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Reading the signs in villon: puns, proper names, and implied language theory in the Lais.

Villon's Lais quickly announces itself as the last will and testament of a poor scholar named Francois Villon, and the poem unfolds in accordance with this formal conceit: a catalogue of items the first-person narrator wishes to bequeath, and the names of their intended recipients. As Villon scholars have frequently pointed out, pictorial enseignes--the signs hung on taverns and houses--are among the facetious bequests. Modern editions of the text obligingly guide the reader through Villon's picaresque Paris: footnotes point out the pubs and street corners named in the verses, capital letters and italic type ensure that the names of these places are recognized as proper names. In a recent edition, for example, a typical stanza of the Lais is a typographically busy space:
   Item, a Jehan Trouve,             Item, to Jehan Trouve, the
     boucher,                          butcher,
   Laisse Le Mouton franc et         I leave The Sheep, choice
    tendre                             and tender,
   Et ung tacon pour esmouchier      and a whisk to swat the flies off
   Le Beuf Couronne qu'on veult      the Crowned Ox, which he'd love
   vendre,                             to sell,
   Et La Vache qu'on ne peult        and The Cow which can't be
     prendre,                          caught.
   Le villain qui la trousse au      That clod who bears her on
     col                               his back--
   S'il ne la rend, qu'on le puist   if be won't give over, let him
    pendre                             be hanged
   Ou assomer d'un bon licol. (1)    or finished off with a good

With the cues on the printed page and an extensive apparatus of notes, the editor guarantees that the reader will recognize that Le Mouton and Le Beuf Couronne were the enseignes of houses in the Rue de la Harpe and that the image of the peasant carrying a cow was depicted on the sign that gave its name to the Rue Troussevache. I would like to call attention to the way these helpful editorial interventions close off important dimensions of multiple meanings in Villon's text. A reader who is allowed to misread the signs--or rather, to read the enseignes as signes--tumbles headlong into a poetic construct of carnivalesque and disorienting images. When the proper names of the Parisian locales that Villon mentions are read as common nouns, the mimetic figures of the signboard take on an active role in Villon's macabre burlesque. The vache and the villain from the sign of the Rue Troussevache are recast as active participants in a narrative. Along with a sheep, a steer, and a cow, a poor rustic is given away as part of a bequest, and Jehan Trouve, boucher, is granted the right to strangle him and hang him up like a side of beef.

The availability of such a reading makes the enseignes part of a texture of double entendres, uncertainties, and comic horrors. I use the word enseignes throughout to refer to the painted or sculpted signs that labeled the medieval city's taverns, streets, and houses. It seems practical to take advantage of the French word for these signs in order to avoid confusing them with signs of the sort studied by semioticians. The distinction, as we will see, has a certain artificiality: the game afoot with Villon's enseignes has a great deal to do with the complexity of all signs, and partakes of the problematics that bedevil--and enrich--all acts of signifying and naming. The enseignes are loci of semantic instability in the Lais, opportunities for Villon to stage a dazzling interplay of signs and sign, of proper name and common noun, of word and image. (2)

This investigation will proceed in two parts: a short philological inquest followed by a consideration of theoretical implications. The philological examination is designed to test the starting premise of the essay: Does the physical presentation of the text eliminate ambiguities and enforce a certain editorially endorsed reading? Certainly in modern editions the answer is yes. The watershed Rychner and Henry edition (1977) marks all the enseignes with capital letters. Barbara Sargent-Baur's bilingual 1994 edition does the same and, indeed, in preparing the newest dual-language edition, I settled on the same policy. Jean-Claude Muhlethaler's 2004 edition, like Claude Thiry's 1991 Lettres Gothiques edition, flags the enseignes with capitals and italics. Capitalization and punctuation are historically contingent features, however. In fifteenth-century France, these conventions of modern mise-en-page were not yet in place.

Unmarked Signs

Reaching back as far as possible into the textual history of the Lais, we see that the text once allowed for a freer reading of the enseignes. Four specimens from the early generations of the text's transmission provide a useful sample group to illustrate the point. My sampling includes two of the four earliest manuscript copies and two early printed editions.

Manuscripts B and C, as they are known (Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale, manuscrits francais 1661 and 20041, respectively), were produced before the end of the fifteenth century. (3) They represent surviving witnesses of two different branches of transmission; they are also considered to be, respectively, the worst and best of the principal source copies of the Lais, in terms of scribal fidelity (Rychner and Henry 1.3-10). The two manuscripts are similar, however, in their limited use of punctuation and capitalization. In C, the first letter of each verse is a majuscule. In B, only the first word of each huitain is capitalized. Apart from these strictly formal uses, there are no capital letters. (4) Norte of the words or names that modern editors identify as enseignes are capitalized; le beufcouronne and la vache are written just like any other word, as are le cheval blanc and la mule (h. 12), and la lanterne (h. 19). (5) The same is true of the proper names of people and places, titles, ecclesiastical terms, and all other names that in modern times wear the distinction of a capital letter. Thus francoys villon and rene de montigny, angers, sorbonne, saint esprit, and even dieu are written no differently from common nouns.

