs, angoisseux gemissemens, tritresses et douleurs, labeurs et griefz cheminemens). Travail recurs in the ‘Requeste au prince’:

Françoys Villon, que Travail a dompté
A coups orbes, à force de bature …


[François Villon, whom Hardship has battered into submission with hurtful blows]

The catalogue of suffering in lines 89 ff. certainly seems overdone. But it looks as if the testator intends to present God in a providential role as the true ‘instructor’ who equipped (pourveut, 102) him with hope, even though he was not a pilgrim or a rich man (he puns on sans croix ne pille, 98, ‘penniless’ and ‘without a cross or thick cloth’).

We see from the outset, therefore, that the testator cloaks his own education in a series of ironic protestations, which seem to favour the power of providence and concede little to the influence of the schools, whilst yet skilfully exploiting learned references. What are these learned references? To what sort of authorities do they refer? And what kind of writing do they involve? To understand the dialogism of the Testament and its author's treatment of language we need to look carefully at his handling of written authorities and sources. His evocation of the voices of tradition and authority, encompassing all kinds of conventional wisdom, is almost always double-edged.

For example, the treatment of the Alexander and Diomedes story seems to constitute a parody of the use of exempla by moralistic writers. Like the ‘povre Villon’ himself, Diomedes invokes fortune and povreté to excuse the fact that he is a criminal, more specifically, a pirate. Is the charge of criminality made because he ‘escume’ (141) or because he does it only ‘en une petiote fuste’ (142)? Alexander, in apparent acquiescence to his reasoning, duly changes Diomedes' fortune ‘mauvaise en bonne’ (156). But what is the moral of this tale, apart from the obvious one of the benefits of patronage? Apparently this:

… Onc puis ne mesdit
A personne, mais fut vray homme.


[He never again spoke ill of anyone, but showed himself an upright man]

The first part of the statement seems at first comprehensible enough, but what does vray mean?—‘just’ or ‘truth-loving’ or ‘mature’? We are forced to reconsider to whom the reference applies. Who was taught a lesson by this encounter? Grammatically the statement is irremediably—and therefore surely intentionally—ambiguous. That is to say we can advance equally plausible arguments for the claim that it is Alexander who learned not to speak ill of a man of whom he knew nothing (but called a laron en mer) and the alternative interpretation that Diomedes himself learned to hold his tongue, once his fortune had changed.2 But, we may ask, would the testator really cease to speak ill of, for example, Thibault d'Aussigny, if Fortune smiled on him? It seems doubtful. He has already used the verb mesdire antiphrastically in the line 20 where he mockingly anticipates the charge of calumny by simultaneously denying and illustrating it (see below pp. 40 f.). Here then is an exemplum with no clearly intelligible moral, indeed with a moral that remains insolubly ambiguous. And precisely the difficult word puzzling us, that is vray, is repeated as the testator reaches for an authority and tells us,

Valere pour vray le bauldit
Qui fut nommé le Grant a Romme.


[Valerius, known in Rome as Maximus, vouches for its truth]

We instinctively know that the authority will be a hoax, and so it is. There is nothing appropriate in Valerius Maximus, well known as he certainly was in the fifteenth century,3 and though it is possible that the testator has in mind the Epitome of ps.- Callisthenes by Julius Valerius or the Alexander romance of Julius Valerius [Alexander Polemius], neither actually has the story. Here, then, is an anecdote about a man who became ‘truthful’ recounted by a ‘narrator’ who guarantees the ‘truth’ of the story by a false source reference! The voices of Diomedes and Alexander are heard—and heard by each other—but with what result? No single interpretation is authorized and no unequivocal confirmation of the story's reliability is offered.

The question of competing voices and authorized interpretations is raised in another didactic passage, where the testator cites the authority of Ecclesiastes. His technique here perfectly illustrates his mischievous selectivity in the handling of his sources. In what amounts to a mise en abyme of tendentiously interpretative reading (cf. 19) he admits that he lighted on words of Solomon (‘le dit du Saige’, 209) particularly favourable to his own cause, ‘to suit his own book’ as we might say, and quotes accurately Ecclesiastes 11:9 (first phrase). He confesses his own bias in such careful selectivity by acknowledging that ‘Solomon’ ‘ailleurs sert bien d'un autre mes’ (213, ‘elsewhere serves up a very different dish’), that is, says something quite different. This ‘correction’ of his oversimplified summary of ‘the Sage's’ wisdom is disingenuous. In proceeding to illustrate his ‘correction’ by producing another accurate quotation, duly illustrating the contrary of what he had first attributed to ‘Solomon’, he underlines the apparent contradiction of the two statements with the observation ‘C'est son parler, ne moins ne mes’ (215, ‘that's what he says, neither more nor less’). This is all thoroughly misleading. The author of Ecclesiastes says rather more than what is quoted here and the testator himself suppresses it in yet a further act of selection. The testator's mock confession of his cavalier way with quotations derives particular piquancy and audacity from the ironic use of the word ailleurs (213), which leads us to expect a quotation drawn from a quite different part of the source, whereas in reality the ailleurs turns out to be an antiphrasis for ibidem—in the same place.4 What the testator has done is to quote the first phrase of Ecclesiastes 11:9 and, as an apparent corrective, the last phrase of 11: 10 whilst suppressing everything in the middle:

Laetare ergo, juvenis, in adolescentia tua [et in bono sit cor tuum in diebus juventutis tuae, et ambula in viis cordis tuae, et in intuitu oculorum tuorum, et scito quod pro omnibus his adducet te in judicium]

[Aufer iram a corde tuo, et amove malitiam a carne tua] Adolescentia enim et voluptas vana sunt.


[Rejoice, o young man, in thy youth; and let thy heart cheer thee in the days of thy youth, and walk in the ways of thine heart, and in the sight of thine eyes; but know thou, that for all these things God will bring thee into judgement.

Therefore remove sorrow from thy heart and put away evil from thy flesh: for childhood and youth are vanity.]

In this way he creates two voices by omitting the link which unites them. He thus constitutes a ‘carpe diem’ theme and its contrasting counterpart ‘vanity, vanity, all is vanity’, allowing this juxtaposition of contraries to appear as the redressing of the balance which betokens his own fairmindedness. The single voice of ‘the Sage’ is thus fragmented. Of course, the (omitted) admonitions to clean living and prudent concern for the day of judgement are not at all to the testator's taste and by no means opportune, so they are promptly passed over. This is not the only case where he suppresses those details which provide the crucial context for determining the significance of a phrase he is quoting and thereby reveals the precariousness of meaning. At precisely the moment when he mocks his own manner of playing fast and loose with sources, including quoting out of context, he is up to his old tricks, illustrating once again the very type of distortion which he has just affected to regret, neatly suppressing both the notion of judicium (however appropriate it might be to the situation of a testament) and the idea of sorrow and carnal pleasure (relevant in a fairly obvious way to his experience of prison and his adventures as an ‘amant martyr’).

For good measure, the testator proceeds to invert this technique in the next stanza (217 ff.) in relation to Job 7:6 to which he surreptitiously now adds. The Vulgate has simply,

Dies mei velocius transierunt quam a texente tela succiditur, et consumpti sunt absque illa spe.


[My days are swifter than a weaver's shuttle and are spent without hope.]

The next verse would be entirely suitable for a man making his last will and testament:

Memento quia ventus est vita mea et non revertetur oculus meus ut videat bona.

[O remember that my life is wind; mine eye shall no more see good.]

But here a new image is formed to replace the wind, that of snuffing out life:

                                                  … quant tixerant
En son poing tient ardente paille:
Lors s'il y a nul bout qui saille,
Soudainement il le ravit.


[… when a weaver holds a burning straw in his hand: the moment there is an end protruding, he promptly removes it]

Whether or not Villon misread succiditur (‘is cut’) as succenditur (‘set alight’), thus prompting the addition (inspired also by Isaiah 38: 12 ‘praecisa est velut a textente vita mea’, ‘I have cut off like a weaver my life’?), the new image conforms perfectly to the notion of the testator as a victim, so that he can now say ‘Sy ne crains plus que riens m'assaille’ (223, ‘I no longer fear whatever befalls me’). It is the testator's characteristic presentation of himself as a victim that has determined the treatment of the source here, a treatment which involves both omission and addition. This time he has combined two voices instead of splitting a single voice and has attributed the two voices to a single authority.

Elsewhere in invoking ‘le Saige’ the testator again resorts to conflation. This is in the bequest to Andry Courault of ‘Les Contreditz Franc Gontier’ (stanza 142). The title refers to a refutation or counter-claim, reply, or objection to the ideal of rustic life exemplified in a poem on Franc Gontier and Elena written by the poet-musician, and Bishop of Meaux, Philippe de Vitry (d. 1361), which itself attracted a contrasting depiction of the life of tyranny by another bishop (of Cambrai), and Chancellor of the University of Paris, Pierre d'Ailly (d. 1420). This latter work was quickly associated with the idyll of Franc Gontier and the two works were printed together in 1490.5 The joke is that whilst the testator is prepared to contest the idyll of Franc Gontier with a ballade (1473-506) which represents the ‘Contreditz’, he draws back from pitting himself against the ‘tirant seant en hault’, the tyrant sitting at the high table. The reason he gives is as follows:

Le Saige ne veult que contende
Contre puissant povre homme las,
Affin que ses filletz ne tende
Et qu'il ne trebuche en ses las.


[According to the Wise Man it is better that a weak man does not contend against a powerful one, lest the one lay his nets and the other fall into the snares]

In this instance ‘the Sage’ is the author of Ecclesiasticus (never actually identified with Solomon at that time or since), who in book 8 (‘Monita de quibusdam cavendis in conversatione cum hominibus’) writes:

Non litiges cum homine potente,
          ne forte incidas in manus illius.
Non contendas cum viro locuplete,
          ne forte contra te constituat litem tibi.


[Do not pit yourself against the great,
          for fear of falling into their power
Do not quarrel with the rich,
          for fear they will outbid you(6)]

‘Don't argue with a bully!’ The phrase ‘povre homme las’ is instantly recognizable as the testator's own favourite self-designation. The image of ‘ses las’ (1464), however, renders another maxim, from book 9 (‘De quibusdam servandis in conversatione cum mulieribus’):

Ne respicias mulierem multivolam,
          ne forte incidas in laqueos illius.


[Do not go near a loose woman,
          Or you may fall into her snares]

This is a warning against rapacious women. The testator therefore manages to insinuate, through conflating two passages of his source, that the tyrants he will not argue with are women, those no doubt who have fleeced him or even given him a drubbing (see 656-64 and below pp. 55 f.).

Still later, in another allusion to the Bible, the testator quotes Psalm 102 (AV 103): 16 (‘et non cognoscet amplius locum suum’, ‘son lieu ne cognoistra jamaiz’, 292; compare Job 7: 10), but refuses to embroil himself in its full elucidation (seurplus, 293), an elucidation which is, ironically, rather necessary given the complexity and ambiguity of the thoughts expressed:

Aux theologiens le remectz,
Car c'est office de prescheur.


[I leave that to the theologians, for it's a matter for the preacher]

Behind the screen of being ‘de lire … fetart’ (‘lazy about reading’, 36), the testator manipulates written authorities with consummate skill. His frequently inaccurate reporting of what he has read, his tampering with the evidence, always serves a definite ironic purpose, leaving us with the dialogism of multiple voices lacking any unitary authority. A striking example of the complex treatment of sources is the case of the Roman de la Rose. The Testament actually begins with an ironic reminiscence of this work. The martyr to love called ‘povre Villon’ is clearly beyond the age of love, what Guillaume de Lorris at the beginning of his work describes as the ‘vintieme an de mon aage / el point qu'Amors prent le paage / des jones genz’ (see below p. 36). His own youth, now behind him, will, he hopes, be excused by those who appreciate the teaching of the Roman de la Rose:

Et comme le noble Roumant
De la Rose dit et confesse
En son premier commancement
C'on doit jeune cueur en jeunesse,
Quant on le voit viel en viellesse,
Excuser, helas! il dit voir.


[As the noble Romance of the Rose declares at the very beginning, one ought to forgive a young heart and its youth when one sees it mature in its maturity—alas, that is so true!]

At first blush this opening reference might naturally suggest an early passage in Jean de Meun's continuation of the Roman de la Rose, particularly lines 4409 ff. on Jonesce and Viellesce (compare the reference to God's grace in 4429 and Testament, 112), but in fact it is a close textual reminiscence of another work by Jean de Meun—his own Testament.8 There is no question of an error here. The situation is carefully engineered and the quotation, though deliberately presented out of context, is textually accurate. Jean de Meun, born in the place of the testator's great misfortune, wrote his own literary testament c.1290 and it survives in 116 manuscripts. This is the third quatrain:

Bien doit estre escusez jeune cuer en
Quant Diex li donne grace d'estre viel
en viellesce;
Mais moult est granz vertus et tres haute noblesce
Quant cuer en jeune aage a meürté s'adresce.


[A young heart in its youth deserves forgiveness when by God's grace it becomes mature in maturity, but it is a signal virtue and most noble act when a heart strives for maturity while still young]

Another selective quotation! The testator is careful not to cite the last two lines, which are not part of his programme at all, for he is intent, as usual, on appearing a victim whose good intentions are frustrated by the opposition of his enemies who do not want to see him grow up: ‘En meürté ne me voldroient voir’ (120). Jean de Meun, on the contrary, had argued in stanza 4 that many resist growing up and cling to youth as if they were sure of living for ever:

Maiz li uns et maint autre sont de si grant durté
Qu'en nul estat ne veulent venir a meürté,
Ainz se sont a jeunesce si joint et ahurté
Com se de touzjours vivre eüssent seürté.


[But there are many who are so obdurate that at no point in their career do they wish to achieve maturity, but are attached to youth as if they were sure of living for ever]

The testator wishes to present himself as a victim and places his faith in God's mercy: ‘par sa grace pardon m'acorde’ (112, compare Jean de Meun, 10). Significantly, the context of Jean de Meun's opening remarks is that of writing. In his youth Jean composed ‘maint dit par vanité’, including the Roman de la Rose no doubt, but he hopes in future with God's help that he will write something more in conformity with Christian morality:

J'ai fait en ma jeunesce maint dit par vanité,
Ou maintes gens se sont plusieurs foiz delité;
Or m'en doint Diex un faire par vraie charité
Pour amender les autres qui poi m'ont proufité.


[In my youth, it is true, I composed a number of works which regularly gave pleasure to a variety of people; may God now allow me to compose one out of real charity to make up for those others which have profited me little]

As in the passage from Job, we have the suppression of the important contextual element concerned with personal discipline or reform, and also concealment of the fact that Jean is dealing with his own writing in a work which, far from being ironic like Villon's Testament, is pious and didactic. The initiated for whom the latter is composed would savour the joke: an ironic twist is being given to the words of another writer's ‘testament’ which is wholly serious and which embodies regrets at a youth misspent not in carousing, but in writing the Roman de la Rose, the work to which the regrets are mischievously attributed.

Elsewhere the problems of writing are confronted much more directly. The figure of the scribe Firmin9 is invented and there are reflections on the fragility of the written word:

Enregistrer j'ay fait ses diz
Par mon clerc Fremin l'estourdiz,
Aussi rassiz que je pense estre,(10)
S'il me desment, je le mauldiz:
Selon le clerc est deu le maistre.


[I've had these words recorded by my scatterbrained secretary Firmin, as sound in mind as I reckon I am; if he proves me wrong, I curse him. The master is only as good as his clerk]

‘Firmin the scatterbrain’ (who is still in the narrative frame at 1927) is certainly an inauspicious name for a scribe or secretary.11 The passage is heavily tinged with irony. Line 566 is ambiguous in that it may refer to Firmin or to the testator himself. If applied to the scribe, it would be antiphrastic, the sense being that if the scatter-brained scribe turns out not to be (‘me desment’) as disorganized (or non compos mentis) as his master (‘about as organized as I reckon myself to be’—antiphrastic), but produces an orderly piece of work, then the testator curses him—for the scribe misrepresents the author. If, on the other hand, the reference is to the testator (‘je’), then the sense is that if the scatterbrained Firmin garbles the thoughts of the testator ‘rassiz’ (compos mentis), he shall equally be cursed for misrepresenting the master. In addition to this expression of distrust of the scribe, there is also the ironic inversion of a familiar, proverbial saying—‘Tel maître, tel valet’, ‘the servant is as good as the master’12 (a medieval form of which is ‘Selon seigneur maisgnie duicte’)—which stresses the author's dependence on the scribe:

Selon le clerc est deu le maistre.


[The master is only as good as his secretary]

In addition to its wit, this statement represents a fundamental truth about writing in the fifteenth century,13 one which is borne out by the transmission of the Testament, for none of the four surviving witnesses on its own would give an adequate representation of what the author wrote and it took many years before the superiority of MS C was recognized.

Later the testator revives this theme of the problems of textual authenticity, accuracy, and transmission by pointing out that his earlier poem (‘certains laiz’) was given a title he never authorized:

Qu'aucuns, sans mon consentement,
Voulurent nommer testament;
Leur plaisir fut, non pas le myen.


[which some, without my authorization, insisted on calling a will; it was their pleasure to do so, not mine]

and quotes another aphorism in support:

Mais quoy! on dit communement
Qu'ung chacun n'est maistre du scien.


[But after all, they do say, don't they, that no one really has control over what is his]

This is a nice allusion to a celebrated medieval tag ‘Fata sua habent libelli’—books have their own destinies. The testator openly acknowledges the precariousness and fragility of the productions of the writer, who has no power to influence their fate. Once more, we have the theme of the fragmentation of authority, here illustrated by the separation of author and text through the conferment of an unauthorized title (‘testament’, 757) on his work.

After almost 800 lines the testator has at last arrived at the threshold of his will proper and at this crucial moment he provides another reference to the scribe Firmin which is every bit as ironic as the earlier passage. It begins,

Car commencer vueil a tester.
Devant mon clerc Fremin qui m'ot,
S'il ne dort, je vueil protester
Que n'entens homme detester
En ceste presente ordonnance,
Et ne la vueil manifester …
Synom ou royaume de France.


[I wish to begin dictating my will. In the presence of my secretary Firmin, who will be listening (if he's not asleep), I wish to make it clear that I have no wish to malign anyone in the present instructions, and I do not wish them to be made public … except in France]

The idea of the will being broadcast throughout France is, of course, unconventional and ironically juxtaposed to a mock confidentiality, ‘Fremin, siez toy pres de mon lit, / Que l'en ne me viengne espïer’ (787-8) and to ‘ne la vueil manifester’ (783). The scribe is present—but awake or asleep? Assuming the former, the testator's instructions are unexpected and constitute a further infringement of the norm:

Ce que nomme escriptz vistement,
Puis fay le partout coppïer.


[Write down quickly what I tell you to, and publish it everywhere]

There turns out to be nothing confidential about this will, dictated at speed to a scatterbrained scribe in pursuit of the widest possible circulation. Nor is there anything benign about the testator's will—in the sense of intention (consider the play on tester, protester, and detester). He knows only too well how to alarm his audience:

                                        Je vueil protester
Que n'entens homme detester
En ceste presente ordonnance.


[I wish to declare publicly, place on record, that it is no part of my intention to disparage/disinherit (detester) anyone in the present proclamation/dispositions of the will (ordonnance)]

The puns (detester, ordonnance) serve to remind the audience or addressees how much they would prefer to be disinherited, that is, kept out of this will (and its satire), which is destined to be so publicly proclaimed, than be included in it. Being left out of the will is what they must most passionately desire and this ironic paradox enables the testator to enjoy himself at their expense (cf. stanza 77) whilst feigning a benevolent concern for them. Those who get left out should not complain—as if they would!

There are, of course, other references to authors and authorities in the Testament and when examined carefully each one yields its own irony, in particular the equivocalness of language as the expression or incarnation of authority. In stanza 128 the ‘trois orphelins’ (antiphrastic for usurers) are bidden to study with maistre Pierre Richier (the punning name of course implying that maistre Pierre is both rich and a teacher of how to become rich) since ‘Le Donat est pour eulx trop rude’ (1284), too difficult. The point here is that Donatus is the name given to an elementary school textbook by the fourth-century grammarian of that name, Aelius Donatus, an authority uncongenial to them because Donat puns on ‘donner’, ‘to give’, an activity which usurers find difficult. So the testator recommends Richier, whose name alone indicates a much more appropriate teacher for usurers. The sort of text that would suit them is a parody of a Marian hymn: Ave salus, tiby decus (1287) is a comic distortion of the honorific greeting Ave decus virginum, Ave salus hominum, and alludes to golden coins (saluts) which were still circulating under Charles VII, with decus providing a play on d'ecus, so that we have something in the spirit of the Usurer's Credo14 which was popular in the Middle Ages. The phrase ‘sans plus grans lettres enserchier’ (1288) means ‘without more advanced study’ and the last line ‘clerks don't always come off best’ is a wry reflection by the penniless but educated testator.

Another ‘school’ text and authority was Macrobius' commentary on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis (‘The Dream of Scipio’). When the testator mocks the chatter and gossip of ‘les dames parisïennes’ (1539), he adds at the end of the ballade he devotes to them,

Tu trouveras la que Macrobes
Oncques ne fist telz jugemens.
Entens, quelque chose en desrobes:
Ce sont tous beaux enseignemens.


[You will there hear made judgements such as Macrobius never dreamed of. Listen, and you'll catch a sample. They're really instructive!]

The reference here is not so much to Macrobius as an authority on dreams, as he appears in the opening lines of the Roman de la Rose (lines 7-8 ‘… Macrobes / Qui ne tint pas songes a lobes’), rather to his standing as explicator par excellence of ‘fables’, or what he called narratio fabulosa. In his Commentary (1. 2. 7) he stated that they may serve simply to gratify the ear or to encourage to good works. Fabulae, ‘old wives’ tales', are frivolous, but the narratio fabulosa (e.g. myth and allegory) expresses the truth of philosophical doctrines. Macrobius was outstanding for drawing this truth from what might easily be dismissed as idle tales. The point here is that even the ingenuity of Macrobius did not uncover such ‘beaux enseignemens’ as those of Parisian chatterboxes. The phrase is of course ironic. There is no comparison between the idle and mischievous tittle-tattle of these women, not at all conducive to virtue, and the morally useful lessons derived from fables by Macrobius. The mismatch of the authority of the Neoplatonist philosopher and the subject matter of female gossip relativizes both as part of the dialogic approach discernible throughout the Testament.

Another reference to Jean de Meun occurs in stanza 118. There is no denying the historicity of this allusion:

Quoy que maistre Jehan de Poullieu
En voulsist dire et relicqua,
Contraint et en publicque lieu
Honteusement s'en revocqua.
Maistre Jehan de Meun s'en mocqua
De leur façon; si fist Mathieu;
Mais on doit honnorer ce qu'a
Honnoré l'Eglise de Dieu.


[Whatever Jean de Poullieu had intended to say against them (=the Mendicants), he was humiliatingly obliged in public to withdraw it. Jean de Meun satirized them and so did Matheolus; but we ought to respect anything that is respected by the Church of God]

Here, it is the final two lines which are most obviously ironic. Jean de Pouilly was a celebrated master of the University of Paris, and a preacher, who wrote a number of tracts against the Mendicant orders and saw his views condemned by Pope John XXII in 1321, obliging him to make a public retraction. Villon is said to have supported the University. At any rate the testator adduces the evidence of Jean de Meun's mockery of the Mendicants in Faux Semblant's discussion of mendicity in the Roman de la Rose (11315 ff.), where he supports Guillaume de Saint Amour (1202-72), a Rector of the University of Paris, who was an outstanding opponent of the Mendicants. In particular their right to hear confessions was challenged, as is shown in ‘Mathieu’, namely the Liber lamentationum Matheoluli (c.1298), lines 1263-361. The Testament supposes its audience's familiarity with these two writings so that they may appreciate the irony of the testator's declaration that nevertheless God's Church must be respected, by which he means the Pope and compulsion by papal power. There is also a more strictly textual irony in this passage. Whilst it is true that the Latin ‘Matheolus’ has a long passage criticizing the use of the Mendicants as confessors, the French ‘Mathieu’, namely his translator Jean le Fevre (1380s), explicitly declines to criticize them: ‘Pour ce n'ay voulenté de mordre / sur les freres ne sur leur ordre’ (see Appendix 1). One of his reasons for this is that Matheolus and Jean de Meun have already done so. The Latin Matheolus has no reference to Jean de Meun, but the French does and it is certainly Jean le Fevre's translation which is alluded to in stanza 118. Here, then, the testator extends his virtuoso treatment of written sources by playing on the ambiguity of titles which can refer either to a Latin original (here the Lamentationes Matheoluli15) or to a vernacular translation (here Jean le Fevre's Livre de lamentations16), without the two being at all equivalent. At one level (taking Mathieu to indicate the French translation), therefore, the two authorities he quotes, Jean de Meun and Mathieu, are actually at odds with each other, but at another (taking ‘Mathieu’ to indicate the Latin) they are concordant. We thus recognize another example of the fragmentation of authority. It cannot safely be objected that the author of the Testament did not know the Latin, for Matheolus cites the bull Omnis utriusque sexus to which allusion is made on two occasions, as we shall now see.

