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Lecture du Testament Villon, huitains I a XLV et LXXVIII a LXXXIV.

|Il reste encore dans le texte de Villon bien des incertitudes et dans l'interpretation de ce texte bien des obscurites.'(1) Despite the many articles and books that have appeared on Villon in the course of the century, what Gaston Paris wrote in 1901 is as true now as it was then. A recent publication by Jacques T. E. Thomas, Lecture du Testament Villon, huitains I a XLV et LXXVIII a LXXXIV (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1992), is the most important since the appearance of the Rychner-Henry edition nearly twenty years ago.(2) It offers a rich array of comments on some of the best-known passages of Villon's Testament, including numbers of quite new interpretations, and it is with the principal points raised by this work that the present article is mainly concerned.

(1) Commenting on the absence of a proper beginning to the work, Thomas suggests that even the tide, Le Testament Villon, may be apocryphal (p. 9). However, since Villon protests at the attribution of the title Testament to his first work (LXXV), which he had called Le Lais Francois Villon (RH III, p. 5), and since the first 800 lines make no mention of the author's name despite being the most personal part (the pronoun je occurs over sixty times and there are many occasions when the pronoun is not expressed), it is reasonably certain that the tide contained the word Testament and the author's name, with or without his forename. Absolute certainly tends to be a rarity in mediaeval studies.

(2) According to Thomas, the opening stanza suggests that Villon's imprisonment was not particularly painful, though he adds: |On ne le saura sans doute jamais' (p. 10). Villon goes on to tell us that his prison diet a whole summer through was bread and water, that he was kept in irons, shut in a dungeon, and that he was ill-treated there (II and LXXIII). Surely the |maintes peines' (4) were real enough even though they have not affected him mentally: he is no wiser, no more foolish, as a result (3-4), which amounts to saying that the imprisonment has served no purpose.

(3) je ne suis son serf ne sa biche. (12.) This alliterative line seems to hiss out Villon's hatred of the bishop who had him imprisoned, but what meanings are involved? RH sticks to what is incontrovertible: the play on words serf (|slave'), whose homonym cerf leads to biche, a type of pun used by Villon elsewhere (911, 917, etc. RH II, p. 16), and cautions against seeing any sexual innuendo here: |il ne faut pas ... supposer qu'il lance des insinuations malveillantes quant aux moeurs de l'eveque' (ibid., pp. 15-16). Favier sees a hint that the bishop is bisexual,(3) Thomas that he is homosexual (p. 12). A word that has attracted very little attention in this fine is biche, perhaps because the meanings that would have added greatly to die suggestiveness of the line-|darling', |pet', -- are not attested until centuries later. A connection with English |bitch'- found with a derogatory meaning before Villon's time -- is not impossible, but it is unlikely. There is, however, a very different possibility, not mentioned hitherto to the best of my knowledge. In the early 1450s the young comte de Charolais, destined to become the last duke of Burgundy, was on bad terms with his father, who complained: |Tout ce que je hais, mon fils l'aime et le recueille, et ceux que j'ai en grace, il les hait et deboute ... |(4) Matters came to a head in 1456, when the comte objected to the growing influence at his father's court of the powerful Croy family. A reconciliation was eventually brought about by the personal intervention of the dauphin -- the future Louis XI -- but the duke laid down a number of conditions, amongst them the dismissal of two of the comte's entourage. One of these was referred to by the duke as |le pire subtil garcon qui fust sous la nue.'(5) His name was Guillaume Biche, |vous et vostre biche' as Charles de Melun wrote to the comte.(6) Olivier de la Marche tells us that, far from dismissing Biche, the comte kept him in his pay and sent him to Paris, where he got to know the innermost secrets of the |gens du roy', which he revealed on several occasions to Olivier de la Marche for the benefit of both comte and dauphin.(7) The dauphin also maintained contact with Biche. Chastellain, referring to the time shortly after Louis's accession to the throne, writes:

Ce Guillaume monta en telle autorite avecques le roy que merveilles seroit a dire.