The first printed edition of Villon's work, published by Pierre Levet in 1489, is contemporary with the earliest surviving Villon manuscripts, and its punctuation practice has greater affinities with the manuscript tradition than with later print editions. As in manuscript C, capital letters appear only at the beginning of each verse. This layout--with a line of capitais marching down the left margin but nowhere else in the text--was a very common way to write verse in the Middle Ages. Manuscript B's more sparing use of majuscules to mark only the beginning of each stanza was another typical pattern, established first with Latin stanzaic verse, but readily applied to vernacular compositions (Parkes 98). In both patterns, the capital letters are confined to the role of marking basic formal units of the poem. This use of larger litterae notabiliores ("more noticeable letters") to demarcate discrete sections of text was an ancient and well-established practice, with roots going back as far as Roman texts of the Republican period. The practice of using capital letters systematically to mark the beginning of each new sentence was introduced in the ninth century as part of Charlemagne's program of elevating the caliber of literacy in his realm, but the innovation was chiefly for prose texts (Parkes 10, 30-34, 41-43). When vernacular verse began to be written--and it is worth remembering that almost all Romance vernacular writing was in verse at first--capital letters and punctuation marks were once again deployed to mark prosodic form rather than sense or syntax. Punctuation was conceived as an aid to reading aloud, not an aid to interpretation (Parkes 98-106; Marchello-Nizia 32-44).


When Levet published his Villon edition, print was a new medium. Not even twenty years had passed since France's first printing press was set up, at the Sorbonne, in 1470. Printers clung to the familiar precedent of the handwritten page, using the same punctuation practices they found in their manuscripts (Vezin 445). Thus, in books printed in France before 1500, "capitalization followed no fixed usage, even proper names being set with lower case initials in the great majority of instances" (McMurtrie 4).

From the evidence of B, C, and the Levet edition we cannot conclude that the earliest generations of Villon texts deliberately discouraged readers from recognizing the enseignes as enseignes. Nevertheless they certainly did not enforce, or even facilitate, such a recognition. Unlike modern editions, they did not insist that certain bequests in the poem--le mouton, le cheval blanc, la lanterne--be identified as the proper names of houses or taverns. Enseignes, toponyms, anthroponyms, and the commonest of common nouns are indistinguishable in these early texts. Such categories simply were not marked.

By 1533, when Clement Marot published his edition of Les Oeuvres de Francoys Villon de Paris, this was no longer the case. (6) The printing press had propelled fast-moving changes in written language. Preparing vernacular texts for his printers at the Aldine press in Venice, Pietro Bembo introduced a new rigor in the use of punctuation and capitalization. With regard to these aspects of language, Bembo's 1501 edition of Petrarch presents a printed Italian that looks much like a modern page (Richardson 48). Though France lagged behind Italy in the development of a printing industry, by Marot's time French printers were using much more punctuation than they had two generations previously. Marot was self-consciously aiming to promote and preserve a corpus of French vernacular literature, and in preparing his edition of Villon he aspired to a level of linguistic precision that his contemporaries regularly applied to their Latin texts (Dop-Miller 219; Cerquiglini-Toulet 30-31).

Marot's text is of unparalleled significance in the formation and reception of an authoritative, "canonical" Villon because it was the edition in which Villon's work was read for centuries and is in a very real sense the forebear of all modern editions. When the first modern edition was produced, in 1832, it took Marot's work as its methodological model--and Marot's edition was itself expressly intended as a work of revision and elucidation. (7) "Entre tous les bons livres imprimez de la langue Francoise ne s'en veoit ung si incorrect ne si lourdement corrompu, que celluy de Villon," Marot laments in his preface. Finding verses mangled and meanings opaque, he says, "i'ay prins peine de les refaire au pl[us] pres (selon mon possible) de l'intention de l'autheur." To this end, Marot constructs an editorial scaffolding around the verses, adding a preface and marginal glosses. He offers advice on pronunciation, paraphrases obscure verses, and explains allusions. In the same humanist spirit of exegetical precision, Marot adds punctuation that was absent in earlier manuscript and print versions. Every huitain ends with a period. (8) Apostrophes and accent marks are in evidence (four acute accents, used with perfect consistency, in h. 10 alone, for example), and ampersands are sprinkled liberally throughout. Marot is also partial to parentheses (no fewer than seven pairs in the Lais), another innovation of humanist scholars (Vezin 442-45). Plentiful and conspicuous, punctuation is no longer an aid to reading aloud, but an aid to reading, in the hermeneutical sense.