A reference to Church authority is found in stanza 62. The testator mounts an inquiry into the lives of prostitutes and loose women before their ‘fall’. Were they not once respectable, taking a lover—clerk, layman, or monk—to assuage their sexual needs?17

Or firent selon ce decret
Leurs amys, et bien y appert:
Ilz amoient en lieu secret,
Car autre d'eulx n'y avoit part.


[Their arrangements with their male friends met the requirements of the decree; they did their loving in secret, nobody else was involved]

An earlier generation of critics saw in ce decret, printed Decret, a reference to the celebrated compendium of canon law by the Italian Gratian (c.1156) known as the Decretum. The phrase ‘selon ce Decret’ was then held by some to be antiphrastic, meaning ‘contrary to the Decretum’. However, the connection was always a slim one. What is much more likely is that it resembles a passage in the Lais:

Et le decret qui articule
Omnis utriusque sexus
Contre la Carmeliste bulle
Laisse aux curés, pour mettre sus.


[And the decree with the Omnis utriusque sexus article against the bull in favour of the Carmelites, I bequeath to the clergy, for them to impose]

This refers to a canon of the Lateran Council of 1215 insisting on annual confession for every Christian and in which the confessor is enjoined to be ‘discretus et cautus’. The mission of hearing confessions was entrusted to the Dominicans by Pope Honorius III in 1221 (though, ironically, the authenticity of this bull has been challenged). But, more significant, a bull of Pope Nicholas V (1409), contested by the University, gave the Mendicants, particularly the Carmelites, power to hear confessions at the expense of the regular clergy, whose authority the testator ostensibly wishes to strengthen by his bequest of the Omnis utriusque sexus. In the passage from the Testament the irony resides in the analogy between lovers and confessors. The ladies in question took lovers (or were taken by them) who were as discreet (‘discretus et cautus’) as confessors—often no doubt because they were themselves members of the clergy. The reference ‘ce decret’ therefore indicates the one that had already been ‘given’ as a bequest in the Lais.18 The sort of lover envisaged is illustrated in stanza 172 by Jean Chapelain on whom the testator confers a benefice, whilst also punning on the homophony of cure and d'ames/dames:

Resiné lui eusse ma cure,
Mais point ne veult de charge d'ames;
De conffesser, ce dit, n'a cure
Synon chamberieres et dames.


[I would have made over my curacy, but he's got no interest in the care of souls; according to him the only sort of confessing he likes is that involving chambermaids and ladies]

Thus once more there opens up an ironic discrepancy between the original meaning of a written authority and one which arises from its insertion in a quite new context, a familiar technique designed to destabilize textual meaning yet again.

A more literary allusion is found in stanza 167 where the testator formulates the wish for ‘maistre Lomer’, saddled with the task of clearing certain streets of the Cité of prostitutes, to enjoy without charge the pleasure of ‘faire ung soir cent foiz la faffee, / En despit d'Auger le Danois’ (1802-3), that is making love a hundred times in a single evening, putting to shame Ogier le Danois. The reference is almost certainly to the mock boasts (gabs) and accomplishments of Charlemagne's knights at the court of the Emperor of Constantinople in the parodic epic Le Pèlerinage de Charlemagne. But the reference is doubly inaccurate, since it is not Ogier who undertakes to have intercourse a hundred times in a night with the emperor's daughter, but, unexpectedly, Olivier (stanzas 27, 43-4), who in fact only manages it thirty times but is protected from punishment by the Emperor's daughter herself, who declares that he fulfilled his boast. Here in the Testament the irony works through the fact that despite the striking nature of the boast, it is undermined by being falsely attributed—so much for the durability of sexual boasting and its literary transmission! Then, relying on his audience's appreciation of the deception involved in the feigned accomplishment of the feat, the testator renders the whole allusion innocuous. ‘Outdoing Ogier’ really amounts to nothing, since Ogier was not the perpetrator of the action envisaged and, further, the action was never accomplished anyway.

However, the real tour de force so far as the ironization of writing is concerned is the equation of writing with crime. To understand this, though, we have to go outside the poem and accept the relevance of certain historical data. Stanza 88 contains the testator's bequest to his ‘plus que pere’ Guillaume de Villon. What is the bequest? ‘Je lui donne ma librarye’—the library of someone who ‘stayed out of school’ (205) we might presume to be modest to the point of non-existence, that is, purely imaginary. So there is probably the initial irony that like several other bequests this one is worthless or non-existent. Maybe the library is that of the testator's adoptive father and so is simply being returned as a gift. How much more tangible should we regard the gift of a romance, that of the Devil's Fart, ‘le roumant du Pet au Diable’? The Devil's Fart was a large stone (there was another one known as ‘la vesse’) which university students twice in the early 1450s stole from its place in the Île de la Cité (more particularly, the Hotel du Pet-au-Diable belonging to Mlle de Bruyères who is named in line 1508) and dumped on the Mont Sainte-Geneviève, resulting in a number of run-ins with the police. According to the testator, his romance—presumably about crimes of this sort—was copied/amplified (grossa) by Guy Tabarie ‘qui est homs veritable’—pure irony, this, for Guy Tabarie was involved with François Villon in the robbery of the Collège de Navarre but later shopped his accomplice by ‘grassing’ to the authorities, thereby ‘amplifying’ the crime (or ‘copying the romance’). By ‘homs veritable’ is meant ‘a man with an unhealthy fondness for the truth’. However, this ‘Romance of the Devil's Fart’ lies in (unbound) quires (‘cahiers’) under a table. The word ‘cayeulx’ is both a dialectal (Champenois, Burgundian) form of ‘cahiers’ and a punning reference to Colin de Cayeux (see 1675), a lockpicker, accomplice, and ‘mauvais génie’ of Villon in the robbery who was eventually (1460) hanged. The table is probably a table in a tavern where the conspirators were plotting. The testator continues that, however badly constructed or planned (‘rudement fait’) the work, its subject matter is ‘si tres notable’ (‘so remarkable/notorious’, with a punning association with ‘notaire’?) ‘Qu'elle admende tout le meffait’, that it makes up for its faults, that is to say, the picaresque theme/bold conception of the robber makes up for the faults/the crime. Here then writing appears as a metaphor for the crime with which the testator now ironically confronts his adoptive father.

What degree of faith the testator really places in the written word and its transmission, however, may be gauged from his willingness to hand over everything to the ‘honnorable homme’, Jean de Calais. Jean may well have had the job of verifying wills at the Châtelet, but the testator's description of him undermines his credibility completely. How can this man understand well the testator's ‘entente’ (1844) when he neither knows his name (1847) nor has seen him for thirty years (i.e. has never seen him)? The introductory description of this ‘honnorable homme’ (honourable because he has had no truck whatever with the testator but will see through the Testament all right?) is a typical piece of ironic insouciance which helps to subvert the value of the entire document, which was announced with the following words:

J'ay ce testament tres estable
Fait, de derreniere voulenté,
Seul pour tout et inrevocable.


[I've drawn up this definitive testament, my last will, indivisible and irrevocable]

The testator's abandonment of the will to Jean de Calais contradicts each assertion in these lines—that the will is definitive, represents the testator's very last wishes, is indivisible, and cannot be revoked (cf. 761). The discretion granted to Jean totally undermines the testator's earlier claim, ‘ce que j'ay escript est escript’ (264). According to the new instructions any offending element in the will may be removed (1850) ‘jusqu'au rez d'une pomme’ (1850)—surely a reference to erasure (with a razor or pumice), rendering the surface as thin as an apple-skin?19 Here, then, is a satire in which a reviser is authorized to remove anything that gives offence (‘s'aucun y a difficulté …’, 1849). The testator goes even further and authorizes every conceivable operation which may be performed on a text by a reviser or commentator: gloser, commenter, diffinir, descripre, diminuer, augmenter, canceller, perscripre; and ‘if he doesn't know how to write’, interpreter, donner sens … meilleur ou pire (1852-8). This comically exaggerated catalogue obviously goes well beyond the legal changes required by a verifier of wills. Notwithstanding what appears to be carte blanche,20 the testator then pedantically argues that if one of the legatees has died (‘estoit alé de mort à vie’, borrowing the paradoxical language of Christian spirituality to indicate passage from this life to the next, everlasting, life) the bequest should be moved (‘que ceste aulmosne ailleurs transporte’, 1865) so that the order of the legatees should not be disturbed (1863-4)—as if he were distributing a finite quantity of real goods or had to prevent quarrels by over-zealous claimants over precedence. In fact, the dead legatees will be the only happy ones!

In the final absence of all writing materials (‘escriptouoire’), ‘povre Villon’ accepts an epitaph drawn in charcoal or coal, large but without such pressure as would damage the plaster in the chapel (1879-81). The value of writing seems to have been exhausted. The author of the Testament has treated, and ironized, a comprehensive range of writing activities: the author's disposition or causa scribendi (73 ff.), the value of learned writing (93-6), the use of the exemplum (129-60), the writer's handling of sources (209 ff.), dictation and the role of the scribe (564 ff.), textual authenticity (753 ff.), the vagaries of transmission and publication (769 ff.), censorship, correction, and even suppression, as well as ironizing the meaning of written documents by recontextualizing them. He is emphatically no respecter of authorities, himself included. The whole value of the enterprise is thus neatly undercut. There is nothing in Le Testament for posterity and the testator evades responsibility for its contents by an imprimatur which sanctions anything. He has not tried to produce a literary monument, but rather a more modest dramatic performance, as impermanent as the charcoal writing on his tomb, in which posterity is not implicated. If the very exercise of writing the Testament is subjected to such ironic ambiguity, and the evidence of written authorities fragmented with such self-conscious wit, it should not surprise us to find that there is nothing ‘estable’ anywhere in this will. The multiplication of voices, the fragmentation of authority, and the destabilizing of the text remain the salient features of a production which has so often been scrutinized solely from the angle of historical referentiality, but which truly reveals its secrets only when the author's ironic techniques have been fully comprehended.


  1. Testament, 264.

  2. Robert-Léon Wagner has advanced the view that we should retain both interpretations as part of a ‘valeur ambiguë’, see the notes in Rychner and Henry's edn.

  3. He was translated by Simon de Hesdin (c.1375) and Nicolas de Gonesse, see G. di Stefano, Essais sur le moyen français (Padua, 1977), 17-19, 25-45, 49-67. There are many additions, including the incorporation of glosses, in Hesdin's translation.

  4. Mühlethaler, Poétiques, 37 in emphasizing the dialectic ‘sic et non’ style of verbal juxtaposition misses the point about how the verbal juxtaposition is brought about.

  5. See A. Piaget, ‘Le Chapel des fleurs de lis par Philippe de Vitri’, Romania, 27 (1898) [55-92], 61-5.

  6. Translation from the Revised English Bible.

  7. Cf. Testament, 679-80: ‘J'eusse mis paine aucunement / De moy retraire de ses las.’

  8. See S. Buzzetti-Gallarati, Le Testament maistre Jehan de Meun (Alessandria, 1989). For Jean's own personal will see ead., ‘Le Codicille maistre Jehan de Meun’, Medioevo romanzo, 17 (1992), 339-89.

  9. ‘Fremin’ has sometimes been identified with a ‘Frémiz le May’, a public scribe whose father was ‘libraire et notaire de la Cour à l'Official de Paris’ (ed. Thuasne ii., 196). Cf. the figure of the scribe in the printed text (Le Jardin de plaisance et fleur de rhetorique) of Pierre de Hauteville's La Confession et testament de l'amant trespassé de deuil, ed. R. M. Bidler (Montreal, 1982), 95 ‘Comme le malade parle a son clerc: Sus, mon clerc, il te fault penser. / Apporte moy encre et papier / Et escry cy mon ordonnance / Et pense tost de t'avancer / Sans aucunement deslayer / Ce que diray a ma plaisance. Le serviteur: Sire, le voycy ja tout prest / Sans empeschement ny arrest; /Or nommez ce que j'escriray / Et dictes tout au long que c'est. / Je l'escriray ainsi qu'il est / Et que direz sans nul delay.’

  10. Cf. Lais, 2-3: ‘Je, Françoys Villon, escollier, / Considerant, de sens rassis …’

  11. Cf. the figure of ‘maistre Robert Valee’, ‘povre clerjot en Parlement’: ‘Puis qu'il n'a sens ne q'une aulmoire, / De recouvrer sur Mau Pensé, / Qu'on luy baille, l'Art de memoire’ (Lais, 110-12).

  12. Cf. ‘Ballade des menus propos’, 11: ‘Je congnois le maistre au varlet.’

  13. Cf. Mühlethaler, Poétiques, 41.

  14. See E. Ilvonen, Parodies de thèmes pieux dans la poésie française du moyen âge (Helsingfors, 1914), 83-103.

  15. See A. Schmitt, Matheus von Boulogne: ‘Lamentationes Matheoluli’ (Kommentierte und kritische Edition der beiden ersten Bücher) (Bonn, 1974). As with the Testament, it is uncertain that the ostensibly autobiographical data furnished by the first-person narrator can be transferred to the author Matthew of Boulogne.

  16. See A. G. van Hamel (ed.), Les Lamentations de Matheolus et le Livre de leesce de Jehan le Fevre, de Ressons, 2 vols. (Paris, 1895, 1905).

  17. It is, of course, uncertain whether it is men or women who form the subject of the verb ‘prindrent’ in line 597.

  18. For a text of the relevant passage of the canon see P. Demarolle, ‘Encore le vers 601 du Testament de Villon: S'agit-il vraiment du Decretum Gratiani?’, Zeitschrift für romanische Philologie, 87 (1971), 244-8. Demarolle concludes that ‘les huitains parodient le texte pontifical et que la mission du confesseur, auquel l'amant est comparé, est tournée en dérision’.

  19. W. Mettmann's view (‘“Oster jusqu'au rez d'une pomme”: Villon: Testament v. 1850’, Romanische Forschungen, 73 (1961), 148-50) that Jean de Calais's right to removal of offending material is limited to the worthless (rez de pomme) is surely in contradiction to the ambitious modifications permitted in stanza 174.

  20. See also his appointment of a second trio of executors, to stand in for the first set if necessary, of whom he says, ‘Point n'auront de contreroleur, / Mais a leur seul plaisir en taillent’ (1950-1) and who are antiphrastically described as ‘troys hommes de bien et d'onneur’ (1945, cf. 1940).

Nancy Freeman Regalado (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 10489

SOURCE: “Villon's Legacy from Le Testament of Jean de Meun: Misquotation, Memory, and the Wisdom of Fools,” in Villon at Oxford: The Drama of the Text, Rodopi, 1999, pp. 282-311.

[In this essay, first presented at a conference of Villon scholars in 1996, Regalado argues that instances of misquotation in Villon's work are not errors of memory, but intentional poetic devices. Regalado proposes further that the faux-errors help create the wise-fool persona of the poems' narrators.]

Can a poet make a mistake? What is the meaning of Villon's poetic mistake, his misquotation in the Testament (T, 113-20)1 from an important yet largely unexamined source, Le Testament de Jean de Meun?2 This misquotation, we will see, is not just an error but a poetic secret that reveals one of the great paradoxes of the Testament: it is a poem about wisdom spoken by a fool. We will see that Villon uses misquotation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun to establish a context of high moral wisdom for his own Testament, a backdrop against which the poet's speaker stages a performance of alternative wisdom, grounded not in the high-minded authority of learned authors but in the low sphere of earthly existence, expressed in vulgar, joking language. The contrast between the two Testaments—Le Testament de Jean de Meun and Villon's poem—sets up an opposition of high and low, of noble learning and coarse wit that links Villon's Testament to another medieval genre, the altercatio or dialogue between the wise man and the fool. In Villon's Testament, however, only the fool remains, groping towards truth.

The speaker in Villon's poems is a creature of both wisdom and folly, “Ne du tout fol ne du tout saige” (T, 3). Fol, however, weighs far heavier in the poet's lexicon, where it is closely associated with other key terms: amour, povre, mort and vie.3 “Povre de sens et de savoir” (T, 178), the poet's speaker is a scholar who ran away from school: “Je, François Villon, escollier” (L, [Le Lais] 2; see T, 1886-87); “Mais quoy! je fuyoie l'escolle / Comme fait le mauvaiz enffant” (T, 205-06). His studies in books have profited him less than his hard life: “Travail mes lubres sentemens, / Esguisez comme une pelocte, / M'ouvrist plus que tous les commens / D'Averroÿs sur Arristote” (T, 93-96). Nonetheless, he speaks initially in the manner of a clerc, setting an array of fifteen authoritative citations into the first thirty-seven stanzas of his Testament, eleven from the Bible4 and four from prestigious ancient and medieval auctores, including the “le noble Roumant / De la Rose” (T, 113-14).5 These initial citations ground the speaker within the world of learning; they proclaim that his poem contains what Clément Marot called a “matiere pleine d'erudition & de bon scauoir”.6 Yet after citing Psalms 102:16 in h. xxxvii, Villon's speaker abandons the discourse of clerical authority and citation of ancient texts, saying “Quant du seurplus, je m'en desmez: / Il n'appartient a moy, pecheur; / Aux theologiens le remectz, / Car c'est office de prescheur” (T, 293-96). In all the remaining 149 stanzas and nineteen inserted lyrics in Villon's Testament, there are only four citations from the Bible, one from liturgy, and a handful of mentions of ancient and medieval auctores.7 The play of allusions to myth, the Bible, and history are carried after h. xxxvii by proper names and bits of story rather than by learned citation.8

Even in the opening stanzas of the Testament, moreover, Villon's speaker is portrayed as an unreliable scholar: he appears to have muddled the number of the Psalm verse he invokes to curse Thibaut d'Aussigny (T, 45-48); he attributes to Valerius Maximus the exemplum of Diomedes and Alexander, whose well-known and often cited ancient source is Augustine's City of God (T, 159-60).9 Finally he misquotes Jean de Meun in h. xv:

Et comme le noble Roumant
De la Rose dit et confesse
En son premier commancement
C'on doit jeune cueur en jeunesse,
Quant on le voit viel en viellesse,
Excuser, helas! il dit voir;
Ceulx donc qui me font telle presse
En meureté ne me vouldroient veoir.

(T, 113-20)

The verses Villon cites, however, are taken not from the Roman de la Rose, but from the work known as Le Testament de Jean de Meun:

(iii)                    Bien doit estre escusez jeune cuer en
Quant Diex li donne grace d'estre viel en viellesce;
Mais moult est granz vertus et tres haute noblesce
Quant cuer en jeune aage a meürté s'adresce.

(Test JM 9-12)

Villon's critics and editors have all called attention to this misquotation: “Villon is mistaken”,10 “Villon se trompe”;11 “erreur (volontaire?)”.12 But instead of inquiring into the significance of the way the citation misstates its source, they have sought to explain it away as a failure of memory or as a confusion with similar themes in the Roman de la Rose.13

If we step back to look at all the citations and allusions in Villon's Testament, however, we can see a significant pattern of similar “mistakes” that deflect many citations away from the original by rewriting and misquotation. The poet substitutes age thirty for twenty in the initial quotation from the Roman de la Rose (T, 1; Rose 21);14 to curse Thibaut d'Aussigny, he invokes Psalm 108 verse 7 instead of 8, which was often cited to condemn bishops in estates satire;15 he gives the dog Cerberus four heads instead of the canonical three. Some of Villon's misquotations are greatly admired, such as his famous rewriting of Job 7:6 in h. xx of his Testament:

Mes jours s'en sont alez errant,
Comme, dit Job, d'une touaille
Font les filletz, quant tixerant
En son poing tient ardente paille:
Lors s'il y a nul bout qui saille,
Soudainement il le ravit.

(T, 217-22)

“Tresbelle comparaison”, Marot notes appreciatively in the margin of his 1533 edition.16 But is this too a misreading, as has been suggested, or is it a striking new image that the poet brings to singe Scripture?17

Villon's “mistakes” should not be attributed (as they often are) to the poet's faulty recall; indeed, four undistorted Latin citations ornamenting his panegyric “Louange à Marie” (PV, [Poèmes variés] I 42-43, 51-52, 108, 118-20) show the fluent accuracy of the poet's memory in another context. Instead, these “mistakes” in the Testament should be seen as misquotations of texts which Villon could count on many readers recognizing. Psalm verses, memorized in numerical order, laid the very foundation for memory training.18 The Roman de la Rose is a living presence in the fifteenth century; read, cited, attacked, imitated, it is a flowing source from which late-medieval French poets continue to draw direct inspiration. Errors in citation of such well-known texts compel readers to respond, to correct, and thus to join the movement of the poem first by delving into their own memory and then by returning to seek the meaning of the misquotation in the poem.19 Misquotation, indeed, counts on memory. We will show how Villon misquotes to order to establish the meaning of his poem and to deepen the significance of each citation, by awakening and playing on the memory of his readers.

Misquotation has one specific function in medieval literature: it is an unmistakable sign of foolery. The swerving citations in Villon's Testament are—first and foremost—a key element characterizing the speaker as a wise fool. Misquotation of the Bible or wisdom literature is used regularly in medieval works to portray a fool in a clerical costume—an écumeur de latin, a Maistre Aliborum, or boobies in the school farces.20 It is a prominent feature of the farcical wisdom preached in sermons joyeux such as Des maux de mariage or Des faits de Nemo where real citations are taken as obscene or comic themes and where pseudo-citations abound, accompanied by real or facetious references21 The Remarkable staging of Villon's “Ballade de l'appel” (PV, XV) in the Sermon de saint Belin, described by Jelle Koopmans and Paul Verhuyck, marks the close relation between Villon's poetic persona and the foolish learning typical of the sermon joyeux.22

In Villon, however, misquotation also plays on the reader's memory in order to augment the resonance of each allusion in the poem. When Villon cites Vulgate Psalm 108 by number-coordinate rather than by direct quotation (T, 47-48), he brings the text into play from its “place” in his readers' memory. Such readers could easily recall not only “le verselet escript septiesme” but also verse 8, which was usually applied to bishops.23 Villon thus silently doubles his curse on Thibaut d'Aussigny: his “mistake” gives him two verses for one—the second supplied by his reader!24 In like manner, reflecting on youth's folly, Villon's readers might well bring to mind the words the poet omits from his contradictory quotations of Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 in h. xxvii (cited below): “Et scito quod pro omnibus his adducet te Deus in iudicium (Remember that for all these things God will call you to account)” [v. 9]. Misquotation thus breaks through the boundaries of specific citation, unleashing the full blast of invective in Ps. 108 and awakening ominous anticipation of divine judgment through recollection of Ecclesiastes 11:9.

Similarly, the extraordinary fourth head Villon gives the dog Cerberus in the “Double Ballade”—“Chien Cerberuz a quatre testes” (T, 636)—wakes up all the three-headed dogs sleeping in literary memory. A fifteenth-century reader might recall the three-headed doorkeeper of Hell stupefied by Orpheus' strange song in Boethius' Consolation, translated by Jean de Meun: “Cerberus, li portiers d'enfer ou toutez ses tres testes, fu touz esbahiz pour la nouvelle chançon”.25 Prompted by ongoing allusions to the Roman de la Rose in Villon's Testament, his readers might well also remember the hellish image Jean de Meun painted of three-headed Cerberus as a mastiff hanging from the triple breasts of Atropos, thrusting his three snouts into her bosom, gnawing, drawing, sucking:

[Atropos] norrist Cerberus le ribaut, …
cist mastins li pant aus mammelles,
qu'ele a tribles, non pas gemeles;
ses.iii. groins en son sain li muce,
et les groignoie et tire et suce,
n'onc ne fu ne ja n'iert sevrez, …
et el li giete homes et fames
a monceaus en sa triple gueule.

(Rose 19778, 19787-91, 19796-97)26

Recollection of this image, in turn, gives menacing overtones to all the mastiffs in the Testament: “groz matins de bouchiers” (T, 1130); “Que ces matins ne seussent courre” (T, 1139); “un viel matin … / Tout enraigé en sa bave et sallive” (T, 1434-35); “Synon aux traitres chiens matins / Qui m'ont fait ronger dures crostes” (T, 1984-85). Misquotation thus stirs up memory, releasing images, overtones, and associations even more freely than direct citation.

To what extent and how might Villon and his readers have remembered Le Testament de Jean de Meun, so provocatively inscribed through misquotation into his poem? It is a poem, dated 1291-92, of 2120 lines (almost exactly the same length as Villon's Testament), but composed in monorhyme alexandrine quatrains, the chunky but capacious stanza of many thirteenth-century dits and moral poems. Although it has much to say about making wills, Le Testament de Jean de Meun itself is not a mock testament like Villon's, but a sermon-like poem of practical and moral advice addressed to prelates and men and women of substance.

