François Villon: Wikis


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François Villon

Stock woodcut image, used to represent François Villon in the 1489 printing of the Grand Testament de Maistre François Villon
Born c. 1431
Died c. 1463
Occupation Poet and vagabond.
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François Villon (in modern French, pronounced [fʁɑ̃swa vijɔ̃]; in fifteenth-century French, [frɑnswɛ viˈlɔn]) (c. 1431 – after 5 January 1463) 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 Encyclopaedia 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. 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, Dauphine, 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. There is no further record of Villon after that date.


A page from Villon's Le grand testament. Kungliga biblioteket in Stockholm, Sweden.

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 1460, 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 ruyt ou maire
Dessus riviè ou sus estan,
Que beaultè ot trop plus qu'humaine.
Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?"

In English,

Tell me from where I could entice
Flora the famous Roman whore,
or Archipiada or Thaïs
who they say was just as fair;
or Echo answering everywhere
across stream and pool and mere,
whose beauty was like none before -
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?"

In a 'faithful translation' of the works of Francois Rabelais by the Bibliophilist Society,

Illustrated by Gustave Dore in "The Second Book Of Rabelais, Treating On The Heroic Deeds And Sayings Of The Good Pantagruel, Chapter XIV. How Panurge Related The Manner How He Escaped Out Of The Hands Of The Turks" Panurge telling that story is asked by one of his hearers about a said jeweled codpiece promised him if he accurately killed, his now grieving bashaw who had him captured and, he said, on spit, but who now wanted to die, because his house and possessions were burnt in a fire, answered his questioners, "And where are they? (the jewels). ""By St. John!" said Panurge, "they are a good way hence, if they always keep going: but where is the last years snow? This is the greatest care that Villon the Parisian poet took..."". Rabelais mentions monsieur Villon several more times throughout his work(s).

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. 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 [1].

Critical views

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. Sculptures, woodcuts and objects related to Villon were also displayed.

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).


In 1901 the playwright and Irish MP Justin H. 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 Francois Villon. John Erskine wrote "The Brief Hour of Francious Villon" in 1937, a work of historical fiction. Henry Livings' The Quick and the Dead Quick (1961), is an unconventional historical drama about Francois Villon.

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 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).

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.

The Russian bard singer Bulat Okudzhava has a song called "The Prayer of Francois Villon" (in Russian "Молитва Франсуа Вийона").

The German singer-songwriter Wolf Biermann wrote a ballad over Villon, "Ballade auf den Dichter Francois 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.

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".


  1. ^ Villon, "Tide and Undertow", poems of various languages translated by Anthony Weir, 1975

Further reading

  • Bonner, Anthony, trans. The Complete Works of François Villon. N.Y.: Bantam, 1960.
  • Burl, Aubreuy, Danse Macabre. London: Sutton Publishing, 2000.
  • Kinnell, Galway, trans. The Poems of François Villon. Rpt. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1982.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

François de Montcorbier or François Des Loges (c. 1431 – after January 5, 1463) was a French thief, murderer and poet, known to history by the name he adopted, François Villon. His intensely personal poems both celebrate and bitterly deplore his own criminal life in the underclass of late-medieval Paris.



English quotations are, unless otherwise stated, taken from the translations by Anthony Bonner: The Complete Works of François Villon (New York: Bantam Books, 1960)

  • Prince, je congnois tout en somme,
    Je congnois coulourez et blesmes,
    Je congnois Mort qui tout consomme,
    Je congnois tout, fors que moy mesmes.
    • Prince, I know all, in short,
      I know pink cheeks from wan,
      I know Death all-devouring,
      I know all, save myself.
    • "Ballade des Menus Propos (Ballade of Small Talk)", line 25. (1458)
  • Freres humains qui après nous vivez,
    N'avez les cuers contre nous endurcis.
    • Brother men who after us live on,
      Harden not your hearts against us.
    • "L'Epitaphe Villon (Villon's Epitaph)", or "Ballade des Pendus (Ballade of the Hanged)", line 1. (1463)

Le Grand Testament (The Great Testament) (1461)

This, Villon's magnum opus, includes a number of shorter poems. The line-numbering used here is continuous through Le Grand Testament.