Like other forms of punctuation, capitals have the effect of disambiguating readings, resolving uncertainties, and forcing the copyist, editor, or typesetter to also act as interpreter of the text. Accordingly, in Marot's text we see capital letters deployed with purpose and discrimination. As a general rule, Marot uses capitals for proper names. Place names, such as Nygeon (h. 18) and Seine (h. 29), are capitalized systematically. With the names of persons, the situation is more complicated: throughout most of the poem, both the first and last names of individuais are capitalized, but there are a number of cases in which only the first name is. Thus Marot prints Vegece (h. 1), Iehan Raguyer (h. 20), and Colin Laurens (h. 26); but Ythier marchant (h. 11) and Robert valee (h. 13). With the enseignes, however, Marot is consistent enough to show that he had a deliberate policy. Of the sixteen words that designate the generally recognized enseignes (my count includes adjectives within names such as le Cheval Blanc, but not articles), only two are capitalized. Trumelieres (h. 13) alone among the tavern names is accorded a capital letter. Mouton, which we have already encountered as a house-sign in h. 22, is also dignified with a majuscule. Apart from these two exceptions, Marot does not tag the enseignes with visual cues that alert the reader that she is encountering a proper name. Since Marot does use capitals to mark the proper names of most persons and places, their absence in the case of enseignes is noteworthy. Capitalization, like other forms of punctuation, is part of Marot's editorial program of stabilizing the text and elucidating meanings, but instructing the reader as to how to read the enseignes was evidently not part of that program. Furthermore, Marot does not provide glosses for any of the enseignes. He comments on many words that he considers obscure but does not inform the reader that le beufcouronne was a house on the Rue de la Harpe and la mulle was a tavern on the Rue Saint-Jacques. In Marot's punctuation-heavy text, as in the punctuation-free texts of B, C, and Levet, enseignes look just like any other noun on the page.

Letting the Animals out of the Pen

When the enseignes are not explicitly marked, readers (or listeners) encounter la vache and la mulle not merely as proper names of Paris locales, but as a cow and a mule. Granted an existence outside the circumscribed context of a signboard, they participate in the narrative and are subject to the same sorts of jest and ambiguity as other words in Villon's verses. Some of the possibilities are evident, for example, in huitain 20:
Et a maistre jacques raguier        And to Master Jacques Raguier
Laisse l'abeuvroir popin,           I leave the Popin watering hole,
Perches, poussins au blanc menger,  perches, pullets in blancmange,
Tousjours le choiz d'un bon         every day the choice of a nice
  loppin,                             morsel,
Le trou de la pomme de pin,         and the stem of the pine cone,
Cloz et couvert, au feu la plante,  snug and private, feet to the fire,
Enmaillote en jacopin               dressed up like a Dominican
Et qui vouldra planter, si           --and whoever wants to plant there
  plante!                            an plant!

Without the benefit of the capital letters and italics provided in modern editions, the reader is likely to hit a snag at the fifth line of the stanza: following immediately after a list of delicacies, "le trou de la pomme de pin" is a strange object to encounter. Translators generally rush us past the moment of indeterminacy: in his modern French, Muhlethaler renders the line, "la taverne de La Pomme au Pin"; or, in Sargent-Baur's words, "the tavern called the Pine Cone, too." Indeed, the Pomme de Pin was a famous tavern on the Ile de la Cite, later mentioned by Rabelais and by various poets and chroniclers through the seventeenth century (Fournier, Paris 55, 65). Villon's Parisian readers would have been quick to identify it. The next verse reinforces our understanding of "la pomme de pin" as the name of a tavern, conjuring a place "cloz et couvert," with a fire burning on the hearth. But the word "tavern" is the translators' solicitous interpolation. The word Villon uses is trou. A suitable, context-fitting definition of trou can be found in some (but not all) dictionaries of Middle French. ATILF's online Dictionnaire du Moyen Francais, citing Froissart, offers "endroit ou on peut se cacher." "A hole, narrow passage," explains Randle Cotgrave's 1611 Dictionarie of the French and English Tongues, identifying the basic definition that allows the word trou to designate a small tavern--just as, in English, we can call a dive bar "a bole," or a "hole in the wall." This usage is metaphorical; it does not compel the reader to think of a tavern. (10) Villon's word choice--unlike the translators'--opens up divergent meanings. As Cotgrave observes, trou can also be used "instead of Tronc," to mean "the stemme, or staulke of a cabbage, &c." (11) Now the pomme de pin is no longer the proper name of a tavern, but simply a pine cone, and the trou is its stem. The proliferation of botanical terms is internally consistent in a stanza which, in two of the extant manuscripts, has "peaches and pears" in place of "perches and pullets"--and which, in all versions, ends with the exhortation "Et qui voudra planter, si plante!" (12)

Even so, this trou is not a stem one can easily hold onto. The same primary definition that allows us to understand trou figuratively as a narrow tavern has other possibilities that carry the reader away from the safe hearth and signboard of a pub. Again, Cotgrave on trou: "hole, narrow passage ... and thence also a pore in the bodie, and the bunghole, fundament." The reading shifts again and we are shown a very different sort of space--still "cloz et couvert," to be sure--with maitre Jacques dressed as a friar, parked by the fire, ready for all comers. We hear with different ears when we reach the end of the huitain and Villon cries out the invitation, "Qui voudra planter, si plante!"

