François Villon was a French poet, thief, and vagabond. He is perhaps best known for his Testaments and his Ballade des Pendus, written while in prison. The question “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?”, taken from the Ballade des dames du temps jadis and translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”, is one of the most famous lines of translated secular poetry in the English-speaking world.
Villon’s real surname has been a matter of dispute; he has been called François de Montcorbier and François Des Loges and other names, though in literature Villon is the sole name used. Villon was born in 1431, almost certainly in Paris. The singular poems called Testaments, which form his chief if not his only certain work, are largely autobiographical.
It appears that he was born in poverty and that his father died in his youth, but that his mother was still living when her son was thirty years old. The name “Villon” was stated by the sixteenth-century historian Claude Fauchet to be merely a common noun, signifying “cheat” or “rascal,” but this seems to be a mistake. It is, however, certain that Villon was a person of loose life, and that he continued, throughout his recorded life, a reckless way of living common among the wilder youth of the University of Paris. It is possible that he derived his surname from his uncle, a close friend and benefactor named Guillaume de Villon, chaplain in the collegiate church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bestourne, and a professor of canon law, who took Villon into his house.
Villon became a student in arts, perhaps at about twelve years of age. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1449 and a master’s degree in 1452. Between this year and 1455, nothing is known of his activities. As the author of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article writes, “Attempts have been made, in the usual fashion of conjectural biography, to fill up the gap with what a young graduate of Bohemian tendencies would, could, or might have done, but they are mainly futile.”
On 5 June 1455, the first major recorded incident of his life occurred. In the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met, in the Rue Saint-Jacques, a Breton, Jean le Hardi, a master of arts, who was also with a priest, Philippe Chermoye (or Sermoise or Sermaise). A scuffle broke out, daggers were drawn and Sermaise, who is accused of having threatened and attacked Villon and drawn the first blood, not only received a dagger-thrust in return, but a blow from a stone, which struck him down. He died of his wounds. Villon fled, and was sentenced to banishment – a sentence which was remitted in January 1456 by a pardon from King Charles VII after he received the second of two petitions which made the claim that Sermaise had forgiven Villon before he died.
Two different versions of the formal pardon exist; in one, the culprit is identified as “François des Loges, autrement dit Villon” (“François des Loges, otherwise called Villon”), in the other as “François de Montcorbier.” He is also said to have named himself to the barber-surgeon who dressed his wounds as “Michel Mouton.” The documents of this affair at least confirm the date of his birth, by presenting him as twenty-six years old or thereabouts. As a known murderer Villon could not continue his privileged life as a teacher at the Collège de Navarre or get reputable employment; thus, he was forced to sing in inns to survive.
By the end of 1456, he was again in trouble. In his first brawl, “la femme Isabeau” is only generally named, and it is impossible to say whether she had anything to do with the quarrel. In the second, Catherine de Vaucelles, whom he mentioned several times in his poems, was the declared cause of a scuffle in which Villon was so severely beaten that, to escape ridicule, he fled to Angers, where he had an uncle who was a monk. Before leaving Paris, he composed what is now known as the Petit Testament, Lais, or “Legacy.”
Around Christmas 1456, the chapel of the Collège de Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. The robbery was not discovered until March of the next year, and it was not until May that the police came on the track of a gang of student-robbers, owing to the indiscretion of one of them, Guy Tabarie. A year more passed, when Tabarie, after being arrested, turned king’s evidence and accused the absent Villon of being the ringleader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange similar burglaries there. Villon, for either this or another crime, was sentenced to banishment; he did not attempt to return to Paris. For four years, he was a wanderer. He may have been, as his friends Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux were, a member of a wandering gang of thieves. Villon may have been homosexual. It is certain that he corresponded with Charles, duc d’Orléans at least once (in 1457) and it is likely that he resided for some period at that prince’s court at Château Blois. He had also something to do with another prince of the blood, Jean of Bourbon, and there is evidence that he visited Poitou, Dauphiné, and other places.
The next date for which there are recorded whereabouts for Villon is the summer of 1461; Villon wrote that he spent that summer in the bishop’s prison at Meung-sur-Loire. His crime is not known, but is supposed to have been church-robbing; and his enemy, or at least judge, was Thibault d’Aussigny, who held the see of Orléans. Villon owed his release to a general jail-delivery at the accession of King Louis XI and became a free man again on 2 October 1461.
In 1461, he wrote his most famous work, the Grand Testament. In the autumn of 1462, he was once more living in the cloisters of Saint-Benoît and in November, he was imprisoned for theft in the fortress that stood at what is now Place du Châtelet in Paris. In default of evidence, the old charge of the college of Navarre was revived, and even a royal pardon did not bar the demand for restitution. Bail was accepted; however, Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel. He was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged (“pendu et étranglé”), but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on 5 January 1463.
