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François Villon

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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
Stock woodcut image, used to represent François Villon in the 1489 printing of the Grand Testament de Maistre François Villon
Bornc. 1431
Paris, France
Diedafter 1463 (aged 31–32)
OccupationPoet, thief
LanguageMiddle French
Alma materUniversity of Paris
Notable worksLe Testament, "Ballade des pendus"

François Villon (Modern French: [fʁɑ̃swa vijɔ̃], Middle French: [frãːˈswɛ viˈlõː]; c. 1431 – after 1463) is the best known French poet of the Late Middle Ages. He was involved in criminal behavior and had multiple encounters with law enforcement authorities.[1] Villon wrote about some of these experiences in his poems.



Villon was born in Paris in 1431.[2] One source gives the date as 19 April, 1432 [O.S. April 1, 1431].[3]

Early life[edit]

Villon's real name may have been François de Montcorbier or François des Loges:[3] both of these names appear in official documents drawn up in Villon's lifetime. In his own work, however, Villon is the only name the poet used, and he mentions it frequently in his work. His two collections of poems, especially "Le Testament" (also known as "Le grand testament"), have traditionally been read as if they were autobiographical. Other details of his life are known from court or other civil documents.

From what the sources tell us, it appears that Villon was born in poverty and raised by a foster father, but that his mother was still living when her son was thirty years old. The surname "Villon," the poet tells us, is the name he adopted from his foster father, Guillaume de Villon, chaplain in the collegiate church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné and a professor of canon law, who took Villon into his house.[4] François describes Guillaume de Villon as "more than a father to me".[5][6]

Student life[edit]

Villon became a student in arts, perhaps at about twelve years of age. He received a bachelor's degree from the University of Paris in 1449 and a master's degree in 1452. Between this year and 1455, nothing is known of his activities. The Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition (1910–1911) says "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."[4]

Alleged criminal activities[edit]

Depiction of Villon by the Mexican artist Federico Cantú Garza

On 5 June 1455, the first major recorded incident of his life occurred. While in the Rue Saint-Jacques in the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met a Breton named Jean le Hardi, a Master of Arts, who was also with a priest, Philippe Chermoye (or Sermoise or Sermaise). A scuffle broke out and daggers were drawn. 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[4] 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.[4]

Around Christmas 1456, the chapel of the Collège de Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. Villon was involved in the robbery. Many scholars believe that he fled from Paris soon afterward and that this is when he composed what is now known as the Le Petit Testament ("The Smaller Testament") or Le Lais ("Legacy" or "Bequests"). 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.[4]

Le Testament, 1461[edit]

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 in Le Testament ("The Testament") dated that year he inveighs bitterly against Bishop Thibault d'Aussigny, who held the See of Orléans. Villon may have been released as part of a general jail-delivery at the accession of King Louis XI and became a free man again on 2 October 1461.[4]

In 1461, he wrote his most famous work, Le Testament (or Le Grand Testament, as it is also known).

In the autumn of 1462, he was once more living in the cloisters of Saint-Benoît.

Banishment and disappearance[edit]

In November 1462, Villon was imprisoned for theft. He was taken to the Grand Châtelet fortress that stood at what is now Place du Châtelet in Paris. In default of evidence, the old charge of burgling the College of Navarre was revived. No royal pardon arrived to counter the demand for restitution, but bail was accepted and Villon was released. However, he fell promptly into a street quarrel. He was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged ("pendu et étranglé"), although the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on 5 January 1463.[4]

Villon's fate after January 1463 is unknown. Rabelais retells two stories about him which are usually dismissed as without any basis in fact.[7] Anthony Bonner speculated that the poet, as he left Paris, was "broken in health and spirit." Bonner writes further:

He might have died on a mat of straw in some cheap tavern, or in a cold, dank cell; or in a fight in some dark street with another French coquillard; or perhaps, as he always feared, on a gallows in a little town in France. We will probably never know.[8]


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

Le Petit Testament, also known as Le Lais, was written in late 1456.[9] The work is an ironic, comic poem that serves as Villon's will, listing bequests to his friends and acquaintances.[10]

In 1461, at the age of thirty, Villon composed the longer work which came to be known as Le grand testament (1461–1462). This has generally been judged Villon's greatest work, and there is evidence in the work itself that Villon felt the same.