The dodging instability of the stanza, its layered jest, operates on the simultaneity of meanings that characterizes all metaphor. Our recognition of the pomme de pin as the enseigne of a famous tavern need not be supplanted, but when we are released from the compulsion of reading "trou de la pomme de pin" only as the tavern on the Ile de la Cite, the text swings wide open, offering, behind the familiar name and locale, access to a maze of insinuations, sexual innuendo, and sarcasm. (13)

The freedom not to identify certain words strictly as enseignes is to some extent necessary in all readings of Villon. Even editors who scrupulously identify every enseigne implicitly recognize that the words and images that Villon quotes from the city's signposts are active in the text. Awareness of enseignes' double presence in the text as both Paris landmarks and everyday objects is the basis from which Sargent-Baur notes that the Lanterne is a fitting bequest for the night patrol (h. 19) and Rychner and Henry explain the spiteful irony of leaving the Heaulme to an official who lacks the aristocratic credentials his post nominally requires (h. 19). (14) However, critics have not examined Villon's verbal sleight-of-hand with enseignes in a systematic, theoretical way. As has often been pointed out, Villon scholarship was firmly anchored in historical and biographical criticism until relatively recently. For scholars such as Auguste Longnon and Pierre Champion, to whose prodigious research all later commentators owe so much, the taverns and houses named in Villon's mock-testaments, like the men and women named as legatees, were mystery referents, a lost historical cast of characters to be unearthed from the archival records of Paris. Thus for Champion, the "meaning" of "le trou de La Pomme de Pin" is the collection of facts that can be ascertained about an actual, historical place of that name (a famous tavern, owned by Robert Turgis, located in the Rue de la Juiverie, with a back door opening onto the narrow Rue au Feves, and so forth) (Champion 1: 247, 2: 24).

Later, in the 1970s and '80s, Pierre Guiraud and Jean Dufournet approached names of people and local landmarks as coded references within elaborate systems of double meaning. "Villon est une enigme et un tissu de contradictions," in Guiraud's view (7), and accordingly he treats the bequests involving street-signs or tavern names the same way be treats all the objects, places, and people named in the text: as exquisite verbal puzzles to be decoded. Guiraud dissects the Beuf Couronne, the Pomme de Pin, and the rest without regard to their status as enseignes. Like any other word in the coded tissu they are resourcefully analyzed for homophones and slang meanings, to reveal secret words hidden beneath the syllables. Examining le trou de la Pomme de Pin, Guiraud associates pin with piner ("to peep or chirp," in the dialect of the Franche-Comte, he explains) and concludes that the pomme de pin represents the Adam's apple (pomme), here troue, or punctured (Guiraud 74). Dismantling Villon's work in units a few words long, Guiraud deduces an elaborate system of code and reads the poeta as a hidden juridical burlesque full of torts, pleas, and grievous bodily harms.

Like Guiraud, Dufournet reads Villon's enseignes through a process of decoding, and does not engage them as a category per se. He folds them into the class of words that interests him most: proper names, which, he says, Villon deploys to mock and lampoon their bearers (Villon and "Formes"). A person's name can easily be deformed into a sly insult; the change of a single letter can effect a gender change or turn a perfectly normal name into a humiliating epithet. Among the recipients of Villon's dubious largesse in the Lais and the Testament, a suspicious proportion have names that lend themselves readily to puns. In the surnames Merebeuf and Louviers, for example, Dufournet detects the mischievous presence of the words maire beuf ("the chief steer") and loup vieux ("old wolf"). And is it Villon's fault if one of the richest men in Paris, Michel Culdoe, has a name that sounds like "goose-rump"? (15) Dufournet focuses much attention on Villon's strategic use of personal names to attach animal qualities to their bearers but recognizes that the enseignes are similarly exploited for insulting insinuations. By invoking establishments known by the sign of the Mule, the Zebra, or the White Horse, Villon further populates his poem with snorting, stomping, lewd beasts. Dufournet understands the enseignes as contributing to Villon's construction of a carnivalesque alternative reality where hierarchy is overthrown and prideful men are reminded how like animals they are in their appetites and foibles. (16)

