Article abstract: In his intensely personal, forthright verse, sordidly realistic yet devout, Villon was the greatest poet of medieval France.
Born in Paris in 1431, François Villon was originally named François de Montcorbier et des Loges. Apparently his father died when the child was quite young, for François was sent to live with Guillaume de Villon, a priest who was chaplain to the church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bientourné, near the University of Paris. His protector gave the boy a home and an education; the grateful François adopted his name, Villon, and several times wrote fondly of him in his verse, calling him “more than father . . . who has been to me more tender than a mother and raised me from swaddling-clothes.” Nothing is known of his real father, not even his first name; Villon called himself “of poor and obscure extraction.” His mother, for whom he wrote “Ballade to Our Lady,” he describes at the time as a poor old woman who knew nothing of letters.
Nothing is known of Villon’s boyhood. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake the year he was born, and for the first five years of his life, Paris was in the hands of the English conquerors, while the ineffectual Charles VII nominally ruled the unoccupied part of France. Most of the country had been ravaged by the Hundred Years’ War, and bands of freebooters were plundering whatever of value remained in the countryside or the capital. In 1434, there was the coldest winter in memory, followed in 1436 by a famine, which was succeeded in 1438 by an epidemic of smallpox that claimed some fifty thousand victims. Starving wolves invaded Paris and preyed upon children and the weak. It was a grim, harsh era, and as a child, Villon must have seen violence and famine and been surrounded by death.
When he was about twelve, Villon was enrolled at the University of Paris, from which he was graduated in March, 1449, as a bachelor of arts. He was tonsured and received minor holy orders, affording him some protection from the police—which he needed, as he was involved in student escapades that were typical of the medieval conflict between town and gown, including stealing boundary stones and house signs that were then carried off to the student quarter, which in turn was raided by the police. Despite his peccadilloes, Villon received a master of arts degree in August of 1452.
Despite his education and the opportunities that it might have provided him, Villon fell in with a group of criminals known as “Coquillards” and began a life of crime. Among his cronies, who are featured in his poems, were Colin des Cayeulx, described by the authorities as a thief and picklock, and Regnier de Montigny, a thief, murderer, and church robber. Both of them were hanged, and Villon wrote their epitaphs. Villon also prowled around Paris with Guy Tabarie, Jehan the Wolf, and Casin Cholet, all of them thieves, and spent much time at brothels and taverns such as the Mule and the Pomme de Pin, whose proprietor, Robin Turgis, was often a target of Villon’s humor.
According to a poem of the time entitled “Repues Franches,” thought to be by Friar Baulde de la Mare, Villon and his rascally friends had a genius for conning free fish, meat, bread, and wine from gullible victims. Soon Villon’s picaresque career became more sinister. In the evening of June 5, 1455, the Feast of Corpus Christi, Villon was seated under the clock of Saint-Benoît-le-Bientourné, in company with a priest and a woman named Ysabeau, when another priest, Philip Chermoye, who had apparently been harboring a grudge, started a quarrel with Villon, drew a dagger, and slashed his upper lip. Bleeding copiously, Villon drew his own dagger and stabbed Chermoye in the groin; when Chermoye still attempted to injure him, Villon threw a rock that struck him in the face. After having his wound dressed, Villon fled from the city. Chermoye was taken to the Hôtel-Dieu, where he died after a few days. According to one account, Chermoye on his deathbed confessed that he had started the fight and forgave Villon. Thus Villon’s friends were able to get him a pardon in January of 1456, and he then returned to Paris. There, he fell in love with Katherine de Vausselles, who may have been a kinswoman of a colleague of Guillaume de Villon. At any rate, she teased and tormented Villon and eventually left him for Noël Joliz, who beat him in her presence. Heartsick and purse poor, Villon resolved to leave Paris at the end of 1456 and wrote for the occasion his first important work of poetry, Le Lais (1489; The Legacy, 1878, also known as Le Petit Testament, The Little Testament), in which he bids an ironic farewell to his friends and mockingly bequeaths them his worldly goods.
Before departing, he and four of his Coquillard cronies, probably on Christmas Eve, climbed over the wall into the College of Navarre, broke into the sacristy, and stole five hundred gold crowns from the faculty of theology. With his one-fifth share, Villon left the city, going first to Angers and thence wandering for the next four and a half years. In the meantime, Guy Tabarie boasted of the crime, was arrested and tortured, and confessed the details. A wanted man, Villon stayed on the run, going at one time to the court of Blois, where he associated with the courtly poet Charles d’Orléans, to whose daughter Marie he wrote a poetic epistle. Otherwise, except for a few clues that he drops in his verse, his activities are unknown until the summer of 1460, when he was in a dungeon at Orléans under sentence of death, from which he was pardoned during the passage through the city of the Princess Marie. A year later, at Meung-sur-Loire, he was tried at the ecclesiastical court of Thibault d’Aussigny, Bishop of Orléans, who chained him in a dungeon under the moat and inflicted the water torture on him. Villon’s health was broken, but he once more received a pardon when King Louis XI made a royal progress through the town and freed the prisoners.
Hiding near Paris, during the winter of 1461, Villon wrote his major work, aside from some of the ballades, Le Grand Testament (1489; The Great Testament, 1878), which follows the form of the earlier The Legacy but has far more depth and texture and which also incorporates a number of ballades, chansons, and rondeaux. Back in Paris itself, he was arrested in November, 1462, for petty theft; before he was released, the authorities made him sign a bond promising to repay the money that was stolen from the College of Navarre. Shortly thereafter, following an evening of revelry, one of Villon’s companions got into a brawl with a papal scribe and wounded the man with a dagger thrust. Though Villon had left at the first sign of trouble, he was identified, arrested as an accomplice, and imprisoned in the Châtelet, where he was tortured and sentenced to the gallows. While awaiting execution, he wrote an ironic “Quatrain” and his great “L’Épitaphe Villon,” otherwise known as “Ballade of the Hanged,” in which he imagines himself and six others rotting on the gibbet and prays to God to absolve them all. Yet once more Villon cheated the gallows. He appealed to Parliament, and since he had not taken part in the fight and the victim had not died, his sentence was annulled and changed to ten years’ exile from Paris. In response, Villon wrote his “Panegyric to the Court of Parliament” requesting three days to prepare for his departure and his sardonic...
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