Fun facts about the French medieval poet
1. François Villon was a murderer, thief, and member of a criminal brotherhood. Villon was born in Paris in 1431; in 1449 he went to study at the University there, and was made a master of arts three years later. However, three years after that, he was involved in a fracas that ended with him killing a priest with his sword. He was quitted a year later on the grounds that he had acted in self-defence, but Villon’s brush with the law doesn’t seem to have deterred him from a life of crime. The same year he was involved in a robbery at the College of Navarre, and, fearing arrest, fled. He somehow ended up being taken under the wing of Duke Charles d’Orléans, a gifted poet (in English as well as French). It may have been the Duke who turned Villon onto poetry: he wrote his masterpiece, Le Testament, during this period, as well as the (sadly lost) poem ‘The Romance of the Devil’s Fart’.
2. Villon was actually born François Montcorbier – he adopted the surname of the chaplain who took him in. When the young François’ father died, he was taken under the wing of Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of Benoît-le-Bétourné, who became his guardian. François promptly took his guardian’s surname as his own.
3. The famous sigh ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ originated with Villon. Villon’s line ‘Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?’, from his poem ‘Ballade des dames du temps jadis’ (‘Ballade of the Ladies of Times Past’), was memorably rendered into English by Victorian Pre-Raphaelite poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti as ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ (This was, in turn, reworked by Joseph Heller in his Catch-22 as ‘Where are the Snowdens of yesteryear?’)
4. Villon’s work was also quoted by the modernist poets T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound. They both use Villon’s line ‘En l’an de mon trentiesme aage / Que toutes mes hontes j’eus beues’ (‘In the thirtieth year of my life / When I have drunk up all my shame’) in their poems ‘A Cooking Egg’ and Hugh Selwyn Mauberley respectively. Arcibald MacLeish also wrote a poem alluding to Villon’s line.
5. Nobody’s sure where, when, or how Villon died – he just disappeared from view. After he met Charles d’Orléans, Villon was arrested and imprisoned for that robbery at the College of Navarre, but was freed upon the accession of Louis XI in 1461. But Villon then took to crime yet again, charged with affray, and sentenced to be hanged. The last time Villon was recorded as being alive was in 1463, shortly after he had had his death sentence commuted to exile. Another François, François Rabelais, thought Villon then went to England, when all trace of him disappears – but the truth is that nobody knows. What happened to François Villon? There are no sure facts regarding his death – only speculation.
Image: Portrait of François Villon, via Wikimedia Commons.