In critical approaches to Villon, the slippage between reading his enseignes and interpreting his manifold play with proper names is almost inevitable. The words or phrases which we recognize as invoking the city's lively enseignes are the proper names of streets, houses, or pubs. Yet, whether focused on identifying historical referents or deciphering patterns of hidden meaning, critical attention has neglected a linguistic dimension involved in the text's appropriation of enseignes. When Villon goes about borrowing words and images from enseignes and breaking them out of the frames of their signboards, he is breaking open a linguistic category and challenging a semiotic model that they embody. His move of writing enseignes into his text involves transforming particular words and phrases--such as le Beuf Couronne, le Pomme de Pin, la Mule--from proper names into common nouns. Released from the narrow function of designating a particular pub or private house in Paris, these names--words, after all--are reinflated with possibilities and meanings. When the Lanterne (the sign of a house on Rue de la Pierre-au-Let) is given as a bequest to the night watchmen, the word once again calls to mind an actual object, a utensil for casting light--but the reader may also recall that lanterner can mean "to taunt, insult," "to carouse all night," "to have sex," or (Cotgrave again) "to buggar, or be buggared." (17) The audience may or may not recognize le Cheval Blanc as an inn and la Mule as the sign of a tavern on the Rue Saint-Jacques, depending on how well they know their way around medieval Paris or how much attention they pay to a modern editor's footnotes; either way, when Villon bequeaths these items to Pierre Saint-Amant in the Lais (h. 12), they are present as a white horse and a mule--and are even more vividly so in the Testament, where the testator reconsiders his bequest and decides that, in return for insults tendered, he'd rather give Saint-Amant's haughty wife a spirited mare and a red ass. (18) When the livestock are let out of the enseignes where they're corralled, they become active as subject or object, things that can act or be acted upon. As proper names the same words do not have this potentiality. Their method of referring is a highly specialized one.

Proper Names and Stealing (Back) the Signs

Linguists generally agree that names are a special class of word and function differently from other words. As one linguist puts it, proper names seem "to lie outside the province of semantics, or at least on the outer fringes of that area" (Ullman 74). But exactly what makes a proper name different from any other class of word is difficult to pin down (Gary-Prieur; Wilmet). Proper names have a strange property of simultaneously denoting very directly yet meaning practically nothing. Indeed, one well-established line of theoretical reasoning maintains that the distinguishing characteristic of proper names is that they are devoid of meaning. John Stuart Mill articulated this position early and in a particularly uncompromising form: "proper names have strictly no meaning; they are mere marks for individual objects" (1: 122; bk. I, ch. 5, [section] 2). Even linguists who hold that proper names are not devoid of meaning tend to concede that they have less semantic content than common nouns and are at least partially defined by that semantic "emptyness" (Buyssens; Dan; Gardiner; Sorensen). In this view, names have less denotative function than common nouns; less responsibility to deliver information or description. Instead, their function is essentially deictic: their "job" is to point to a referent.

What a name lacks in denotational content, however, it purportedly makes up for in the closeness of its semantic attachment to the person, place, or thing it names. Once a name is assigned, insofar as it is agreed upon by a given community of speakers, it is precisely the right word for designating that particular person or thing. More than other words, a name cannot be replaced by a synonym. Of course, there are endless potential exceptions and points of elasticity (nicknames, disputed place-names, proper names that are so common as to be shared by millions), but in the search for the skeletal, widely applicable and, with luck, informative bottom-line that we call theory, many theorists agree that this fixedness in denoting one specific person or thing is the defining characteristic of how proper names function within language. The special tightness of association between names and their referents is what is meant by modern philosophers of language who characterize proper names as "rigid designators" (Kripke; Pendlebury). A certain measure of added nuance notwithstanding, this widely accepted theoretical position is not all that different from how proper names were defined over a century ago in, for example, a popular Victorian primer:

Name-words or proper names ... mark off individuals of a class, and exclude other individuals of the same class, but they are absolute or permanent, not relative and shifting marks: we can shift the designation the river from the Thames to the Rhine, and from the Rhine to the Nile, but we cannot do this with the designation the Thames. (Sweet 57)

In this view, the difference between proper names and other words is that names function by virtue of a one-to-one correspondence. Jean-Francois Lyotard articulates a similar position: "Names submit to the principle attributed to Antisthenes: One name per referent, one referent per name" (10).

