The Snows of Bygone Years

I often wonder what ever happened to Francois Villon?

I am an historian, as well as a writer of mostly poems and essays. I have a great love for history’s rascals, especially if they are poets. Especially if they’re late medieval poets, since I’m a bit of a medievalist.

Francois Villon is best known for his Testament and his Legacy, long poems, each of which is written in the form of a last will and testament. He also wrote many shorter lyrics. Historians are much taken by those short lyrics which are written in gang jargon. (Think of a medieval Nelly rapping “Pimp Juice”.) At his finest, Villon evokes a wistful melancholy, the best example of this being the “Ballad Of The Ladies Of Bygone Times”, which contains his most quoted line, “But where are the snows of bygone years?”

Aside from what was discerned from the poems, for centuries almost nothing else was known of his life. Around the 1870’s, the poems are supplemented by the discovery of other primary sources. Police records. Court records. He was born in Paris about 1431. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University Of Paris. He certainly was a cleric in minor orders, although there is no indication that he was a Catholic sub-deacon, deacon or priest. As a student, he seems to have engaged in rowdy, if relatively harmless, mischief. (Anyone, who has been an undergraduate, needs no further explanation of such behavior.) He got his M. A., also from the University Of Paris, in 1452. Of the next few years after his graduate studies, of these we know little, although every indication is that Villon lived a life we today would describe as bohemian.

Beginning on the 5th of June, 1455, the police and the courts record brawls, homicide, robbery, imprisonments, banishments, tortures, two death sentences and fortuitous pardons. He was once water-boarded. In the “Ballad to Fat Margot”, he described how he made his living as a pimp. On the 5th of January, 1463, he was banished from Paris. This was a commutation. Villon originally was to be “strangled and hanged on the gallows of Paris.”

All the primary sources, the poetry, the police records, the court records, these all date from 1455 to 1463. Nothing more is known.

But that doesn’t stop me from speculating. I think Francois Villon had that every popular combination of sociopathy and narcissism. While he was deeply religious, he never showed any real sign of a conscience. Crimes and criminal associations, which he freely admitted, were delivered with a poetic wink and a smart aleck rhyme. He had empathy, in that he was aware of the pain of others, but he seldom showed compassion. He mourned the fact that his mother was poor and alone, but he didn’t do anything about it. He beat Fat Margot with a club. Pity he reserved for himself.

I can imagine that cold January morning in 1463. I can watch him walk to the gates of Paris. He’s got only what he can carry, a manuscript, his degrees, a rosary, a loaf of bread. I can imagine him dressed as a cleric. He is thirty-two. He’s been imprisoned, tortured, beaten, stabbed. He no doubt looks a lot older than thirty-two. He has legitimate skills. He can be a scribe, do parish work, teach. He is a man of letters. He is not without hope. But he’s also a thief. And a little scary.

And I am an historian, so, in a sense, I have to stop speculating. I have to let him go. And that’s the problem with history. I want to understand the psyche of Francois Villon. But I’ll never really will know his mind. I want Francois Villon redeemed. But I’ll never really know his soul either. I can go no further with him than the gates of Paris. Did he end his days as a village priest? Or hanging from the gallows at the edge of the village?

The problem is that life’s real mysteries aren’t as enigmatic as they are enervating. Where did all the money go? Why do we hurt the ones we love? Why can’t the Israelis and the Palestinians figure out how to get along, and leave the rest of us alone?

Which is why we love a good murder mystery. It’s so much more satisfying than any real history. There’s the dead body. The weeping loved ones. The world is disordered, oh no! But wait. There’s a clue. Enter the handsome detective who, not without considerable personal risk, solves the mystery and sets the universe aright once again. But history just isn’t that tidy. The truth is often found in the unanswerable question.

Which leads me to wonder, once again, what ever happened to Francois Villon?


Filed under: Book Review, John Samuel Tieman, Prose