Until the fine edition brought out by Silvia Buzzetti Gallarati in 1989, Le Testament de Jean de Meun had fallen into oblivion, for it had not been reedited since the venerable four-volume Roman de la Rose published by Dominique Méon in 1813.27 Today's readers may be struck, even startled, as I was, by conspicuous correspondences between Villon's Testament and those of the opening stanzas of Le Testament de Jean de Meun. These analogies are cued by Villon's direct citation in h. xv which points to a location within his source: “en son premier commancement” (T, 115). Adjacent stanzas develop common themes of wasted youth and the inevitability of death: “J'ai fait en ma jeunesce maint dit par vanité” (Test JM 5); “Mort est a touz commune, mort est a touz baniere” (Test JM 21). Likeness is further marked by a distinctive pattern of disputatio in which a theme is developed as a dialectical argument with an imaginary interlocutor. It appears early on in both poems: in st. x of Le Testament de Jean de Meun: “Et s'aucun vouloit dire: Dieu comment sera ce?” (l. 37)28; in Villon's h. iii, the first of several anonymous figures springs up to argue with the speaker:

(iii)                    Et s'aucun me vouloit reprendre

(T, 17)

(lviii)                    Et qui me vouldroit laidanger
De ce mot, en disant: “Escoute!”

(T, 571-72))

(lx)                    Je prens qu'aucun dye cecy

(T, 585)

(lxxi)                    Et s'aucun m'interrogue ou

(T, 725)

(lxxxii)                    Qui me diroit: “Qui vous fait
Si tres avant ceste parolle”

(T, 809-10)

In her edition Buzzetti Gallarati demonstrates that the moral themes of Le Testament de Jean de Meun are elaborated in some ten sequences of disputatio, the formalized ritual of scholastic disputation in which a master systematically resolves the questions and objections of interlocutors.29 Villon, too, develops dialectical arguments in his Testament with themes, objections, and responses about questions such as whether love is dangerous,30 or whether the prophets' arses burned in Hell.31 Debate breaks off abruptly in st. xvii of Le Testament de Jean de Meun—“Je me tairai a tant d'endroit ceste matiere / Et parlerai d'une autre ou li cuers plus me tire” (Test JM 65-66)32; a similar pattern recurs in Villon: “Laissons le moustier ou il est, / Parlons de chose plus plaisante” (T, 265-66); “De ce me taiz doresnavant” (T, 723); “Je me tais, et ainsi commence” (T, 832). Neither Villon's Testament nor Le Testament de Jean de Meun are real dialogues, however: they are monologues cast partly in the formal patterns of disputation. Where such imagined disputation is prominent in Villon's Testament, it may serve to enhance the resonance of his initial citation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun in Testament h. xv.

Unlike us, many of Villon's contemporaries would have easily recognized his carefully cued citation, for Le Testament de Jean de Meun was well known to medieval readers. Although the attribution to Jean de Meun is questionable,33 the poem was received under the prestigious name of the author of the Roman de la Rose and translator of Boethius. At least 116 manuscripts survive—the tip of an iceberg, says Buzzetti Gallarati, who shows that Le Testament de Jean de Meun was copied eagerly for two centuries: half the known manuscripts are from the 15th century.34 It is a work that hardly ever appears alone. Often it was copied with companion pieces: a prayer called Le Codicille and a work of pious instruction called Le Tresor ou les sept articles de la foy.35 In manuscripts, a legal fiction grouped these pieces as testament and codicil; it has long been thought that this arrangement inspired Pierre Levet's edition of Villon in 1489, whose title page reads: “Le grant testament Villon / et le petit. son codicille. le iargon & ses balades” and where the Testament is rubricated: “Cy comence le grant codicille & testament maistre francois Villon”.36 In over half the manuscripts, Le Testament de Jean de Meun is copied with the Roman de la Rose, often accompanied by its satellites, the Codicille and the Tresor. However, even if Villon read the poem with the Roman de la Rose, compilational arrangement would surely not have led him to see it as its “premier commancement”, as has been suggested,37 for although Le Testament de Jean de Meun often opens didactic compilations, it is invariably placed after the romance when it is copied with the Rose, where it provides a morally uplifting conclusion to the scandalous plucking of the rose.

Citations elsewhere from Le Testament de Jean de Meun show that the poem remained a canonical text in the fifteenth century. It is cited—and st. xv quoted—as an example of the monorhyme alexandrine quatrain in two fifteenth-century treatises on versification.38 It was an item in evidence much debated in the Quarrel of the Rose, the literary polemic over the moral influence of the Rose. In his Traictié d'une vision faite contre le Ronmant de la Rose (18 mai 1402), Jean Gerson, the eminent chancellor of the University of Paris, applauds Jean de Meun's apparent regret for the poem of his foolish youth: “Des son vivant il s'en repenti: et depuis ditta livres devraye foy et ∼ de saincte doctrine. Je li en fais tesmoingnaige”.39 Gerson, moreover, portrays a crowd eager to defend Jean de Meun before the imaginary Court of Christianity: one voice rings out over the great throng, citing verse 5 from Le Testament de Jean de Meun:

Lors veissiés, a une grant tourbe et une flote de gens sans nombre, josnes et vieulx de tous sexes et de tous ages, qui—sans garder ordre, a tort et a travers—vouloient, l'ung excuser, l'autre le deffendre, l'autre le loer; l'autre demandoit pardon a cause de jonesse et de folie, en aleguant que il s'en estoit repenti quant il escript depuis: “J'ay fait, dit il, en ma jonesse maint dit par vanité”.40

Pierre Col responds (citing the same verse 5):

Et ne cuide pas que ce qu'il dit en son Testament: “J'ay fait en ma jonesse maint dit par vanitey”, qu'il entende de ce livre de la Rose; car vraiement come je [ne] monstreray mais, il entendoit d'aucunes balades, rondiaux et virelais que nous n'avons pas par escript,—au moins moy.41

Christine de Pizan scoffs at Pierre Col's interpretation:

Je ne vueil mie passer oultre ce que tu dis que je ne doy mie cuidier ce que il dist en son Testament: “J'ay fait en ma jonesse maint dit par vanite”, qu'il entende de ce livre de la Rose. Et come se tu le seusses, bien affermes que onques ne s'en repanty ne dist pour celle cause. Et touteffois ne l'excepta il de riens. Mais tu dis qu'il entendi de balades, rondiaux et virelais que nous n'avons mie. Ou sont donques ces autres dictiers que il fist vains et foulz? Merveilles est que de si souverain dicteur n'ont esté sollenneement gardés: car d'autres qui ne furent a lui a comparer est grant mencion faite, et des siens n'est persone en vie qui onques en oït parler. […] Mais a nostre propos vraiement je croy et tiens qu'il dist ce qui est dit en son Testament purement pour celluy romant, car il nous appert par celle parolle et ne savons le contraire.42

This lively debate points in three important directions: to the significance of direct citation, to readers' interest in the relationship between different works by a single author, and to their familiarity with Le Testament de Jean de Meun. It is the meaning of Jean's very words—exactly cited—that are disputed. His readers, moreover, are eager to compare the two poems, to note changes in spiritual attitude, signs of true repentance.

Villon's misquotation in h. xv, which assigns verses from Le Testament de Jean de Meun to “le noble Rommant / de la Rose”, condenses and accelerates this kind of movement of recollection and comparison. Elogious citation of the title in T, 113-14 affirms the looming presence of the Roman de la Rose in Villon's Testament. Coupled with a direct quotation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun in T, 116-18, the allusion to the Rose calls both texts forcibly to mind. The “mistake” compels the reader to locate and correct the citation, but also to recall and measure the difference between Jean's joyful life-affirming romance of youth and the admonitory moralizing of the later poem.

There will, of course, be further rewriting of the Rose in Villon's Testament: la Vieille is recostumed as la Belle Heaulmière; anti-Mendicant satire from the Rose flows into Villon through Matheolus' Lamentations: “Maistre Jehan de Meun s'en mocqua / De leur façon; si fist Mathieu” (T, 1178-79). Villon's misquotation in T, 113-17 pulls up from the Roman de la Rose a golden chain of literary recollections around the theme of youth and age. It recalls the verses where Lady Reason cites Cicero's De senectute to warn the Lover against the follies of Youth (Rose 4400-4514); she paints Viellece remembering and regretting her wasted youth: “Adonc li vient en remenbrance / … / que malemant l'a deceüe / Jennece, qui tout a gité / son preterit an vanité” (Rose 4499, 4502-04). Recollecting verses adjacent to this passage in the Rose, readers may find in memory Reason's picture of Old Age chained, tortured, and flogged in a sombre and shadowy cellar by “Travaill et Douleur”:

Travaill et Douleur la herbergent,
mes il la lient et l'enfergent
et tant la batent et tourmentent
que mort proichaine li presentent,
et talent de soi repentir.

(Rose 4493-97)

This reminiscence in turn sets off further reverberations of allusion in Villon's Testament, h. xii: “Aprés tritresses et douleurs, / Labeurs et griefz cheminemens, / Travail mes lubres sentemens / …” (T, 91-93).

Memory thus refreshed and activated by misquotation, readers can note important changes in the verses Villon quotes from Le Testament de Jean de Meun. He significantly alters its kindly pastoral tone: “Bien doit estre escusez jeune cuer en jeunesce / Quant Diex li donne grace d'estre viel en viellesce” (Test JM 9-10). Villon eliminates God from the citation and recasts it in a tone of bitter sorrow: “C'on doit jeune cueur en jeunesse, / Quant on le voit viel en vielesse / Excuser, helas! il dit voir” (T, 116-18). Villon thus brings the quotation into conformity with the pessimistic outlook of his Testament which throughout paints a harsh world where the speaker, the Belle Heaulmière, and the “povre viellart”—“viel singe desplaisant” (T, 424, 431)—all come forward to tell us that there is no grace in reaching old age.43

Indeed, although Villon begins h. xv with the word “et”—“Et, comme le noble Roumant / De la Rose dit et confesse”—, this is a conjunction which can signal opposition as well as continuation between the stanzas it links in the Testament.44 H. xv cuts off the hopeful, upward movement of the preceding hh. xiii and xiv where Villon's speaker had turned to the forgiving, comforting God of the Gospels: “Pourtant ne veult pas Dieu ma mort, / Mais convertisse et vive en bien / … / Dieu vit, et sa misericorde” (T, 106-07, 110). In the interplay between hh. xiv and xv of Villon's Testament, it is possible that Villon set one additional citation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun to remind his readers of the full sweep of that poem: there is a coincidence between T, 106-07 and two verses of the version edited by Méon that appear twenty-one stanzas before the end of that poem:

Diex qui ne vuelt pas que muire peschierres, tant
Mès qu'il se convertisse et qu'il vive et bien face.

(Test JM 2093-94, ed. Méon, iv, p. 112).

It cannot be known whether Villon saw and cited a version of Le Testament de Jean de Meun with this interpolation or if both are citing the same source, the verses from Ezekiel 18:23 and 30:11 which are recalled by many medieval poems of repentance.45 Significantly, however, Le Testament de Jean de Meun offers Christian hope at the end of his poem after depicting the human condition while Villon dashes hope at the beginning of his.

Moreover, Villon's h. xv reverses the rising, lofty movement of the last two verses of the citation which say: “Mais moult est granz vertus et tres haute noblesce / Quant cuer en jeune aage a meürté s'adresse” (Test JM 11-12). The key term meürté (mature wisdom) is emphasized again in the succeeding stanzas of Le Testament de Jean de Meun, where it appears at the rhyme: “Maiz li uns et maint autre sont de si grant durté / Qu'en nul estat ne veulent venir a meürté” and “Plus tost meurent li jeune que ne font li mëur” (Test JM 12-14, 19). Villon too shapes the last two lines of his own stanza around the word meureté. But instead of admiration for youth that aspires to wisdom, Villon's speaker conjures up a crowd of persecutors, “ceulx donc qui me font telle presse” (T, 119). The last verse of h. xv is richly ambiguous: “En meureté ne me vouldroient voir” (T, 120). Are they bent on preventing the speaker's achieving maturity and wisdom? Or—as David Mus has suggested—do they not wish to see that the speaker has achieved “meureté”, a wisdom of sorts?46

Villon quotes Le Testament de Jean de Meun not to refute its orthodox wisdom but to dispute the value of that wisdom for a particular reader, “Un povre petit escollier / Qui fut nommé Françoys Villon” (T, 1886-87). He rewrites the quotation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun in the poetic mode of contredit that characterizes his speaker, who changes the sense, the thrust of the verses he cites.47Contredit is Villon's poetics of contradiction that ever argues with its models while imitating their themes—explicitly in the “Contreditz Franc Gontier” (T, 1473-506), but also in the sote ballade of “La grosse Margot” (T, 1591-627) and in “Il n'est soin que quant on a fain” (PV, VII), his parody of Alain Chartier's ballade “Il n'est dangier que de villain” (PV, VII).48 Even verses from the Bible are set against each other: in Testament h. xxvii, Villon cites maxims from Ecclesiastes 11:9-10 so that their message appears not merely pessimistic but downright contradictory:

Le dit du Saige trop lui feiz
Favourable, bien en puis mais!
Qui dist: “Esjoïs toy, mon filz,
En ton adolessence”, mes
Ailleurs sert bien d'un autre mes,
Car “Jeunesse et adolessance
—C'est son parler, ne moins ne mes—
Ne sont qu'abuz et ygnorance”.

(T, 209-16)

Misquotation too is a type of contredit that does not merely set Villon at odds with the texts he cites; it also serves to remind readers of these sources. The skewed citation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun thus cues readers to a prestigious ancestor and to the traditions that Villon overturns in his new Testament, the commonplaces of moral instruction and clerical satire which abound in Le Testament de Jean de Meun and which Villon reworks. It is easy to find similarities, for both poems draw from stock themes of satirical and moral reflection such as the gluttony of monks and the frivolity of women. Both meditate on the ephemerality of life and the solitude of death:

Le Testament de Jean de Meun, st. lxxix:

Penssons que, quant li homs est ou travail de mort,
Ses biens ne ses richesces ne valent ne que mort;
Ne li pueent oster l'angoisse qui le mort
Ne ce dont conscïence le reprent et remort.

(Test JM 313-16)

Villon, Testament, h. xl:

Et meure Paris ou Elayne,
Quicunques meurt meurt a douleur.

(T, 313-14)

Villon's portrait of the “povre viellart” (T, 424-44) could well have been inspired by a similar figure in Le Testament de Jean de Meun (st. lxiv-xlvii).49

Le Testament de Jean de Meun, st. xlvi:

Il devient froit et sec, baveus et roupïeus,
Roingneus et grateleus et melencolïeus;
Ja tant n'aura esté par devant gracïeus,
Qu'il ne soit en ce point charchant et annuïeus.

(Test JM 181-84)

Villon, Testament, h. xlv

Car s'en jeunesse il fut plaisant,
Ores plus riens ne dit qui plaise
—Tousjours viel singe est desplaisant,
Moue ne fait qui ne desplaise—.

(T, 429-32)

Villon's poetry owes much to the vivid style of medieval sermons and moral poems, which are encrusted with bright images and proverbs, and which speak directly to the reader—as does Le Testament de Jean de Meun—about how to live in this world and get to the next.

In Villon's contredit, however, the perspective on these common moral matters is utterly shifted—from high to low, from inside to outside—for Villon's speaker is not a preacher but a sinner. The speaker in Le Testament de Jean de Meun is a cleric smugly content with God's endowing him with a perfect body, making him a Christian, giving him the opportunity to serve in court, and leading him from a blameless youth to temporal honor and wealth:

lxii                    Encor le doi je plus amer [sc. Dieu]
          quant il me membre
Qu'il me fist quant au corps sanz deffaute de membre
Qu'il me fist crestïen, qu'il me daingna raiembre
Je nel doi oublier n'en aoust n'en septembre.
(lxiv)                    Diex m'a donné servir les
plus grans
          gens de France;
Diex m'a trait sanz repreuche de jeunesce et d'enfance,
Diex m'a par maint peril conduit sanz mescheanche
Diex m'a rendu au miex honneur et grant chevance.

(Test JM 245-48, 253-56)

What a contrast with Villon's speaker, a poor, ailing, prematurely aged écolier, who berates himself for his youthful folly! Le Testament de Jean de Meun, moreover, counsels and comforts men of wealth and power; the speaker's vision of doing good is tailored to those who have done well. “How can I love my neighbor as myself?” the speaker is asked; he responds, “If you're handsome and rich, you have nothing to lose by wishing the same for me”:

(xv)                    Se tu es biax et riches, de legier pués
Que je le soie aussi, sanz riens de toi douloir:
Se je vaus et tu vaus, il ne t'en puet chaloir.
Puis que tu ne pués mains pour ma valeur valoir.

(Test JM 57-60)

While Le Testament de Jean de Meun offers advice on the wise disposition of the rich man's estate, the speaker in Villon's Testament peers through a crack in the wall at the good life (T, 1480-82). He jeers at the powerful and lets us hear the smothered, resentful words of the poor as they think about the rich:

(xxxiv)                    Povreté, chagrine, doulente,
Tousjours, despiteuse et rebelle,
Dit quelque parolle cuisante;
S'elle n'ose, si le pense elle.

(T, 269-71)

Sermonizing in Le Testament de Jean de Meun is fleshed out with picturesque denunciations of the world, the flesh, and the devil, with special condemnation of lust, while Villon's speaker regrets only his impotence.

(xxv)                    Bien est verté que j'é
Et aymeroye voulentiers,
Mais triste cueur, ventre affamé
Qui n'est rassasïé au tiers
M'oste des amoureux sentiers.

(T, 193-97)

Images of the raging storms of Hell are intended to inspire fear of damnation in Le Testament de Jean de Meun:

(cdlxxxiv)                    Vent et foudre et tonnerre qui tout
          perce et enteste,
Feu et gresle et orage, noif, glace et tempeste,
Les tourmentent [les riches] adez des piez jusqu'a la
Car enfer est tous plains de tourments jusqu'au feste.

(Test JM 1933-36)

In Villon's “Ballade des pendus”, “l'infernale fouldre” still rumbles (PV, XI 18), but it seems a distant menace in the Testament, where Villon's speaker is snugly sheltered in the bordello of Grosse Margot:

Vent, gresle, gesle, j'ay mon pain cuyt
Je suis paillart, la paillarde me suyt.
Lequel vault mieulx? Chacun bien s'entressuyt,
L'un vault l'autre, c'est a mau rat mau chat.
Ordure aimons, ordure nous affuyt.

(T, 1621-25)

Yet these images of creatural satisfaction are a source of tension for Villon's reader, for they are expressed in words that inspire a sense of revulsion for the human condition: “paillart”, “mau rat”, “ordure aimons, ordure nous affuyt”, reemphasized in “De telz ordures te reculles” (T, 1708).

The shift in perspective from high to low undermines the authority of Villon's speaker, for the right to preach is founded on righteousness, as Le Testament de Jean de Meun tells us: “Qui autri veut blasmer, il doit estre sans blasme” (Test JM 693). Its themes are set out from on high, with a firm conviction of the right and without irony by an authoritative master.

Villon's speaker, in contrast, acknowledges that his sins cancel out his right to pass judgment: he is “pecheur” not “prescheur” (T, 294, 296):

(xxxiii)                    Je ne suis juge ne commis
Pour pugnir n'assouldre meffait:
De tous suis le plus imparfait.

(T, 259-61)

The interlocutors who speak up in Villon's Testament not only challenge the logic of the speaker's arguments (as in Le Testament de Jean de Meun); they also question his very authority:

(lxxxii)                    Qui me diroit, “Qui vous fait
Si tres avant ceste parolle,
Qui n'estes en theologie maistre?
A vous est presumpcïon folle”.

(T, 809-12)

Yet although Villon denies his speaker the authority to judge, he does not give up the impulse for moral instruction inherited from Le Testament de Jean de Meun, but places it under the problematic sign of the contredit. Le Testament de Jean de Meun instructed its readers to speak gratefully and respectfully of the ancient auctores:

(xx)                    Nul ne doit des acteurs parler senestrement
Se leur dit ne contient erreur apertement,
Car tant estudïerent pour nostre enseingnement
C'on doit leur mos gloser moult favorablement.

(Test JM 77-80)

Villon's Testament, on the other hand, is an upside-down school where the auctores are misquoted, “Ou l'escolier le maistre enseigne” (T, 1631), where an old whore teaches a “leçon” (T, 561), where “beaux enseignements” of women gossiping at church doors surpass the judgments of Macrobius (T, 1547-50). Villon's speaker postures as a teacher throughout the poem: ironically in the curriculum he lays out for his “troys povres orphelins” (T, 1275) and his “povres clergons” (T, 1306), grimly in h. clv which precedes the piece Marot entitled “Ballade de bonne doctrine à ceulx de mauvaise vie”:

Une leçon de mon escolle
Leur liray, qui ne dure guerre;
Teste n'ayent dure ne folle,
Escoutent! car c'est la derniere.

(T, 1664-67)

In contrast with Le Testament de Jean de Meun, however, Villon's speaker teaches not salvation but survival. His irrefutable authority lies in his very mortality: “Qui meurt a ses loix de tout dire” (T, 728). His lessons are ephemeral rather than eternal: his maxims are filled with coarse talk, vile and foolish matter, “vil ne sot” (T, 1592).

However, these teachings of Villon's speaker do not stand alone: we hear them spoken against high-minded orthodoxy, recalled by the speaker himself as well as by his interlocutors throughout the poem: “Et si aucun me disait …” In the overall order of the Testament, the misquotation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun in h. xv has thus a crucial function: located towards the beginning of Villon's poem, it helps establish from the first an opposition between high and low, setting it into motion as a movement that governs the whole. Recollection sets up reverberation: the reader keeps the allusion in mind, once it is established.

Villon summons Le Testament de Jean de Meun as an elevated discourse that seeks to constrain the world and the flesh in order to contradict it with a low wisdom that rises from below, from the world and the flesh, a wisdom expressed by a crude speaker whose naked arse is beaten by a paddle: “Et lui frappa au cul la pelle, / Non obstant qu'il dit: ‘J'en appelle!' / Qui n'est pas terme trop subtil” (T, 1900-02). Citation of Le Testament de Jean de Meun—reinforced and redirected by misquotation—raises up this lofty model in the reader's mind and memory like a sounding board so that the speaker's words can resonate against it. It is at every point against this initial backdrop of high moral wisdom that Villon stages his performance of what we may call alternative wisdom, whose teachings are inseparable from representation of the sweat, dirt, danger, and pain of creatural existence in this world.

The contrast between the two Testaments—the sober counsel of the early work and the coarse wit of Villon's poem—links Villon's Testament to another medieval genre, the altercatio or dialogue between the wise man and the fool, where a higher truth is countered by a lower reality, wisdom by wisecracking. This altercatio tradition is best illustrated by the medieval dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul where the sage maxims of a high, learned authority named Solomon are contradicted by Marcoul, an impudent vilain, who responds insolently with maxims of a coarse or cynical realism or speaks obscenely of whores.

The dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul have ancient roots in the biblical dialogue of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba (1 Kings 10:1-10); the tenth-century monk Notker Labeo of St. Gall alludes to a vernacular version; they circulated widely in Latin and all the languages of medieval Europe from the eleventh through the sixteenth century; they are quoted by Picrochole's advisors in Rabelais' Gargantua;50 they are refigured in Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.51 These dialogues in which Marcoul (or Marcon or Marcolf) responds with earthy truths to the sayings of Solomon belong to the tradition of popular wisdom favored in proverbs such as that opening Chrétien's Erec et Enide, “Li vilains dit en son respit” (l. 1).52 Sayings attributed to peasants were often gathered in collections such as Li proverbe au vilain,53Li proverbes au comte de Bretagne,54 and Li respit del curteis et del vilain.55 All but forgotten now (for many have not been republished since the nineteenth century56), the dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul put an amusingly rude and ugly face on the familiar idea of rustic wisdom.

For all their broad diffusion, however, the dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul are not a canonical text but rather a type well-known in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, an available pattern which could be either briefly recalled or amply filled in by any author. There are two distinct subgroups in the ten extant French versions which are identical in form but which diverge widely in content. One early fourteenth-century version opposes a sprightly courtly ethos to the harsh realism of Marcoul.

I                    Seur tote l'autre hennor
Est proesce la flor,
          Ce dit Salemons.
Ge n'aim pas la valour
Dont l'en muert a doulor,
          Marcoul li respont.
III                    Por largement doner
Peut l'en enpres monter
          Ce dit Salemons.
De povreté user,
Se fait l'en fol clamer,
          Marcol li respont.(57)

The other nine French manuscripts (which date from the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries) develop a second type in which Marcoul parodies whatever Solomon says with obscene talk about whores:

I                    Mortalitez, guerre
Est escil de terre
Et destruiemenz
          Ce dist Salemons.
De putain sourt maus
Et guerre mortaus,
Et peril de gent
          Marcoul li respont.
XII                    Tels chace le dain
Par bois et par plain
Qui puis le pert tout,
          Ce dist Salemons.
Tels vest la putain
Et pest de son pain
C'un autres la fout,
          Marcoul li respont.(58)

Each version is freely recomposed from the model: of the total seventy-six known stanzas, only one is found in all nine versions and twenty-four appear in only one version. All, however, hew closely to the common type.