With analytic philosophers overlapping oddly with a nineteenth-century grammarian, and an important postmodern critic concurring with a fifth-century BC Socratic, it seems that there has been surprisingly little progress over the centuries when it comes to articulating a theoretical model for how proper names signify. What these attempts to grapple with the semiotics of the name have in common is that they all imply variations of the ancient, unsophisticated model of reference which envisions a word as a label pasted fixedly onto a particular thing. This is the semantic theory set forth in the Old Testament, where, even before the creation of woman, God prompts Adam to give a name to each animal in the Garden. Similarly, the proposition that every object was primally assigned a correct and natural name by a wise name-giver [nomothetes] is famously articulated in Plato's Cratylus ([section] 388d-390e), where it is represented as an old and problematic, though by no means wholly discreditable, belief. A century on from Saussure, in a field which has long recognized that signification is a complex, mediated, multidimensional process, the category of proper names somehow seems to linger as a special preserve, where the simplistic word-as-label model tenaciously survives, relatively unmolested, like an ancient, lumbering species.

Enseignes stand out as beaming poster-children for this simplistic semiotic model: they are signs literally affixed to the objects they name. Not merely a metaphor for the old Adamic/Cratylist model of signification, enseignes are an empirical, real-life instantiation of it, posted on the street in public view. At this point, with enseignes presenting a more-than-metaphorical embodiment of the other kind of signs, the distinction between signs and signs collapses. In English, at any rate, the distinction is hardly maintained, with the one word conveniently--or inconveniently--covering both. In French too, the lexical distinction is only a prefix deep. Both signe and enseigne derive from Latin signum, the word which grammarians, by the thirteenth century, used to denote the semantic/morphological unit that we call a "word" (Saenger 451). The Middle French word signe (like Latin signum) covered a semantic range whose breadth would not disappoint a modern semiotician: word, symbol, a material indicator of an event or condition (the smoke that indicates the presence of fire, the spoor a hunter "reads" in the dirt), a musical note, a symptom, omen, gesture, and so forth. The word enseigne, from signum by way of late Latin insignia (plural of insignis, an identifying mark, emblem, symbol, visible token), also had a broad range of meanings, but was most commonly used to refer to manmade artifacts deliberately used as identifying emblems: flags, banners, heraldic arms, and even battle-cries (Rey 1: 1247, 3: 3505). The use of the word enseigne in the sense we have been using here, to denote a label posted on a commercial or residential property, is first attested around 1390. (19)

In Villon's time, house signs and shop signs were a relatively new form of writing inscribed on the urban landscape. No enseignes are mentioned in the taille (the tax-assessment census) of 1292, nor in Guillot de Paris' Dit des rues de Paris, written in 1300 (Fournier, Paris 21, Histoire 109). In the fourteenth century they became common; by Villon's period, almost ubiquitous. Before the rapid proliferation of enseignes of the sort that feature in Villon's work, there were undoubtedly signs of a more basic sort, such as the bouchon, the bundle of straw or laurel branches that traditionally identified a tavern (Fournier, Paris 19-24). But while this sort of marker undeniably participates in a semiotic function of communicating a message by way of a symbol, it is nonverbal; that is to say, the bundle of straw might be perfectly efficacious for telling a passerby where he can get a drink but it is not a visual cue to call the place Le Bouchon or La Paille. The symbol is not interchangeable for a proper name. By contrast, some streets listed in the 1313 Livre de la taille de Paris have names which clearly seem to have been derived from enseignes: the lion and the swan that gave their names to Rue au Lyon and Rue au Cine were evidently pictorial house signs on those streets. In some instances, such as the Rue de l'Image Sainte-Katherine, the name explicitly attests to its pictorial origin: the street is not named after the saint, but after a statue or painting of the saint. (20) A house known as the Corne de Cerf almost certainly had a stag horn out front. Fourteenth-century documents mention houses called La Clef ("the Key"), La Licorne ("the Unicorn"), and Les Trois Chandeliers ("the Three Candlesticks")--all cases in which an object or image set out as a distinguishing mark soon developed into a verbal name (Fournier, Paris 24). In other cases, the process worked in reverse: the signifying object, the enseigne, seems to have been put out to match a name that was already associated with the premises. One example, in the area of the Louvre, was the Maison de la Moufle ("The Mitten"), which belonged to a certain Guillaume de Mouflet (25). The enseigne--evidently in the easily recognizable shape of a mitten--is a visual pun, a sort of curbside rebus, an object meant to direct the knowing viewer to a verbal name, while nonetheless leapfrogging over written, alphabetical literacy.

The proliferation of enseignes in fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Paris was thus a two-way commerce, with material, emblematic signs generating linguistic signs and vice versa. In this busy semiotic traffic, regardless of the direction of flow, the enseignes that crowded into the cityscape constitute a real-world instantiation of the ancient label-on-a-thing model of language. Carved in wood or stone, painted, gilded, written in words, or in the form of an objet trouve fastened in place, the enseigne is an example of literally sticking a verbal designator onto a solid, material referent. If that were not cozily enough in conformity with the origin-of-language fantasies articulated in Genesis and the Cratylus, the affixing of enseignes and corresponding proper names was undeniably a matter of a conscious act, performed by a willing agent--only in mid-fifteenth-century Paris, the acting subject was not Adam strolling in the Garden, or Plato's wise name-giver. In the early-capitalist city, burgeoning hub of commerce, the people accorded the right to hang names on things were the property owners (Roux 26).