Besides Le Lais and Le grand testament, Villon's surviving works include multiple poems. Sixteen of these shorter poems vary from the serious to the light-hearted. An additional eleven poems in thieves' jargon were attributed to Villon from a very early time, but many scholars now believe them to be the work of other poets imitating Villon.


Statue in Utrecht

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.

Villon's poems are sprinkled with mysteries and hidden jokes. They are peppered with the slang of the time and the underworld subculture in which Villon moved.[11] His works are also replete with private jokes and full of the names of real people – rich men, royal officials, lawyers, prostitutes, and policemen – from medieval Paris.[12]

English translation[edit]

Complete works[edit]

George Heyer (1869–1925; father of novelist Georgette Heyer) published a translation in 1924. Oxford University Press brought out The Retrospect of Francois Villon: being a Rendering into English Verse of huitains I TO XLI. Of Le Testament and of the three Ballades to which they lead, transl. George Heyer (London, 1924). On 25 December 1924 it was reviewed in The Times Literary Supplement, p. 886 and the review began "It is a little unfortunate that this translation of Villon should appear only a few months after the excellent rendering made by Mr. J. Heron Lepper. Mr. Heyer's work is very nearly as good, however: he makes happy use of quaint words and archaic idioms, and preserves with admirable skill the lyrical vigour of Villon's huitains. It is interesting to compare his version with Mr. Lepper's: both maintain a scholarly fidelity to the original, but one notes with a certain degree of surprise the extraordinary difference which they yet show." George Heyer was a fluent and idiomatic French speaker and the French and English are printed on opposite pages. The book also contains a number of historical and literary notes.

John Heron Lepper [Wikidata] published a translation in 1924.[13] Another translation is one by Anthony Bonner, published in 1960.[8] One drawback common to these English older translations is that they are all based on old editions of Villon's texts: that is, the French text that they translate (the Longnon-Foulet edition of 1932) is a text established by scholars some 80 years ago.[citation needed]

A translation by the American poet Galway Kinnell (1965) contains most of Villon's works but lacks six shorter poems of disputed provenance.[14] Peter Dale's verse translation (1974) follows the poet's rhyme scheme.[citation needed]

Barbara Sargent-Baur's complete works translation (1994) includes 11 poems long attributed to Villon but possibly the work of a medieval imitator.[citation needed]

A new English translation by David Georgi came out in 2013.[15] The book also includes Villon's French, printed across from the English. Notes in the back provide a wealth of information about the poems and about medieval Paris. "More than any translation, Georgi's emphasizes Villon's famous gallows humor...his word play, jokes, and puns".[16]


Translations of three Villon poems were made in 1867 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.[17] These three poems were "central texts" to Rossetti's 1870 book of Poems, which explored themes from the far past, mid-past, and modern time.[18] Rossetti used "The Ballad of Dead Ladies"; "To Death, of his Lady"; and "His Mother's Service to Our Lady".[18]

W.E. Henley, while editing Slang and its analogues translated two ballades into English criminal slang as "Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves" and "Villon’s Good-Night".

American poet Richard Wilbur, whose translations from French poetry and plays were widely acclaimed, also translated many of Villon's most famous ballades in Collected Poems: 1943–2004.[19]

Where are the snows of yesteryear?[edit]

The phrase "Where are the snows of yester-year?" is one of the most famous lines of translated poetry in the English-speaking world.[20][21][16] It is the refrain in The Ballad of Dead Ladies, Dante Gabriel Rossetti's translation[17] of Villon's 1461 Ballade des dames du temps jadis. In the original the line is: "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?" ["But where are the snows of yesteryear?"].

Richard Wilbur published his translation of the same poem, which he titled "Ballade of the Ladies of Time Past",[19] in his Collected Poems: 1943–2004. In his translation, the refrain is rendered as "But where shall last year's snow be found?"[19]

Critical views[edit]

Villon's poems enjoyed substantial popularity in the decades after they were written. In 1489, a printed volume of his poems was published by Pierre Levet. This edition was almost immediately followed by several others. In 1533, poet and humanist scholar Clément Marot published an important edition, in which he recognized Villon as one of the most significant poets in French literature and sought to correct mistakes that had been introduced to the poetry by earlier and less careful printers.

