François Villon was a French poet, thief, and vagabond. He is perhaps best known for his Testaments and his Ballade des Pendus, written while in prison. The question "Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?", taken from the Ballade des dames du temps jadis and translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "Where are the snows of yesteryear?", is one of the most famous lines of translated secular poetry in the English-speaking world.
Villon's real surname has been a matter of dispute; he has been called François de Montcorbier and François Des Loges and other names, though in literature Villon is the sole name used. Villon was born in 1431, almost certainly in Paris. The singular poems called Testaments, which form his chief if not his only certain work, are largely autobiographical.
It appears that he was born in poverty and that his father died in his youth, but that his mother was still living when her son was thirty years old. The name "Villon" was stated by the sixteenth-century historian Claude Fauchet to be merely a common 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, throughout his recorded life, a reckless way of living common among the wilder youth of the University of Paris. It is possible that he derived his surname from his uncle, a close friend and benefactor named Guillaume de Villon, chaplain in the collegiate church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bestourne, and a professor of canon law, who took Villon into his house.
Villon became a student in arts, perhaps at about twelve years of age. He received a bachelor's degree in 1449 and a master's degree in 1452. Between this year and 1455, nothing is known of his activities. As the author of the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica article writes, "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 5 June 1455, the first major recorded incident of his life occurred. In the company of a priest named Giles and a girl named Isabeau, he met, in the Rue Saint-Jacques, a Breton, Jean le Hardi, a master of arts, who was also with a priest, Philippe Chermoye (or Sermoise or Sermaise). A scuffle broke out, 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. He died of his wounds. Villon fled, and was sentenced to banishment – a sentence which was remitted in January 1456 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. As a known murderer Villon could not continue his privileged life as a teacher at the Collège de Navarre or get reputable employment; thus, he was forced to sing in inns to survive.
By the end of 1456, he was again in trouble. In his first brawl, "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, whom he mentioned several times in his poems, was 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. Before leaving Paris, he composed what is now known as the Petit Testament, Lais, or "Legacy."
Around Christmas 1456, the chapel of the Collège de Navarre was broken open and five hundred gold crowns stolen. 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. Villon may have been homosexual. It is certain that he corresponded with Charles, duc d'Orléans at least once (in 1457) and it is likely that he resided for some period at that prince's court at Château Blois. He had also something to do with another prince of the blood, Jean of Bourbon, and there is evidence that he visited Poitou, Dauphiné, and other places.
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 is supposed to have been church-robbing; and his enemy, or at least judge, was Thibault d'Aussigny, who held the see of Orléans. Villon owed his release to a general jail-delivery at the accession of King Louis XI and became a free man again on 2 October 1461.
In 1461, he wrote his most famous work, the Grand Testament. In the autumn of 1462, he was once more living in the cloisters of Saint-Benoît and in November, he was imprisoned for theft in the fortress that stood at what is now Place du Châtelet in Paris. 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 accepted; however, Villon fell promptly into a street quarrel. He was arrested, tortured and condemned to be hanged ("pendu et étranglé"), but the sentence was commuted to banishment by the parlement on 5 January 1463.
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