Villon's exercise of unhooking enseignes from their "proper" referents is a textual version of the contemporary student prank of literally prying the signs off the shops, inns, and houses of Paris. While Villon was a student at the Sorbonne, roistering scholars made a sport of filching enseignes in nocturnal raids that sometimes ended with violence and bodily injury. They rampaged through the streets with ladders and tools, unhooking signs and sometimes even making off with the hooks. (21) Villon stages his literary version of the theft of signs within a poem that masquerades as a will--that is, a text whose declared business is the reassignment of property. A poem in testament form works by calling out names in a roll-call of assets and recipients, but in Villon's poems, names are "called out" in another sense too, as one calls a bluff, rejecting the pretense of a special status. According to one scholar's theory of "un-naming" in the Testament, Villon accomplishes "a retaliatory restructuring of the universe" by usurping the power to name and re-name, and hence the power to define, judge, and assign value (Cholakian 217). But I think Villon's project is not the masterly act of bestowing names, it is a more playful provocation concerning the nature of language. Villon's move of manhandling enseignes down from their privileged places and shoving them into the general traffic is an exploration of the semantics of proper names, an experiment in breaking grammatical rules and crossing semiological categories.

Hanging at the streetfront edge of the public and the private, enseignes are the physical embodiment of the proposition that at least certain words--proper names--are attached to things firmly, in the manner of labels, by private fiat. By turning proper names (back) into common nouns, Villon insists that there are no exceptions in the chaotic game of signification, no private preserves. Even words framed as proper names are not exempt from the public nature of words to be passed around, used by each person without title deed or zoning restrictions. You can christen a child or nail a sign onto the front of your house, but you can never prevent others from speaking that name into whatever sentence they like, telling whatever story they like with it, or about it. Language is one thing nobody can own.

I am not proposing Villon as a medieval proto-Marxist or even as a linguistic philosopher manque. If he is "for" anything, it seems he is for linguistic free-for-all and the untrammeled multiplication of meanings. The reabsorption of proper names into the public domain of common nouns is not just a rejection of ownership or control but also a refutation of ideas of "rigid designation" and one-for-one signification. Villon's game with the white horse, the lantern, the mule, and the others rejects (as all puns, all homophones likewise do) the notion that a word or sound can have only one carefully circumscribed meaning. No word is attached fixedly to any one thing, he seems to say; that is simply not how language works. In the world articulated in Villon's two long poems, nothing is uncomplicated or unambiguous; there is no sentiment or statement so solemn that it can't be lampooned, no name so proper that it can't be ridiculed--or carted off altogether, into a different context, as a common noun. In language, just as in the streets of Villon's Paris, no sign is firmly, unequivocally nailed in place.

Ph.D., Comparative Literature, New York University

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(1.) Muhlethaler ed., Lais, h. 22. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations from Villon are from the Lais, in the new dual-language edition (Georgi, trans.). Wherever practicable, I cite Villon texts by stanza (or huitain, abbreviated "h.") rather than by verse.

(2.) Enseignes are conspicuous in the Testament too, but in the longer work, with its 186 huitains and nineteen ballades and rondeaux, the enseignes are less concentrated and play a less noticeable role.

(3.) These two manuscripts are readily accessible, in the facsimile edition of Jeanroy and Droz, or online, through Gallica, the website of the Bibliotheque Nationale (at and ark:/12148/btvlb9061980d.r--villon.langEN, respectively). The other two principal manuscript copies of the Lais, known by the sigla A and F (Paris: Bibliotheque de l'Arsenal, ms. 3523 and Stockholm: National Library of Sweden, ms. V. u. 22), also date from the last quarter of the fifteenth century (Muhlethaler 26-30).

(4.) Each manuscript has idiosyncrasies that complicate the identification of capital letters. In B, the letters j, r, and v are written with tall, heavy strokes that can appear to give them the emphasis of capitals. The letters d and j are similarly prominent in manuscript C. Both manuscripts are full of examples of medieval scribes' tendency to write letters differently depending on their position within the word and within the page.

(5.) Subject to the mouvance typical of manuscript and early print culture, each of the four early witnesses I discuss here preserves the poem with a different number of stanzas, arranged in a different sequence. The huitain numbers given throughout this article are keyed to the sequence now standard in modern editions.

(6.) Marot's first edition of Villon was printed in Paris in 1533, but I have worked with his 1537 edition for reasons of accessibility: a rare copy of the later edition resides in New York. The two editions are alike with regard to almost all details discussed here, even down to most vagaries of spelling.

