January 5th, 2008 Sonechka
|Je suis François, dont ce me poise,
Né de Paris emprès Ponthoise.
Or d’une corde d’une toise
Saura mon col que mon cul poise.*
-F. Villon, LE QUATRAIN
On this day in 1463 François Villon vanished into thin air — along with his mastery for words and for mischief.
Posterity is left to write blog entries about his miraculous deliverance from the gallows; to credit him with influence on Fin de siècle poets, contemporary cinema and god knows what else; to speculate about his destiny; to explain the motives for his disreputable lifestyle (oh, why, my dear reader, are we so presumptuous?); and, well, to read his verse.
The epithets “thief” and “rogue” are de rigueur when a discourse demands an allusion to his name. The man was a villain, all right. Villon’s official criminal career started with a drunken brawl murder. He got entangled with a gang. He stole, imbibed and rollicked. He was banished, imprisoned and tortured.
One prim Scotsman, a trained lawyer and a beloved writer, wields rather harsh albeit stunningly eloquent prose to depict our pauvre Villon. To Stevenson, Villon was “the first wicked sansculotte”, a “sinister dog”, “the sorriest figure on the rolls of fame”, whose “pathos is that of a professional mendicant who should happen to be a man of genius”.
Incidentally (I hope the reader will forgive this digression given the general topicality of the issue), Stevenson, a harsh judge of Villon’s ignoble nature, says this about waterboarding:
[Villon] was put to the question by water. He who had tossed off so many cups of white Baigneux or red Beaune, now drank water through linen folds, until his bowels were flooded and his heart stood still. After so much raising of the elbow, so much outcry of fictitious thirst, here at last was enough drinking for a lifetime. Truly, of our pleasant vices, the gods make whips to scourge us …
A different take on Villon’s despicable life is voiced by another poet, Osip Mandelstam:
Villon’s sympathy to the society’s scumbags, to everything that is vile and criminal is not demonism. The nefarious company, to which he was so quickly and intimately drawn, captivated his feminine nature with great temperament and powerful rhythm of life, which he could not find elsewhere in the society.
… With odd brutality and rhythmic ardor, he depicts in his ballad [The Ballad of the Hanged], how wind swings the bodies of the wretched, to and fro, as it will … Even death he endows with dynamic qualities, and here manages to manifest his love to rhythm and movement … I think that Villon was allured not by demonism, but by the dynamics of crime …
(Mandelstam’s original is in Russian; this translation is mine)
In the autumn of 1462 François Villon was arrested. He expected to be hanged. Instead, on this date, parliament granted him a pardon and banished him from Paris (for the third time, no less).
What happened to the poor vagabond, medieval Parisian desperado, that troubadour of the rascals?
The trail goes cold — the yellowed parchments fall silent. He vanished into thin air …
* Below is a rather unsatisfactory and uncredited translation found here, which nevertheless conveys the idea:
Surname? Villon, just my luck.
Born? In Paris, near Pontoise.
You wonder what my backside weighs?
Ask my neck when they string me up.
Also on this date
- 1771: Captain David Ferguson, for the murder of his cabin-boy
- 1655: Jane Hopkins, Bermuda's last known witch execution
- 1638: Four Frenchmen in effigy
- 1917: Sub-Lt. Edwin Dyett, shot at dawn
- 1993: Westley Allan Dodd, child molester
- 1527: Felix Manz, the first Anabaptist martyr
Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Famous,Famous Last Words,France,Freethinkers,Gallows Humor,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Lucky to be Alive,Not Executed,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Theft,Torture