Le Lais, wr. 1456, pb. 1489 (The Legacy, 1878; also known as Le Petit Testament, The Little Testament)
Le Grand Testament, wr. 1461, pb. 1489 (The Great Testament, 1878)
Ballades en jargon, 1489 (Poems in Slang, 1878)
Les Œuvres de Françoys Villon, 1533 (Clément Marot, editor)
The Poems of Master François Villon, 1878
Ballads Done into English from the French of François Villon, 1904
The Testaments of François Villon, 1924
The Complete Works of François Villon, 1928
The Poems of François Villon, 1954, 1977, 1982 (includes The Legacy, The Great Testament, and some shorter poems; Galway Kinnell, translator)
Nothing is known of the background and youth of François Villon (vee-yohn) except that he was born in Paris in 1431, of poor parents. His father died early; his mother was still living in 1461. His name was actually François de Montcorbier, but he took the name of his patron (and probable relative) Guillaume de Villon, a priest and professor of canon law in Paris. He was also known in court records as François des Loges. The patron sent young Villon to the University of Paris, at that time one of the greatest in Europe, where he received the degree of bachelor of arts in 1449 and that of master of arts in 1452.
Shortly after finishing his education Villon began a long series of embroilments with the law, incidents that scholars have re-created from documents in the Paris archives. On June 5, 1455, he was involved in a street brawl with one Jehan le Mardi and a priest named Phillippe Chermoye, as a result of which Chermoye died of his wounds. Villon was banished and fled the city, but the sentence was remitted on the basis of self-defense. Back in Paris the next year, he was so badly beaten in another brawl that he planned to go to Angers. Before leaving, however, around Christmas of 1456, he and some disreputable friends robbed the chapel of the College of Navarre. The robbery was discovered in the spring; one of the gang turned king’s evidence, and Villon was again banished from Paris. For four years he wandered about France. In 1457 he was a visitor at the court of Charles, duc d’Orléans, himself one of the great French medieval poets, and he was also sheltered by Jean II of Bourbon. He was unable to keep out of trouble; in 1460 he was sentenced to death in Orléans and was freed only as a result of the general amnesty proclaimed on the state entry of the duke’s infant daughter. The summer of 1461 found him in prison at Meung; again he owed his release to the royal house, for in honor of Louis XI, who was passing through the city, all prisoners were pardoned.
The autumn of 1462 found him back in Paris and again involved in a complicated web of trouble in which the old robbery figured. He was thrown into the Châtelet prison, tortured, and sentenced to be hanged. When he agreed to pay restitution the Parlement de Paris commuted his sentence to ten years of banishment from the city. His movements can be traced in Paris during one further year. After that, like the troubadours of his time, he may have lived until his death in a monastery. Rabelais stated that he found refuge in London, but there is no evidence for this claim.
Villon’s poetry, which is highly personal, lends itself to biographical interpretation. His Testaments are long, rambling poems in eight-line stanzas interspersed with ballades and lais. By using the form of a “testament” ironically, he was able to include many people with whom he had dealings, bequeathing to each some appropriate memento, paying off old scores, and expressing gratitude. The value of the poems to later readers lies in the unrivaled picture of France at the close of the Middle Ages. It is possible to visualize the swarming city of Paris, the church where his mother went to pray, the taverns, the brothel where he lived with Fat Margot–for Villon had seen all aspects of contemporary life, from the court of Charles d’Orléans to the prison of Le Châtelet. He was the first great poet of the city, the first to make art from the harsh physical realities and from his unsentimental vision of medieval urban life.
There is also the revelation of his fascinating personality, that of a man who could jest about the gallows he had, more than once, narrowly escaped and the next moment write the ballade of his mother praying. Though Villon made the conventional gesture of blaming his ill-luck on Fortune, he clearly knew that his troubles were of his own making, that he was hopelessly enmeshed in vice, that the gibbet was perilously close. The only consolation he could draw was from the favorite theme of the fifteenth century, death–“the Dance of Death,” Death the Leveller–which comes to high and low alike. Ignored during the neoclassic seventeenth century, Villon’s poetry was revived by the Romanticists as part of the renewed interest in medieval literature. It appealed particularly to writers who enjoyed glimpses of the turbulent century that had produced such contrasts as Jeanne d’Arc and François Villon.