We know that Villon himself was familiar with the dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul, for an allusion to Solomon in his “Débat de Villon et son Coeur” hooks up the pattern from memory:

—Dont vient ce mal?—Il vient de mon mal eur:
Quant Saturne me fist mon fardelet,
Ses motz y mist, je le croy.—C'est foleur:
Son seigneur es et te tiens son varlet!
Voy que Salmon escript en son rolet:
“Homme sage, ce dit il, a puissance
Sur planetes et sur leur influence”.
Je n'en croy riens: tel qu'il m'ont fait seray.

(PV, XIII, 31-38)

Citing Villon's other “mistakes”, Rychner and Henry suggest that here in ll. 36-37 Villon may have erred again by quoting the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon (7:17-19), which speaks of the cycles of the years and the constellations but not of the influence of planets on man.59 Recalled in this debate between a wise heart and a foolish speaker, however, the allusion to the dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul is unmistakable: this Solomon is not the glorious king of T, 58 nor the idolater of T, 630, but the eternal partner of a fool who responds “Je n'en croy riens” to every maxim. Pointing out the link to the dialogues, Thuasne notes, moreover, that Villon's foolish speaker bears the melancholy burden of Saturn, and that Saturnus is the name for Marcoul in Anglo-Saxon versions.60 Thuasne, moreover, rightly associates Solomon's words with Jean de Meun's verses on free will, one of the great themes of the discourse of Nature, who refuses to yield human destiny to the influence of stars, planets, and comets.

It is Villon's “mistakes” that weave the familiar pattern of Solomon and Marcoul into the tapestry of the Testament; his misquotations both summon and contradict higher authority. Reading the Testament within the tradition of altercatio and alternative wisdom, we can see that Villon's speaker incarnates and particularizes the type of Marcoul, setting him in the world of contemporary Paris and lending him a poet's name, “le povre Villon”. He draws from the pessimistic outlook of this character and exploits his tendency to shift all phenomena towards the literal and the low—“cueur” to “foye” (T, 911), “paix” to “pet” (T, 1611)—and his wisdom wrung from bitter experience.

However, reading the Testament with the dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul reveals one significant and striking difference: Villon's poem is not a dialogue. Unbound from the tight frame of altercatio, his bon follastre has no wise partner but only an imperfect recollection of wisdom once learned and now misquoted. Grimacing against the backdrop of Solomonic wisdom recalled in the reader's memory by misquotation of Le Testament de Jean de Meun, Villon's speaker plays a grotesque and solitary Marcoul, who leers and jeers and rants alone in the terrifying glare of death in the Testament.


  1. Le Testament Villon (T) and Le Lais Villon et les poèmes variés (L and PV), ed. Jean Rychner and Albert Henry (R/H), 4 vols., (Genève, 1974-1977).

  2. Silvia Buzzetti Gallarati, Le Testament maistre Jehan de Meun: un caso letterario (Test JM) (Alessandria, 1989); Aimee Celeste Bourneuf, “The ‘Testament’ of Jean de Meun: Vatican MS. 367” (Diss. Fordham University, 1965); summary and description by Paulin Paris, “Jean de Meun, traducteur et poète” (Histoire littéraire de la France [Paris, 1881], xxviii, pp. 391-439 at 416-29). To date I have found only one item touching specifically on this source in the Villon bibliography: André Lanly, “Villon, Le Roman de la Rose, et le Testament de Jean de Meun”, Hommage à Jean Séguy, Via Domitia [Annales de l'Université de Toulouse-Le Mirail], Numéro spécial, 2 vols., Nouvelle Série, 14 (1978), i, pp. 237-251. Lanly offers a compendium of themes and expressions common to Villon and Jean de Meun that is less exhaustive than that by Louis Thuasne (“François Villon et Jean de Meun”, Revue des Bibliothèques, 16/1 [1906], 93-104; 204-49; rpt. in Villon et Rabelais [Genève, 1969], pp. 1-101), but both Lanly and Thuasne mention Le Testament de Jean de Meun merely in passing.

  3. Fol and related terms foleur, folie, folastre occur 34 times in Villon's works, the antonym sage only 13 (André Burger, Lexique de la langue de Villon [Genève/Paris, 1957] + PV, iii which R/H add to Villon's corpus). The preponderance of negative themes in Testament hh. xii-xli is rigorously analyzed by Paul Zumthor, who concludes: “Dans toutes ces oppositions [mort/vie, vieillesse/jeunesse, pauvreté/richesse, douleur + péché/espérance], le terme positif (non-marqué) est le plus faible, numériquement et même syntaxiquement” (Essai de poétique médiévale, Poétique [Paris, 1972], pp. 420-28, at 423). Charles Brucker notes that the semantic field of fol is moralized far earlier than that of sage (Sage et sagesse au moyen âge (XIIe et XIIIe siècles): Etude historique, sémantique et stylistique [Genève, 1987], p. 156).

  4. T, 29-30 from Luke 6:27-28 and Matthew 5:44, the injunction to love one's enemies, to which the speaker responds (T, 32) with a verse that recalls Romans 12:19, invoking divine vengeance on Thibaut d'Aussigny, cursed again (T, 45-48) by citation from Psalm 108:7 or 8; the speaker's gratitude to Louis XI (T, 65-66) calls forth blessings citing Genesis 35:23; his hope for divine pardon is strengthened by allusion to Gospel (T, 99-100 from Luke 24:13-35) and Ezekiel (T, 106-07 from Ezekiel 18:23 and 33:11); five citations confirm the speaker's regrets for his wasted youth and present poverty (T, 127-29 from Judith 16:18; T, 209-16 from Ecclesiastes 11:9-10; T, 217-24 from Job 7:6; T, 264 from John 19:22; and T, 291-92 from Psalms 102:16).

  5. Le Roman de la Rose is cited T, 1 and 113-20; Averroes and Aristotle T, 95-96; Valerius Maximus T, 159-60.

  6. Les Œuvres de Francoys Villon de Paris, reveues & remises en leur entier par Clement Marot varlet de chambre du Roy, printed by Galiot du Pré (Paris, 1533), gloss intercalated between hh. xi and xii (p. 16) cited also by David Mus [Kuhn] in his commentary on the allusions in hh. xii-xxxiii (La Poétique de François Villon [Paris, 1967], pp. 139-76).

  7. From the Bible: T, 813-20 from Luke 16:19-31, the parable of Dives and Lazarus; T, 847-48 from Genesis 3:19, integrated into the initial prayer of the speaker's will; T, 1238-44 from Genesis 9:20-21, 19:30-38, and John 2:1-10, examples of famous Biblical drinkers—Noah, Lot, and “Archedeclin”, host of the wedding at Cana; T, 1461-64 from Ecclesiasticus 8:1-2 and 9:3. Villon's “Verset”, T, 1892-93, translates words from the Office of the Dead (see Evelyn Birge Vitz, “‘Bourdes jus mises’? Villon, the Liturgy, and Prayer” in this volume; I have benefited greatly from our discussions of hope and despair in the Testament). Finally, the speaker mentions Jean de Pouilli, Jean de Meun, and Matheolus (T, 1174-79), the Viandier Taillevant (T. 1414), Macrobius (T, 1547), and “le laiz maistre Alain Chartier” (T, 1805); he cites, without naming their authors, poems by Philippe de Vitry, “Soubz feuille vert, sur herbe delitable” and Pierre d'Ailly, “Ung chastel sçay, sur roche espoventable” (T, 1458-60), which he parodies in his “Contreditz Franc Gontier”.

  8. See Nancy Freeman Regalado, “La fonction poétique du nom propre dans le Testament de François Villon”, Cahiers de l'Association Internationale des Etudes Françaises, 32 (1980), 51-68.

  9. The medieval Latin and French sources cited by Louis Thuasne in his edition of Villon show that Augustine's illustrious name was firmly attached to the exemplum of Diomedes (Œuvres, 3 vols. [Paris, 1923], iii, pp. 613-22); although critics (cited in R/H, Testament, ii, pp. 32-33) have focused on the attribution to Valerius, the absence of allusion to Augustine may contribute significantly to characterization of Villon's speaker as a foolish scholar.

  10. François Villon, Complete Poems, ed. and trans. by Barbara N. Sargent-Baur (Toronto, 1994), p. 197.

  11. Lanly, “Villon”, p. 238, note 1.

  12. Marcel Desportes, ed., François Villon, Poésies choisies, Nouveaux Classiques Larousse (Paris, 1973), p. 56.

  13. Gaston Paris: “Il connaissait aussi le Testament de Jean de Meun, qu'il embrouille, au début de son propre Testament, avec l'œuvre plus célèbre du même poète” (François Villon [Paris, 1901], p. 100); Thuasne: “Villon … cite de mémoire, à l'appui de son dire, un passage du Testament de Jean de Meun, passage qu'il croyait être au début du Roman de la Rose” (Œuvres, ii, p. 107); Italo Siciliano: “Villon connaissait Jean de Meung, mais plus vaguement qu'on ne le croit. Il s'en inspire pour l'épisode de la vieille entremetteuse, il le cite même deux fois, mais de mémoire et d'une façon assez imprécise” (François Villon et les thèmes poétiques du Moyen Age [Paris, 1934; rpt. 1967], p. 435); R/H: “La confusion avec le Roman de la Rose tient sans doute à ce que V. pensait aussi aux vers où Jehan de Meun, assez près encore du début de la partie du roman dont il est l'auteur, oppose Jeunesse … à Vieillesse”, Testament, ii, pp. 28-29.

  14. See Nancy Freeman Regalado, “En l'an de mon trentiesme aage: Date, Deixis and Moral Vision in Villon's Testament”, in Le Nombre du temps. En hommage à Paul Zumthor, ed. Emmanuèle Baumgartner et al. (Paris, 1988), pp. 237-46, at 238.

  15. “Le verselet escript septiesme / Du psëaulme Deus laudem” (T, 47-48); Vulgate Psalm 108, v. 7, “Cum iudicatur, exeat condemnatus, et oratio eius fiat in peccatum” (When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin); v. 8, “Fiant dies eius pauci et episcopatum eius accipiat alter” (Let his days become few; and let another take his office). Citing references to v. 8 in estates satire, R/H affirm that “il est certain, cependant, que V. pensait au verset 8”; they suggest that either Villon's memory failed him or that v. 8 was numbered 7 in some psalters (Testament, ii, p. 21).

  16. Les Œuvres, p. 21.

  17. R/H ask if Villon misremembered or misread succiditur (cuts) as succenditur (set on fire) (Testament, ii, 39). Barbara N. Sargent-Baur speaks more admiringly: “The poet's creative imagination is active here, spinning out four words of the Vulgate text (‘a texente tela succiditur’) into five octosyllabic verses” (Brothers of Dragons: “Job Dolens” and François Villon [New York, 1990], p. 87).

  18. Mary J. Carruthers, The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture (Cambridge, 1990), pp. 82-84. Misquotation may be seen as one aspect of habitual adaptation of citations: “such adaptive freedom is enabled by complete familiarity with the text, the shared memory of it on the part of both audience and author, and hence a delight both in recognizing the familiar words and the skill with which they have been adapted to a new context” (ibid., p. 91). I am indebted to Mary Carruthers for discussion of the use of misquotation to refresh memory.

  19. Misquotation may be seen as one of the “textual ungrammaticalities”, those overdetermined indices of which Michael Riffaterre often speaks, which control readers' response by pointing to an intertext; see his “L'intertexte inconnu”, Littérature, 41 (1981), 4-7 and, recently, his “Compulsory Reader Response: the Intertextual Drive”, in Intertextuality: Theories and Practices, ed. by Michael Worton and Judith Still (Manchester, 1990), pp. 56-78.

  20. See Les Ditz de Maistre Aliborum, qui de tout se mesle, ed. by Anatole de Montaiglon, Recueil de poésies françoises, 13 vols. (Paris, 1855-78), i, pp. 33-41; Maître Mimin étudiant, ed. by André Tissier, La Farce en France de 1450 à 1550 (Paris, 1976), pp. 199-231; De Pernet qui va à l'escolle and D'un qui se fait examiner pour être prebstre, ed. Viollet le Duc, Ancien théâtre françois, 10 vols. (Paris, 1854-57), ii, pp. 360-72, 373-87.

  21. See Jelle Koopmans and Paul Verhuyck, Sermon joyeux et truanderie (Villon—Nemo—Ulespiègle) (Amsterdam, 1987), p. 15. The Sermon joyeux des maux de mariage multiplies false and real citations: it takes for its theme a false citation attributed to Les XV Joyes de Mariage (ll. 1-5), quotes the parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins in a parodic context (l. 20), adds pseudo-citations from Psalms and Saint Paul, and ends with allusions to Matheolus (ll. 310-14), Jean de Meun (l. 315) and a real citation from Le Roman de la Rose (ll. 319-20 from Rose 8685-86) (ed. Jelle Koopmans, Recueil de sermons joyeux, TLF 362 [Genève, 1988], pp. 345-64). The Sermon joyeux des faits de Nemo is a venerable joke concocted around citations from the Bible that reveal the extraordinary powers of Nemo, “Nobody”: “Si destruxerit Deus, Nemo est qui edificet” (l. 110 from Job 12:14); ed. Koopmans, Recueil, pp. 379-408, with full historical commentary by Koopmans and Verhuyck in Sermon joyeux, pp. 87-142.

  22. Sermon joyeux, pp. 19-85.

  23. A fifteenth-century reader of MS A (Paris, Arsenal MS 3523) copied the text of v. 8, “Fiant dies” in the space following T, 48 which ends h. vi (R/H, Testament, i, p. 26, note); in the margin next to h. vii, Marot notes: “Au verset dont il parle y a, Fiant dies eius pauci: & episcopatum eius accipiat alter” (Œuvres, p. 14).

  24. Robert Guiette notes that Ps. 108 belonged to the religious ceremony of degradation, and concludes: “Tout le psaume, on le voit, pouvait convenir au propos de Villon, et non seulement le verset 8 de la Vulgate, même précédé du verset 7” (“François Villon et Thibaut d'Aussigny”, Mélanges Maurice Delbouille [Gembloux, 1964], pp. 251-57 at 253; rpt. in Forme et senefiance, ed. J. Dufournet et al., Publications Romanes et Françaises, 148 [Genève, 1978]).

  25. De Consolatione Philosophiae, Lib. III, Met. xii: 29-20; ed. and trans. by V. L. Dedeck-Héry, Mediaeval Studies, 14 (1952), p. 232.

  26. Ed. by Félix Lecoy, CFMA 92, 95, 98 (Paris, 1965-70), iii, pp. 94-95.

  27. Le Testament de Jean de Meun, in Le Roman de la Rose, ed. Dominique Méon, 4 vols. (Paris, 1813), iv, pp. 1-116; reprinted at intervals during the nineteenth century and revised by Francisque Michel (Paris, 1864).

  28. Similar turns of phrase occur three more times in Le Testament de Jean de Meun: “Or me puet aucuns dire: ‘Sire, se Diex m'amen’” (349); “Et s'il me dient: ‘Sire, nostre devotion’/ … / Certes, je m'i accort, maiz pour voir je suppose” (985, 989); “Et s'aucun voloit dire que si pressé se sentent” (2005).

  29. Ed. Test JM, pp. 21-39; Buzzetti Gallarati adds analysis of the scholastic lexicon (pp. 41-75), which expands her “Lessico et cultura scolastica nel ‘Testament’”, (Studi testuali, Scrittura e scrittori, Serie miscellanea, 2 [Alessandria, 1988], i, pp. 77-121). In contrast with the conditional mood used in the hypothetical disputes of the Test JM and Villon, reportatio of actual disputations uses the imperfect or simple past to indicate shifts of speaker: “sed dicebat” or “dixit respondens” (examples cited in Bernardo C. Bazàn, “Les Questions disputées, principalement dans les facultés de théologie”, in Bernardo C. Bazàn, et al., Les Questions disputées et les questions quodlibétiques dans les Facultés de Théologie, de Droit et de Médecine, Typologie des Sources du Moyen Age Occidental, 44-45 [Turnhout, 1985], p. 139).

  30. The formal pattern of disputatio is as easy to follow in Villon's Testament T, 569-729 as it is in Le Testament de Jean de Meun: Theme: Men who love incur dangers (T, 569-70); Objection: Dangers come from “femmes diffames” (T, 571-84); Response: These women were once “femmes honnestes” (T, 585-594), illustrated by examples (T, 594-608); Solution: men are endangered by “nature femeninne” (T, 609-616) and the laws of love, “C'est pure verté devollee, / Pour une joye cent doulours” (T, 623-24), an argument confirmed cum exemplis from mythology, the Bible, and the speaker's experience in the “Double Ballade” (T, 625-72), and by an extensive autobiographical example (T, 673-712); Conclusion: the speaker renounces love (T, 713-24). This sequence ends with a fresh objection to the speaker's authority: “Et s'aucun m'interrogue ou tente / Comment d'Amours j'ose mesdire” (T, 725-26); the speaker responds with an otherwise unattested maxim (“Qui meurt a ses loix de tout dire” [T, 728]), then offers proof of his imminent death: “je congnois approucher ma seuf” (T, 729).

  31. Disputatio in Testament hh. lxxxi-lxxxiii: Theme: the prophets did not burn in Hell (T, 805-08); Objection: the speaker's opinion is presumptuous since he is not a master of theology (T, 809-12); Response “cum exemplo”, the parable of Luke 16:22-24: if the rich man had seen fire, he would not have begged refreshment from the burning fingertip of Lazarus (T, 813-20).

  32. See also “Je me tairay a tant d'endroit ceste matiere, / Car les femmes espoir ne l'ont mie trop chiere” (Test JM 1303-04).

  33. See Langlois (ed. Rose i, pp. 21-22), Bourneuf (pp. v-vi), and Buzzetti Gallarati (ed. Test JM, pp. 7-14). Similarities to themes and expressions in the Rose pointed out by Buzzetti Gallarati are too general to be convincing (ibid., pp. 111-16 + notes to ll. 5-8, 246, 253, 437, 485-86, 629-31, 789, 1043-44, 1085-88, 1095, 1115, 1948, 2081-84, and 2112) and the methodology of her search for intratextual anagrams of Jean de Meun appears unsound (eadem, “‘Mots sous les mots’: una firma per il Testament”, Medioevo Romanzo, 15/2 [1990], 259-76). Two specific stylistic reflexes seem to distinguish the author of the Test JM from Jean de Meun. First, the Test JM contains an unusual, recurrent metrical pattern where verses ending with a monosyllabic ce, le, or je rhyme with verses ending with a feminine rhyme, that is, a post-tonic mute e:

    Puis estent son mantel tout aussi com un voile.(12+e)
    Tu qui n'as ce veü, va a Paris voir le.(12)

    (Test JM 1191-92)

    See also Test JM 37 (cited above), 736, 762, 1444, 1788, 1857, and Bourneuf (pp. lxxxiv-lxxxvii) and Buzzetti Gallarati (ed. Test JM, pp. 109-10). I am indebted to Roger Pensom and Peter Dembowski for their letters to me describing this metrical pattern and providing additional examples (eg. Rutebeuf's Sainte Elysabel [l. 244]). To my knowledge, this metrical pattern does not occur in Jean de Meun's Rose. Second, the Test JM is almost utterly devoid of classical allusions: only two names of auctores are cited, those of Virgil and Aristotle, who appear (with David and Solomon), as degraded figures inebriated by lust despite their wit and books: “Virgile et Aristote en furent ja si yvre, / Que point ne les retrait leur engin ne leur livre” (Test JM 1771-72). It is difficult to believe its author could be Jean de Meun, whose Rose is so well watered with allusions to the ancients (see Nancy Freeman Regalado, “Des contraires choses: La fonction poétique de la citation et des exempla dans le Roman de la Rose de Jean de Meun”, Littérature: Intertextualités Médiévales, 41 [1981], 62-81). I thank Eric Hicks for sending me his article, “De l'individuel et du collectif dans les manuscrits”, La Naissance du texte, ed. by Louis Hay (Paris, 1989), 121-31, together with further reflections on the difference between Jean de Meun's use of conjunctions to elaborate long, logical sentences and the Test JM author's taste for brief, symmetrical statements. On attributions to Jean de Meun, see also idem, ed., La Vie et les epistres Pierres Abaelart et Heloys sa fame, Nouvelle Bibliothèque du Moyen Age 16 (Paris-Genève, 1991), i, pp. xx-xxxiii.

  34. Silvia Buzzetti Gallarati, “Nota bibliografica sulla tradizione manoscritta del Testament di Jean de Meun”, Revue Romane, 13 (1978), 2-35.

  35. Le Codicille maistre Jehan de Meun [incipit: “Dieux ait l'ame des trespassés”], ed. Silvia Buzzetti Gallarati, in Medioevo Romanzo, 17 (1992), pp. 339-89; Les sept articles de la foy [incipit: “O glorieuse Trinité”], ed. Méon, Rose, iv.

  36. Gaston Paris, “Villoniana”, Romania, 30 (1901), p. 355, note 1.

  37. Mus [Kuhn], Poétique, p. 150.

  38. Buzzetti Gallarati, ed., Test JM, pp. 9-10. The Test JM is listed among the works of Jean in the anonymous Règles de la seconde rhétorique from Paris, BNF MS n. a. fr. 4237, where it is followed by a copy of the Codicille (Buzzetti Gallarati, Codicille, 351); Test JM st. xv, “Si tu es biax et riches …” (cited below, p.298), is given in this same work as an example of alexandrine quatrains commonly used for saints' lives and “traitiez d'amours” (ed. Ernest Langlois, Recueil d'arts de seconde rhétorique [Paris, 1902; rpt. Genève, 1974], pp. 12, 28-29). Baudet Herenc describes the rhyme scheme of the Test JM in Le Doctrinal de la seconde rhétorique (ibid., pp. 197-98).

  39. Ed. Eric Hicks, Le Débat surLe Roman de la Rose’, Bibliothèque du XVe siècle 43 (Paris, 1977), p. 66.

  40. Ed. Hicks, Débat, p. 64.

  41. “La responce maistre Pierre Col”, ed. Hicks, Débat, p. 95.

  42. “A maistre Pierre Col”, ed. Hicks, Débat, p. 121.

  43. R/H (Testament, ii, p. 193) find further reminiscence of Villon's citation from Le Testament de Jean de Meun in the legacy stanzas he addresses to other young “scholars”—“mes povres clergons” (T, 1306)—where tender sympathy is undercut by sharply sarcastic antiphrasis:

    “Auffort, triste est le sommeillier
    Qui fait aise jeune en jeunesse
    Tant qu'en fin lui faille veillier
    Quant reposer deust en viellesse”.

    (T, 1326-29)

  44. Et initiates eleven Testament huitains: it marks continuing prayer for Thibaut d'Aussigny in h. iii and iv (T, 17, 25) and additional blessings for Louis XI in h. ix (T, 65); it opposes the dead to the living in h. xxx (T, 233); it introduces examples in h. lx (T, 313); it prolongs the spectacle of skulls in h. clxiii (T, 1752) and the enumeration of testamentary instructions in h. clxxv and clxxxiv (T, 1860, 1944). Three times Villon uses “et” to link ballade stanzas (T, 541, 1394, 2004).

  45. Thuasne, Œuvres, ii, p. 104 and R/H, Testament, ii, p. 27.

  46. Poétique, p. 151.

  47. Zumthor declares that the works of Villon are marked throughout by “l'ambivalence, le paradoxe universel, la contradiction au cœur des phrases. […] Les contrastes projetés à la surface … agressent en la sollicitant l'attention du lecteur, la dispersent dans un contre-sens généralisé” (Essai, pp. 427-28).

  48. R/H, Lais et poèmes variés, ii, pp. 91-92.

  49. See Lanly, “Villon”, pp. 248-49.

  50. “– O! (dist Spadassin) … Qui ne se adventure, n'a cheval ny mule, ce dist Salomon.– Qui trop (dist Echéphron) se aventure, pert cheval et mule, respondit Malcon” (Ch. 33).

  51. For complete historical accounts of the dialogues of Solomon and Marcoul, see: Jan Ziolkowski, Jezebel: A Norman Latin Poem of the Early Eleventh Century, Humana Civilitas 10 (New York, 1989); John M. Kemble, The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus, The Aelfric Society (London, 1848; rpt. New York, 1974); E. Cosquin, “Le conte du chat et de la chandelle”, Romania, 40 (1911): 371-430, 481-531 at 373-96, and R.J. Menner, “Introduction”, in The Poetical Dialogues of Solomon and Saturn, Modern Languages Association of America Monograph Series, 13 (New York, 1941), pp. 1-70. See also Maria Corti's semiotic analysis of these dialogues in “Models and Antimodels in Medieval Culture”, New Literary History, 10 (1979), 339-66 (357-64). I appreciated Jan Ziolkowski's response to my inquiries about Solomon and Marcoul. I thank Michael Camille for sending me Malcolm Jones' “Marcolf the Trickster in Late Mediaeval Art and Literature or: The Mystery of the Bum in the Oven”, Spoken in Jest, ed., G. Bennett, The Folklore Society Mistletoe Series 21 (Sheffield, 1991), 139-74.