Et avoient sergens et huissiers d'armes et tous autres de la chambre, expres

commandement du roy que, a toute heure, fust nuyt, fust jour, fust le roy couche

ou endormy, on lui ouvrist la chambre sans contredit; et ainsi en fut fait a plusieurs

fois. Le roy et luy allerent bras a bras par nuyt, telle fois estoit, parmy la ville de

Paris visiter dames et damoiselles. Car ledit Guillaume avoit la congnoissance de

toutes celles, du temps encore de l'autre roy, que ledit Guillaume demoura a Paris

|a cause de l'indignation que le duc avoit vers luy ... Le roy en ce temps-icy

recommenca a devenir amoureux, et soubs les addresses dudit Guillaume qui

savoit les lieux, secretement servit amours.(8)

Another one who |knew the places', it need hardly be said, was Francois Villon. On a later occasion, the Duke of Burgundy hoped that the king would attend a sumptuous banquet he had arranged. But there was no Louis. He was out again with Guillaume, chasing the girls.(9) On reading du temps encore de l'autre roy', one suspects why the duke disapproved of his son's fondness for Guillaume, finding him |[un] homme de grand peril pour estre empres son fils'.(10) But how could all this affect line 12 of Villon's Testament? In a work replete with topical references, numbers of which even in Villon's own day are not likely to have been understood outside Paris, biche, with a sideways glance at Guillaume, could very easily have been taken to mean |favourite', |million', with whatever pejorative connotations one attaches to those words, so that the fine contains two contrasting pairs: serf/minion, deer/hind. But, it might well be objected, is it likely that a minion would be clapped in irons and fed on bread and water? An odd way to treat a favourite! The meaning fits perfectly well in the context, however. Villon has been protesting vehemently that the bishop had absolutely no claim on him, no authority of any kind, secular or theological, there was no relationship between them which justified the bishop's acting in the way he had done.

(4) Et s'aucun me vouloit reprendre

Et dire que je le maudiz,

Non faiz, se bien me scet comprendre;

En riens de luy je ne mesdiz. (III) Thomas wishes to take mesdire in the second sense given by Tobler-Lommatzsch: |sich in Worten vergehen', translating |Je n'ai commis a son sujet nulle erreur de langage / Ma langue n'a pas fourche' (p. 14). However, of the several examples quoted in Tobler-Lommatzsch with this meaning, not one involves the expression mesdire de quelqu'un which is the first and most common use of the word: |to speak ill of someone', which fits this context perfectly (cf. 726). If this seems repetitive, so do other passages in this section, e.g. 15-16, 23-4. The second meaning of mesdire occurs in 190: |Je le dy et ne croys mesdire'.

(5) Priere en feray de picart. (37) Thomas is reluctant to accept the now usual understanding of this fine: |I'll make a heretic's prayer of it' and makes two suggestions, using the Dictionnaire de Trevoux in each case: either a derivative of the verb piquer in the sense of |quarrelsome', although exactly how he would render this in the context he does not say, or Picard given the opposite meaning to Normand, that is to say, |simple', |primitive' (p. 21). There is, however, an historical fact which RH surprisingly does not mention. The Picard heretics, well established in Bohemia through the influence of Hus, had a firm foothold also in two towns in the West. One was Lille, the other Tournai.(11) To find out what a |picart prayer' was, Villon directs the bishop to Lille and Douai (40). One of the other manuscripts, however, reliable on many occasions (MS A, |un des deux pillers principaux sur lesquels repose le texte du Testament': RH I, p. 14), has Tournai in place of Douai. This really is too much to be dismissed as mere coincidence, and RH's explanation of the expression must stand. The principal person in the West responsible for contact with Prague was Gilles Mersault from Tournai, who was burned at the stake in 1423.(12) Villon's telling the bishop he had better go there |ains qu'il soit plus tard' (39) was no doubt ironical, since by 1461 there was probably little if anything of the heresy still existing in Lille and Tournai. This evidence is strong enough to justify changing the reading of 40 to: |A Tournai ou a Lille en Flandre.' Various other points made by Thomas are affected: die small p of |picart' in 37 does not call for correction, and oyr in 41 must be taken in its literal sense of |to hear', not in its secondary sense of |to learn', as Thomas suggests (p. 23), since a heretic's prayer, as RH states (II, pp. 18-19), was said in silence and individually, in preference to a communal prayer led by a priest. If the bishop wants to hear a prayer said for himself, Villon will not disappoint him (see section 6 below). Thomas condemns taking oyr in its literal sense as |naive' and |Mistaken' (p. 23). On the contrary, in this and other instances (e.g. mesdire) the first meaning is the one required.

