François Villon 1431–1463?
(Born François de Montcorbier alias des Loges) French poet.
Villon is considered one of the most significant French poets of the Middle Ages. His best known works, Les Lais (also called Le Petit Testament or The Small Testament) and Le Testament (also Grand Testament or The Large Testament) have been held up as exemplars of the popular Medieval verse form, the testament, which parodies the traditional legal will. The personal nature of his subject matter—especially his vivid descriptions of his life as a thief and vagabond on the streets of Paris—is deemed atypical for his time, and he is credited with imbuing the poetry of his age with vitality and realism.
Born in France in 1431, Villon's real name was probably François de Montcorbier (after the village on the borders of Burgundy where his father was born) or des Loges (perhaps the name of his father's farm). Of his parents we know only that his father died while Villon was young, and that his mother was poor and illiterate. Villon was raised by Guillaume de Villon, a priest who was probably the poet's uncle. Under his patronage, Villon attended the University of Paris where he received both a Bachelor of Arts and later a Master of Arts. As a student he was often involved in thievery and mischief. In 1455, at the age 24, Villon killed a man, after which he fled Paris. As the murder was apparently a matter of self-defense, Villon received a pardon and returned to Paris six months later. On Christmas Eve, 1456, he participated in a robbery at the Collège de Navarre and fled Paris once again, this time for five years. Before leaving the city, he composed his first major poem, Les Lais. While wandering in exile in the provinces of France, Villon found a temporary patron in Charles, Duke of Orleans, who was himself a poet. According to Villon's poetry, he spent some time in the Duke of Orleans's prisons sentenced to death, but was pardoned in celebration of the birth of the Duke's daughter. During the summer of 1461 Villon suffered a particularly cruel imprisonment in Meung-sur-Loire under the order of the Bishop of Orleans, where he was apparently tortured and fed only bread and water. Upon his release in the fall of that year, the poet returned to Paris where he composed his major work, Le Testament, which expresses his bitterness toward the Bishop for this incarceration. In 1462, Villon was arrested under suspicion of committing another robbery, but was released due to lack of evidence. Shortly thereafter he was involved in a street brawl and, given his history of trouble with the law, was sentenced to death. While awaiting his sentence, Villon wrote his "Epitaphe Villon," also called "The Ballade des Pendus."
The poet appealed his death sentence and on January 5, 1463 the court commuted his sentence to ten years banishment from Paris. No authentic mention was made of Villon again.
Villon is known almost exclusively for his two testaments, Les Lais and Le Testament, the ballades which they contain, and for his epitaph. While his themes and forms were traditionally Medieval, his infusion of humor, pathos, and humanity into his verse was decidedly modern. His first testament, Les Lais, is said to genuinely evoke the atmosphere of Paris and the lives of common people during the Middle Ages. In this piece, Villon claims to be leaving Paris due to a troubled romance and he jokingly bequeaths mostly ridiculous items to his friends and enemies—a stolen duck, the sword and the breeches he has pawned, his broken heart. This work is noted by scholars for its clever wit and lighthearted tone. The larger Testament of 1461 is very different in sentiment and character from the first; this work is more serious and reflective. Villon reviews his life, his mistakes and disappointments, and the effect of his frequent imprisonments: sickness and poverty. Unlike traditional poetry of the day which was concerned with chivalry, mythology, and the lives of kings, Villon's work focuses on his own life, exploring a wide range of human emotions. Ezra Pound commented that in his poetry Villon "unconsciously proclaims man's divine right to be himself." Included within Le Testament are a number of ballades, which is a popular French verse form (not to be confused with the ballad) that follows a prescribed rhyme scheme and structure, with three stanzas and an envoi (a shorter closing stanza). Ballades such as "The Lament of La belle Heaulmière," and "Ballade of the Dead Ladies," are thought by some to best exemplify Villon's poetic genius. As another example of the intimacy and unflinching honesty of his work, "Villon's Epitaph," or "Ballade des Pendus," written under sentence of death, is a detailed and painful vision of himself dangling from the gallows among other hanged criminals.
Villon's work was much disseminated and appreciated during his lifetime. The earliest edition of his work bearing a date appeared in 1489, with as many as twenty-seven editions appearing by 1542. From early on, critics have remarked less on the structure and composition of the poetry and more on the content, particularly the vivid descriptions of the medieval streets of Paris. Interest in Villon's work almost completely dissipated after the sixteenth century but was revived in the nineteenth as French and English scholars rediscovered Villon. In 1877, August Lognon's study Etude biographique sur François Villon revealed new biographical details of the poet's life and helped decipher obscure references in his work. Some critics, such as Robert Louis Stevenson in the Cornhill Magazine in 1877, criticized the poet as an insincere cad and a troublemaker whose poetic skills were not sufficient to redeem his work. Most critics agree that Villon's use of personal subject matter, informal language, and sharp wit made him a truly innovative poet. John Payne wrote of Villon in 1880: "The true son of his time, he rejected at once and for ever, with the unerring judgement of the literary reformer, the quaint formalities of speech, the rhetorical exaggerations and limitations of expressions … that dwarfed the thought and deformed the limbs of the verse of his day."