  52. See Jean-Claude Mühlethaler, “Le poète et le proverbe”, Poétiques du quinzième siècle: Situation de François Villon et Michault Taillevent (Paris, 1983), pp. 65-66, and R. N. B. Goddard, “Marcabru, Li proverbe au vilain, and the Tradition of Rustic Proverbs”, Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 88 (1987), 55-70.

  53. Ed. by A. Tobler (Leipzig, 1895) and by E. Lommatzsch (Limburg am Lahn, 1935). Eckhard Rattundes marks the relation with Salomon and Marcoul in Li Proverbes au vilain: Untersuchungen zur romanischen Spruchdichtung des Mittelalters, Studia Romanica, 11 (Heidelberg, 1966), pp. 133-36.

  54. Ed. Michele G. Diaferia, Li proverbes au conte de Bretagne (New York, 1990) and by Georges Adrien Crapelet, Proverbes et dictons populaires aux XIIIe et XIVe siècles (Paris, 1831), pp. 169-85.

  55. Ed. E. Stengel in Zeitschrift für französische Sprache und Literatur, 14 (1892), pp. 154-58.

  56. See the bibliography in Ziolkowski, Jezebel, p. 195.

  57. Paris, BNF MS fr. 19152, fols. 116b-117c (early 14th century), ed. Mary-Ann Stadtler, Salemon et Marcoul: Edition critique et étude littéraire (Diss. Université de Paris-Sorbonne, 1979); also published by Crapelet, Proverbes et dictons populaires, pp. 189-200. Stadtler's excellent study and edition of four versions from the 10 extant manuscripts is unfortunately not yet published; it is available only in typescript at the Bibliothèque de la Sorbonne.

  58. Paris, BNF MS fr. 837, fol. 161v (end of the 13th century), ed. Stadtler, Salemon et Marcoul, who shows the distribution of stanzas among the nine, widely diverging “putain” manuscripts. Stadtler also identifies the manuscript sources of the anthology of 69 “putain” stanzas published by Dominique Méon, Nouveau Recueil de fabliaux et contes inédits des poètes français des XIIIe, XIVe et XVe siècles, 2 vols. (Paris, 1923; rpt. Genève, 1976), i, pp. 416-36.

  59. “Il est vraisemblable que V. exploite (en se trompant d'adresse, comme pour Valère Maxime, cf. T, 159-160 n., pour le Roman de la Rose, cf. T, 113-118 n., pour Caton, PV I, 108 n., ou pour Aristote, L 296 n.) un souvenir d'école, l'adage Vir bonus ou sapiens dominabitur astris, attribue à Ptolémée et cité, p. ex., par saint Thomas d'Aquin à l'appui de l'affirmation du libre arbitre de l'homme” (R/H, Lais et poèmes variés, ii, p. 122).

  60. Thuasne, “François Villon et Jean de Meun”, pp. 93-94, n. 1 and Œuvres, iii, pp. 590-92. On the connection between Saturn and folly, see Mühlethaler, Poétiques, p. 51; on Marcoul-Saturn as a Teutonic god, see Kemble, The Dialogue of Salomon and Saturnus, pp. 113-31.

Evelyn Birge Vitz (essay date 1996)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8451

SOURCE: “‘Bourde jus mise’? Villon, the Liturgy, and Prayer,” in Villon at Oxford: The Drama of the Text, Rodopi, 1999, pp. 170-194.

[In this essay, first presented at Oxford in 1996, Vitz traces Villon's use of liturgical language and themes, noting that modern scholars wrongly tend to dismiss Villon's serious spiritual concerns. Instead, Vitz argues, Villon is deeply concerned with eschatological questions, in both the Lais and the Testament.]

This paper is part of a large study on the impact of the liturgy on medieval vernacular literature.1 By “liturgy” I mean not merely the Mass, but more broadly the official and public life of church prayer. I thus include the various Offices—most importantly perhaps the Office of the Dead as well as hymns, prayers, and litanies to the Virgin and to the saints. Since the distinction between the official and the unofficial, the public and the private, is far from clear in the Catholic tradition, no firm line will be drawn between formal liturgy and personal prayer. Thus, following the example of the French liturgy scholar A.G. Martimort, much of the time I will define liturgy simply as “l'église en prière”.2

It may seem surprising to study the liturgy and prayer—or at least to take them, as it were, seriously—in the work of Villon.3 Villon's secularism is widely recognized.4 His religious themes are frequently seen, and dismissed, as part of his medieval inheritance, as distinct from the “originality” of his art. Who poked more fun at religion than Villon? Indeed, who jeered at the clergy more snidely than Villon, and on occasion attacked bishops and priests, monks and nuns more violently? But it is important to distinguish among different kinds of religious themes, though they are sometimes lumped together and subsumed under a single heading like “religious themes in Villon”. In fact, the way in which a poet or writer handles matters bearing on the institutional church and its representatives may be quite different from his (or her) treatment of sacramental or liturgical themes. Moreover, there may be variations within a poet's handling of particular religious themes.

In these pages I will argue that liturgy and prayer play a highly important role in Villon's poems; that they should not be understood as dissolved by the acid bath of irony and sarcasm that surrounds them; and that they are an expression of Villon's powerfully eschatological preoccupations.

There are many references in Villon's work to liturgy and prayer. More precisely, there are both references to prayer and actual prayers. These fall roughly into four groups in terms of their use (though there is some overlap): 1) liturgical openings and closings—thus, liturgical “frames” 2) prayers for the dead 3) prayers for the dying and 4) prayers for the living.


Villon uses liturgical elements for both opening and closing his wills. In both the Lais and the Testament he begins the actual “testating” with the words of blessing that open virtually every liturgy: “In the name of the Father …”:

Premierement, ou nom du Pere,
Du Filz et du Saint Esperit,
Et de sa glorieuse Mere
Par qui grace riens ne perit,
Je laisse, de par Dieu, mon bruyt
A maistre Guillaume Villon
(Qui en l'onneur de ce nom bruyt),
Mes tentes et mon pavillon.

(L, [Le Lais] 65-72)5

Thus, Villon sets his will within a liturgical framework; he aligns himself with a certain tradition. Many other medieval poets also began their stories or poems (and singers and story-tellers their performance) with this or other liturgical formulas. Most importantly, perhaps, the Testament de Jean de Meung opened with this formula.6 Many non-religious literary works, including romances, also began in this manner. People began other kinds of work as well in this way. To take a famous example from the English side of the Channel, in the play Mankind the hero is a farmer who kneels in the field with his rosary beads and starts his work with the words: “In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, now I will begin”.7 But it should be noted that real wills rarely began in this fashion. (The Testament of Jean de Meung is largely a moral work, not a real or a mock will.) In Villon's Lais, we have a liturgical formula, expanded by an expression of Marian devotion, and followed by gifts that are typically ironic, obscene, or nonsensical.

Villon does something similar in the Testament, only this time the liturgical formulas are still more powerfully invaded and contaminated by ironic discourse. He begins:

Ou nom de Dieu, Pere eternel,
Et du Filz que vierge parit,
Dieu au Pere coeternel,
Ensemble et le Saint Esperit,
Qui sauva ce qu'Adam perit
Et du pery parre les cyeulx …
Qui bien ce croit, peu ne merit:
Gens mors estre faiz petiz dieux.

(T, [Le Testament] 793-800)

As in the Lais, Villon begins with a Trinitarian formula. But almost immediately he expresses his doubt about the dogma (which of course does not exist as such) that dead people become “little gods” in heaven. He goes on to discuss, in amusing terms, theological issues like, did the prophets and patriarchs indeed feel pain—have “chaut aux fesses”—before the Harrowing of Hell by Christ? This whole discussion is comic and somewhat jeering in tone, though Villon concludes the stanzas devoted to jokes about how hot and unpleasant it is in hell with the words: “Dieux nous en gart, bourde jus mise!” (T, 824). (From this latter line, I take the title of my paper. In Villon, of course, we are never confident that we can “set all kidding aside”.) We are by no means sure how we are to interpret Villon's brief return to liturgical formulas in the following stanza:

Ou nom de Dieu, comme j'ay dit,
Et de sa glorïeuse Mere,
Sans pechié soit parfait ce dit
Par moy, plus maigre que chimere.
Se je n'ay eu fievre eufumiere
Ce m'a fait divine clemence;
Mais d'autre dueil et perte amere
Je me tais, et ainsi commence.

(T, 825-832)

There is an interpretive problem—a tension—at the very heart of this passage, and many others like it. This is prayer in its most formal mode, but irreverence and perhaps even the derision of prayer are also very much present. Both are present, and, while it has been common to assume that only the mockery and the irony are genuine, I submit that the prayer cannot be dismissed or ignored.

Villon also closes these major poems on a liturgical note. The Lais ends—or perhaps one might more truly say, grinds to a halt—in a very curious way, right after Villon says he has prayed the evening Angelus, that famous prayer honoring the Annunciation by the Archangel Gabriel to the Virgin8:

Finablement, en escripvant,
Ce soir, seulet, estant en bonne,
Dictant ces laiz et descripvant,
J'ouys la cloche de Serbonne,
Qui tousjours a neuf heures sonne
Le salut que l'ange predit;
Si suspendis et mis en bourne
Pour prier comme le cueur dit.

(L, 273-280)

And then, Villon says, he lost track of time; he “forgot himself”. In the next several, highly opaque, stanzas, Villon speaks of his various faculties, which eventually got recollected. His mind was finally at rest and his thinking clear, but now his ink was frozen and his candle was about to go out. So when he was ready to go on, it was too late:

Puys que mon sens fust a repotz
Et l'entendement demeslé,
Je cuidé finer mon propos;
Mais mon ancrë estoit gelé
Et mon cierge trouvé freslé,
Et n'eusse peu de feu finer,
C'estoit assés tartevelé;
Pourtant, il me convint finer.

(L, 305-312)

This passage has caused a good deal of un-frozen ink to flow. But from the present perspective what is primarily interesting is that Villon ends—he represents himself as having to end—on the Angelus: on official liturgical prayer.

The Testament, too, has a decidedly liturgical ending, however riddled it may be with complex ironies. The last few hundred lines of the poem involve Villon's wishes concerning his last rites, funeral service, and burial. Villon claims to die—indeed he claims to have already died—a martyr's death, and he swears it upon his (apparently single) testicle: “son couillon”. Thus, he deserves that his friends should come attired in red liturgical vestments in his honor (T, 1996-2003). Villon's last act, as described in the third person by an imaginary narrator, is to throw down a final gulp of “vin morillon” before dying (T, 2022). This defiant gesture, which expresses love of life, is at the same time liturgical or sacramental, and anti-liturgical, anti-sacramental.

Despite all the bravado in these lines, Villon also asks for prayers at several points. He gives a gift to the lovesick, “Pourveu qu'ilz diront ung psaultier / Pour l'ame du povre Villon” (T, 1810-11). His epitaph entreats: “POUR DIEU, DICTES EN CE VERSET …” (T, 1891), and the rondeau that this line introduces begins on, and thus keeps returning to, lines from the Office of the Dead: “REPOZ ETERNEL DONNE A CIL, / SIRE, ET CLARTÉ PERPETUELLE …” (T, 1892-3). Despite the strongly comic elements of this rondeau,9 it nonetheless revolves around Villon's wish that his friends should pray in God's name for his “Eternal Rest”. Here again we have a dramatic and, I believe, unresolvable tension between Villon's prayers and his irreverent and mocking handling of them.

Since both the Lais and Testament provide an account of a life as a whole, it is significant that both begin and end in something resembling a prayerful and liturgical frame of mind. The official and public liturgical formulas are surrounded with off-hand private doubts and jokes in that complexity of tone that is, we have seen, so characteristic of Villon. Words from the liturgy possess here a certain hardness or toughness; Villon's irony does not crush or destroy them. I would not wish to argue here that the liturgy has an intrinsically adamantine quality (though many medieval men and women may have felt this to be the case). What is striking is that Villon typically gives to liturgical passages structural pride of place, in the small as well as the large sense. That is, he frames with liturgical quotations not only his works as a whole, but also poetic units. He often begins stanzas and lines with them: “Ou nom de Dieu …”; “REPOS ETERNEL DONNE A CIL …”; “Aiez pictié, aiez pictié …” and so on. He also, though less reliably, ends poetic units liturgically, often through the return of a refrain. His own irreverent words are thus presented as afterthoughts and line-fillers, trivial “sornettes”, a gloss by someone lacking in authority. In short, liturgical elements are placed in strong positions; his mockery of them in weaker spots.


I noted the importance of the Office of the Dead10 in the closing lines of the Testament. This Office brings us to our second category: Villon's numerous references to prayers and liturgy for the dead.11 There are a good many prayers for dead friends and relatives of Villon.12 One thinks of these moving lines:

Ou sont les gracieux galans
Que je suivoye ou temps jadiz,
Si bien chantans, si bien parlans,
Sy plaisans en faiz et en diz?
Les aucuns sont mors et roidiz;
D'eulx n'est il plus riens maintenant:
Respit aient en paradis,
Et Dieu saulve le remenant!

(T, 225-232)

Villon also prays for the souls of his poverty-stricken ancestors:

Povreté tous nous suit et trace.
Sur les tumbeaux de mes ancestres,
Les ames desquelz Dieu embrasse!
On n'y voit couronnes ne ceptres.

(T, 277-280)

He prays for his father: “Mon pere est mort, Dieu en ait l'ame! / Quant est du corps, il gist soubz lame”. (T, 300-1). In all these passages, we see what appears to be a genuine concern for the souls of the dead.

Villon evokes heads piled up in the Cemetery of the Innocents, and says:

Or sont ilz mors, Dieu ait leurs ames!
Quant est des corps, ilz sont pourriz
Aient esté seigneurs ou dames
Souëf et tendrement nourriz
De cresme, froumentee ou riz,
Et les os declinent en pouldre,
Ausquelz ne chault d'esbat ne riz.
Plaise au doulx Jhesus les assouldre!

(T, 1760-67)

This is one of those passages where Villon's typical resentment against the rich seems to drop away as he contemplates the fragility and tragic vulnerability of all human life: “Plaise au doulx Jhesus les assouldre!”.

He writes a very funny prayer cum drinking-song for Master Jean Cotart: “Pour son ame, qu'es cieulx soit mise, / Ceste orroison j'ai cy escripte” (T, 1236-7). The poem for Jean Cotart has strongly parodic elements,13 but the basic message is that figures such as Noah, Lot, and Archetriclinus, all lovers of wine, even to excess, should come and rescue another lush, and take “l'ame du bon feu maistre Jehan Cotart!” to Heaven (T, l. 1245).

But Villon's most famous prayer for the dead is surely the “Ballade des Pendus”. This great poem cannot be quoted in its entirety here. But in this ballad it is the dead themselves who speak, asking for mercy from God, and for the prayers and intercession of the living. It opens:

Freres humains qui aprés nous vivez,
N'ayez les cueurs contre nous endurciz,
Car se pitié de nous povres avez,
Dieu en avra plus tost de vous mercis.
Vous nous voiez cy atachés, cinq, six;
Quant de la chair, que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est pieça devoree et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons scendre et pouldre.
De nostre mal personne ne s'en rie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre.

(XI, 1-10)

It ends:

Prince Jhesus, qui sur tous a maistrie,
Gardez qu'enfer de nous n'ait seigneurie.
A luy n'ayons que faire ne que souldre!
Hommes, ycy n'a point de mocquerie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre.

(XI, 31-35).

These men, who are at once dead and strangely alive—able to speak—pray to “Prince Jhesus” apparently for all humanity, all their “human brothers”: “Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre”.14 What all need to be saved from is clearly hell: “Gardez qu'enfer de nous n'ait seigneurie”.


Thus, Villon prays for the dead, and often. Many of these prayers seem only marginally touched, if at all, by irony. He also prays and requests prayers for the dying—our third category. The “dying” include Villon, for so he represents himself. For example, in the Testament, shortly after his liturgical opening, he continues:

Premier, doue de ma povre ame
La glorïeuse Trinité,
Et la commande a Nostre Dame,
Chambre de la Divinité,
Priant toute la charité
Des dignes neuf Ordres des cieulx
Que par eulx soit ce don porté
Devant le Trosne precïeulx.

(T, 833-840)

He writes as a man who will soon be dead, and who gives his soul over to the Trinity and the Virgin, asking for the intercession of the nine orders of angels. Are we to be suspicious of the tone, which here appears almost blandly pious? We can hardly help being so, knowing Villon! The fact remains, however, that Villon presents himself as a man about to die, and whose soul is in danger.

It is not surprising that Villon should represent himself as dying. A testament is, by definition, the work of a man preparing to die. But several facts here are striking. First, Villon wrote not one but two testaments, and both apparently (fictionally if not historically) in his relative youth—his twenties and perhaps early thirties. It might be argued that, in his writing of wills and his adoption of the stance of a “dying man”, Villon was just joking. One might well respond: some joke!—for in fact Villon was going to die, and he is dead. It may, indeed, be said that the statement that we are going to die is the only certain thing that we can safely say about ourselves. In short, however much Villon may have been playing a game, he was not just kidding—and he knew it. It is very difficult to take merely facetiously such lines as: “Qui meurt, a ses loix de tout dire” (T, 728). Moreover, even outside of his poetic testaments Villon presents himself as a man touched by the hand of death: the “Epistre a ses amis” begins:

Aiez pictié, aiez pictié de moy,
A tout le moins, s'i vous plaist, mes amis.
En fosse giz, non pas soubz houz ne may,
En cest exil ouquel je suis transmis
Par Fortune, comme Dieu l'a permis.

(XII, ll. 1-5)

Those opening lines are a translation of the beginning of Job 19:21, “Miseremini mei, miseremini mei, saltem vos, amici mei”, which was one of the lessons of the Office of the Dead.15 This fosse, or “ditch,” in which Villon lies is prison—exile from life—but it is also a poor man's grave.

Villon represents himself as being in what we might call today a “liminal state”—not quite dead, but no longer (if he ever was!) fully alive. He is moribund, about to die, half-dead. He is already outside of life, but not yet completely dead. We see this in many passages and many ways, as in his frequent self-representation as a martyr of love—or, more precisely, as a semi-living martyr of love. In the Lais, 47: “Au fort, je suys amant martir / Du nombre des amoureux sains”. We see it with particular clarity at the end of the Testament, where Villon is represented as dead and yet still alive enough to tell his story. We saw this phenomenon as well in the “Ballade des Pendus”: these men are at once dead and still dying.

It is not just with physical death that Villon is preoccupied. To be sure, he describes the progress of mortality in his body: “Je sens mon cueur qui s'affoiblist / Et plus je ne puis papïer” (T, 1785-6); he is bald, thus his head is already a naked skull. He will soon be a corpse, a skeleton in the Cemetery of the Innocents. But it is not only the grave, or the “mal hasle” (T, 1722) of the hanged, that Villon seems worried about. He is not just anxious about time running out in this life. Rather, he presents himself as confronting eternity.

It has escaped no one's notice that Villon often looks at life sarcastically and scatologically. But what I think has been under-appreciated, and what I wish to show, is the remarkable degree to which Villon views himself and those around him eschatologically: he and they are going to die, and are going to be judged. Villon is very concerned with the “Last Things”: death, judgment, heaven and hell. It is as a man on the edge of the eschatological abyss that Villon often sees himself and others.16 The poem entitled “Quatrain” can be viewed in this light: Villon is about to die and to be “weighed”; that rope replaces the scales of judgment:

Je suis François, dont il me poise,
Né de Paris emprés Pontoise,
Et de la corde d'une toise
Savra mon col que mon cul poise.



Our final category concerns prayers for the living. Villon prays for others and composes prayers that he gives to people to say for themselves. A handful of examples: in the Lais, Villon prays for the unnamed woman who drove him away so cruelly: “Elle m'a ce mal pourchassé, / Mais Dieu luy en face mercy!” (L, 79-80). There is, one assumes, irony in this line. Early in the Testament, Villon prays for King Louis: that he may have good fortune in “ce monde cy transsitoire” (T, 61); that he may have twelve fine sons—“Et puis Paradis en la fin” (T, 72).

He prays for the rich and for the poor, in a prayer with a decidedly ironic edge:

Aux grans maistres Dieu doint bien fere,
Vivans en paix et en requoy;
En eulx il n'y a que reffaire;
Si s'en fait bon taire tout quoy.
Mais aux povres qui n'ont de quoy,
Comme moy, Dieu doint pascïence!
Aux autres ne fault qui ne quoy,
Car assez ont pain et pictence.

(T, 241-248)

He gives to his mother a ballad “Pour saluer nostre Maistresse” (T, 866; 873-909).

Now, in fact, many of these “prayers for the living” could also be called “prayers for the dying”: the living are seen as dying, as sinners approaching death and judgment. As he says in the Lais: “Vivre aux humains est incertain / Et aprés mort n'y a relaiz” (61-2). He repeatedly warns his friends to live wisely and avoid the gibbet: “Ce n'est pas ung jeu de troys mailles, / Ou va corps, et peult estre l'ame …” (T, 1676-7); “Et, pour Dieu, soiez tous recors / Une foyz viendra que mourrez” (T, 1726-7). We are perpetually sliding toward the Last Things: toward eschatology.

The “Ballade” for his “povre mere” is a case in point. This poem presents a woman who is thinking of death, fearing hell, hoping for heaven. This is a strongly liturgical prayer, filled with traditional Marian formulas. In it, Villon's mother is defined—fictionally self-defined—not merely as an “humble chrestienne”, someone who “oncques riens ne valuz,” (T, 877) but as a great “pecheresse”—a sinner in the same league as the prostitute Mary of Egypt or Theophilus who sold his soul to the devil. Without grace, indeed without the powerful help of the Virgin, Villon's mother cannot hope to get to heaven—to be one of “voz esleuz”, to “avoir les cieulx”. Villon shows us a woman who very much wants to get to reach paradise, but who cannot get there without mercy.

It is perhaps not strange that Villon should present his mother as confronting death and judgment: she is defined as “old”. But she is by no means the only person for whom he prays who is shown as simultaneously living and dying, a sinner in God's hands—and the others are not elderly. This tendency for the living to be thought of as people who will soon be dead and judged is clearest perhaps in Villon's prayers—many of them, of course, ironic, even sneering—for his enemy Thibaut d'Aussigny. When Villon prays for the detested bishop, what he is primarily concerned with is not Thibaut's success or health, or lack of them, in this world, but with eternity: with his salvation or damnation. As Villon puts it at one point, asking for justice: “S'il m'a esté misericors, / Jhesus, le roy de Paradis, / Tel luy soit a l'ame et au corps!” (T, 22-24). Villon clearly hopes that Thibaut will be condemned, body and soul, to hell.

Most readers are familiar with Villon's many false starts at prayer for Thibaut: his “Picard's prayer”; his prayer “par cuer”, and so on.17 The reason for all these (largely abortive) attempts to pray for Thibaut is, of course, the Church's injunction that Christians must pray for their enemies.18 Villon says:

Et s'esté m'a dur ne cruel
Trop plus que cy je ne raconte,
Je veul que le Dieu eternel
Luy soit dont semblable a ce compte.
Et l'Eglise nous dit et compte
Que prions pour noz annemys!
Je vous dis que j'ay tort et honte;
Quoi qu'il m'aist fait, a Dieu remys.

(T, 25-32)

Christians must pray for those who hate them and for those whom they hate. Villon, on occasion (as in the passage just mentioned), hands the case of Thibaut over to God. But he has a very hard time indeed forgiving Thibaut; he keeps coming back to his hope—a hope that he expresses largely through circumlocution and praeteritio—that God will make Thibaut suffer, apparently through eternity, as he, Villon, has suffered in this world:

Dieu mercy—et Tacque Thibault,
Qui tant d'eaue froide m'a fait boire,
En ung bas, non pas en ung hault,
Menger d'angoisse mainte poire,
Enferré … Quant j'en ay memoire,
Je prie pour luy et relicqua,
Que Dieu luy doint, et voire, voire!
Ce que je pense, et cetera.

(T, 737-744)

We see the struggle between Villon's awareness that he should forgive his enemies, and his deep reluctance to do so, in the penultimate ballad of the Testament, where he cries “mercys” to all. He quite cheerily, if satirically, asks forgiveness from, and offers forgiveness to, all manner of people:

A Chartreux et a Celestins,
A Mendïans et a Devoctes,
A musars et clacquepatins,
A servans et filles mignoctes
Portans seurcoz et justes coctes,
A cuidereaux d'amours transsis
Chauçans sans mehain fauves boctes—…
Je crye a toutes gens mercys …

(T, 1968 - 1975)

Off he goes, waving goodbye, making peace. But by the time he gets to the final stanza, his gorge has risen once again against his hated enemies:

Synon aux traitres chiens matins
Qui m'ont fait ronger dures crostes,
Macher mains soirs et mains matins,
Que ores je ne crains pas troys croctes.
Je feisse pour eulx pez et roctes—
Je ne puis, car je suis assis.
Auffort, pour esviter rïoctes,
Je crye a toutes gens mercys.