(6) Ou psaultier prens, quant suis a mesme,

Qui n'est de beuf ne cordouen,

Le verselet escript septiesme

Du pseaulme Deus laudem. (45-8) The psalter bound neither in oxhide nor in leather is usually taken to mean Villon's memory: |I take from the psalter -- since I am in a position to do so -- bound neither in oxhide nor in leather ...' Thomas suggests that Villon really did have a psalter, though not a de luxe edition, as it were, and that quant is temporal rather than causal, and estre a mesme de, following Tobler once more, is |to be capable of (p. 27). On this rendering, the first line would give: |I take from the psalter, whenever I am in a fit state to do so ...', which seems to suggest that he was drunk much of the time. Thomas, however, paraphrases: |Je suis trop paresseux pour lire, mais quand je ne le suis pas, voici la priere que je lis dans mon psautier' (p. 27). In fact there is no suggestion in the first half of the stanza of a repeated action: in case a silent prayer fails to satisfy the bishop, Villon replaces it with this new one. There is no reason to abandon the RH interpretation.

(7) Si prie au benoist filz de Dieu ...

Qui m'a preserve de maint blasme

Et franchy de viue puissance. (49, 53-4) Thomas rejects the usual understanding of |ville puissance' as a reference to the bishop, which he feels would be out of place in the context of this prayer, and sees it instead as referring to the Devil. However, since Villon has just been concerned -- at considerable length -- with his release from prison, and since he has made his hatred of the bishop very clear, the context encourages us to take this as an allusion to him. In that case, says Thomas, it is |discrete et sousjacente, sinon imperceptible' (p. 35). Does it need to be anything else in view of what has gone before? It is surely a simple case of |A bon entendeur, salut!'

(8) Stanzas VII-IX. Having heaped thinly disguised maledictions on the bishop who had imprisoned him, Villon now heaps benedictions on the king, whose passing through Meung-sur-Loire had brought about his release along with that of other prisoners there, in keeping with the custom. That, at any rate, is the usual interpretation, but Thomas disagrees, seeing an element of sarcasm even here, and referring to |les plaisanteries dont sont truffes ces bons souhaits' (p. 40). This is a challenging view with repercussions affecting a number of stanzas beyond these three. One's first reaction must be: how likely is this? What point could there possibly be in such an attitude? According to Thomas, the new king already had a bad reputation at the time of his accession |((il) n'en avait pas moins deja facheusement defraye la chronique', p. 36). His reign began, however, in a mood of optimism which even the Burgundian chronicler Chastellain caught: |joye et degoisement font a demener, quand la nouvelle regnation de ce nouvel roy promet tant de transquillite et paix',(13) words he was later to regret, but that is how it was in 1461. What are these supposed jokes at the king's expense? There are five in all:

(i) Villon wishes on the king the wisdom of Solomon (|de Salmon l'onneur et gloire', 58), stating that he already possesses ample strength and prowess (trop, 59, usually taken to mean |ample', is understood by Thomas as |too much' (p. 37) and therefore as a sarcasm). Villon is playing on the old fortitudo/sapientia topos according to Thomas, and by insisting that the king is excessively endowed with the former, hints that he is singularly lacking in the latter (p. 37). But Louis is a new king after all. He has indeed already shown prowess on the battlefield, but, in his new and far more exacting role as monarch, has not so far been afforded the opportunity to display the wisdom that such an exalted role demands. This is the obvious explanation, leaving no place for sarcasm.

(ii) Villon wishes the king a life as long as Methusaleh's -- 969 years (Genesis V.25-7). If the memory he leaves behind depends on such longevity, says Thomas (p. 38), the chances are it will not be brilliant. But this is just part of the diptych: short life for the bishop, long life for the king, as RH points out (II, 23), and, since another is shortly to take the bishop's place if Villon's prayer is answered (47-8), may he soon be forgotten, and may the king long be remembered.

(iii) Villon wish that the king should have twelve male children of his own blood' (65-6) suggests, according to Thomas (p. 41), that he might find himself saddled with bastards, as well as engendering a few himself. RH (II, 23) sees a reference to Genesis XXXV.23, and it is hardly likely that what was seen as a blessing on Jacob (|l'eur de Jacob', 57) should be seen as an insult applied to the king, the more so as male heirs were always of vital importance for the succession.

(iv) The phrase |le grant Charles' (67), is usually taken as a reference to Charlemagne, of whose name it is, of course, a literal translation. Thomas suggests it may be an oblique reference to Louis's father Charles VII, whom he hated (p. 39). But how would it have been taken in Villon's day? The memory Charles VII left behind does not seem to have justified such a title: le Bien Servi was an apt description, but Grand certainly was not. Besides, what point could there be in irritating and antagonizing the new king, assuming that Villon's Testament ever came to his attention?

(v) Wishing the king |paradis en la fin' (72) is, according to Thomas, a cliche not to be taken too seriously (p. 40). But what else could Villon wish him after a long and happy life? It is of course true that the praise Villon heaps on the king is fulsome, and that he is not at his best in verse of this type (RH IV, 64), but in the light of his recent release from the |dure prison de Mehun' (83), fulsome praise is surely understandable.