Villon was a great innovator in terms of the themes of poetry and, through these themes, a great renovator of the forms. He understood perfectly the medieval courtly ideal, but he often chose to write against the grain, reversing the values and celebrating the lowlifes destined for the gallows, falling happily into parody or lewd jokes, and constantly innovating in his diction and vocabulary; a few minor poems make extensive use of Parisian thieves’ slang. Still Villon’s verse is mostly about his own life, a record of poverty, trouble, and trial which was certainly shared by his poems’ intended audience.
In 1461, at the age of thirty, Villon began to compose the works which he named Le grand testament (1461–1462). This “testament” has generally been judged Villon’s greatest work, and there is evidence in the work itself that Villon felt the same.
The 2023 verses of the Grand testament are marked by the immediate prospect of death by hanging and frequently describe other forms of misery and death. It mixes reflections on the passing of time, bitter derision, invective, and religious fervor. This mixed tone of tragic sincerity stands in contrast to the other poets of the time.
In one of these poems “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” (“The Ballad of Yesterday’s Belles”), each stanza and the concluding envoi asks after the fate of various celebrated women, including Héloise and Joan of Arc, and ends with the same semi-ironic question:
Dictes moy ou n’en quel pays
Est Flora le belle Romaine
Archipiades, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo parlant quant bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sus estan,
Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu’humaine.
Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?”
Tell me where, in which country
Is Flora, the beautiful Roman;
Archipiada (Alcibiades?), and Thaïs
Who was her cousin;
Echo, speaking when one makes noise
Over river or on pond,
Who had a beauty too much more than human?
Oh, where are the snows of yesteryear!
This same “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” was famously translated into English in 1870 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as “Ballade of Dead Ladies.” Rossetti translated the refrain as “But where are the snows of yester-year?”
A complete English translation of Villon’s surviving works, with extensive notes, was published by Anthony Bonner in 1960. A translation of “The Legacy” and “The Testament” by the American poet Galway Kinnell appeared in 1965 and was revised in 1977. A particularly lively translation into English of selected poems was made by Stephen Rodefer in 1968, under the pen name Jean Calais. Translations of three other poems by Villon, plus translations of two into rhyming cant by William Ernest Henley can be read on Anthony Weir’s “Beyond-the-Pale” website .
Villon, nearly unknown in his own time and published by Antoine Vérard, was rediscovered in the 16th century when his works were published by Clément Marot.
The most commonly featured motifs that can be found in Villon’s poetry are “carpe diem”, “ubi sunt”, “memento mori” and “danse macabre”.
In 1960, the Greek artist “Nonda” dedicated an entire one man art show to François Villon with the support of André Malraux. This took place under the arches of the Pont Neuf and was dominated by a gigantic ten-meter canvas entitled Hommage à Villon depicting the poet at a banquet table with his concubines.
See also Ezra Pound’s musical setting of Villon’s Le Testament as a work of literary criticism concerning the relationship of words and music (in next category below, under Depictions).
As is typical of much contemporary scholarship about medieval authors, some commentators question whether a man by the name of François Villon actually existed. Jean-Claude Mühlethaler introduces his translation of Villon’s works into modern English by questioning whether François Villon was a pseudonym for an educated jurist knowledgeable in contemporary gossip in Paris. Roger Dragonetti makes a similar claim.
Depictions and popular culture
In 1901 the playwright and Irish MP Justin Huntly McCarthy wrote a play, “If I Were King”, imagining a swashbuckling Villon matching wits with Louis XI, climaxing with Villon finding love in Louis’ court and saving Paris from the Duke of Burgundy when Louis makes him Constable of France for a week. Though largely fictitious (there is no evidence Villon and Louis even met), this proved to be a long-running success for the actor Sir George Alexander and a perennial on stage and screen for the next several decades.
Daniela Fischerová wrote a play in Czech that focused on Villon’s trial called “Hodina mezi psem a vlkem”–translated to “Dog and Wolf” but literally translates as “The Hour Between Dog and Wolf.”
If I Were King was filmed as a straight drama twice, as a silent in 1920 with William Farnum as Villon and Fritz Leiber as Louis, and as a talkie in 1938 with Ronald Colman as Francis Villon and Basil Rathbone as Louis. In 1927, John Barrymore also starred as Villon in The Beloved Rogue, directed by Alan Crosland (of The Jazz Singer fame), opposite Conrad Veidt as Louis. Though not officially based on the McCarthy play, it draws on the same fictitious notions of relations between Villon and Louis.
The 1925 operetta The Vagabond King is also based on the McCarthy play, and it too has been filmed twice – in 1930, with Dennis King and Jeanette MacDonald, and in 1956, with Oreste Kirkop and Kathryn Grayson. In the operetta, however, Villon is appointed king for twenty-four hours, and must solve all of Louis XI’s political problems in that amount of time.
