1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Villon, François

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VILLON, FRANÇOIS (1431–c. 1463), French poet (whose real surname is a matter of much dispute, so that he is also called De Montcorbier and Des Loges and by other names, though in literature Villon is the sole term used), was born in 1431, and, as it seems, certainly at Paris. The singular poems called Testaments, which form his chief if not his only certain work, are largely autobiographical, though of course not fully trustworthy. But his frequent collisions with the law have left more certain records, which have of late been ransacked with extraordinary care by students, especially by M. Longnon. It appears that he was born of poor folk, that his father died in his youth, but that his mother, for whom he wrote one of his most famous ballades, was alive when her son was thirty years old. The very name Villon was stated, and that by no mean authority, the president Claude Fauchet, to be merely a common and not a proper 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, long after there was any excuse for it in his years, the reckless way of living common among the wilder youth of the university of Paris. He appears to have derived his surname from a friend and benefactor named Guillaume de Villon, chaplain in the collegiate church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bestourné, and a professor of canon law, who took Villon into his house. The poet became a student in arts, no doubt early, perhaps at about twelve years of age, and took the degree of bachelor in 1449 and that of master in 1452. Between this year and 1455 nothing positive is known of him, except that nothing was known against him. 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 the 5th of June 1455 the first important incident of his life that is known occurred. Being in the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met, in the rue Saint-Jacques, a certain Breton, Jean le Hardi, a master of arts, who was with a priest, Philippe Chermoye or Sermoise or Sermaise. A scuffle ensued; 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. Sermaise died of his wounds. Villon fled, and was sentenced to banishment—a sentence which was remitted in January 1456, the formal pardon being extant, strangely enough, in two different documents, in one of which the culprit is described as “François des Loges, autrement dit Villon,” in the other as “François de Montcorbier”. That he is also said to have described himself to the barber-surgeon who dressed his wounds as Michel Mouton is less surprising, and hardly needs an addition to the list of his aliases. It should, however, be said that the documents relative to this affair confirm the date of his birth, by representing him as twenty-six years old or thereabouts. By the end of 1456 he was again in trouble. In his first broil “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, of whom we hear not a little in the poems, is 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. It was before leaving Paris that he composed what is now known as the Petit testament, of which we shall speak presently with the rest of his poems, and which, it should be said, shows little or no such mark of profound bitterness and regret for wasted life as does its in every sense greater successor the Grand testament. Indeed, Villon's serious troubles were only beginning, for hitherto he had been rather injured than guilty. About Christmas-time the chapel of the college of Navarre was broken open, and five hundred gold crowns stolen. The robbery was not discovered till March 1457, and it was not till 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, being arrested, turned king's evidence and accused Villon, who was then absent, of being the ring-leader, and of having gone to Angers, partly at least, to arrange for similar burglaries there. Villon, for this or some other crime, was sentenced to banishment, and he did not attempt to return to Paris. In fact for four years he was a wanderer; and he may have been, as each of his friends Regnier de Montigny and Colin des Cayeux certainly was, a member of a wandering thieves' gang. It is certain that at one time (in 1457), and probable that at more times than one, he was in correspondence with Charles d'Orléans, and it is likely that he resided, at any rate for some period, at that prince's court at Blois. He had also something to do with another prince of the blood, Jean of Bourbon, and traces are found of him in Poitou, in Dauphiné, &c. But at his next certain appearance he is again in trouble. He tells us that he had spent the summer of 1461 in the bishop's prison (bishops were fatal to Villon) of Meung. 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 Orleans. Villon owed his release to a general gaol-delivery at the accession of Louis XI., and became a free man again on the 2nd of October.

It was now that he wrote the Grand testament, the work which has immortalized him. Although he was only thirty at the date (1461) of this composition (which is unmistakable, because given in the book itself), there seems to be no kind of aspiration towards a new life, nor even any hankering after the old. Nothing appears to be left him but regret, his very spirit has been worn out by excesses or sufferings or both. Even his good intentions must have been feeble, for in the autumn of 1462 we find him once more living in the cloisters of Saint-Benoît, and in November he was in the Châtelet for theft. 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, however, accepted, but Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel, was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged, but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on the 5th of January 1463. The actual event is unknown: but from this time he disappears from history. Rabelais indeed tells two stories about him which have almost necessarily been dated later. One is a countryside anecdote of a trick supposed to have been played by the poet in his old age at Saint-Maixent in Poitou, whither he had retired. The other, a coarse but pointed jest at the expense of England, is told as having been addressed by Villon to King Edward V. during an exile in that country. Now, even if King Edward V. were not evidently out of the question, a passage of the story refers to the well-known scholar and man of science, Thomas Linacre, as court physician to the king, and makes Villon mention him, whereas Linacre was only a young scholar, not merely at the time of Edward V.'s supposed murder, but at the extreme date (1489) which can be assigned to Villon's life. For in this year the first edition of the poet's work appeared, obviously not published by himself, and with no sign in it of his having lived later than the date (1461) of the Grand testament. It would be easy to dismiss these Rabelaisian mentions of Villon as mere humorous inventions, if it were not that the author of Pantagruel was born almost soon enough to have actually seen Villon if he had lived to anything that could be called old age, that he almost certainly must have known men who had known Villon, and that the poet undoubtedly spent much time in Rabelais's own country on the banks of the lower Loire.