(9) (Dont) suis, tant que mon cueur vivra

Tenu vers luy m'usmilier,

Ce que feray jusqu'il moura:

Bienfait ne se doit oublier. (85-8)

There is an oft-debated ambiguity here. Does |jusqu'il moura' refer to Villon's heart, counterbalancing |tant que mon cueur vivra' even though the meaning is the same, or does it refer to the king? RH points to the ambiguity and prudently leaves it at that (II, 25). Thomas follows Gaston Paris's idea that the verb should be moura(14) (a form which no manuscript gives), so giving a leonine rhyme with recouvra, although in point of fact Villon shows no predilection for masculine rhymes covering two syllables. Paris takes this to mean |as long as my heart beats', but Thomas translates differently: |jusqu'au moment ou il s'en ira' (p. 43), this to be understood euphemistically. In his view, then, the pronoun must refer to the king, the nearer of the two subjects, because repetition would otherwise be involved, but above all because the meaning |until I die' would give a serious end to the stanza not in keeping with the joking nature of the blessing on the king. This circular argument begs the question, for the so-called parodic nature of the benediction has not been established. Besides, the king is supposed to last for 969 years. Does Villon expect to outlast him? Not much point in making a will if so! There is not the slightest parodic intent or sarcasm in the first half of this stanza, but only gratitude for his release, as Thomas accepts (p. 41), but what sort of gratitude is it that says: |I'll be grateful to him until he's dead' -- a point made long ago by Gaston Paris?(15) Commonsense says that Villon can be expected to say: |For as long as I live I shall always be grateful to him.' So |tant que mon cueur vivra' is followed in effect by |jusque mon cueur mourra', and if the stanzas on the bishop can contain as much repetition as they do, that is all the more reason to expect a certain amount here too.

(10) Or est vray qu'apres plains et pleurs

Et angoisseux gemissemens,

Apres tritresses et douleurs,

Labeurs et griefz cheminemens,

Travail mes lubres sentemens,

Esguisez comme une pelocte,

M'ouvrist plus que tous les commens

D'Averroys sur Arristote.

Combien, au plus fort de mes maulx,

En cheminant sans croix ne pille. (89-98) Thomas translates 92. as |apres de penibles cheminements[de pensee]' (p. 49) and takes the entire stanza as referring to Villon's reactions when still a prisoner. In the following stanza, Thomas accepts that |En cheminant' has to have its literal meaning, and relates, he suggests, to the post-Meung period, when |Villon etait effectivement dans une misere noire' (p. 53). Being abandoned to his sad fate in this way would account for the irony in his blessing of King Louis. This is a novel explanation of a difficult passage but is open to objection. Of the nine nouns in stanza XII relating to Villon's woes, only two have a concrete first meaning referring to physical hardship: labeurs and cheminemens. The second, abstract meaning is a metonymic extension in the case of the former, a metaphorical one in the case of the litter (not actually attested in or before Villon's time, as Thomas admits, but a well-known type of metaphor, he claims (p. 49)). The juxtaposition of these two primarily concrete terms, finding an echo in the first two lines of the next stanza (|En cheminant ...'), supports the traditional interpretation, an allusion to his wanderings in the period 1457-61 (RH II, 26), when he had left Paris after participating in the robbery of the College de Navarre. There are other indications in favour of this reading: in the opening stanza, Villon says that his imprisonment has not affected him mentally (see p. p. 87 above). Here in Stanza XII he is talking about something that has affected him mentally, maturing his mind more than his studies ever did. Moreover, the tone of the opening stanzas strongly suggests that Villon would not admit to any beneficial effects whatsoever arising from his imprisonment. Therefore this is not the subject in stanza XII, unless he is contradicting himself, unlikely in view of the vehemence of the first stanzas and the insistence in the whole of the second half of stanza XII on the effect these |labeurs et griefz cheminemens' had had on him. In any case, stanza XII, with its introductory |Or est vray que ...' (RH II, 25-6), marks a new development. Villon has said all he wishes to say for the moment about his imprisonment. He now distances himself from it and embarks on a nostalgic and self-justifying survey of his past. The first two fines of stanza XIII link up with stanza XII (Thomas translates Combien as |D'ailleurs', objecting to the usual translation |Cependant' (p. 53), which does not fit his understanding of these two stanzas, although in fact it is quite acceptable, the gist of meaning being |All the same, in the very midst of my afflictions, there was one ray of hope ...'. Esperance being the devise of the dukes of Bourbon, this is generally accepted as a reference to Moulins). Here too, then, the subject is the pre-Meung stage of Villon's life. His wanderings had a temporary respite when he was well received in Moulins. After that, for reasons unstated, came the disastrous imprisonment at Meung. Surveying his past as a whole, Villon goes on to protest, at considerable length, that he was no more of a sinner than other men.

