The French poet François Villon (1431-c. 1463), the greatest writer of 15th-century France, was the first creative, modern French lyric poet. His work is remarkable for its rare inspiration and sincerity.
François Villon, whose real name was François de Montcorbier or François des Loges, was born in 1431, the year Joan of Arc was burned at Rouen. English soldiers still occupied Paris. It was an era of social troubles and manifold evils, partly accounting for the vast output of mediocre literature aimed at general edification and filled with lugubrious didacticism. One mystery play popular in France at the time contains 60, 000 lines, but the two literary highlights of the period are short: the Pathelin, a farce of some 2, 000 lines, and the poems of Villon, which total about 3, 000 lines.
François was born into a poor family. His mother was pious but illiterate; his father died when François was very young. The child's lot would have been miserable had not Master Guillaume de Villon, the canon of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné, taken him to raise. He attended to François's early education, and the child affectionately referred to him as "more than a father." Later the poet adopted his name and rendered it imperishable. From this time on, most information about Villon derives from documents of the University of Paris, the prefecture of police, and his own poems.
In March 1449 Villon was received as a bachelor of arts at the Sorbonne, after which occurred his first involvement in civic disorders in the winter 1451/1452. His studies continued, however, and he received the licentiate and the degree of master of arts later in 1452. In short, Villon was a well-educated man, and incidental allusions in his works show considerable knowledge.
In June 1455 Villon killed Philip Chermoye, a priest, in a brawl, and he immediately fled from Paris. But the murder was well provoked, and in January 1456 Villon was granted two official releases, one in the name of François de Montcorbier, master of arts, and the other in the name of Master François des Loges, also known as Villon, an indication that Villon was then known by all three names. Perhaps Villon's status as a man of learning or perhaps the later intervention of Charles d'Orléans influenced judicial leniency. Later in the year Villon completed his Lais.
About Christmas, 1446, Villon participated in a burglary at the College of Navarre. He fled to Angers, and then he wandered for more than 4 years. During this period he probably sojourned at the court of Charles d'Orléans, himself a first-class poet, and was in jail twice. At Orléans he escaped a death sentence by pardon; and at Meung-sur-Loire, where he was imprisoned by Thibault d'Aussigny, Bishop of Orléans, he was released, according to a merciful custom, by the passage of King Louis XI through the town in October 1461.
Villon's intense experiences inspired the Grand testament, which he completed in 1461. In 1462 he was confronted with the affair of the College of Navarre; he was imprisoned at the Châtelet but released on a bond of restitution for his share in the theft. Involved in a fight in which François Ferrebourg was wounded, Villon was sentenced to be hanged. He appealed the decision, and Parliament by an edict on Jan. 5, 1463, annulled the sentence and reduced his penalty to a 10-year exile from Paris. After that date nothing is known of him.
The grim series of crises that make up most of the biographical facts that scholars can piece together about this artist-outlaw have been discussed time and again. Some see in him an innocent victim of unhealthy company, and others represent him as a sad example of genuine criminality. Yet an exquisitely delicate sensitivity like Villon's, in the face of rebuffs and frequent humiliations, could easily take refuge in taverns and in the society of pickpockets and prostitutes. Also, the extreme imbalance in the distribution of wealth at that time could well have contributed to the instincts of revolt in a bright and passionate young man with empty pockets.
Modern as his esthetic appeal is, Villon is intensely medieval. His poetic forms are standard fixed medieval patterns, his learning and subject matter belong to his century, and his personal devotion is that of the whole medieval period. In spite of his satire and grotesque humor, he is not gay. Villon stands apart in that he is one of the few major poets before the 18th century who did not enjoy, or endure, patronage. His poetry is totally personal; with never a thought of his public, or indeed any public, he speaks only for himself.
The Lais (Legacy), often called the Petit testament, consists of 320 octosyllabic lines evenly divided into 40 stanzas of 8 lines each. In the first line Villon gives the date of composition (1456), and in the second, following a medieval custom, he identifies himself as the author. Like his other works, this poem is highly personal and furnishes some clues to his associates and whereabouts. About to flee to Angers at the time of its composition, the poet bequeaths what he has to those who remain in Paris. To his foster father he leaves his fame; to the cruel and disdainful Catherine de Vaucelles he leaves his heart; and to various others at all levels of society he leaves abstractions and trivialities, the legatees forming a sort of cortege of 15th-century society. Passages of the poem are variously realistic, satirical, lyrical, cruel, and farcical. Throughout the Lais the sublime and the grotesque stand in juxtaposition, a literary technique revived during the romantic period.
Although written only 5 years later, the Grand testament is vastly more mature than the Lais. Here the central theme of the will serves only as mere framework, for intermixed in the text of more than 2, 000 lines are 16 ballades, 2 rondeaux, a song, and a regret. With striking clarity many more persons pass in review than in the Lais; persons of all types appear, beginning with the harsh bishop of Orléans. Certain themes recur throughout: a feeling of bitterness derived from his sufferings and from his disappointments in love; regrets about what Villon thought in his periods of remorse was a wasted life; and ever-returning preoccupations with death, near or remote. But even his melancholy passages and despairing accents are interrupted by pleasantries and clowning touches, which by contrast make them even more stark.
Most of Villon's best poems are inserted in the Grand testament. The "Regrets of the Belle Heaulmiére" is a bleak reflection on the ravages of time: a celebrated beauty's polished forehead, blond hair, arched eyebrows, and pretty glance are turned by the years into a wrinkled brow, gray hair, fallen eyebrows, and dead eyes to form a grim piece of naturalism in keeping with the macabre mirrors so dear to the 15th century. The best-known of Villon's poems is the "Ballade of the Ladies of Yester-year"; in this poem three groups of great ladies appear: first a group from antiquity, then cruel celebrities of the past, and finally true heroines. But where are they now? Where are the snows of yesteryear? A parallel ballade on great men of the past asks: where is the mighty Charlemagne? Another celebrated poem is the one that Villon wrote at the request of his mother to contain her prayer to Our Lady. It is one of the finest flowers, and perhaps the last, of medieval religious poetry. Villon frequently calls upon the Virgin, his only refuge, and he often repents his sins, but his repentance is always without any effort of substantiation.
Villon's early poem about a schoolboy escapade is lost; there remain only 17 poems not included in the Grand testament. In this group is his "Epitaph, " a ballade in which he pictures himself and a few companions as hanged. He asks his human brothers who survive not to laugh at the bodies they see hanging from the gibbets but to pray for them. The decomposition of the corpses is depicted in ghastly naturalistic detail. It is generally supposed that this ballade was written in 1463 after Villon had been condemned to hang. With its accent of despair and its rare quality of human sympathy, this ballade is perhaps the finest lyric poem in medieval French literature.
Perhaps the best version of Villon's writings in English is the excellent prose translation by Geoffroy Atkinson, The Works of François Villon (1930). Major studies of Villon are in French. The most comprehensive book in English is D. B. Wyndham Lewis, François Villon (1928). Also useful is Cecily Mackworth's brief study, François Villon (1947).