The obscurity, the unhappiness and the evil repute of Villon's life would not be in themselves a reason for the minute investigation to which the events of that life have been subjected, and the result of which has been summed up here. But his poetical work, scanty as the certainly genuine part of it is, is of such extraordinary quality, and marks such an epoch in the history of European literature, that he has been at all times an interesting figure, and, like all very interesting figures, has been often praised for qualities quite other than those which he really possessed. Boileau's famous verses, in which Villon is extolled for having first known how to smooth out the confused art of the old romancers, are indeed a prodigy of blundering or ignorance or both. As far as art or the technical part of poetry goes, Villon made not the slightest advance on his predecessors, nor stood in any way in front of such contemporaries as his patron Charles d'Orléans. His two Testaments (so called by the application to them of a regular class-name of medieval poetry and consisting of burlesque legacies to his acquaintances) are made up of eight-line stanzas of eight-syllables verses, varied in the case of the Grand testament by the insertion of ballades and rondeaux of very great beauty and interest, but not formally different in any way from poems of the same kind for more than a century past. What really distinguishes Villon is the intenser quality of his poetical feeling and expression, and what is perhaps arrogantly called the modern character of his subjects and thought. Medieval poetry, with rare exceptions, and, with exceptions not quite so rare, classical poetry, are distinguished by their lack of what is now called the personal note. In Villon this note sounds, struck with singular force and skill. Again, the simple joy of living which distinguishes both periods—the medieval, despite a common opinion, scarcely less than the ancient—has disappeared. Even the riot and rollicking of his earlier days are mentioned with far less relish of remembrance than sense of their vanity. This sense of vanity, indeed, not of the merely religious, but of the purely mundane and even half-pagan kind, is Villon's most prominent characteristic. It tinges his narrative, despite its burlesque bequests, all through; it is the very keynote of his most famous and beautiful piece, the Ballade des dames du temps jadis, with its refrain, “Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ?” as well as of his most daring piece of realism, the other ballade of La Grosse Margot, with its burden of hopeless entanglement in shameless vice. It is nowhere more clearly sounded than in the piece which ranks with these two at the head of his work, the Regrets de la Belle Heaulmière, in which a woman, once young and beautiful, now old and withered, laments her lost charms. So it is almost throughout his poems, including the grim Ballade des pendus, and hardly excluding the very beautiful Ballade pour sa mère, with its description of sincere and humble piety. It is in the profound melancholy which the dominance of this note has thrown over Villon's work, and in the suitableness of that melancholy to the temper of all generations since, that his charm and power have consisted, though it is difficult to conceive any time at which his poetical merit could be ignored.

His certainly genuine poems consist of the two Testaments with their codicil (the latter containing the Ballade des pendus, or more properly Épitaphe en forme de ballade, and some other pieces of a similarly grim humour), a few miscellaneous poems, chiefly ballades, and an extraordinary collection (called Le Jargon ou jobelin) of poems in argot, the greater part of which is now totally unintelligible, if, which may perhaps be doubted, it ever was otherwise. Besides these, several poems of no inconsiderable interest are usually printed with Villon's works, though they are certainly, or almost certainly, not his. The chief are Les Repues Franches, a curious series of verse stories of cheating tavern-keepers, &c., having some resemblance to those told of George Peele, but of a broader and coarser humour. These, though in many cases “common form” of the broader tale-kind, are not much later than his time, and evidence to reputation if not to fact. Another of these spurious pieces is the extremely amusing monologue of the Franc Archier de Bagnolet, in which one of the newly constituted archers or regularly trained and paid soldiery, who were extremely unpopular in France, is made to expose his own poltroonery. The third most important piece of this kind is the Dialogue de Mallepaye et de Baillevent, a dramatic conversation between two penniless spendthrifts, which is not without merit. These poems, however, were never attributed to Villon or printed with his works till far into the 16th century.

It has been said that the first dated edition of Villon is of 1489, though some have held one or more than one undated copy to be still earlier. Between the first, whenever it was, and 1542 there were very numerous editions, the most famous being that (1533) of Clément Marot, one of whose most honourable distinctions is the care he took of his poetical predecessors. The Pléiade movement and the classicizing of the grand siècle put Villon rather out of favour, and he was not again reprinted till early in the 18th century, when he attracted the attention of students of old French like Le Duchat, Bernard de la Monnoye and Prosper Marchand. The first critical edition in the modern sense—that is to say, an edition founded on MSS. (of which there are in Villon's case several, chiefly at Paris and Stockholm)—was that of the Abbé J. H. R. Prompsault in 1832. The next was that of the “Bibliophile Jacob” (P. Lacroix) in the Bibliothèque Elzévirienne (Paris, 1854). The standard edition is Œuvres complètes de François Villon, by M. Auguste Longnon (1892). This contains copies of the documents on which the story of Villon's life is based, and a bibliography. The late M. Marcel Schwob discovered new documents relating to the poet, but died before he could complete his work, which was posthumously published in 1905. See also A. Campaux, F. Villon, sa vie et ses œuvres (1859); A. Longnon, Étude biographique (1877); and especially G. Paris, François Villon (1901), a book of the first merit. A complete translation of Villon was written by Mr John Payne (1878) for the Villon Society. There are also translations of individual poems in Mr Andrew Lang's Ballads and Lyrics of Old France (1872) and in the works of D. G. Rossetti and Mr Swinburne. Among critical studies of Villon may be mentioned those by Sainte-Beuve in the Causeries du lundi, vol. xiv., by Théophile Gautier in Grotesques, and by R. L. Stevenson in his Familiar Studies of Men and Books (1882). An unedited ballad by Villon, with another by an unknown poet of the same date, was published by W. G. C. Bijvanck (1891) as Un poète inconnu. M. Pierre d'Alheim published (1892) an edition of Le Jargon with a translation into ordinary French.  (G. Sa.)