(11) Quant l'empereur ot remire

De Diomedes tout le dit,

<<Ta fortune je te mueray

Mauvaise en bonne>>, ce lui dist.

Si fist il; onc puis ne mesdit

A personne, mais fut vray homme.

Valere pour vray le bauldit

Qui fut nomme le Grant a Romme. (153-760) In stanzas XVII-XXI, lamenting over the cruelty of his fate, Villon introduces a digression about the pirate Diomedes, who has been captured and brought before the Emperor Alexander to be sentenced. The emperor asks him why he is a pirate and receives a bold and quite lengthy reply: Why do you call me a pirate? If I could arm myself like you, like you I would be emperor, but this way of life is forced on me by my fate, and in poverty there is no loyalty ...' One inescapable conclusion at this stage is that Diomedes represents Villon, who goes on in later stanzas to complain in a similar manner about his own fate and poverty. In the stanza quoted above, one of the two emerges from the confrontation changed permanently, and for the better. But which one? Is Diomedes the subject of mesdit and fut in 157-8, or is it Alexander? This is a major crux in Villon's Testament, subject of a great deal of discussion, which it is neither possible, nor necessary, to resume here. In stanza XXI Villon goes on to say in effect that, had he met another merciful Alexander (that is, had he been given the same chance as Diomedes), then he too would thereafter have led an irreproachable life. This suggests very strongly that the subject of the two verbs in question is Diomedes, and not Alexander. This is the interpretation that RH prefers (II, 31-2), but Thomas disagrees. One of his objections concerns the structure of the stanza: three verbs where the emperor is the subject, followed by two with no indication of any change, surely indicates that the emperor remains the subject throughout, otherwise a remarkable, possibly unique |latitude grammaticale' (p. 66) is involved. That is so by modern standards, but mediaeval French is hardly renowned for its clarity, and there are other instances in Villon's Testament that are unclear (e.g., 43, 87,847-8).(16) Another of Thomas's objections is that this is not much of a conversion of a pirate if only his choice of words is involved (p. 66). Within the context of this anecdote, however, mesdit is understandable, particularly as Diomedes' arch rejoinder is hardly an appropriate way to address an emperor. On the other hand, one of the most frequently attested meanings of homme throughout mediaeval French appears to have been overlooked -- |vassal'; so that a fair translation of the two fines in question would be: |never afterwards did he speak inappropriately to anyone, but remained a true vassal [i.e. a loyal vassal]', contrasting with Diomedes' earlier remark to the emperor that in poverty there is no loyalty (151-2). If mesdit applies to Alexander, it can only relate to his choice of one word: laron (138), the appropriateness of which Diomedes does not even seek to deny (though he implies it is equally true of the emperor) and to describe the emperor, henceforth, as a "vray homme" is, to say the least, strange; vray has then to be taken as |upright', |equitable' (p. 67), but he had been that already in not demanding the summary execution of the pirate, as he was entitled to do. If, however, the emperor is the subject, the whole episode becomes, in Thomas's view, a reproach levered, albeit indirectly, at the king (p. 70): he had indeed brought about Villon's release, but his mercy had stopped at that point. He had done nothing further to help Villon: |On peut comprendre maintenant que Villon n'a pas considere son elargissement comme une grace suffisante' (p. 70). The vital question, then, is which of the two, the emperor or the pirate, has mended his ways? Neither reading is impossible, but the balance of probabilities must favour the latter, the more so as Thomas cannot be said to have established beyond all doubt that the benedictions heaped on the king are insincere and that Villon's intention in this digression is to put forward Alexander as a model that the king has failed to match.

(12) The next three readings are taken together, since they illustrate a single feature of Thomas's interpretation:

Aux grans maistres Dieu doint bien fere,

Vivans en paix et en requoy;

En eulx il n'y a que reffaire,

Si s'en fait bon taire tout quoy. (241-4) Thomas takes vivans as a gerundive, equivalent to modern |en vivant' (the spelling does not exclude this possibility) or, indeed, as a present participle, but without the comma at the end of the first line, Vibon's implication in either case being that the |great masters' do not five in peace and quiet (|ce n'est guere dans leurs habitudes', p. 95). So what is usually taken as a plain statement now becomes an attack on the rich. Line 243 has now to be taken as antiphrasis, and the point of line 244, that it is good to say nothing about them, is that Villon has just done the very opposite.