(T, 1984-1991)

Though “mercys” is the last word—such is the very nature of a refrain!—one is hard-pressed to say whether Villon has really gone through with his proposed act of forgiveness and peace-making.

Yet Villon seems to see that he cannot demand from God only justice for his enemies—that God should treat them as they deserve—but only mercy for himself and those he loves. At many points he makes it clear that he fears justice: he, too, is a sinner, “bitten” by sin. For example, he says in huitain 14 of the Testament:

Je suis pecheur, je le sçay bien;
Pourtant ne veult pas Dieu ma mort,
Mais convertisse et vive en bien,
Et tout autre que pechié mort.
Combien qu'en pechié soye mort,
Dieu vit, et sa misericorde,
Se conscïence me remort,
Par sa grace pardon m'acorde.

(T, 105-112)

But, of course, as Villon also makes clear repeatedly, he does not convert and live “right”: he represents himself as a “paillard”. He is “mau rat” to Fat Margot's “mau chat”; they both love “ordure” and it loves them. In short, Villon paints himself as not merely an ordinary sinner but as inveterate: he is a largely unrepentant sinner.19 He is a semi-willing prisoner in the “bordeau”—indeed he helps run it. His conscience may gnaw (“remordre”) him, but not hard enough to make him change his life. This is also clear in the “Debat de Villon et son cuer” (XIII) with its refrain: “‘Plus ne t'en dys'—Et je m'en passeray.”

Thus we have, in Villon's poetry, prayers and echoes of the liturgy mixed in with violent anger and bitterness, sarcasm and irony. Scatology is cheek-by-jowl with eschatology. Indeed, we have prayerful elements contrasted with actual mockery of prayer. For example, when discussing the course of study to be undertaken by his “troys povres orphelins” (T, 1275)—actually rich and powerful merchants and usurers—Villon says that the Donat (the Latin grammar by Donatus) is too hard for them; they hate to “give”. They should learn: “Ave salus, tiby decus” (T, 1287)—nothing more complicated. They won't be up to the “grant Credo,” he says (T, 1292). “Ave salus, tiby decus” was a parodic transformation of a Latin hymn in honor of the Blessed Virgin: “Ave, decus virginum, Ave, salus hominum” (“Hail, glory of virgins, Hail, salvation of mankind”), and it meant “Hail to you, money; honor to you, arses”!20 This was apparently a standard joke, consecrated, so to speak, by wide usage. So was the pun on the Credo, meaning “long-term credit”—something for which these usurers are definitely not ready. These jokes are as much satire of the userers as they are parody of the liturgical elements being employed. Villon also speaks derisively—more bitingly, surely—of the “contemplation” achieved by Turlupins and Turpulines under the curtains after a tasty dinner (T, 1161-5). These are, in any event, comic or parodic uses of the liturgy. It should, however, be noted that in Villon there is little real blasphemy; some medieval works, such as Branch VII of the Roman de Renart, pushed derision of the liturgy a great deal farther than Villon.21

But, in any case, we have a complex blend of elements here. The question is: what are we to make of this mix? How are we to interpret these elements and hierarchize them conceptually?

The Protestant tradition—and most Western scholars today are to an important degree the intellectual heirs of Protestantism—demanded a unified and uniformly high standard of religion, or religiosity, in literary works. If a work was not perfectly or purely pious, and, in particular, if it contained a significant amount of laughter or comedy, it was not pious at all; it was, rather, im-pious. (The mystery plays were abolished largely, though not exclusively, on such grounds: they mixed profane, comic, even occasionally obscene elements, with scenes of catechism and powerful devotion.)22 Villon is not, therefore, a “pious” poet.

Modern criticism, starting from very different premises—vastly more sceptical, even cynical, premises—has had a curiously similar thrust. To some degree since the 18th century, and perhaps especially since Freud, when we have a complex situation with high and low elements—elevated spiritual thoughts and low carnal thoughts—readers are inclined to resolve matters downward. We are inclined to decide that when confronted with a contrast between high and low—courtly and obscene, magnanimous and base, devout and impious—it is the low things that are true; they show up the hollowness, hypocrisy, or falseness of the higher ones.23 In Villon, many have considered that only the mockery is “sincere.”

But neither of these ways of resolving discrepancies between high and low is, I think, appropriate to medieval literature in general. Neither the Protestant nor the Modernist model will do. As many scholars have noted, medieval works were often strongly internally conflicted—extraordinarily discordant—by our esthetic and conceptual standards. These discordances appear to have been a fundamental part of what has been called (in particular, by Paul Zumthor) the medieval “contrastive poetics”. One might cite examples from the lyric—for example, from motets.24 But in fact a great many works contain extraordinary inner tensions—tensions that it would be a serious interpretive oversimplification to resolve in favor of the low. We cannot, I submit, simply dismiss Villon's prayers as derision of prayer.

Issues of general poetics aside, there is an important conceptual framework within which we should examine the prayers in Villon's poetry: medieval theology, and more specifically, what we might call “theory of prayer”. We have a largely parodic and satirical work that contains many prayers. Are—were—these lines really supposed to qualify as prayers? After all, as we have seen, Villon represents himself as a confirmed sinner who is, at best, semi-repentant and disgusted with himself and who does not have the will to change. Since he surrounds his bits of liturgy and his prayers with jokes and derision, is he, from a medieval Christian point of view, in a moral position to pray? Is he really praying?

Some medieval theologians emphasized the ideal of prayer: one should have purity of intention; prayer should be “the clamor of the heart”; in prayer one should be in submission to God's will; in prayer one should be thinking about what one says. All this is the ideal, and we see it expressed in similar terms in works ranging from Peter the Chanter's Manual of Prayer in the 12th century,25 to the Testament of Jean de Meung in the late 13th, to the Imitation of Christ in the 15th, and well beyond.

But there also was, and is, another approach to prayer; one might call this the “low road” as it was concerned with the minimal definition of prayer. We can find this approach authoritatively discussed in the work of Thomas Aquinas. In the Summa Theologica (II, ii—especially question 83), Aquinas took up many fundamental questions concerning the nature and definition of prayer. One of them was, in article 16, “Whether Sinners Impetrate [or Obtain] Anything from God by Their Prayers?” That is, does God consider that their prayers are in fact prayers? Does He listen to them, answer them? After reviewing the position that the prayer of sinners is not heard by God, Aquinas states:

“On the contrary: If God were not to hear sinners, the publican would have said in vain: Lord, be merciful to me a sinner; and Chrysostom says: Everyone that asks shall receive, whether he be righteous or sinful …

There can be no godliness in the sinner's prayer as though his prayer were quickened by a habit of virtue: and yet his prayer may be godly insofar as he asks for something pertaining to godliness. Even a man who does not have the habit of justice is able to will something just … And though his prayer is not meritorious, it can be effective with God since impetration rests on grace”.26

In short, while the prayers of sinners are not “meritorious”, nonetheless God hears and answers them, provided that sinners ask for good things such as mercy and forgiveness.

Villon does not represent himself as possessing merit. He is “good” only in that he is “un bon follastre” (T, 1883). He is not even a repentant man, at least not often. He is just a poor sinner. He rarely listens to his conscience, or “heart,” and doesn't follow its advice. His prayers are riddled with doubts, jokes, impieties, and occasionally with blasphemies. Yet still he prays, and does so frequently. He prays for his own soul and for the souls of others. He hates his enemies, but he tries (or tries to try) over and over to forgive them; he may even occasionally succeed. To be sure, we see him slide,27 in his poetry, repeatedly, into sin—Deadly Sins: anger and the desire for vengeance, envy, sloth, despair, avarice (he is stingy about things he does not even possess); he longs to be able to indulge more amply in lust and gluttony. (I am not sure that there is any major sin he misses, except, perhaps, pride, traditionally considered the deadliest of all.) He begs, nevertheless, in his own voice and in the sepulchral voices of hanged men: “Mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre”. (XI, 1.10) So although Villon's soul keeps falling down, and back, into states that are far from prayerful, it must also be noted that he perseveres in trying to lift it back up to God.

In this context, it is important to recognize that one of the most striking features of Villon's poetry is its extreme range of tones and intentions. He moves back and forth—up and down—from moments of intensely religious utterance all the way to mockery and despair. He can, indeed, shift remarkably fast from one to the other. We should not accept only the crudeness and the jokes as “true”. Nor should we homogenize Villon's poetry, averaging out into something monotonous and predictable his extraordinary range and breadth. In such a reading, Villon's great “contradictions” lose their power.28

In a word, it seems likely that Villon's audience, and Villon himself, understood his prayers to be the words of a sinner, but nonetheless real prayers.

All this suggests that Villon's reputation as a “poet of religious satire” is in need of re-evaluation. Should Villon be ranked among the “Christian poets”? Perhaps not. As we have seen abundantly, he is not a “pious” poet. And yet … Are piety of tone and a virtuous self-representation necessary criteria? It would certainly be hard to find a poet who gave to Christian faith, hope, and the need for God's mercy more compelling expression.

Villon wrote, early on in the Testament, after lamenting his sufferings:

Combien, au plus fort de mes maulx,
En cheminant sans croix ne pille,
Dieu, qui les pelerins d'Esmaulx
Conforta, ce dit l'Evvangille,
Me monstra une bonne ville
Et pourveut du don d'esperance.
Combien que pechiez si soit ville,
Riens ne het que perseverance.

(T, 97-104)

He received, he says, the gift of Christian hope. True, he presents himself as a sinner, a “persevering” sinner.29 Yet he also expresses considerable trust in the readiness of “doulx Jhesus”—who is also “Prince Jhesus, qui sur tous a maistrie” (XI, 1.31)—to save sinners. He expresses belief in the power of intercessory prayer. If a boozing buffoon like Jean Cotart (or a “bon follastre” like François Villon?) can end up in paradise, it will be because his friends in heaven and on earth have helped him.

Perhaps most importantly, Villon—like his mother as he represents her, like Mary of Egypt and Theophilus whom he evokes, like many Catholics of his age, and others—expresses apparently limitless confidence in the Virgin. She was, he said as he presented his poem to his mother, the only fortress protecting him from peril:

Item, donne a ma povre mere
Pour saluer nostre Maistresse
(Qui pour moy ot douleur amere,
Dieu le scet, et mainte tristesse)—
Autre chastel n'ay ne forteresse
Ou me retraye corps ne ame,
Quant sur moy court malle destresse,
Ne ma mere, la povre femme!—

(T, 865-872)

He gives us to understand that he counts on the Virgin's aid to save him.30 And in the “Louange à Marie D'Orléans,” in which he conflates the little princess and the Blessed Virgin, he speaks of these redemptive maidens, linked through the name “Marie”, in terms such as the following: “Fons de pitié, source de grace, / La joye, confort de mes yeulx” (I, 6-7) and “… joye du peuple, / Confort des bons, des maulx retraicte” (I, 17-18). He says of Marie, who is clearly not just the young princess, but the Virgin herself:

O grace et pitié tres immense,
L'entree de paix et la porte,
Some de benigne clemence
Qui noz faultes toust et supporte,
Se de vous louer me deporte
Ingrat suis, et je le maintien,
Dont en ce refrain me transporte:
On doit dire du bien le bien.

(I, 89-96)

These strongly liturgical lines—they are virtually a summary of themes from Marian hymnody—emphasize Mary as the gateway to peace, the essence and summit of mercy; she removes sin and supports sinners.

All this can serve to bring us back, one last time, to the “Last Things”, and to the fact that Villon is a remarkably eschatological poet.31 Eschatologically, he is in the same league as Dante. Death, judgment, heaven, and hell are for him, as for the poet of the Divine Comedy, major and on-going themes. There are, of course, vast differences in treatment. If, in Dante's great poem, it is the other world—the after-life—that primarily occupies our attention, in Villon's poetry it is this world that seems “real”. Like church candles against the dark walls of a church, images of heaven and hell flicker onto the passing, but gripping, scenarios of this life. And Villon seems to focus primarily on postponing death just as long as possible, pleading for merciful judgment and trying to escape hell, rather than on reaching heaven; Villon's work is no “divine comedy”. And yet he does say: “Plaise a Dieu que l'ame ravye / En soit lassus en sa maison!” (T, 1793-94).

Villon's eschatological preoccupations flow repeatedly into references to the liturgy and into prayers which are not dissolved by the corrosive irony and sarcasm around them. They subsist, they gleam. One is reminded of the medieval Bibles in which the words of Christ are printed in silver or gold, thus standing out from the surrounding discourse. The very blackness of Villon's humor derives in large part from the dramatic contrast between his worldliness, crudeness, and carnality, on the one hand, and, on the other, the prospect of eternity.


  1. See Evelyn Birge Vitz, “The Liturgy and Vernacular Literature”, in The Medieval Liturgy, ed. Thomas Hefferman and Ann Matter (in press: Kalamazoo, 1999). I am working on a book on this topic.

  2. A. G. Martimort, ed., L'Église en prière: Introduction à la liturgie (Tournai, 1961).

  3. One of the few studies to have done so is Barbara Nelson Sargent-Baur's Brothers of Dragons: Job Dolens and François Villon (New York, 1990); but Sargent-Baur's concern is more with the figure of Job in Villon's poetry (and elsewhere) than with Villon's use of the liturgy or prayer. See also David Fein's useful comments in A Reading of Villon's Testament (Birmingham, 1984), especially pp. 80-83.

    A valuable article that studies in detail the importance of the liturgy in the Testament—in particular, the liturgies of Holy Saturday through Easter Monday—is Rupert T. Pickens's “Villon on the Road to Paris: Contexts and Intertexts of Huitain XIII of the Testament”, in Conjunctures: Medieval Studies in Honor of Douglas Kelly, ed. Keith Busby and Norris J. Lacy (Amsterdam, 1994), pp. 425-54. Pickens focuses on the importance of themes and liturgies of the Harrowing of Hell and Resurrection. His points are compatible with those which will be made in these pages.

    In her unpublished doctoral dissertation, “Villon's Testament: A Burlesque Requiem” (Cornell University, 1980), Susan Darrow Hussar Randall sees the many parallels between the Testament and a Requiem Mass primarily in comic terms.

  4. One recent example: Nancy Freeman Regalado, “Saying Your Prayers: Poetic Expression of Secularism in Villon's Testament”, presentation at the Sewanee Medieval Colloquium on “Secularism in the Middle Ages”, April 1985.

  5. I will be using the recent edition with translation of Villon's poetry by Barbara N. Sargent-Baur: François Villon: Complete Poems (Toronto, 1994). While in these pages I do not provide the translation of the passages I quote, it is my hope that interested readers who do not read medieval French will be able to follow my argument by having recourse to Sargent-Baur's fine translation. Another attractive translation to consult is that of Galway Kinnell: The Poems of François Villon (Hanover, 1982; new edition).

    Quotations from the Lais will be identified by an “L” before the line numbers; those from the Testament by “T.” Villon's miscellaneous poems will be identified by their title in the discussion, and also by their number in the Sargent-Baur edition.

  6. See Silvia Buzzetti Gallarati, Le Testament Maistre Jehan de Meun: Un cas letterario (Turin, 1989), p. 121.

  7. In Medieval Drama, ed. David Bevington (Boston, 1975), pp. 901-38 (p. 923, l. 544).

  8. On the Angelus, see e.g. Catholic Encyclopedia (New York, 1913), i, pp. 487-9.

  9. In it he describes himself as looking like a peeled turnip, as having been whacked on the arse with a shovel, etc.

  10. In Brothers of Dragons, Sargent-Baur notes that Job—to whom Villon's poetry contains numerous references—was known in the medieval period largely though references to him in the Office of the Dead; indeed, that Office was composed almost entirely of passages from the Psalms and references to the Book of Job (pp. 35-41).

  11. That Villon is “obsessed” with death comes as no news; many scholars have noted this fact. What has not been adequately appreciated, however, is that this obsession often takes a liturgical form and is strongly linked to prayer.

  12. Whether these or other people referred to in Villon's poetry should be taken as “real” or, rather, as fictional is, for our purposes, neither here nor there; they are represented as real.

  13. In Recherches sur le Testament de François Villon, seconde édition revue et augmentée, 2 vols. (Paris, 1973), ii, pp. 405ff., Jean Dufournet put forward the view that this ballad is a “sotte chanson” rather than a real prayer; that in it Villon “a entrepris de ruiner définitivement la réputation de ce haut fonctionnaire ecclésiastique, d'ôter toute valeur à ces actes et à ces jugements. Car quel crédit accorder à un homme qui sacrifiait tout au vin et dépensait jusqu'à la dernière maille pour satisfaire sa passion … ?” (p. 410). But even if this poem is a burlesque oraison funèbre—and for Dufournet it has a very hostile edge, to boot—it is, nonetheless, presented by Villon as a prayer. We will return later to the question: just what is a prayer?

  14. My emphasis.

  15. See Sargent-Baur, Brothers, pp. 70 -82.

  16. In “Deux poètes du Moyen Age face à la mort: Rutebeuf et Villon”, Jean Dufournet has argued that, in contrast to Rutebeuf who thinks of death in terms of judgement, Villon does not. Dufournet says: “L'on retrouve, dans deux ballades de Villon, certaines formules et évocations, les infernaux palus (vers 874) où damnés sont boullus (vers 897); mais l'une de ces ballades, la Ballade pour prier Notre Dame, au cœur du Testament, Villon l'a mise dans la bouche de sa mère: l'autre, celle des Pendus, est demeurée exclue de Testament. Pour faire bref, jugement dernier et enfer sont absents de son œuvre, sinon sous forme d'allusions, souvent burlesques …” (p. 163); in Dufournet's view, Villon seeks to “échapper à l'obsession [of death]” (p. 164); Dufournet says: “Le trépas, aux yeux de Villon, n'est pas loin d'être seulement un accident mauvais en soi, un terme après quoi il n'y a plus rien à attendre … Villon découvre dans la mort une revanche sur les injustices sociales puisque tout le monde est logé à la même enseigne …” (p. 172); in Dies Illa: Death in the Middle Ages (Proceedings of the 1983 Manchester Colloquium), ed. Jane H. M. Taylor (Liverpool, 1984), pp. 155-178.

    It is certainly true that Villon does not address issues of repentance and judgement as directly and explicitly—as descriptively or as narratively, or as allegorically and as didactically—as Rutebeuf; Villon's poetry is in general strongly allusive and, indeed, elusive. The purpose of these pages, however, is to show that Villon's work as a whole (I do not limit myself to the Testament) is in fact deeply permeated with eschatological concerns.

  17. Especially Testament, 9-48. On this issue see, for example, Jean Dufournet, Recherches sur le Testament (Paris, 1971), i, pp. 131ff.

  18. This injunction is based primarily on Christ's words in Matthew 5:44: “I say this to you: love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you; in this way you will be sons of your Father in heaven …” Another source is the Lord's Prayer: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us”.

  19. On this issue, see for example Grace Frank, “The Impenitence of François Villon”, Romanic Review, 37 (1946), 225-236, and Janis Pallister, “Attrition and Contrition in the Poetry of François Villon”, Romance Notes, 11 (1969), 392-398.

  20. See François Villon: Œuvres, édition critique avec notices et glossaire, ed. Louis Thuasne, 3 vols. (Paris, 1923), iii, p. 342ff. “Arses”: decus = d'écus = des culs.

  21. See Vitz, “La liturgie, Le Roman de Renart, et le problème du blasphème dans la vie littéraire au Moyen Age, ou: Les bêtes peuvent-elles blasphémer?”, in press, Reinardus, 11 (1998).

  22. See e.g. Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580 (New Haven, 1992), pp. 579ff.

  23. An interesting example of the difference between the medieval (and classical) way and the modern manner of handling this conflict can be seen in John of Salisbury's discussion of Julius Caesar's dream that he slept with his mother. We are inclined to interpret such a dream in a Freudian fashion (what John would call “obscenely”): that, indeed, Caesar wanted to have sexual intercourse with his own mother. John, however—like the dream-interpreters that Caesar consulted—viewed it differently: as revealing the “magnanimous” Caesar's ambition, and destiny, to subject the entire world (“universam terram”) to his power. John of Salisbury [Ioannis Saresberiensis], Policraticus, I-IV, ed. by K. S. B. Keats-Rohan (Turnhout, 1993); II, 16, p. 100.

  24. Motets offer highly interesting examples of medieval contrastive poetics, often with a liturgical component. A motet is a polyphonic composition combining two or three distinct melodies and texts. Some motets have strong unity: all the texts may be in Latin and on a sacred theme. But it is also common to find marked divergencies in language (Latin and the vernacular), inspiration, tone, and so on. For example, one anonymous motet, whose opening phrases are respectively: “Aucun vont—Amor qui cor—Kyrie”, is constructed as follows: the top voice (or Triplum) sings a sprightly French song, which complains about those who denigrate love: loving loyally is wonderful. The middle voice (or Duplum) sings a much slower—fewer words, fewer notes—Latin text which reflects on the power of “carnalis affectio”, noting that the more one loves ephemeral things, the less God is loved. The lowest voice (or Tenor) just sings the words “Kyrie eleison”—Lord have mercy! See Anthology of Medieval Music, ed. Richard H. Hoppin (New York, 1978), 54, p. 112.

  25. The Christian at Prayer: An Illustrated Prayer Manual, attributed to Peter the Chanter (d. 1197), ed. Richard C. Trexler (Binghamton, NY, 1987).

  26. St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, transl. Fathers of the English Domican Province, 5 vols. (Westminster, MD, 1981), iii, pp.1544-5. I have made a couple of small emendations in the translation, for purposes of clarity.

  27. That is, he represents himself as sliding.

  28. See the following ballads: “Des contradictions” (II), “Des menus propos” (VI), and “Des contre-vérités” (VII).

  29. This emphasis on the centrality of sin, and of sinners, to Christianity will come as no surprise to readers of modern fiction by major Catholic writers. Graham Greene took as introductory epigram for his novel The Heart of the Matter this quotation from Péguy: “Le pécheur est au cœur même de la chrétienté … Nul n'est aussi compétent que le pécheur en matière de chrétienté. Nul, si ce n'est le saint.”

  30. It is interesting to note that this poem was included in Prier au Moyen Age: pratiques et expériences (Ve- XVe siècles): Textes traduits et commentés, ed. Nicole Bériou, Jacques Berlioz et Jean Longère, intro. by Nicole Bériou (Turnhout, 1991). This is, indeed, a prayer—and a beautiful one.

  31. In this context, I can hardly do better than quote from Pierre Demarolle's Villon: un testament ambigu (Paris, 1973). Demarolle speaks of the religious dimension of Villon's poetry (e.g. pp. 166ff.) and concludes: “La pire des erreurs serait sans doute de sous-estimer l'importance de la foi chrétienne chez Villon en se laissant égarer par les attaques contre les moines, la rancune qu'il exprime à l'égard de l'évêque Thibaut d'Aussigny, les plaisanteries ou les banalités. Si les passages où la foi du poète se manifeste n'occupent qu'une part relativement restreinte du texte, ils correspondent toujours à une référence à un Au-delà du monde (et pas seulement à un Au-delà de la mort) qui transcende en leur donnant un sens les injustices des hommes et les faiblesses de l'être …” (p. 169).

This article has benefited in many ways from the discussions at the Oxford Conference at which this paper was originally presented. My gratitude goes—as ever!—to Nancy Regalado for her help, and thanks to Marilyn Lawrence.

David A. Fein (essay date 1997)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5071

SOURCE: “The Lais” in François Villon Revisited, Twayne Publishers, 1997, pp. 20-34.

[In this excerpt, Fein details the groups of people Villon addresses in his earlier mock-testament, many of which reappear in The Testament. Fein demonstrates the variety of tones—playful, ironic, cruel, sympathetic—Villon uses in portraying the various classes of society.]

Although it was long believed that Villon participated in the Navarre theft and wrote the Lais on the same night—Christmas Eve of 1456—most critics now doubt that these events occurred so close together. First, we must remember that Villon's dating of the poem is somewhat approximate:

En ce temps, que j'ay dit devant,
Sur le Noël, morte saison


[At the time I said before,
Toward Christmas, the dead time of the year]

The phrase “Sur le Noël” can be read as either “at Christmas” or (as Barbara Sargent-Baur translates it) “toward Christmas.” The latter reading would appear to be justified by the next few lines of the stanza, in which Villon describes the general conditions of the season (hungry wolves and people confined to their houses) rather than making any specific reference to the celebration of a religious holiday. It must also be noted that the dating of the Navarre escapade as Christmas Eve of 1456 is based on a rather imprecise reference in Guy Tabarie's deposition: “circa festum Nativitatis Domini” (my emphasis). Both Tabarie's statement and the Lais concur on Villon's immediate destination of Angers. According to Tabarie, Villon intended to use Angers as the base for another theft. Villon, on the other hand, claims in the Lais that he is leaving Paris to escape an unhappy love affair. These conflicting explanations have led some critics to conclude that Villon composed the Lais shortly before or shortly after the Navarre theft and included the references to Christmas and Angers as an alibi.1

Using the popular literary device of a mock will, Villon frames the prologue to his poem within the conventional language of a legal will:2

Mil quatre cens cinquante et six—
Je François Villon, escollier
Considerant, de sens rassis


[Year fourteen hundred fifty-six—
I, a scholar, François Villon,
Considering, while of sound mind]

The series of fictitious bequests that follows may be divided into three basic categories—various personal acquaintances, police and officers of the law (many of whom the poet also knew personally), and an assortment of well-known Parisian citizens of the day. Many of the figures appearing in the Lais will resurface six years later in the Testament.