  • Bien est verté que j'ay amé
    Et ameroie voulentiers;
    Mais triste cuer, ventre affamé
    Qui n'est rassasié au tiers
    M'oste des amoureux sentiers.
    Au fort, quelqu'ung s'en recompence,
    Qui est ramply sur les chantiers!
    Car la dance vient de la pance.
    • It's true that I have loved,
      And gladly would again;
      But sad heart, and famished belly
      Not even partly satisfied
      Force me away from paths of love.
      And so, let someone else take over
      Who has tucked away more food –
      Dancing is for men of nobler girth.
    • Line 193.
  • Mes jours s'en sont allez errant.
    • My days are quickly spent.
    • Alternative translation: My days are gone a-wandering.
    • Line 217.
  • Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan?
    • But where are the snows of bygone years?
    • Alternative translation: But where are the snows of yesteryear?
    • Line 336; "Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis (Ballade of the Ladies of Bygone Times)".
  • "De chiens, d'oyseaulx, d'armes, d'amous,"
    Chascun le dit a la vollee,
    "Pour une joye cent doulours."
    • "In riding to the hounds, in falconry,
      In love or war," as anyone will tell you,
      "For one brief joy a hundred woes."
    • Line 622
  • Folles amours font le gens bestes:
    Salmon en ydolatria,
    Samson en perdit ses lunettes.
    Bien est eureux qui riens n'y a!
    • Foolish love makes beasts of men:
      It once caused Solomon to worship idols,
      And Samson to lose his eyes.
      That man is lucky who has nothing.
    • Line 629; "Double Ballade".
  • En ceste foy je vueil vivre et mourir.
    • In this faith I wish to live and die.
    • Line 882; "Ballade pour Prier Nostre Dame (Ballade as a Prayer to Our Lady)".
  • Deux estions et n’avions qu'ung cuer.
    • We were two, but only had one heart.
    • Alternative translation: We were two and had but one heart between us.
    • Line 986; "Lay".
  • Mais, quoy que soit du laboureux mestier,
    Il n'est tresor que de vivre a son aise.
    • But whatever may be said about the Life of Work,
      There is no treasure quite like living at one's ease.
    • Line 1501; "Ballade: Les Contrediz de Franc Gontier (Ballade: Franc Gontier Refuted)".
  • Prince, aux dames Parisiennes
    De beau parler donnez le pris;
    Quoy qu'on die d'Italiennes,
    Il n'est bon bec que de Paris.
    • Prince, give the prize for chatter
      To Parisian women; whatever
      May be said about Italians,
      There is no tongue like one from Paris.
    • Line 1539; "Ballade des Femmes de Paris (Ballade of the Women of Paris)".
  • Vente, gresle, gelle, j'ay mon pain cuit.
    Ie suis paillart, la paillarde me suit.
    Lequel vault mieulx? Chascun bien s'entresuit.
    L'ung vault l'autre; c'est a mau rat mau chat.
    Ordure amons, ordure nous assuit;
    Nous deffuyons onneur, il nous deffuit,
    En ce bordeau ou tenons nostre estat.
    • Through wind, hail or frost my living's made.
      I am a lecher, and she's a lecher with me.
      Which one of us is better? We're both alike:
      The one as worthy as the other. Bad rat, bad cat.
      We both love filth, and filth pursues us;
      We flee from honor, honor flees from us,
      In this brothel where we ply our trade.
    • Line 1621; "Ballade de la Grosse Margot (Ballade for Fat Margot)".


  • The Large Testament is a hurly-burly of cynical and sentimental reflections about life, jesting legacies to friends and enemies, and, interspersed among these many admirable ballades, both serious and absurd. With so free a design, no thought that occurred to him would need to be dismissed without expression; and he could draw at full length the portrait of his own bedevilled soul, and of the bleak and blackguardly world which was the theatre of his exploits and sufferings. If the reader can conceive something between the slap-dash inconsequence of Byron's Don Juan and the racy humorous gravity and brief noble touches that distinguish the vernacular poems of Burns, he will have formed some idea of Villon's style. To the latter writer – except in the ballades, which are quite his own, and can be paralleled from no other language known to me – he bears a particular resemblance.
  • Villon, our sad bad glad mad brother's name.
  • There has been no greater artist in French verse, as there has been no greater poet; and the main part of the history of poetry in France is the record of a long forgetting of all that Villon found out for himself.
    • Arthur Symons Figures of Several Centuries (London: Constable, 1916) p. 40.

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