En cest incident me suis mis,

Qui de riens ne sert a mon fait.

Je ne suis juge ne commis

Pour pugnir n'assouldre meffait:

De tous suis le plus imparfait;

Loue soit le doulx Jhesu Crist! (256-62) The implication here, in Thomas's view, is that Villon declares himself the lowest of the low, and thanks God for it in view of the behaviour of the high and mighty. He is, in other words, expressing satisfaction with his wretched lot: |Villon remercie Dieu d'etre le plus imparfait de tous ... il est fier, en somme, d'etre le dernier des derniers' (p. 98).

Povre je suis de ma jeunesse,

De povre et de peticte extrasse;

Mon pere n'eust oncq grant richesse,

Ne son ayeul nomme Orrace;

Povrete tous nous suit et trace;

Sur les tumbeaux de mes ancestres,

Les ames desquelz Dieu embrasse,

On n'y voit couronnes ne ceptres. (273-80) Here, according to Thomas, Villon flaunts his inherited poverty (p.102), displaying it as a challenge, something of which he is proud, just as he is proud of being the lowest of the low.

Reverting to stanza XXXI, it can readily be conceded that Thomas's interpretation is very plausible: to the great masters living in peace and quiet may God grant that they act righteously ... ; but that this automatically excludes the majority of them by no means follows, nor can it reasonably be said to follow that this is an overall condemnation of the rich. Only a preconceived notion that everywhere in the Testament there is irony and antiphrasis can explain such a view. On the other hand, if Villon is content with his lot, and even defiantly proud of it, why does he regret having wasted the opportunity to better his condition? Why is this regret so acute that, as he writes the words, his heart is near to breaking:

Bien scay, se j'eusse estudie

Ou temps de ma jeunesse folle

Et a bonnes meurs dedie,

J'eusse maison et couche molle ...

Mais quoy! je fuyoie l'escolle

Comme fait le mauvaiz enffant.

En escripvant ceste parolle,

A peu que le cueur ne me fent? (2.01-8) Even here Thomas sees |un brin d'ironie: il n'a pas etudie parce qu'il a fait l'ecole buissonniere!' (p.83). But the important point is Villon's expressed sorrow over the consequences of his behaviour. Irony, which comes to the rescue of so many interpretations that refuse to take the text at its face value, has no place here. Also, if Villon flaunts his poverty in one stanza, why does he lament over it in the next: |De povrete me grementant' (281)? Thomas's interpretation seems to reduce Villon to a state of incoherence. What is certainly present is envy of the rich, including the well-fed monks, and regret over his own poverty, the more so as it was party at least of his own making, until thoughts on the end that awaits us all unite |pouvres et riches' (305) and lead on to the sequence of three ballades, most famous of which is the so-called Ballade des dames du temps jadis. On this poem Thomas has a great deal to say. His salient points are summarized here:

(i) The poem is an integral part of the entire passage, devoted to the Danse macabre (p. 116-17, 138), no different in this respect from the two which follow. This is no doubt true, but does not mean that the three are equal in value. There is a marked difference of tone and atmosphere.

(ii) The special effects said by a number of writers to be owed to the rhymes in -is and -aine, echoing the names Paris and Elaine of stanza XL, are non-existent or, at least, Thomas does not believe in them, pointing out that a reductio ad absurdum is within everybody's reach by calling to mind words such as gratis, tennis, rengaine, croquemitaine. This is such an obvious point, he feels, that he risks being |taxe de gaminerie' (p.118). |Gaminerie' or not, it can hardly be considered a valid argument. On this basis one could deny that rhymes contribute anything to any poem apart from their basic meaning.

(iii) Although its title is apocryphal, the poem really is concerned with ladies, and therefore is an attack on them because of Villon's general attitude towards the high and mighty, and because his pose was that of a martyr to love (p. 119). Certainly there is more irony in the poem than has sometimes been realized, since the emphasis in the second stanza is on the suffering inflicted on the hapless lovers, but then, if Thomas were right, what is Joan of Arc doing in the poem, and even if the Virgin Mary is included as a mere interjection (pp. 138-9) instead of the one to whom the persistent question |Ou sont ilz?' is addressed (the usual, and obvious interpretation), would this not be clumsy, to say the least?