(7.) Almost exactly 300 years after Marot's edition, J. -H. -R. edition was the first since Marot's to revisit manuscript sources and make independent editorial judgments (Speer 345).

(8.) This use of periods is one exception to the striking similarity of Marot's 1533 and 1537 editions. The 1533 edition uses considerably fewer periods. It also includes a few instances of the cedilla, an accent mark lacking in the 1537 edition.

(9.) For the purposes of this demonstration, I have removed the modern edition's capitals and italics.

(10.) Indeed, Rey's 1998 Dictionnaire Historique cites Villon as its first attestation of the semantic extension of the word trou to denote a tavern (3: 3934).

(11.) This definition does not appear under the headword trou in the Dictionnaire du Moyen Francais (DMF), but Godefroy documents trou = trognon (the inedible core or stalk of a fruit or vegetable) in detail under the headword tros, with citations from both before Villon's time and after (8: 90). Unlike trou = tavern, trou = stalk is not an extension of trou = hole, but a homophone, from a different root (trou < O. Fr. tros/ trons < Lat. truncus; see Rey 3: 3930, 3034).

(12.) In MS C and Levet, v. 155 reads "Perches, poussins au blanc menger"; MS F has a reading similar to A's "Paiches poires sucre figuier"--which some editors have corrected to "Paiches, poires sur gras figuier" ("The peaches, pears, on a big fig tree"). See Rychner and Henry 2: 26-27; Burger 14; Dufournet, "Note sur la huitain XIX."

(13.) Preserving ambiguities of this sort is one of the aims of the new English translation, which refrains from introducing the word "tavern," and translates Villon's line as "and another nice hole, the Pine Cone" (Villon, h.20, line 157).

(14.) Sargent-Baur 45; Rychner and Henry 2: 25.

(15.) Dufournet, "Jeux linguistiques" 337, 339. Merebeuf and Nicolas de Louviers appear together in the Lais, h. 34, and Test., h. 102; Michel Culdoe in Test., h. 135.

(16.) In a pivotal turn away from treating proper names as receptacles of hidden information, Nancy Freeman Regalado suggests that proper names function within Villon's poetry by virtue of their potential to become meaningless. A name loses its meaning when the person or thing it names is dead or forgotten, Regalado observes, and this distinctive semantic perishability is fittingly enlisted in Villon's meditations on time and death. Regalado's work ("Effet de reel," "Fonction poetique") provided the initial impetus for this paper and her insights and encouragement have been invaluable.

(17.) For lanterner as sexual slang, the DMF (Web, 14 Aug. 2011) shyly redirects to other sources; Godefroy 4:720 and Bidler 387 emphasize the verb's derivation from the noun lanterne, slang (attested by the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries) for the female genitalia; but see also Rey 2: 1975: "'se livrer a la sodomie' (1392)."

(18.) "Pour le Cheval Blanc qui ne bouge / Je lui change a une jument, / Et la Mulle a ung asne rouge" (Villon, Test. h. 97, 1011-13).

(19.) Rey 1:1247 dates this lexical development to the second half of the fifteenth century; Dauzat, Dubois, and Mitterand 256 trace the first known instance to Le Mystere du vieil Testament, written in 1458--two years after the declared date of Villon's Lais and a mere three years before Villon uses the word in his Testament (h. 96, 151). The DMF, however, identifies an earlier attestation, in a source ironically close to Villon's experience: the Registre criminel du Chatelet de Paris du 6 septembre 1389 au 18 mai 1392 records that some persons of interest "vindrent au giste en icelle ville de Poitiers, en l'ostel d'une femme veufve demourant ou marchie, du nom de laquelle, et aussy quelle enseigne il a en son hostel, n'est record" (Web, 14 Aug. 2011).

(20.) Fournier, Paris 21-22. Similar Parisian house names are attested in fifteenth-century documents: l'Image Saint-Jacques (1415), l'Image Saint-Nicolas (1456), etc. (ibid. 24). In such cases, the verbal name--that is, the linguistic sign that entered circulation as words the fifteenth-century city-dweller could speak or the tax assessor write--is not merely generated by the prior presence of a material enseigne, but also explicitly records the intervening layer of mimetic mediation. That is to say, the story told by the proper name is not the story of the saint (the name asserts no verbal propositions and tells no hagiographical details); rather, it is the story of the name itself, the name's autobiographical record as it were, recording that the house's identity was first marked by an image of the saint, and only secondly by this name that names the house by mentioning the image.

(21.) Champion 1: 55-57. One particularly violent rampage in 1449 included the rape of a young girl; another sign-snatching raid in 1451 ended with a student tumbling from a ladder and breaking his back.
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Author:Georgi, David
Publication:The Romanic Review
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Date:Jan 1, 2011
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