Bertolt Brecht’s Baal was written from 1918 to 1919. He based the main character Baal after François Villon. Some of the lyrics Brecht wrote for “Threepenny Opera” are translations or paraphrases of poems by Villon. John Erskine wrote “The Brief Hour of Francois Villon” in 1937, a work of historical fiction. Henry Livings’ The Quick and the Dead Quick (1961), is an unconventional historical drama about François Villon.
A 1960 play by the Czech author Jan Werich called ‘Balada z hadrů’ (Balade from drags) was inspired by Villon’s work and adapted some of his poems as lyrics for a number of songs.
Ezra Pound’s opera Le Testament takes passages from Villon’s Le Testament for its libretto to demonstrate radical changes in the relationship of words and music under Villon’s pen, changes that Pound believed profoundly influenced English poetry. The opera was first composed by the poet in London, 1920–1921, with the help of pianist Agnes Bedford. It underwent many revisions to better notate the rhythmic relationships between words and music. These included a concert version for the Salle Pleyel in Paris in 1926, a rhythmically complicated score edited by George Antheil in 1923, a hybrid version of these earlier scores for broadcast by the BBC in 1931, and a final version fully edited by Pound in 1933. The 1923 Pound/Antheil version was premiered in 1971 by the San Francisco Opera Western Opera Theater, conducted and recorded by Robert Hughes (Fantasy Records), with Phillip Booth in the role of Villon. Portions of this LP have been re-released on Other Minds audio CD “Ego scriptor cantilenae, The music of Ezra Pound.” The opera was first published in March 2008.
In Truman Capote’s novel, In Cold Blood, there is a brief introduction using the first four lines of Villon’s Ballade des Pendus.
In a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, A lodging for the night, Francis Villon (anglicized spelling), searching for shelter on a freezing winter night, knocks randomly at the door of an old nobleman. Invited in, they talk long into the night. Villon openly admits to being a thief and a scoundrel, but argues that the chivalric values upheld by the old man are no better. The story appears in the collection New Arabian Nights (1882).
In Ryūnosuke Akutagawa’s The Life of a Stupid Man, published in 1927 after his suicide, Akutagawa mentions being truly moved by Villon’s work. He writes “He found in that poet’s many works the ‘beautiful male'” and states he feels like he is waiting to be hanged like Villon, unable to keep fighting in life.
In Osamu Dazai’s “Villon’s Wife” a young woman who is married to a dilletante comes to understand his destitute ways when she takes on the duty of paying off his debts. The ne’er-do-well is a womanizing writer who is unsuccessful. The setting is occupation period Japan.
He is a minor character in Tim Powers’ The Stress of Her Regard, having lived into the 19th century through his association with the vampiric Lamia of the novel.
Errol Flynn played Villon in a short TV episode (part of the “Screen Directors’ Playhouse”), entitled “The Sword of Villon,” directed by George Waggner (1956).
Early in the film The Petrified Forest Bette Davis’ character is reading a collection of Villon’s poetry. Later she reads a few lines of “Ballad for a Bridegroom” to Leslie Howard’s character, and in the final scene she again quotes “Ballad for a Bridegroom.”
The Russian bard singer Bulat Okudzhava has a song called “The Prayer of François Villon” (in Russian “Молитва Франсуа Вийона”).
The German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann wrote a ballad over Villon, “Ballade auf den Dichter François Villon” in 1968, available on the “Chauseestrasse 131” LP.
The French singer-songwriter Georges Brassens has a song called “Ballade des dames du temps jadis”, where he puts Villon’s poem into music.
The French singer-songwriter Léo Ferré put Ballade des pendus to music in his album La Violence et l’Ennui (1980).
French black metal band Peste Noire adapted the song into a black metal version entitled “Ballade cuntre les anemis de la France” for their album, “Ballade cuntre lo anemi Francor”.
In the role-playing game, Vampire: the Masquerade, by White Wolf, Inc., Villon is portrayed as the vampire prince of Paris.
Villon’s Inkwell is an Artifact in the Syfy show Warehouse 13. The ink from the inkwell creates a black hole through which items can be passed when it is poured on a solid surface, sort of like a portable hole.
During the television series Downton Abbey’s Christmas Special, the Dowager countess uses the line “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan”, as to refer to a thief, or villon if you may, she met in the late 60’s.
In Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s protagonist Yossarian laments the death of one of his bomber’s flight crew, Snowden, with “Ou sont les Snowdens d’antan” as well as in English. It is, perhaps, the most powerful moment in the novel.
François Villon’s Published Books:
Oeuvres complètes de François Villon