(iv) The first stanza is concerned with prostitutes (pp.119-20). Putting them at the head of the poem increases the irony of the rest. The emphasis, however, is clearly on beauty rather than on moral considerations: |Flora la belle Romaine', Archipiades, a legendary beauty in mediaeval times (in point of fact a man, the misunderstanding being owed to an error of translation, RH II, 53), Thais who closely resembled her (ibid.), ending with Echo, whose beauty was |more than human' (335). What the four names also have in common is that they are from the remote past, whereas those in the following stanzas are progressively more recent, the last-named, Joan of Arc (|Jehanne la bonne Lorraine', 349) having been burned at the stake in 1430, the year of Villon's birth. This chronological progression is clearly intentional.

(v) Here antan means |previous year' with no vague, poetic overtones of the jadis sort (pp. 128-30). This has been accepted for some time, and it hardly seems fair to accuse RH of hesitation over the word's meaning when they conclude: |le mot n'avait pas au XVe siecle la valeur archaique et poetique qu'il a prise depuis et qu'il tient peut-etre en partie de la Ballade des dames' (II, 54). Obviously the reference is to subsequent interpretations of the ballade.

(vi) If the Ballade des dames is |plus belle que les autres' (p. 136), this is owed to its syntax, built around the question |Ou sont ilz?', resembling |une spirale centripete, dont l'orientation est indiquee des le depart' (p. 135). This is purely a matter of opinion. So many have seen this as an outstanding poem for quite different reasons. There seems no point in recalling them all here. Suffice it to say that, the more closely one examines the poem, the more complex it becomes. It is clear that it functions at more than one level, and that different readers (one could equally well say different periods) favour different levels.

(13) A number of Thomas's proposed new readings, always skilfully presented and well documented, are tempting, and yet a niggling doubt may sometimes linger, as in the following instance:

Je plains le temps de ma jeunesse,

Ouquel j'ay plus qu'autre galle

Jusqu'a l'entree de viellesse,

Qui son partement m'a celle. (169-72) The second and third lines here are usually taken as a parenthesis, so that the fourth line refers back to |le temps de ma jeunesse'. Thomas suggests that Qui is neuter, equalling |ce qui' of Modern French, and referring therefore to the whole proposition of the preceding two lines (p. 73), galle not being, as he rightly says, derogatory (p. 75). This is a neat interpretation, and yet ... has there ever been a more parenthetic poet than Francois Villon? Where unfinished or interrupted sentences are a hallmark, there seems little point in a change of this nature. Many a broken sentence reflects, on a small scale, the digression-prone nature of the Testament as a whole. Here is a similar example:

Puisque pappes, roys, filz de roys

Et conceuz en ventre de roynes

Sont enseveliz mors et froys

- En aultruy mains passent leurs regnes-,

Moy, povre marcerot de regnes,

Morrai ge pas? ... (413-18) Puisque is usually taken in its modern meaning of |since', but Thomas proposes that it should have its other mediaeval sense of |after', so making the parenthesis Of 416 the main clause (p. 143): once popes, kings, etc., have died, their kingdoms pass to others' hands. This gives a rather awkward asyndeton in fine 417, and Thomas supplies a bracketed Et in his translation. In a poetry abounding in conjunctions (et, si, car, etc.) one would want several other examples of asyndeton in order to be convinced.

(14) Although certain of Thomas's new readings are very open to question, others remain which no new edition of Villon's poetry can afford to ignore. One feature that deserves particular acclaim concerns stanza xxv:

Bien est verti que j'd ayme

Et aymeroie voulentiers;

Mais triste cueur, ventre affame,

Qui n'est rassasie au tiers,

M'oste des amoureux sentiers.

Au fort, quelc'um s'en recompence

Qui est remply sur les chantiers,

Car la dance vient de la pance! (193-200) On the slightest of evidence (a possible anagram in line 199 of the name Ythier Marchant; see RH, II, (p. 37), J. Dufournet sees a reference to this supposed rival of Villon for the love of Catherine de Vaucelles (who is only named once in the Testament, much later at line 661).(17) Even the normally cautious RH sees a possible reference in these lines to |une femme bien nourrie' (II, p. 36). One can only applaud Thomas's dismissal of what is little more than surmise, and agree wholeheartedly with his explanation of the last three lines of this stanza: |il faut de toute Evidence un mile en etat de marche; spontanement, c'est lui qu'on devine designe par <<quelqu'un qui est plein comme une barrique, car c'est de la bouffe que vient la baise>> ...' (p. 81). Villon puts it rather more delicately, however!

