Authors: François Villon

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

French poet

Author Works


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.{$I[AN]9810000374}{$I[A]Villon, François}{$S[A]Montcorbier, François;Villon, François}{$I[geo]FRANCE;Villon, François}{$I[tim]1431;Villon, François}

François Villon

(Library of Congress)

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.

BibliographyAnacker, Robert. François Villon. New York: Twayne, 1968. As Anacker’s bibliography indicates, this was the first book-length study of Villon’s poetry in English since 1928. Writing for the general reader, Anacker limits the scholarly apparatus to a dozen notes and references but gives an overview of Villon’s world before analyzing The Legacy/The Guest Testament and miscellaneous poems, ending with an assessment of Villon’s poetic achievement.Brereton, Geoffrey. “François Villon.” In An Introduction to the French Poets: Villon to the Present Day. 2d ed. London: Methuen, 1973. Brereton balances his commentary between Villon the poet and Villon’s poetry, giving a general assessment of Villon’s poetic technique and personality as it is reflected in the poetry.Burl, Aubrey. Danse Macabre: François Villon, Poetry, and Murder in Medieval France. Stroud, Gloucestershire, England: Sutton, 2000. Biography studies Villon within the context of fifteenth century Paris, seeking out the truth behind the poet’s crimes as well as the surpassing depth and beauty of his poetry.Daniel, Robert R. The Poetry of Villon and Baudelaire: Two Worlds, One Human Condition. New York: Peter Lang, 1997. Daniel traces many themes that Villon shared with Charles-Pierre Baudelaire, such as mortality and the danse macabre, or dance of death. The result is an illumination of the poetry of a modern and a medieval poet that highlights Villon’s medieval and modern characteristics.Fein, David A. A Reading of Villon’s Testament. Birmingham, Ala.: Summa Publications, 1984. Fein reads the poetry on three levels: surface value, “that which Villon appears to be saying”; travesty, when Villon praises or blesses his enemies; and symbolic meaning. Quotes extensively from Villon, using Galway Kinnel’s translation of the Longnon-Foulet text.Fox, John. The Poetry of Villon. New York: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1962. Focuses on Villon’s poetry rather than his personality. Fox’s study takes a commonsensical approach to the text by allowing for multiple interpretations of it and looks closely in separate chapters at the sound and rhythm in Villon’s poetry, at the word order and phrasing, and at theme, image, and symbol.Freeman, Michael. François Villon in His Works: The Villain’s Tale. Atlanta: Rodopi, 2000. Arguing that no analysis of Villon is complete without taking into account the Paris in which he lived, this book describes that rough place and also tells how Villon consciously fashioned his own image.Peckham, Robert D. François Villon: A Bibliography. New York: Garland, 1990. This comprehensive text is the starting place for anyone wishing to understand Villon’s poetry, his influence, and his times. Peckham lists all the manuscripts containing Villon’s poetry and translations of it, and he includes the critical texts relating to the poetry, even works inspired by Villon’s poetry, up to 1985.Simpson, Louis, trans. Preface to François Villon’s “The Legacy” and “The Testament.” Ashland, Oreg.: Story Line, 2000. Simpson’s preface provides a useful introduction to Villon’s life and times, and the notes provide commentary on Villon’s language and clarify the many obscure allusions that enrich Villon’s poetry.Taylor, Jane H. M. The Poetry of François Villon: Text and Context. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001. Study highlights the flair and originality of Villon’s poetry, showing how it appealed to his contemporary readers.Villon, François. François Villon’s “The Legacy” and “The Testament.” Translated by Louis Simpson. Ashland, Oreg.: Story Line, 2000. Simpson’s preface provides a useful introduction to Villon’s life and times, and the notes provide commentary on Villon’s language and clarify the many obscure allusions that enrich Villon’s poetry.
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