In popular culture[edit]


  • Justin Huntly McCarthy's 1901 play and novel, If I Were King, presented a romanticized view of Villon, using the “King for a Day” theme and giving the poet a happy ending with a beautiful noblewoman.
  • The Vagabond King is a 1925 operetta by Rudolf Friml. Based on McCarthy's play, it was eventually made into two films. (See below.)
  • Die Dreigroschenoper (The Threepenny Opera), from 1928, by Kurt Weill and Bertold Brecht, contains several songs that are loosely based on poems by Villon. These poems include "Les Contredits de Franc Gontier", "La Ballade de la Grosse Margot", and "L'Epitaphe Villon". Brecht used German translations of Villon's poems that had been prepared by K. L. Ammer (Karl Anton Klammer [de]), although Klammer was uncredited.[22]
  • Daniela Fischerová [Wikidata] wrote a play in Czech that focused on Villon's trial called Hodina mezi psem a vlkem—which translates to "Dog and Wolf" but literally translates as "The Hour Between Dog and Wolf". The Juilliard School in New York City mounted a 1994 production of the play, directed by Michael Mayer with music by Michael Philip Ward.[23]

Film and television[edit]


  • Villon's poem "Tout aux tavernes et aux filles" was translated into English by 19th-century poet William Ernest Henley as "Villon’s Straight Tip To All Cross Coves".[26] Another of Henley's attributed poems – written in thieves' slang – is "Villon’s Good-Night".[27]
  • The Archy and Mehitabel poems of Don Marquis include a poem by a cat who is Villon reincarnated.[28][29]
  • In Ursula K. Le Guin's short story “April in Paris” (published in 1962), an American professor of medieval French is in Paris researching the unsolved question of how Villon died when he unexpectedly travels in time back to the late 1400s and gets his answer.[30]
  • The author Doris Leslie wrote an historical novel, I Return: The Story of François Villon published in 1962.
  • In Antonio Skármeta's novel, El cartero de Neruda, Villon is mentioned as having been hanged for crimes much less serious than seducing the daughter of the local bar owner.[31]
  • Valentyn Sokolovsky [uk]'s poem "The night in the city of cherries or Waiting for François" reflects François Villon's life. It takes the form of a person's memories who knew the poet and whose name one can find in the lines of The Testament.[32]
  • Italian author Luigi Critone [fr] wrote and illustrated a graphic novel based on Villon's life and works. The 2017 book was entitled Je, François Villon [I, François Villon].[33]
  • Robert Louis Stevenson's short story "A Lodging for the Night: A Story of Francis Villon" follows the poet into a web of crime and desperation on a snowy November night.[34]
  • Hunter Thompson's book on American motorcycle gangs, Hell's Angels (1966) starts with a quote: "I am strong but have no power. I win all yet remain a loser. At break of day I say goodnight. When I lie down I have great fear of falling," which he attributes to Villon.


  • His poem Der Erdbeermund was an 1989 single for Culture Beat
  • The Belgian violinist Eugène Ysaÿe composed Poème No. 5, "Les neiges d'antan", Op.23, for violin and orchestra, in 1911.
  • Claude Debussy set three of Villon's poems to music for solo voice and piano[35][circular reference]
  • French singer Georges Brassens included his own setting of Ballade des dames du temps jadis in his album Le Mauvaise Reputation.
  • The Swiss composer Frank Martin's Poèmes de la Mort [Poems of Death] (1969–71) is based on three Villon poems.[36] The work is for the unusual combination of three tenors and three electric guitars.[36]
  • Villon was an influence on American musician Bob Dylan.[37]
  • Russian singer and songwriter Bulat Okudzhava, composed Prayer for Francois Villon, a very popular song.
  • Bulgarian metal band Epizod were inspired by Francois Villon, and based their lyrics on his poems during their early career.[38]

See also[edit]