Amongst other changes deserving consideration are the following:

(i) Ce confort prens, povre viellart,
 Lequel d'estre plaisant raillart
 Ot le bruyt ... (424-6)

Thomas prefers C's reading prent in 42.4, because the second-person prens does not go well with lequel, which calls for the third person (p. 144). Villon is therefore making a statement about the |povre vierart' and not addressing him. On the other hand, whether the viellart is Villon himself, as Thomas believes (p.144), is another matter. Villon makes an abundant use of the first-person singular throughout, and there seems no reason for him to avoid it here if he really is referring specifically to himself. The third person makes of the passage a generalization, although it is clear that Villon himself could be included in it.

(ii) Ce que nomme escriptz vistement

Puis fay le partout coppier. (790-1)

Thomas produces good evidence for translating partout as |completement', which makes much better sense in the context than the usual |everywhere' (p. 150).

(ii) Bien eureux est qui rien n'y a (632 etc.) This refrain of the Double Ballade, the theme of which is that love leads all men to disaster, is usually understood to mean |Very happy is he who has nothing to do with love.' Thomas, however, points to one attested meaning of rien in mediaeval French: |male sex organ', and leaves his reader to draw his own conclusions (p.168). This refrain was also used, however, about the same time, by a somewhat sententious monk, Guillaume Alexis, in a lengthy moralizing poem. The first stanza applies the refrain specifically to Adam, whose death was brought about by a woman, and it is to man's love of women that the refrain clearly refers, as is borne out also by the contemporary English version: |Well happy is he that with them doth not mell.(18) That quite certainly reflects Villon's feelings in the matter. Whether or not other connotations crossed his mind, who can say?

In conclusion, by far the most extensive, and surprising, new reading proposed by Thomas is his interpretation of stanzas VII-XI, seeing Villon's gratitude to the king as ironical. In order to provide motivation for this otherwise inexplicable attitude, Thomas takes the following stanzas as referring to the period after Villon's release from prison, a period of acute misery no better, worse even, than the imprisonment, which, Thomas hints, was not that bad. The implication is that the king should have helped Villon after his release, but failed to do so. However skilfully presented this hypothesis may be, it flies in the face of clear evidence provided by the text itself The difficulty, in the end, remains the question of irony. In a work the first six stanzas of which are certainly ironical, one inevitably looks askance at the rest. The trouble then is that almost everything can appear ironical, as it does to Thomas: thanks, good wishes, repentance, regrets, praise, nothing is taken at face value. Surely that is going much too far? In the end, though, the exact nature of Villon's intentions and implications will no doubt forever remain a subject of debate and controversy.


(1) Gaston Paris, |Villoniana', Romania, XXII (1901), 352-90 (p. 390). (2) Le Testament Villon, ed. by Jean Rychner and Albert Henry, 2 vols. (Geneva, 1974), and Le Lais Villon et les poemes varies, cd. by Jean Rychner and Albert Henry, z vols. (Geneva, 1977) (henceforth referred to as RH I, II, III, IV. (3) Jean Favier, Francois Villon (Paris, 1982), (p. 416.) (4) Oeuvres de Georges Chastellain, ed. by Le Baron Kervyn de Lettenhove, 8 vols. (Brussels, 1863-6), IV, 486. (5) Ibid. (6) Ibid., p. 115 n. 1. (7) Claude Bernard Petitot, Collection complete des memoires relatifs a Phistoire de France, I e ser 52 vols. (Paris, 1819-26), X, 226. (8) Oeuvres de Chastellain, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, IV, 115-16. (9) Ibid., p. 139. (10) Ibid., p. 115. (11) See Howard Kaminsky, A History of the Hussite Revolution (Berkeley, Los Angeles, 1967), p. 3 57; also Josef Macek, The Hussite Movement in Bohemia (London, 1965), p. 65. The term picart |heretic' may have had nothing to do with Picardy. Pikardis said to have been a south German spelling of beghard. see Robert E. Lerner, The Heresy of the Free Spirit in the Later Middle Ages (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London, 1972), p. 121. (12) Macek, Hussite Movement, p. 65. (13) Oeuvres de Chastellain, ed. Kervyn de Lettenhove, IV, 6. Paris, |Villoniana', p. 371. (15) lbid. (16) In a later passage, Thomas suggests that there is an unannounced change of subject where none has been suspected so far. The absence of any clue to the change would not worry him, because |l'auteur n'a pas l'habitude d'annoncer la couleur en pareil cas'(p. 104). Indeed! (17) Jean Dufournet, |Deux exemples de la mechancete raffinee de Villon', Romania, LXXXVI (1965), 375-86. (18) Oeuvres poetiques de Guillaume Alexis, ed. by Arthur Piaget and Emile Picot, 3 vols (Paris, 1896-8), I, 133-44.
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Author:Fox, John
Publication:Medium Aevum
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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