On a bitterly cold winter’s night in 1456, Francis Villon, the greatest poet of medieval France, is huddled in a small house by the cemetery of St. John, trying to write “The Ballade of Roast Fish” while Guy Tabary slobbers over his shoulder, Regnier de Montigny and Thevenin Pensete play a game of chance, and the renegade monk Dom Nicolas watches. All of them are thieves, among whom there is no honor. Hearing the wind rattling the rafters, Villon reminds the others of hanged men dangling on the gibbet at nearby Montfaucon. Despite this memento mori, Montigny leaps up and stabs Thevenin to death after losing to him. The thieves divide the dead man’s money, but then the others steal Villon’s purse before they all flee into the night.
The snow has ceased, and Villon fears that his footprints will lead the authorities to him. Trying to elude a patrol, he takes refuge on the porch of a ruined house, where he finds the body of a woman frozen to death and steals two small coins from her stocking. Then, discovering his purse to be missing, he wanders in search of it, to no avail. Fearing that he, too, will freeze before morning, he seeks shelter from his adopted father, the chaplain of St. Benoit, but is turned away. Wandering once more, he recalls that wolves devoured a woman and child nearby. When he begs shelter from former friends whom he has lampooned, they drench him with a slop bucket, and his legs begin to freeze.
In desperation, he knocks at the door of a strange house in which he sees a light. The door opens, and an elderly gentleman invites him in. While his host goes for food and drink, Villon surveys the riches of the apartment and considers stealing the golden plate but thinks better of it. When his host returns, they strike up a conversation, and Villon learns that the master of the house is Enguerrand de la Feuillee, a great lord and a veteran of the king’s wars. Villon confesses himself a poet and thief. They engage in a dialogue over the nature of honor, Villon claiming that the soldier is a greater thief than himself and that their different status is merely a matter of birth, the lord maintaining the traditional view of honor. When the host condemns Villon’s rascality, the poet defends himself by claiming that he, too, has honor, which has kept him from stabbing Enguerrand and robbing him. By then, morning has broken, and the enraged host orders his unwanted guest to leave.