by Alysa Salzberg
The first time I read Francois Villon’s works, I discovered a world I had yet to unearth, however, knew by heart. One of France’s greatest medieval poets, Villon, writes in an old form of French. His poems include countless references to people, places, and events of his time. Sometimes it appears even more complicated than that: Villon occasionally wrote in the obscure jargon of the Coquillards, a gang of criminals.
As a young American expatriot in the twenty-first century, a multitude of things separate me from Villon. But there is richness in his words–a passion and exuberance that transcend these barriers. He writes about Paris and its sights with such lucidity, I find that, though we are different, Villon’s love of the city mirrors my own. “Mais ou sont les neiges d’antan?” (Where are the snows of yesteryear?) is one of the poet’s most famous lines. Could I still find some trace of Villon’s life in Paris today?
I began my quest in the Celestins neighborhood, where one Francois de Montcorbier was born in 1431 or 1432. The area is in the Marais, one of Paris’ most historic districts, where streets lined with crooked, sooty buildings accentuate the city’s past. Just off the busy Faubourg Saint-Antoine, the first few old houses on the rue du Petit Musc promise a glimpse into the Middle Ages–maybe even some vestiges of the Abbey of the Celestins, where Villon’s mother regularly went to pray. But within a few more paces, the street turns out to be like many others in the city: a surprisingly harmonious mix of old and new buildings with a few scattered shops, which provides a lovely walk, yet the old abbey is nowhere to be found. At the end of the street, the lower remnants of a tower from the infamous Bastille have been placed in a park. I pass by and meander along the Quai. At the Pont Louis-Philippe, I cross the Seine, stopping midway to peer at the water below. In Villon’s time the bridges of Paris were brimming with houses that blocked the river from view.
Then onto the rue Saint-Jacques, one of the city’s oldest streets. Francois’ mother brought him here around 1442 to grow up under the care of Guillaume de Villon, chaplain of the church of Saint-Benoit-le-Bentourne. For the poet, this good man became his “plus que pere” (“more-than-father”). He took Guillaume’s last name in homage. A historic plaque is all that remains of the church. Today a driveway and part of the new wing of the College de France have taken its place. But here, and on the surrounding streets lining the slopes of the Montagne Sainte-Genevieve, Francois misspent his youth. He and his schoolmates enjoyed playing pranks, especially stealing the city’s omnipresent store and tavern signs. Villon often evokes these objects in his poems, though this can be hard to tell, as in La Grosse Margot, whose subject can be a prostitute and the sign of an inn. One of Villon’s favorite targets was a stone marker called the Pet-au-Diable (“The Devil’s Fart”). He and his friends stole it twice. Villon refers to it in Le Testament, and claims to have written an epic work about it. The rue de Lobau is a diminutive, wide street behind the Hotel de Ville. The Pet-au-Diable and the home of its chaste widow owner were once found nearby, but now there are just stone government buildings. Meanwhile the sidewalk doubles a major parking area for motorcyclists who do not mind running down a person wandering by with a copy of a medieval map.
To dull my disappointment, I decide to roam the adjacent rue de Rivoli. Typical clothing stores preside, yet in Villon’s day the streets were narrower and more numerous. Tangled and twisted, they were home to several of the poet’s favorite watering holes–and sometimes to a few unsavory characters. No wonder a still-existent street nearby is called the rue des Mauvais Garcons (Street of the Bad Boys). I cross the Ile- de-la-Cite again. It, too, was once like this. Notre Dame’s wide plaza, full of landscaping and tourists and sparrows, was part of a network of more than 30 streets so narrow the buildings across from each other almost touched.
In 1455, Villon, who earned a Master’s degree, went from student pranks to far more serious things: a still-unexplained street fight with a preacher. The preacher died, and the poet had to flee the city for a while. No one is certain where he went.
Back into the Latin Quarter I go. I do not follow a logical path, but the path of Villon’s life. I arrive at number 6, rue Descartes. This was once the location of the College de Navarre, the richest college in Paris. On Christmas night, 1456, a returned Villon joined with some friends and stole 500 gold coins from its treasury. The College’s last medieval building was torn down in 1877; the prestigious Ecole Polytechnique now occupies the site. When details about the theft started to come to light, Villon once again absconded Paris. He would not return until 1462.