Heading the procession of legatees is Guillaume de Villon, to whom Villon bequeaths his bruyt (renown). Next comes the unidentified woman whose rejection, according to Villon, is the cause of his imminent departure for Angers. Although we know nothing of the woman's identity, the circumstances of her relationship with the poet, or the veracity of Villon's claim (which some readers interpret as a complete fabrication), there is reason to believe that references to the mysterious woman are at least partially grounded in reality. Given that Villon places his bequest to her immediately after the bequest to Guillaume, and that all of the other legatees in the poem have been identified as Villon's contemporaries, it is quite plausible that Villon expects his audience of close acquaintances to readily recognize both the woman in question and the younger, richer rival for whom she apparently rejected François:

Autre que moy est en quelongne
Qui plus billon et plus or songne,
Plus jeune et mieulx garny d'umeur.


[Another man is on the scene
Whose money makes a louder clink,
Younger than I, more cheerful, too.]

Although the possibility of fabrication cannot be flatly rejected, it would be difficult to reconcile this explanation with the fact that the poem is so firmly anchored in every other respect within a biographical context. It would also be difficult to explain the obvious importance of the unidentified woman (she occupies five stanzas and is clearly assigned to a pre-eminent role over the other legatees of the poem) and specific details concerning Villon's successful rival.3

An old acquaintance prominently featured early in the poem is Robert Valée, whom Villon met during his student days. Possessing all the advantages offered by a wealthy and well-connected family, Valée (who received his master's degree three years earlier than Villon) had quickly advanced through the various stages of a successful law career and, by 1455, secured a prestigious appointment as a public prosecutor in the Châtelet. To this man—whom Villon facetiously identifies as a povre clergon (poor little clerk)—possessing an ample income from his profession, family sources, and various properties, the poet leaves, among other gifts, his underwear:

J'ordonne principalement
Qu'on luy baille legierement
Mes brayes, estans aux Trumillieres,
Pour coyffrer plus honnestement
S'amaye, Jehanne de Millieres.


I will, as principal bequest,
That he be given without delay
My underpants, now at the Cuisses,
To deck more suitably the head
Of his girl, Jeanne de Millieres.]

The undergarment, allegedly left as security for an unpaid bill in a local tavern, typifies the legacies of the Lais. A variety of personal belongings (frequently an object with obscene overtones)—some real, some imaginary—are bequeathed for purposes that, although undoubtedly apparent to Villon's immediate audience, we can only guess. In the case of the preceding passage, for example, some scholars speculate that Jeanne de Millieres (about whom we know virtually nothing) deserves the gift because she is the one who “wears the pants” (an expression that already existed, in a variant form, in fifteenth-century French) in the couple's relationship.

A second reading of the passage also reveals something about Villon's self-characterization. Whereas the designation of the legatee as a povre clergon, the choice of the brayes as a bequest, and the suggestion that the undergarment should be given to Robert's mistress all clearly belong to the realm of fantasy, the statement that an article of Villon's clothing lies in a tavern in lieu of payment is arguably the aspect of the stanza that comes closest to the truth. The protest of poverty will echo repeatedly in Villon's poetry, especially in the Testament. As M. J. Freeman points out, Villon's self-portrayal in the Testament is primarily based on his financial condition: “Villon defines himself, then, in terms of his poverty. He is, after all, a ‘povre petit escollier’ (Testament, v. 1886) both penniless and humble.”4 Even six years before the Testament, we can see that Villon is already beginning to define himself in the same fashion, depicting himself (in a detail that his contemporaries may have found amusingly accurate) as a man who must occasionally resort to desperate measures to indulge his often costly habits. Underlying the attack on Robert Valée and his mistress, then, we find a discernible note of self-mockery, one that will ring consistently throughout Villon's later poetic production.

A legatee whose financial and social condition more closely resembles Villon's own station is Jacques Raguier, the son of a royal cook:

Et a maistre Jacques Raguier
Laisse l'Abruvouër Popin,
Perches, poussins au blanc menger,
Tousjours le choiz d'un bon loppin,
Le trou de la Pomme de Pin
Cloz et couvert, au feu la plante.


[Also to Master Jacques Raguier,
I leave the Popin water-place,
Perch and pullets with almond sauce,
A tasty something every day,
The tavern called the Pine Cone, too,
Cozy and snug, feet to the fire.]

From a reference in the Testament (1038-45), it is clear that François and Jacques were longtime drinking partners and that the Pomme de Pin, a tavern located on the rue de la Juiverie in the Ile de la Cité, was apparently one of the pair's favorite meeting places. The stanza partially quoted above is particularly rich in sexual innuendos, the subject of numerous commentaries, but the most important feature of the passage may be not its content but its tone.5 The Abruvouër Popin, a watering place for horses on the Right Bank, clearly targets Raguier's apparently well-known thirst, for which the Popin would have provided a most unsatisfactory remedy. Unlike so many of Villon's legacies, however, there is nothing cruel or nefarious in the subsequent gifts the poet bestows upon Raguier—the culinary delicacies and the tavern with its warm fire—or the sexual innuendos implied by alternative readings of the stanza. The image of Jacques Raguier that emerges here is simply that of a man who enjoys the sensual pleasures of life, and Villon freely bequeaths Raguier these pleasures in abundance, without any perceptible trace of accusation or bitterness. The stanza is pervaded by a spirit of playful camaraderie, friendly banter, and the rough jokes of male companionship.


The second category of legatees includes various representatives of municipal authority charged with enforcing the law—police, officers and examiners attached to the Châtelet, and others. To the captain of the night police and his men, Villon makes the following bequest:

Item, au Chevalier du Guet,
Le Hëaulme luy establis;
Et aux pietons qui vont d'aguet
Tastonnans par ces establis,
Je leur laissë ung beau riblis:
La Lanterne a la Pierre au Let.


[Item, to the Knight of the Watch,
To him I allocate the Helm;
As for the foot patrol, with care
Groping among those merchants' stalls,
I leave some nice pickings to them:
The Lantern in Pierre-au-Lait Street.]

In order to understand the implications of Villon's bequest, a little background information on the Parisian night police is essential. The security of the city was ensured by two groups, the guet des bourgeois and the guet royal. The former was comprised of artisans and shopkeepers who formed a kind of citizens' militia. Established merchants, except those granted special exemptions, were required to serve once every three weeks. Each night, a group of 60 of these men was scattered throughout Paris, stationed at certain strategic locations. The permanent guard, the guet royal (known simply as the guet), consisted of 20 mounted officers and 40 on foot, led by the Chevalier du Guet. This group was charged with the dangerous job of policing the dark streets of Paris at night. Although Parisian citizens were theoretically required to be off the streets after the curfew and were forbidden to carry weapons, the guet kept busy breaking up street brawls, pursuing thieves, answering complaints about vandalism and student pranks, arresting prostitutes, and generally attempting to ensure the peace and security of the citizens of Paris under adverse conditions. The darkness of the narrow Parisian streets (in an era long before the advent of public lighting), the wide area the guet had to police, and the relatively modest size of their force (only one-third of which was mounted on horseback) all contributed to the difficulty of the task.

The man serving as Chevalier du Guet at the time Villon wrote the Lais was Jean de Harlay, appointed to the position a year earlier, in 1455. The holder of the position, however, had to possess a title of nobility, and Jean's social standing, and hence his right to the title, were presently a matter of public dispute. Philippe de la Tour, a military leader who had distinguished himself in the Hundred Years' War, had formerly held the position of Chevalier du Guet and insisted that the appointment rightfully belonged to him because he, unlike his rival, could claim to be a bona fide knight. The lawsuit dragged on for 13 years before it was finally resolved in favor of Philippe.

Thus, by offering Jean the Hëaulme, actually a street sign designating the Porte-Baudoyer tavern, Villon not only acknowledges the disputed nature of Jean's claim to nobility but also undercuts his authority by calling into question the legitimacy of his appointment. The attack on Jean de Harlay tells us something about the intended audience of the Lais. The Parisian police were no more in favor with the students of the fifteenth century than they are with Villon's counterparts today. Thus, any verbal assault on such a visible figure of authority as the Chevalier du Guet is likely to have been received with great amusement and appreciation. The stanza in question, which could be interpreted (leniently) as a cruel joke at Jean's expense or (harshly) as a flagrant act of provocation, could not fail to draw the ire of its victim if he ever became aware of its existence. Moreover, since Villon immediately identifies himself in the second verse of the Lais, the attack hardly could be kept anonymous. In fact, had the original manuscript of the poem fallen into the hands of the police captain (or any of several other powerful figures targeted with similar mockery), Villon would likely have sooner or later, directly or indirectly, felt the unpleasant consequences of his indiscreet and indiscriminate attacks. His audacious bouts of verbal aggression may be partly explained by the fact that he wrote the poem just before leaving Paris for the safety of the provinces, where he intended to remain for an undetermined period of time. It is also quite possible, however, given the sensitive and potentially dangerous nature of some of the bequests, that Villon confided the manuscript, and hence the safety of his own person, into the trusted hands of a few close personal acquaintances.

To the piétons (those who patrol on foot), Villon leaves another house sign, a lantern, representing a private house on the street Pierre-au-Lait. Although nothing is known of this particular house, we know that the street in question ran through one of the less reputable neighborhoods in fifteenth-century Paris. Thus the house, or at least the street, with which the lantern is associated could well represent exactly the kind of illicit activity that the guet royal was responsible for suppressing.6

In an age when houses were identified by decorative signs displaying a particular emblem in the form of an animal or object (a horse, a lion, a donkey, a basket, or a lantern), a favorite student prank was to steal these signs and display them in front of different houses or “marry” two signs (a horse and a mule, for example). The nocturnal patrols attempted to prevent this activity whenever possible, of course, but given the guet's insufficient resources, the enormous area that it was forced to cover, and the relative ease with which a sign could be removed, the guet proved ineffective in protecting these property markers, which disappeared and reappeared with irritating frequency. Villon, who enjoys playing his own game with signs (more than 30 appear in the Lais and Testament), is taunting Jean de Harlay and his men with their inability to protect the property of the honest Parisian citizens who employ them.

The theft of signs, it may be argued, represents more than just the antics of mischievous students. Symbolizing the property, wealth, respectability, and authority of the bourgeois and aristocratic residents of Paris, the house signs represented a level of material comfort and social standing—the couche molle (Testament, 204)—unattainable by many of the students and unemployed clerics with whom Villon associated. By removing the signs, relocating them, and combining them with other signs, the young men were, in a symbolic sense, restructuring the society that the signs represented. There was even, it may be further argued, a poetic dimension to the criminal act. By situating a sign in a new context, often in conjunction with another sign, the authors of the act endowed the object with an original and unexpected meaning. In fact, Villon as a poet proves quite adept at displacing signs (both material and semantic), “stealing” a word from a “proper” linguistic register (perhaps a semantic field associated with the legal profession, financial transactions, or religious life) and inserting the word into a context where it takes on a comically obscene connotation. Thus the activity of sign stealing becomes an especially apt metaphor for much of Villon's mischievous poetic pranks.

Perrenet Marchant (an officer attached to the Châtelet and a member of the bodyguard assigned to protect the prévôt, Robert d'Estouteville) is another officer of the law honored by a bequest:

Item, a Perrenet Merchant,
Qu'on dit le Bastard de la Barre,
Pour ce qu'il est ung bon merchant
Luy laisse troys gluyons de feurre
Pour estendre dessus la terre
A faire l'amoureux mestier,
Ou il luy fauldra sa vie quere,
Car il ne scet autre mestier.


[Item, to Perrenet Merchant
Who's called the Bastard de la Barre,
Because he's a good businessman
I leave to him three bales of straw
To be spread out upon the ground
And carry on love's traffic with,
Wherein he'll seek his livelihood,
For it's the only trade he knows.]

The implication of this gift, according to Jean Dufournet, is that Perrenet supplements his modest income as an officer of the law with prostitution, as either a pimp or a gigolo.7 Another possibility, one not mentioned by Dufournet but one that cannot be excluded entirely, is that Villon is using the word mestier in a figurative sense to designate not so much a source of revenue as a way of life.8 Perrenet Marchant, a favorite target of Villon cited three times in the Testament, was apparently a less-than-honorable character who had acquired a reputation as either a womanizer or a pimp and (according to a later reference in the Testament) as a cheating gambler. One can easily imagine the advantages to which such a man could exploit his power as an officer in the Châtelet, connected with a variety of well-placed (and possibly corrupt) officials.

As in many bequests, Villon makes no effort to identify the legatee in terms of his actual profession (although he does add an alias under which Perrenet may also have been known). The activity by which Marchant is identified has nothing to do with his official function as an officer of the Châtelet, but rather with a more intimate aspect of his life. In a pattern repeated throughout the Lais and the Testament, Villon defines many of his legatees in terms of their well-known weaknesses, obsessions, shameful incidents, private failures and humiliations, and illicit activities, all of which are masked by their honorable mestier.

Immediately following his bequest to Marchant, Villon turns his attention to two other individuals, one of whom, Casin Cholet, was also employed as a member of the Châtelet police:

Item, au Loup et a Cholet
Je laisse a la foys ung canart
Prins sur les murs, comme on souloit,
Envers les fossés, sur le tart


[Item, to Loup and to Cholet,
To both at once, I leave a duck
Caught at the walls, as custom was,
Around the moats, when the hour is late.]

One of the favorite activities of this pair (who also resurface in the Testament) was stealing poultry from the outskirts of Paris, but their thefts apparently included firewood, coal, crops, and swine. Le Loup and Cholet preferred, of course, to operate under the cover of night, and the Lais, like the Testament, is in many respects a poem of darkness. The Lais is, after all, written during the season of the winter solstice, the darkest period of the year. There are references to various nocturnal activities (the lantern bequeathed to the foot patrol of the night watch, the sexual escapades of Perrenet Marchant, and the thefts committed by Le Loup and Cholet under cover of night) and to taverns, which were perpetually dark by day or night. Finally, Villon finishes (or at least claims to finish) the poem at night:

J'ouys la cloche de Serbonne,
Qui tousjours a neuf heures sonne
Le salut que l'ange predit.


[I heard the bell of the Sorbonne
Which always sounds at nine o'clock
The greeting that the angel spoke.]

The world of the Lais, with all its colorful inhabitants, truly comes alive during the night.


The majority of bequests go to men with whom Villon had very little—if any—contact, wealthy financiers and merchants, members of parliament, and high-ranking members of the clergy. Generally belonging to an older generation, these well-established men enjoyed power and privileges to which Villon and his acquaintances, humble and largely unemployed clerics, could never aspire. Before the rich and powerful are allowed to enter into the world of the Lais, however, they are forced to undergo radical transformation. Rich men become paupers, old men become children, the powerful become helpless, the corrupt become innocent, the arrogant become humble. Thus, three elderly usurers, Colin Laurens, Girard Gossuin, and Jehan Marceau, who have amassed considerable fortune at the expense of others, are transformed into ragged orphans:

Item, et je lesse, en pitié
A troys petis enffans tous nudz
Nonmés en ce present traictié—
Povres orphelins inpourveuz,
Tous deschaussez, tous despourveuz
Et desnuez comme le ver …
J'ordonne qu'ilz seront pourveuz,
Au moins pour passer cest yver—


[Item, I leave in charity
To three small youngsters, naked all,
Named in this present document—
Poor orphan boys without support,
All of them barefoot, all deprived
And mother-naked, every one …
I will they be provided for,
To live this winter through, at least—]

By the repeated use of antiphrasis, Villon teaches the reader to substitute the opposite meaning of certain relevant signifiers (when alerted by appropriate clues). Thus, the initiated reader, once having made the connection between the three elderly financiers and the troys petis enffans tous nudz, would be well equipped to appreciate the humorous portrayal of the povres orphelins. By insisting on the vulnerability of the “orphans”—tous nudz, inpourveuz, deschaussez, despourveuz, desnuez—Villon comments implicitly on the material comfort of the three men in question. By the end of the sixth verse, having emphatically and repeatedly drawn the reader's attention to the wealth and material possessions of his legatees, Villon now concludes the stanza with an unexpected twist. In a gracious act of charity, he wills that the orphans be provided for long enough to survive the coming winter. A note of truth pierces the carefully constructed fiction at this point, for with each passing year, Laurens, Gossuin, Marceau, despite all the comfort and protection afforded by their excessive wealth, are indeed, at their advanced age, at greater and greater risk of not surviving the winter. The danger, then, to which Villon alludes in the last verse is very real. In effect, the stanza redefines the traditional concepts of poverty and wealth. Villon seems to suggest that a true sense of wealth derives not from affluence and material comfort, but rather from youth, health, and physical well-being. Lacking these attributes, the three men targeted by Villon are truly povres, that is, worthy of pity although they are not financially destitute. The poet himself, on the other hand, although lacking the financial advantages of his legatees, boasts one possession that all of them are wanting, the vigor of a 25-year-old man.

The transformation of the elderly financiers into defenseless orphans, like the displacement of the house signs, restructures the existing world of Paris in 1456 according to the inner logic of the Lais, which is a poetic world of its own, a world whose intelligibility resides in the minds of the poet and his intimate acquaintances. The same process transforms two elderly canons in the cathedral of Notre-Dame, Guillaume Cotin and Thibaut de Vitry (both wealthy members of parliament), into the following:

Deux povres clercs, parlans latin,
Humbles, bien chantans au lectry,
Paisibles enfans, sans estry.


[Two poor clerks, Latin-speaking both,
Humble, good singers in the choir,
Peaceable youngsters, free of strife.]

As canons of the cathedral of Notre-Dame, both men were involved in a long and bitter lawsuit between their church and Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, the church with which Guillaume de Villon was affiliated, and which was subject to the control of Notre-Dame. Deciphering the antiphrasis of Villon's description, we may conclude that he is drawing attention to the advanced age of the canons, their poor knowledge of Latin, their broken voices, their arrogance, and their contentious nature. As a cleric himself, Villon is taking on two very powerful and potentially dangerous adversaries, men capable of doing him even more harm than a civil authority such as Jean de Harlay, the Chevalier du Guet. In the world of the Lais, however, all power is concentrated in the pen of the poet, who playfully reduces his enemies to ludicrous figures, deprived of all authority and dignity. Elderly financiers are forced to masquerade as naked orphans; pompous prelates are forced into the robes of choirboys.


Not all of the recipients of Villon's “charity” are politically and financially empowered. As one would expect in an actual will, the testator turns his attention to the poor and disenfranchised:

Item, je lesse aux hospitaux
Mes chassis tissus d'arignee;
Et aux gisans soubz les estaulz
Chacun sur l'eul une grongniee.


[Item, to the poorhouses I leave
My window frames of spider webs;
To the sleepers under the merchants' stalls
A good punch in the eye for each.]

The poor and helpless—including the blind, the lame, and the mentally handicapped—are frequent targets of derision in medieval literature, appearing as stock characters in the fabliaux of the thirteenth century and later in the farces of the fifteenth century. Thus, although the sensibilities of the modern reader may be offended by the apparently sadistic humor of which these characters are often the victims, it is important to recognize that Villon is working within a well-established comic tradition. Yet even taking into account the literary precedent, we should note that Villon's bequest to the gisans soubz les estaulz (those whom we would call the homeless today, and who still populate the streets of Paris five centuries later) does not end with a quick blow to the face. The second half of the stanza, written in some of the most vehement language to be found in the Lais, is nothing short of a violent curse, as the poet details the suffering that he wishes on these unfortunate creatures:

Trambler a chiere renfrongee,
Megres, velus et morfondus,
Chausses courtes, robe rongnee,
Gelez, murdriz et enfondus.


[To shiver with their faces drawn,
All thin and hairy, with heavy colds,
Trousers too short and gowns all frayed,
Chilled through, in pain, and soaking wet.]

Here Villon goes far beyond the cursory slap in the face, the casually offered blow he has delivered, in keeping with medieval tradition, in the first half of the stanza. The passage illustrates an undercurrent of violence that runs throughout the Lais and will become even more prominent in the Testament. The motivation for these passionate outbreaks is usually transparent, as in the case of the bequest reserved for an anonymous “benefactor”:

Et pour celluy qui fist l'avangarde
Pour faire sur moy griefz exploiz,
De par moy, Saint Anthoine l'arde!


[And that man who began it all
To bring down trouble on my head,
Saint Anthony burn him, in my name!]

With convincing logic, Jean Dufournet identifies the legatee as Jean le Mardi, the companion of Philippe Sermoise who disarmed Villon during his struggle with the priest and in a subsequent deposition presumably implicated Villon to some extent in the incident.9 If Dufournet is right, then the vehemence of the bequest, which brings down the curse of Saint Anthony's fire (probably erysipelas, an acute infectious disease causing particularly painful inflammation of the skin), can be readily understood. On the other hand, the curse delivered to the gisans, who could hardly have posed any threat to Villon, is more difficult to explain, except as an expression of gratuitous cruelty. It is worth noting, however, that despite the sadism that apparently underlies the bequest, the passage reveals a remarkable sensitivity to the plight of the homeless victims. Villon describes their physical condition with an exceptional attention to detail—the trembling of their limbs, their facial expression, their thin bodies and unkempt appearance, symptoms of respiratory infection caused by prolonged exposure to inclement weather, the worn condition of their ill-fitting clothes, and the misery of their condition as they lie huddled, thoroughly soaked, shivering with cold and pain under the merchants' stalls. These men whose gaunt and trembling bodies are depicted with graphic detail are not the familiar puppets that one sees slapped about in the fabliaux and the farces. Whatever else the bequest to the gisans may represent, it acknowledges at least the reality of their suffering. Abandoning his favorite technique of antiphrasis, Villon observes with painful and compelling realism the pitiful state to which these clochards have been reduced. Unlike so many of the caricatures we find throughout the Lais, the gisans are real men whose condition is straightforwardly portrayed without even a hint of verbal deceit. There are, then, rare and almost startling moments of authenticity in which the Paris of 1456 and the world of the Lais are allowed to briefly coincide. The stanza dedicated to the street people of Paris represents, at one level, a testimonial to the poet's sensitivity and power of observation, as well as his capacity for cruelty. These are qualities that will all be developed in the Testament.


  1. In a lengthy commentary on the dating of the Lais, Jean Rychner concludes: “De toute façon il faut abandonner l'image romantique d'une ‘nuit de Noël’ partagée entre la composition solitaire du Lais et le vol du Collège de Navarre …” (Jean Rychner, Les Lais Villons et les poèmes variés, vol. 2 [Geneva: Droz, 1977], 7-9).

  2. See Winthrop H. Rice, The European Ancestry of Villon's Satirical Testaments (New York: Corporate Press, 1941). For examples of actual fifteenth-century wills, see Alexandre Tuetey, Testaments enregistrés au Parlement de Paris sous le règne de Charles VI (Paris: Imprimerie Nationale, 1880).

  3. Jean Dufournet has advanced the hypothesis that Villon's rival may be Ythier Marchant, which would explain the appearance of Marchant immediately after the reference to Villon's mistress. Dufournet, Recherches, 259-74.

  4. M. J. Freeman, “‘Faulte d'argent m'a si fort enchanté: Money and François Villon,” in Romance Studies 24 (1994): 64.

  5. For example, Jean Dufournet, Nouvelles recherches sur Villon (Paris: Champion, 1980), 89-96.

  6. Champion, vol. 1, 128.

  7. Dufournet, Recherches, vol. 1, 281.

  8. It is in this sense that he later uses the word in lines 1501-2 of the Testament: “Mais, quoy que ce soit du laborieux mestier, / Il n'est tresor que de vivre a son aise” [But, however it may be with rustic chores, / No treasure matches living at one's ease].

  9. Dufournet, Nouvelles recherches, 179.

Norris J. Lacy (essay date 1999)

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4866

SOURCE: “In Defense of Villon's Lais,” in The French Review, Vol. 72, No. 6, 1999, pp. 1000-09.

[In this essay, Lacy takes exception to the standard critical practice of devaluing the Lais—seeing it as trivial or as merely an early draft for Le Testament. Lacy suggests that the habit of imagining that the first-person narrator of Villon's poems is Villon himself leads readers to overlook the more serious themes of the light-hearted earlier work.]