  •  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainSaintsbury, George (1911). "Villon, François". In Chisholm, Hugh (ed.). Encyclopædia Britannica. Vol. 28 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. pp. 87–88. This includes a detailed critical review of the work.
  1. ^ Charpier, Jacques (1958), François Villon, un tableau synoptique de la vie et des oeuvres de Villon et des événements artistiques, littéraires et historiques du XVe siècle [François Villon, a synoptic tableau of the life and works of Villon and the artistic, literary and historical events of the 15th century], Poètes d'hier et d'aujourd'hui, Volume 2 (in French), Paris: Pierre Seghers, ..il n'ait laissé dans l'histoire, que le souvenir d'un hors-la-loi. Ce poète a eu à connaitre de la Justice des hommes et le voilà qui s'apparente ainsi à nos plus récentes idoles : Sade, Baudelaire, Verlaine. Il fut un voyou : comme Rimbaud. [He left only the memory of an outlaw behind him for posterity. This poet came to know the forces of Justice, and thus is so similar to our more recent idols Sade, Baudelaire and Verlaine. Like Rimbaud, he was a hoodlum.]
  2. ^ Fein, David (1997), "1 Introduction", François Villon Revisited, Twayne's World Authors Series No. 864, New York: Twayne Publishers, p. 1, ISBN 0805745645, From the latter, for example, we know Villon's approximate date of birth and the dates he composed his two major poems. Born in 1431 (the year that Joan of Arc was...
  3. ^ a b Charpier 1958, "1er avril 1431 (vieux style) ou 19 avril 1432 (nouveau style) : naissance à Paris, de François de Montcorbier, alias des Loges, qui deviendra François Villon [April 1, 1431 (old style) or April 19, 1432 (new style): birth in Paris of François de Montcorbier, alias des Loges, who would become François Villon]"
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Saintsbury 1911, p. 87.
  5. ^ Clarke, Joseph F. (1977). Pseudonyms. United Kingdom: Book Club Associates. p. 167.
  6. ^ Villon, François (2013). "The Testament". Poems (in French). Translated by Georgi, David. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press. p. 84. ISBN 978-0-8101-2878-1. OCLC 921910344. Retrieved 10 July 2017. Item, et a mon plus que pere, Maistre Guillaume de Villon / Qui esté m'a plus doulx que mere [Item, and to my more than father, Master Guillaume de Villon / Who is to me more painful than mother]
  7. ^ Saintsbury 1911, pp. 87–88.
  8. ^ a b Villon, François (1960). The Complete Works of François Villon. Translated by Bonner, Anthony. New York: Bantam. p. xxiii.
  9. ^ "François Villon". Poents.org. Academy of American Poets. n.d. Retrieved 31 March 2020.
  10. ^ Pernoud, Régine (12 February 2020). "François Villon, French poet". Encyclopædia Britannica.
  11. ^ See, for example, Sainéan, L. (1912). Champion, Honoré; Champion, Édouard [in French] (eds.). Les Sources de l'Argot Ancien. Paris: Librairie Ancienne.
  12. ^ Fein 1997, p.1: "Most, however, are lesser-known personages, including friends or acquaintances of the poet, as well as a variety of characters representing all walks of life. Here, lay readers, (and frequently even scholars) find themselves at a loss. Writing primarily for a small circle of acquaintances, Villon enjoyed making private jokes that only his immediate audience would be able to understand and appreciate. Thus even many of Villon's contemporaries, unfamiliar with the poet and his immediate acquaintances and therefore incapable of deciphering the meaning of many verses, would find themselves precluded from understanding large portions of Villon's poetic corpus."
  13. ^ Villon, François (1926). The Testaments of François Villon. Translated by Lepper, John Heron. New York: Boni and Liveright.
  14. ^ Villon, François (1982). The Poems of François Villon. Translated by Kinnell, Galway. Hanover: University Press of New England.
  15. ^ Georgi, David (2013). Poems of François Villon. Evanston, Illinois, USA: Northwestern University Press.
  16. ^ a b Barra, Allen (18 January 2014). "The Poems of François Villon". TruthDig. Retrieved 31 March 2020.
  17. ^ a b Rossetti, Dante Gabriel (1872). "Three Translations From François Villon, 1450". Poems (1870) (Sixth ed.). London: F. S. Ellis. pp. 177–181. Retrieved 23 July 2013.