No one knows where the poet went during this period. The only proven fact is that he spent some time at the court of Charles d’Orleans, for whom he wrote three poems. In his travels, Villon seems to have written nothing in praise of rural life. His descriptive poems are about his city, with buildings and signs and churches inspiring him as flowers inspired others. The countryside may not have been as exciting as Paris, but Villon still fell into trouble, and was thrown into jail in Meung-sur-Loire. Luckily, in celebration of the King passing through town one day, all prisoners were set free.
In 1462, Villon returned to Paris, where he worked on and completed Le Testament. In this poem, as earlier in Le Lais, he leaves things to friends, foes, and contemporary figures in the news. Often the “gifts” are inside jokes, or puns. For example, Villon leaves his sword to several people; this could be taken to mean he wants to give them a jab. Le Testament includes other poems as well, some moving meditations on life and death, some bawdy romps. They depict an author with a great sense of humor, but also full of wisdom and sorrow. As Villon wrote himself: “Je ris en pleurs” “I laugh in tears.” Villon soon took part in another robbery, and was imprisoned. After some careful speeches, he was let go. But evidence of his involvement in the College de Navarre robbery came to light. More speeches, Guillaume de Villon’s influence, and the promise to pay back his share of the loot freed Villon. Less than a month later, though, Villon was involved in another street fight. This time, he was only a bystander. But the man wounded was Ferrebouc, the pontifical prosecutor in the College de Navarre case. Villon was implicated and tossed into prison yet again.
If you say “Chatelet” today, visitors and native Parisians alike will think of a modern, fun area near the center of the city: full of restaurants, shopping, and all sorts of people, from businessmen to skateboarders, hippies to ghetto punks. In fact, the Place du Chatelet is a square with an Egyptian-inspired 19th century fountain in the middle, and two of Paris’ best-known theatres on either side.
But an enormous prison once stood here. I wonder if this dark past might have somehow left a trace.
Mr. Ben A. works at a news kiosk near the fountain. For him, the bustling location is perfect, and not only because he sells a lot of papers. “I like people-watching” he tells me, between taking change and giving hurried customers their requested copies of Le Figaro and Le Parisien.
“Did you know there was once a jail right where we’re standing?” I ask.
We glance around. Friends happily greet each other. People savor coffees and diabolos on the terraces of typically Parisian-looking cafes. Only the idea that the Conciergerie, a former famous prison, is just across the river, made the area’s past even remotely believable.
At Chatelet, Villon was tortured and sentenced to hang for his crimes. Once more the poet skillfully pled his case, and got off with a lighter punishment than hanging: banishment from Paris for 10 years. But maybe this was not a lighter sentence after all. Once he left the city walls, Villon was never heard from again. It remains an unfinished ending, but a fitting one, as though, without his city to inspire him, Villon faded away. Scholars have been searching for Villon after 1463 for centuries. Their search seems as useless as my own.
Or perhaps not.
Outside the College de France, Balthazar P., a student, lights a cigarette. I introduce myself and ask, “Do you know who Francois Villon is?”
Balthazar nods straight away, “The ‘bad boy’ poet.”
He says he knows some of Villon’s work, including the famous Ballad of the Hanged Men.
“You’re studying where Villon grew up and studied,” I inform.
Balthazar gazes at me sagely, “This has always been the students’ quarter.”
Although they no longer thieve signs, students still command the Latin Quarter, giving the area as much life as they did nearly a thousand years ago, when Paris was Europe’s major university town.
When I hand news kiosk owner Ben A. one of Villon’s verses, he scans the lines attentively.
“His poems are on posters in the Metro cars sometimes.”
Strange, but appropriate: Villon’s words rush daily through subterranean tunnels, like blood through the veins of his beloved city.
Thanks very much for this. I’m trying to get a sense of the geography of Villon’s Paris for a chapter of a novel. Despite the fact that so much is now missing, your piece has given me the best outline so far.