“I cannot afford to hang François Villon"

"The rain out of heaven has washed us clean,
The sun has scorched us black and bare,
Ravens and rooks have pecked at our eyes,
And feathered their nests with our beards and hair.
Round are we tossed, and here and there,
This way and that, the wild wind’s will,
Never a moment my body is still;
Birds they are busy about my face.
Live not as we, nor fare as we fare;
Pray God pardon us out of His grace." (François Villon, "Ballad of Hanged Men")

5 January 1463: Today, 550 years in Paris, poet and scoundrel François Villon made a literal last minute escape from a similar fate as he described in his ballad for the third time. Villon was a member of the Coquillards (the "cockle-shells", after the scallop they wore in mockery of the pilgrims on the St James Way who wore them as a badge), a criminal organisation that was up to quite a lot of mischief in Northern France in the wake of the Hundred Years' War and had already been sentenced twice in Angers and Blois. He was pardoned each time, once by King Louis XI himself who allegedly said “I cannot afford to hang François Villon. There are a hundred thousand rogues in France as great as he, but not such another poet.”

Villon made his last bow to his judges with a mocking ballad and that was the last thing the world has heard from the most important poet of France's late Middle Ages - his work lived on, of course, and was a major influence on Baudelaire and Gautier as well as the later "poètes maudits" like Verlaine and Rimbaud. His probably best known for his "ballade des dames du temps jadis":

DICTES moy où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora, la belle Rommaine;
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine;
Echo, parlant quand bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sus estan,
Qui beaulté ot trop plus qu’humaine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Où est la tres sage Helloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Saint-Denis?
Pour son amour ot cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust gecté en ung sac en Saine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

La royne Blanche comme lis,
Qui chantoit à voix de seraine;
Berte au grant pié, Bietris, Allis;
Haremburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Englois brulerent à Rouan;
Où sont elles, Vierge souvraine? …
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!


Prince, n’enquerez de sepmaine
Où elles sont, ne de cest an,
Que ce reffrain ne vous remaine:
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!

Translated by Dante Gabriel Rossetti as "Ballad of the Dead Ladies"

Tell me now in what hidden way is
Lady Flora the lovely Roman?
Where's Hipparchia,and where is Thais,
Neither of them the fairer woman?.
Where is Echo,beheld of no man,
Only heard on river and mere,
She whose beauty was more than human?
But where are the snows of yester-year?.

Where's Héloise, the learned nun,.
For whose sake Abeillard, ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?.
(From Love he won such dule and teen!
And where, I pray you, is the Queen.
Who willed that Buridan should steer.
Sewed in a sack's mouth down the Seine?
But where are the snows of yester-year?

White Queen Blanche, like a queen of lilies,
With a voice like any mermaiden,
Bertha Broadfoot, Beatrice, Alice,.
And Ermengarde the lady of Maine,
And that good Joan whom Englishmen.
At Rouen doomed and burned her there,
Mother of God, where are they then?
But where are the snows of yester-year?

Nay, never ask this week, fair lord,
Where they are gone, nor yet this year,
Save with this much for an overword,
But where are the snows of yester-year?

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