  18. ^ a b "Scholarly Commentary". 1870 Poems First Edition text. Rossetti Archive. n.d. Retrieved 31 March 2020.
  19. ^ a b c Wilbur, Richard (2004). Collected Poems: 1943–2004. Orland etc.: Harcourt Inc. p. 251. ISBN 0-15-101105-2.
  20. ^ Williams, William Carlos (1960). Introduction. The Complete Works of François Villon. By Villon, François. Translated by Bonner, Anthony. New York: Bantam. By a single line of verse in an almost forgotten language, Medieval French, the name of Villon goes on living defiantly; our efforts, as we seem to try to efface it, polish and make it shine the more. What is that secret that has escaped with a mere question, deftly phrased, the profundity of the ages: Mais ou sont les neiges d'antan? All that has been forgotten (or better said, all that would gladly have been forgotten) by the poet Villon in his fifteenth-century France has remained so vividly alive, present in everything we are, that it lives on in answer to that eternal question.
  21. ^ Mattix, Micah (12 April 2013). "Great Lines: "Where are the snows of yesteryear?"". First Things. Retrieved 31 March 2020.
  22. ^ Thomson, Peter; Sacks, Glendyr, eds. (1994). The Cambridge Companion to Brecht. Cambridge University Press. pp. 108–111. ISBN 978-0-521-42485-1.
  23. ^ Dahmus, Jeni (April 2012). "Time Capsule: "Abu Hassan" (1920); Juilliard Civilian Defense Council (1942); Limón's "Waldstein Sonata" (1975) Fischerova Plays (1994)". The Juilliard Journal. The Juilliard School. Archived from the original on 16 August 2016. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
  24. ^ François Villon (1981) at IMDb Edit this at Wikidata
  25. ^ Gina (11 January 2012). "Gabby's Villon". The Petrified Forest: A Research Blog. Retrieved 23 February 2020.
  26. ^ Henley, William Ernest (2017). Villon's Straight Tip to All Cross Coves. Collected and Annotated by John S. Farmer. Pinnacle Press. ISBN 978-1374881167. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  27. ^ Henley, William Ernest (2017). Villon's Good-Night. Collected and Annotated by John S. Farmer. Pinnacle Press. ISBN 978-1374881167. {{cite book}}: |work= ignored (help)
  28. ^ Next Stage
  29. ^ George Herriman archy and mehitabel Illustration
  30. ^ Le Guin, Ursula K., The Wind’s Twelve Quarters (Stories), Harper & Row (1976)
  31. ^ Skármeta, Antonio (1998). El cartero de Neruda [The Postman of Neruda]. Libros del Bolsillo, Random House Mondadori. p. 70.
  32. ^ Sokolovsky, Valentyn (2013), The night in the city of cherries or Waiting for François (in Russian), Kiev, Ukraine{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  33. ^ Je, François Villon [I, François Villon] (in French). Delcourt. 2017. ISBN 978-2413001867.
  34. ^ Unabridged audio book narrated by A. Lane
  35. ^ List of compositions by Claude Debussy#Solo voice with piano
  36. ^ a b "Chamber music". Frank Martin – Composer (1890–1974). Frank Martin Stichting (Frank Martin Society). 2019. Archived from the original on 22 October 2021. Retrieved 4 May 2018.
  37. ^ Dylan, Bob (11 October 2004). Chronicles: Volume One. New York, New York, USA: Simon & Schuster. p. 112. ISBN 9780743272582.
  38. ^ https://dariknews.bg/regioni/dobrich/rok-grupa-epizod-gostuva-v-dobrich-652723

Further reading[edit]

  • Chaney, Edward F. (1940). The Poems of Francois Villon: Edited and turned into English prose. Oxford Blackwell.
  • Freeman, Michael; Taylor, Jane H. M. (1999). Villon at Oxford, The Drama of the Text (in French and English). Amsterdam-Atlanta: Brill Rodopi. ISBN 978-9042004757.
  • Holbrook, Sabra (1972). A Stranger in My Land: A Life of François Villon. New York: Farrar Straus Giroux.
  • The Poems of François Villon. Translated by Kinnell, Galway. University Press of New England. 1982. ISBN 978-0874512366.
  • Lewis, D. Bevan Wyndham (1928). François Villon, A Documented Survey. Garden City, New York: Garden City Publishing.
  • Stacpoole, H. De Vere (1916). François Villon: His Life and Times 1431-1463. London: Hutchinson & Co.
  • Weiss, Martin (2014), Polysémie et jeux de mots chez François Villon. Une analyse linguistique (e-book) (in French), Vienna, Austria{{citation}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)

External links[edit]