François Villon's 1456 Lais is a pleasant, amusing, and poetically inconsequential text. That this statement accurately summarizes prevailing scholarly sentiment is beyond dispute. For example, Barbara Sargent-Baur, in her 1990 book Brothers of Dragons, largely dismissed the Lais as part of Villon's “juvenalia”; she characterized it as “competent and occasionally entertaining” but implied, if I read her correctly, that it possesses little or no enduring literary value (70).

Sargent-Baur is by no means alone in her assessment of the Lais. In 1984, when John Fox wrote for the “Critical Guides to French Texts” series, he entitled his volume Villon's “Poems,” but he quickly made it clear that those poems—at least those that merit discussion—do not include the Lais. He wrote that Villon owes his fame to the “first thousand lines of the Testament, several short passages later in that work, and two ballades from the loosely knit Poésies diverses” (9). He added that the purpose of his volume was to provide a detailed analysis—of those passages. The Lais is absent, except for a couple of perfunctory mentions. Five years later, David A. Fein devoted a book to François Villon and His Reader and announced in his introduction that he was limiting himself to the Testament—but that many of his observations could be applied as well to the Lais (10); the fact that he chose not to make such an application implies that the Lais, for him as well as for most critics, is an appendage or a preamble to the Testament and a dispensable component of the poet's work. Recently, Jane H. M. Taylor has further confirmed these views: although she identifies the Lais as one of Villon's “two major poems,” she nevertheless describes it as “a sketch for [his] major work, the Testament” (840).

By citing such judgments I intend no condemnation of their authors, all of whom are distinguished scholars. I simply wish to call attention to the phenomenon: the Lais is customarily neglected or dismissed,1 praise is rare and, when it can be found at all, perfunctory and faint.2 Examples could easily be multiplied, but their number is less important than the reasons for critical neglect or censure. Foremost among those reasons, as indicated by the citations that open this essay, is the Lais's presumed relationship to the Testament: the earlier text has consistently been considered little more than a lightweight first draft of what Villon, reaching his poetic maturity, would polish into his masterpiece. As a consequence, the Lais has at best been accorded archival status.

But if, as I will argue, it is something quite unlike an early draft, if it is something other than a youthful indiscretion that Villon would later correct, then prevalent critical opinion surely constitutes a miscarriage of evaluative justice. The present essay argues that the Lais deserves far better than it has received and that we must begin to read it as an autonomous creation, with merits and flaws alike definable without reference to another text.

That is not meant to suggest, however, that the Lais is unconnected to the Testament: quite the opposite. Indeed, the poet himself deliberately emphasizes the relationship of the two at virtually every turn. First of all, in the Testament, he makes explicit reference to the earlier text:

Si me souvient bien, Dieu mercis,
Que je feis a mon partement
Certains laiz, l'an cinquante six,
Qu'aucuns, sans mon consentement,
Voulurent nommer Testament.


Villon overtly establishes further links between the two works by populating the Testament with some characters who had first appeared in the Lais. In the example most familiar to most readers, he refers to “mes trois povres orphelins,” that is, to the three notorious usurers he had discussed in the earlier poem (193ff.), and he says that those poor orphans have now grown up (Test., [Le Testament] 1274ff.).

His method here, the explicit appropriation of material from the first poem for use in the second, clearly presupposes that his readers will connect them and bring a knowledge of the Lais to our reading of the Testament, of which it is a subtext. However, a subtext is by no means the same as an avant-texte or a first draft, to be discarded once the “final version”—the Testament—is completed. Nor should we forget that Villon himself appears not to be dismissive of his earlier effort, but only, as the preceding citation indicates, of those who mistitled it and presumably misconstrued its character. To him, obviously, it was not something to be passed over in semi-embarrassed silence.

By reproducing or replicating some of the earlier legacies while renewing their spirit with bitterness and cynicism, Villon invests his later poem with an undeniable degree of high seriousness. Consequently, the effect of the Testament is to no small extent dependent on the knowledge of the Lais that we bring to it.3 If the Lais is playful and lighthearted (or even, as some would contend, lightweight), that fact serves to foreground the greater gravity of the Testament. To put the matter negatively, if Villon had not written the Lais first, we would respond in a substantially different way to its successor: unable to compare it with the lighter spirit of a more youthful narrator, we would be less aware of the seriousness that most commentators attribute to the maturing Villon.

It is indisputably true, therefore, that the Lais can assist us in an exegesis, or at least an appreciation, of the Testament. However, such a defense—that our response to the Testament is guided in part by the Lais—falls far short of demonstrating that the earlier composition possesses any intrinsic merit. We must look further, reexamining the text without the critical baggage of received ideas; we will then find not only that the poem is fundamentally unlike its successor but also that it merits our attention and rewards our reading. My effort to demonstrate those facts will take three forms: a consideration of Villon's dual personas, brief suggestions bearing on the structural and thematic integrity of the Lais, and a coda concerning the question of the text's seriousness.4

If the Lais and the Testament have a great deal in common, they also differ in important ways, in terms not only of construction—only the middle section of the Lais, presenting the bequests, has its counterpart in the later poem—but especially of poetic expression. In regard to the latter, the two texts work in dramatically dissimilar fashion, and the crucial distinction turns on the poetic personas behind the texts. Our essential first step is to move beyond the biographical approach—or what we might, facetiously but not inaccurately, call the “povre petit escollier” school of Villon criticism (from Test., 1886)—and to acknowledge that in both poems, the Testament no less than the Lais, the first-person narrator is neither a fifteenth-century student nor a criminal, but a fictional construction.5

That the dramatization of a first-person narrator inevitably entails the creation of a persona is a notion that is so self-evident and by now so traditional as to be merely trivial—except, I would suggest, in Villon studies.6 Both casual and some scholarly readers of Villon (and especially of the Testament) seem to have found the use of the first-person pronoun seductive, even irresistible,7 despite the poet's multiple levels of irony, the direct contradictions, and the fragmentation of the poetic voice. Perhaps the notion of a created persona risks impoverishing the poems for a good many readers; certainly it frustrates those who want to see the Villon of the Testament as a poète engagé, staring death in the face and reacting with a mixture of rebellion and existential angst. The assumption appears to be that, at best, Villon may be joking in the Lais and consequently presenting a mask to us, but in the Testament he has elected to express his most sincere and personal sentiments in his own unmediated voice.8

However, literary creation, by definition, involves mediation—it is mediation—and we must begin by recognizing the distinction between poetic voice and the poet's voice. Oversimplifying to a degree, we can characterize the persona of the Testament, though not necessarily the poet, as an aging and embittered man facing death and composing his will. The poem is in fact the mock testament of a literary character who dies a mock death. That these may not be the experiences of the historical Villon—who may not have been ailing and who, in his thirties, was certainly not old (see below, n. 8)—should not diminish their appeal. Indeed, the text achieves remarkable power in its evocation of age, infirmity, and impending death, but it depicts the experiences of its narrator/persona, not of its author.

Villon's persona in the Lais is entirely unlike that of the Testament, and that single fact goes far in explaining the radically dissimilar character of the two texts. The Lais depicts a trickster persona, the protagonist of a mock testament in which the emphasis remains resolutely on the mockery and the jocularity. The narrator/persona makes no effort to portray angst (except as ironic pretense) but instead has a great deal of fun at the expense of his contemporaries, of the notions of love and scholasticism—and I will return to the relationship of those two—and of his own literary form.

In addition, the personas of the two poems differ in another fundamental way. Whereas Villon, in the Testament, will systematically fragment the persona and split the first-person voice into two or more,9 he largely maintains the integrity of his persona in the earlier poem, which is thus characterized by a relative consistency of voice. It is unarguably a less complex persona than that of the Testament, but it can prove equally effective in giving textual form to the poet's voice.

As it is a trickster's voice we hear in the Lais, it follows that the poet rejects gravity (though not mock gravity) in favor of levity. In fact, it is not entirely inaccurate to suggest that the Lais is a large, very successful, and often malicious joke, and if that alone makes us admire it less than the “serious” Testament, then we may be displaying a traditional prejudice against the ludic spirit and in favor of artistic sobriety.10

A joke it may be, but Villon has given careful attention to both its construction and its expression, which are in fact inseparable elements of his creation. A proper appreciation of the poem requires attention to both—to the poem's thematic and architectural balance and to the wit and linguistic inventiveness with which Villon realizes his design. That wit is undoubtedly most in evidence in the least understood part of the poem: the late section known as Villon's entr'oubli (273-320), in which he momentarily loses contact with reality and his own literary project.

Having completed the comical or ironic bequests that take up the center of the poem,11 Villon returns to pseudo-autobiographical matters. He depicts himself in his cold room, unable to continue writing because his candle has gone out and his ink has frozen. (That he manages somehow to write with frozen ink, in order to explain that his ink has frozen and left him unable to write, can only be part of his joke, though a part overlooked by many readers.) Then he launches into a burlesque scholastic analysis of his sentiments and experiences.

Commentators have traditionally been perplexed by this section of the poem, puzzled about what they should or could make of the digression on scholastic philosophy and mental faculties—reasoning, judgment, imagination, will, and the like.12 Most critics have described this final division of the poem simply as a mockery of scholasticism, and it surely is that. But it is also much more: it is indisputably an erotic (or rather, autoerotic) joke as well,13 a fact that must be recognized if we are to understand the function of this sequence in the architectonics of the poem.

Once we recall that both extinguished candles and depleted or frozen ink were traditional orgasmic references (Kuhn 120), the passage should fall easily enough into place. The section, evoking scholastic categories, is far more complex and detailed than a brief discussion can indicate. For present purposes, though, it will suffice to note that imagination (says the poet) awakens all his organs and holds la souveraine partie in suspense. The “sovereign part” has traditionally been taken as a scholastic reference to the rational faculty, but in Villon's system of erotic metaphors, it can only designate a far less abstract “part.” The narrator is describing the process by which his imagination leads to sexual excitement, which he himself dissipates, extinguishing, as it were, his heat and light.14 Eventually, his mental faculties begin to sort themselves out again, and he would be ready to resume writing were his candle not out and his ink not frozen.15

The primary purpose of these observations is less to rehearse yet again the autoeroticism of the ending—I cannot improve on Kuhn's analysis—than to point out its contribution to the structure and unity of the poem. Specifically, the “scholastic” passage is the logical conclusion and completion of the poem's initial sequence.

When the poet opens the Lais in the form of a traditional congé d'amour, a lover's leave-taking from his beloved, he complains that his love for his lady is unrequited. His laments are couched in elaborate courtly and allegorical diction, which includes references to doulx regars et beaux semblans (recalling Le Roman de la Rose in particular), and he calls himself a martyred lover, to be numbered among the saints of love (47).

However, as critics now recognize, his courtly and ostensibly refined expression cleverly incorporates a series of sexual innuendoes. Rebuffed, he announces that he is leaving his lady and Paris and going to Angers. A literal, biographical reading of these passages, such as was long customary, can be accomplished only if the reader ignores the extensive sexual imagery. Villon has indicated, for example, his determination to find a different field to plow (31), a barely veiled reference to copulation. He then says he sees no solution except to flee, but, as Kuhn points out (109), the verb he uses (fouïr) is a doublet that in Middle French refers to both flight and copulation. Further, by apparent association with the verbs ongier and angier, an allusion to sexual climax, “going to Angers” was, in the erotic slang of the time, an attested orgasmic reference (Kuhn 109). Readers attentive to the language of the poem (or at least to textual notes), having seen that he joins in a single word allusions to flight and to sexual activity, will doubtless anticipate that he is leaving one woman only to find another. Indeed, this initial sequence does open a development that will be concluded only at the end of the poem—but it will conclude in decidedly surprising fashion, dispensing with the need for the opposite sex.

Thus, without the specific details of the final sequence and our proper understanding of it, Villon's initial prediction, that, frustrated in love, he will find other sources of satisfaction (“other fields to plow”), would remain unrealized. However, it does not, for his “I am going to Angers” announces the onanistic conclusion of his poem and closes the circle of the text. Villon's sly sexual humor may not appeal to all sensibilities, but his attention to structural detail and symmetry is undeniable.

Should there remain any question about the way we should read this final sequence, it will suffice to consider Villon's customary manipulation of linguistic structures. His technique in the Lais (and in much of the Testament as well) involves a systematic linguistic displacement. On the one hand, he endows the most routine words and phrases with a figurative meaning, usually drawn from contemporary slang and often erotic or obscene in nature; on the other hand, he unfailingly renders in literal fashion those formulations that ordinarily carry a figurative or symbolic meaning. This fundamental interchange of literal and figurative also holds the key to interpreting a good many specific passages.

For example, at the beginning of the Lais, when Villon speaks of Christmas (10), he opts not for the traditional symbolic meaning of the season—life, birth, optimism—but for an interpretation related to the season's physical desolation and to the misery of those whose lives are shaped by unpleasant material realities. It is thus not the saison vivante but conversely, in his words, a morte saison, an association that, strictly speaking, is perfectly logical but that produces something of a shock nonetheless, by juxtaposing Christmas with death rather than with birth.

What this example and others that we might cite reveal about his technique makes it virtually predictable that Villon would associate his sovereign part, aroused by his imagination, not with human reasoning but with genitalia (or, perhaps more accurately, with both). He thus closes the circle of the text, making a clever and malicious off-color joke about the excesses of scholasticism. The congé, though traditionally inspired by a sad or even bitter situation, was often an idealistic event and poetic form—but not for Villon, in whose poetry there is rarely room for idealism. Instead, and almost inevitably, he transforms an affair of the heart into an unembarrassed depiction of the most immediate physical pleasure.

Those who insist, however, that the poem must have a serious point if it is to possess enduring value will not be disappointed. There is such a point, but it has too often been missed, no doubt because we find it difficult to accept a lesson taught through humor. Underlying the eroticism and the jocular spirit of the poem is an implicit but devastating critique of the artifice of language systems. Villon takes direct aim at two such systems (courtly rhetoric at the beginning and scholastic obfuscation at the end) that were venerable and institutionalized, one in letters, the other in the church and school. The two are related by their factitiousness: neither is direct and natural, and, as Villon's treatment demonstrates, neither is clear and unambiguous. In this poem, the courtly section, barely masking erotic references, promises an elaboration that is realized in the scholastic, and equally erotic, conclusion. In the resolution of the suspended opening sequence, both rhetorical systems are deflated, indeed demolished.16

But if the poet has an implicit distrust of language, he cannot easily exempt his own from that distrust. That fact goes far toward explaining the instability of his own linguistic constructions: richly textured and multi-layered, his language readily fragments under scrutiny, revealing ambiguities and equivocations that constantly deflect meaning from the obvious and the expected.

Here, in fact, we see a theme or attitude that clearly anticipates the Testament, where the impermanence of life and fame (cf. “Ou sont les neiges d'antan?”) is echoed by the impermanence of language and poetry themselves. In the later poem, Villon undermines linguistic stability in a number of ways, such as writing a ballade in notoriously flawed Old French (see Lacy, “Flight”); in the Lais he does it by demonstrating the vanity of artificial or institutionalized language. In both he does it, of course, with the puns, the clever or crude plays on words, and the innuendoes that never mean quite what they seem to mean—or else they mean both that and something quite different as well.

Thus, in its commentary on language and on poetic creation, the Lais is no less “serious” than the Testament. And yet, the degree of seriousness, of redeeming social or philosophical value, that we can locate in a poem is at best an unreliable standard for judgment. There is every reason to believe that the poet himself valued his “low” comedy no less than his high seriousness. Moreover, unless we simply discount the impressive creativity of his erotic humor (in which case we surely ought to do the same with Chaucer, Rabelais, and many another author), we must acknowledge both that the Lais presents a coherent thematic organization and a balanced structure and that it is most assuredly not an awkward early draft of the Testament, to be discarded once the “final version” is completed.

It is evident that both of Villon's longer poems continue to suffer under the weight of received critical ideas and resolutely biographical readings, but the Lais suffers doubly, hidden as it is in the shadow of its more illustrious successor. It can certainly not be considered the equal of the Testament in terms of poetic value and appeal—how many poems can?—but it both requires and deserves at least modest rehabilitation. By its function no less than by its title, it is a considerable part of Villon's poetic legacy to us, and it is a legacy that his later composition will acknowledge and extend, even as it eclipses it. In other words, the poet neither ignored nor forgot the Lais, and we should let his example be our guide.


  1. The most dramatic of such assessments—and surely the most decidedly wrong-headed one—is that of Jean Favier, who tells us that Villon wrote a testament in two successive versions, the first one called the Lais, the second known as the Grand Testament (973). It is true that Favier is writing in a literary dictionary, not in a work of Villon scholarship, but that fact itself implies that the views he expresses are scholarly received ideas; and, of course, his repetition of such ideas serves to shape further the impressions of future readers of Villon.

  2. Among the few exceptions to this statement we must count in particular Gert Pinkernell's François Villon, Lais: Versuch einer Gesamtdeutung, a modest and flawed but nonetheless earnest exploration of the Lais and a lonely exception to the lack of critical interest in the poem. To the exceedingly short list must, of course, be added a minor portion of Kuhn's important study; and we should include as well a few articles (e.g., Burger) that, however misguided (see below, n. 5), attempt seriously to explicate a portion of the poem or to relate it to the presumed circumstances of Villon's life.

  3. Ironically, this is true also, though less subtly, for critics who dismiss the earlier poem: their very dismissal of it establishes an implicit contrast with the Testament.

  4. In the process, I cannot provide a thorough analysis of the text, and I will deliberately give short shrift to the central portion of the poem (the actual legacies), though without intending to imply that they are without interest or significance.

  5. Both the Testament and the Lais have been a veritable playground for biographical critics. On the subject of the biographical method, see especially Vitz (16). She characterizes this approach as pessimistic, since it presupposes that we cannot properly understand the poem unless we can “conjure up” the historical Villon, agonizing or riant en pleurs. She further points out that we know so little about the actual Villon that we cannot expect to apprehend his poetry through biographical criticism. Indeed, the very assumption that poetic autobiography might be reliable historical evidence is dangerous: it is the worst of guides both to historical reality and to literary meaning.

  6. This despite the fact that responsible Villon scholars have repeatedly insisted on his poetic project, on his creation of voices that may—or may not—represent the historical author. See, most recently, Hunt 11-12. Such insistence, unfortunately, has not yet shaken traditional ideas about Villon.

  7. In this regard, “favorite” lines from the Testament include “je plains le temps de ma jeunesse” (169), “Hé! Dieu, se j'eusse estudié / Ou temps de ma jeunesse folle” (201-02), “Povre je suis de ma jeunesse” (273), and a handful of others.

  8. It simply happens that Villon, especially in the Testament, creates a more complex and more thoroughly dramatized persona than do most other poets, and by doing so with uncommon skill, he manages to persuade most readers that he is speaking directly and sincerely. The effectiveness of that persona led Ezra Pound to argue that Villon is great precisely because he is without illusions, without imagination, without literary ambition, almost without art (169, 171). That is, Pound implies that Villon is presenting his own world and his own experience directly, without poetic mediation. I would suggest instead that Villon's supreme poetic accomplishment is precisely the crafting of a persona so effective that it convinces Pound—and many others—that it is not a persona. An attitude such as Pound's causes difficulties, however, and they go beyond the theoretical impossibility of abolishing a persona or making the persona coincide precisely with the person. It also requires critics to explain away some textual difficulties in less than satisfactory manner. One is the poet's insistence on his age, when (Test., 171) he says in the past tense that old age overtook him. Yet Villon was by no means old when he wrote that line; he was a little over thirty. Biographical critics might suggest that, given his life and the time in which he lived, he was indeed comparatively old and was reasonably enough drawing up a will; recognition of his literary project would remind us instead that he was writing a mock-testament (a traditional and recognized literary form, after all) and that that form presupposed a reason for it: old age and/or poor health. Once that premise is accepted, everything else in the Testament flows naturally and persuasively from it: the talk of death and the necessity of preparing for it, the pretense of bequeathing his possessions to others, and the dramatization of his own death at the end of the poem.

  9. A proper understanding of the Testament requires a recognition of this “split” persona, which I have treated briefly in my “The Voices of Villon's Testament.

  10. Even today, we do not ordinarily give Academy Awards to comedies; by their nature, they appear less worthy of recognition. They are not “serious” art.

  11. Unfortunately, the design of this article precludes a detailed discussion of the bequests, which are of course the core of the poem. It might be noted, although this is not intended as a defense or justification, that most studies of Villon give short shrift to the actual bequests in either poem, at most picking and choosing a few of them for discussion but, for the Testament, concentrating instead on the lyric pieces inserted into the text.

  12. These passages surely perplex also those readers who expect everything in the Lais to foreshadow something in the Testament.

  13. To the best of my knowledge, Villon's autoeroticism was first suggested in print by Kuhn (see esp. 118-21). Even had he not done so, that element of the Lais ought, I believe, to be self-evident, but for a good many readers, it does not appear to be so. Nor, curiously, do Kuhn's suggestions seem to have influenced readings of the poem to the extent we might expect.

  14. Kuhn sees this section as “une fantaisie érotique” and as a “rêve sexuel,” in which the poet “perd conscience dans une espèce d'orgasme” (120). Presumably he is proceeding delicately—a kind of orgasm?—but his meaning is clear.

  15. Interestingly, this passage implies a parallel between poetic creation and autoeroticism, a fascinating suggestion that Villon does not overtly develop beyond this passage. Through much of his work, though, sexual function (or, more often, disfunction) serves as a metaphor for various kinds of aberrancies—economic, political, moral.

  16. Kuhn emphasized that relationship in regard to the sexual character of the two passages. He also pointed out that both of them use artificial systems of rhetoric, but he draws an odd and perplexing conclusion when he notes that, after showing the futility of amorous rhetoric in the first part, the scholastic jargon “nous fait voir l'espèce de poésie qu'il se propose d'y substituer” (119).

Works Cited

Burger, André. “L'Entroubli de Villon.” Romania 79 (1958): 485-95.

Favier, Jean. Dictionnaire de la France médiévale. Paris: Fayard, 1993.

Fein, David. François Villon and His Reader. Birmingham, AL: Summa Publications, 1989.

Fox, John. Villon: Poems. London: Grant and Cutler, 1984.

Hunt, Tony. Villon's Last Will: Language and Authority in the “Testament.” Oxford: Clarendon, 1996.

Kuhn, David. La Poétique de François Villon. Paris: Colin, 1967. (More recently republished with author's name given as David Mus.)

Lacy, Norris J. “Villon's Trilogy of Ballades.” Romance Notes 23.3 (1982): 353-58.

—. “The Voices of Villon's Testament.Dalhousie French Studies 4 (1982): 3-12.

Pinkernell, Gert. François Villon, Lais: Versuch einer Gesamtdeutung. Heidelberg: Winter, 1979.

Pound, Ezra. The Spirit of Romance. New York: New Directions, n.d. 169, 171. (The essay on Villon dates from 1910.)

Sargent-Baur, Barbara. Brothers of Dragons: “Job Dolens” and François Villon. New York: Garland, 1990.

Taylor, Jane. “François Villon.” The New Oxford Companion to Literature in French. Ed. Peter France. Oxford: Clarendon, 1995.

Villon, François. Œuvres. Ed. Auguste Longnon and Lucien Foulet. Paris: Champion, 1976.

Vitz, Evelyn Birge. The Crossroad of Intentions. The Hague: Mouton, 1974.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 274


Anacker, Robert. François Villon. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1968, 117 p.

Presents a short biography of Villon and a history of his era before offering interpretations of Villon's major works.

Fein, David A. “The Conclusion of Villon's Testament: An Image in the Shroud?” Fifteenth-Century Studies 5 (1982): 61-66.

Argues that Villon reconciles the vulgar and the religious at the conclusion of his poem, focusing on his use of Christian themes and images.

———. “Joined Hearts and Severed Tongues: An Illustration of Antithetical Juxtaposition in Villon's Testament.Philological Quarterly 66, No. 3 (1987): 315-24.

Contrasts the “Ballade des langues envieuses” with the “Ballade pour Robert d'Estoutville,” arguing that the second ballad is a commentary on the first.

———. “The Povre Villon and Other Martyred Lovers of the Testament.Neophilologus 64, No. 3 (1980): 347-57.

Examines the martyrdom of Villon, suggesting that Villon's poem ends not in noble tragedy but in both desperation and defiance.

———. “Time and Timelessness in Villon's Testament.Neophilologus 71, No. 3 (1987): 470-73.

Notes that although the poem often laments the passage of time, in its spiritual outlook it allows both reader and narrator to transcend time.

———. “An Unexplained Acrostic in Villon's Testament.Fifteenth-Century Studies 6 (1983): 115-19.

Studies the acrostic spelling “Villon” in his “Ballade pour prier Nostre Dame,” suggesting it may offer a statement of Villon's faith.

Lacy, Norris J. “Villon in His Work: the Testament and the Problem of Personal Poetry.” L'Esprit Créateur 18, No. 1 (1978): 60-69.

Discusses the scholarly tendency to focus on the person of Villon rather than his persona, with comparisons to Christine de Pisan.

Additional coverage of Villon's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 208; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 13.

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Villon, François (Poetry Criticism)

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