The world into which François Villon was born in 1431 was one of extreme contrasts. On 30 May Joan of Arc was burned at the stake in the market square of Rouen. In the same year the newly crowned French king, Louis VII, was hiding from his enemies, shifting from castle to penniless castle. In December the nine-year-old English king, Henry VI, in cloth of gold on a white charger, rode triumphantly into Paris with his gorgeously apparelled retinue, the boy ‘staring for a long time’ at three lovely, naked girls representing mermaids in the fountain of St Dennis. Probably in the same year, but on the other side of the city, François Villon was born in the slums and alleys near the rue St Jacques.
The city was packed because the passage of army after army had left the countryside bare, anything that could be eaten eaten, anything that could be burnt burnt (and anyone who could be raped raped). One of the families taking refuge in the city was that of François Villon, but his father died leaving the family in extreme poverty when the poet was still only a child. That he received an education at all seems to have been due to the lucky chance that he would accompany his devout mother to church and in that way came to the attention of the priest, Guillaume de Villon, who later, probably in 1438, adopted the boy.
But, as Aubrey Burl comments, “there is a wise observation that an urchin can be taken out of the slums but the slums cannot be taken out of the urchin.” And Villon remained all his life a child of – and the poet of – the slums.
Burl is good on everything, but he is particularly good on the poetry. He begins by pointing out that it is much easier to write about Villon now than it used to be. “Censorship has relaxed. Earlier any faithful tranlation was unprintable.” As evidence, he translates for us, in a way that Swinburne was quite unable to in the late nineteenth century, some stanzas from La Vieille Regrettant le Temps de sa Jeunesse (the regret for her lost youth by the ageing but once beautiful mistress of a nobleman), and notes that “François Villon was never mealy-mouthed and he wrote as his old woman, the former courtesan, might have spoken.”
Long arms and groping fingers sly,
Fine shapely shoulders, and the round
Full breasts and heaving hips that fly
Smooth, slick and firm in thrust and pound
Against the place where we were bound.
Above spread loins my pulsing cunt
Between its gripping thighs was crowned
With gardened curls across its front.
But this is where our beauty’s sent,
Scrawny arms, hands weak and sick,
Crooked back and shoulders bent.
My flabby tits? Won’t stir a prick.
My arse the same. To tempt a dick,
My cunt? No hope! As for my thighs
Each one just skin, dry bone, a stick,
A pock-marked sausage. Beauty dies.
Yes, beauty dies – a favourite theme of Villon’s and one he frequently returns to, as in the quite different and very beautiful Ballades des Temps Jadis, in which he asks where all the fair women of the past are and concludes each stanza with the line, “But where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Villon lived and died surrounded by death, in a world in which “for the penniless, the only affordable entertainment was a public execution”. “He had elegiac eyes,” says Burl, in a memorable phrase. Villon recorded, like any great poet – or painter – the world he knew.
By the time you finish this book, that world, the Paris of the late Middle Ages and the danse macabre, is home, and François Villon is family.