Incorporational Mechanics for Patterns of Self Imaging
Discourse in Villon's Testament
"Les autheurs se communiquent au peuple par quelque marque
particulière et estrangère; moy, le premier, par mon estre
universel, comme Michel de Montaigne, non comme grammarien,
où poète, ou jurisconsulte." (Essais , III,
ii, 782-83) . In 1595, when Montaigne
published these words, there was very little written in such an openly
autobiographical vein. Yet the Essais , might not
narrowly qualify as "autobiography" according to some modern
definitions . The fictionality of
François Villon's Testament (=T.) , implicit in its verse form would, by itself,
deny the work any possibility of establishing the author-reader
understanding depicted by Philippe Lejeune  as a generic cornerstone. Its multi-
formal variation and tonal alchemy would exclude it from modern
taxonomical descriptions of autobiography . Yet for positivist critics of the 19th and
20th centuries T. has yielded much of the poet's curriculum vitae
Villon's multiple, open-ended and historicized poetic voice in T. is unique in
French medieval literature. Far from being a sustained autobiography, T.
intermittently conjures up the testator's elusive self image, sometimes
through the grammatical distance of third person description and
narration or the second person accusation of a hypothetical interlocutor.
These autobiographical clips then become a seedbed of the poet's
international and renewable existence as a character in popular fiction.
Yet, having focussed largely on questions about the veracity, authenticity,
consistency and sincerity of the autobiographical Villon, scholars have not
made sufficient inquiry about its testamentary contexts or systematically
charted the rhetoric of its incorporation into the poem's presumed
The sheer volume of first person self imaging in T. defies even a summary
analysis in so a limited a forum. I would like, however, to briefly describe
three instances with similar incorporational mechanics, where the testator
adds a first-person autobiographical clip to a third-person non-
autobiographical context. To begin, T.161-68, directly after a retelling of
the popular Alexander and Diomedes tale, link the poet to the story
through his desire to find "another Alexander",
Se Dieu m'eust donné rencontrer
Ung autre piteux Alixandre
Qui m'eust fait en bon eur entrer,
Et lors qui m'eust veu condescendre
A mal, estre ars et mis en cendre
Jugié me feusse de ma voys.
Neccessité fait gens mesprendre
Et fain saillir le loup du boys.
one whose dual role of judge and patron in the tale strongly implies the
testator's criminality. This is reinforced in the parallel of the poet's
hypothetical self condemnation with the commuted sentence of Diomedes,
a character claim nearly mirrored in the stanza immediately preceding the
narrative, where the testator claims he would give up his life like a
criminal if necessary for the common good (T.121-24). The third parallel is
that of the two epiphonematic proverbs uttered by Diomedes in T.150-52
and by the testator in T.167-68, with nearly identical semantic functions.
There is a fourth parallel in the topic words "fortune" for Diomedes and
"eure" for the poet.
We may never know if this passage is a true indication that Villon, like his
pirate counterpart, committed crimes because of his ill fortune, but we do
know that by the time he wrote T. he had been the house guest of at least
one man with the financial power to change that fortune: Charles
d'Orléans . It is not difficult to
see Villonıs rendition of the above-mentioned story with his added
personal concern at the origin of Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, "A
Lodging for the Night" , wherein a
frostbitten and penniless Villon, fleeing the scene of a murder committed by
one of his associates, finds a brave and generous old knight willing to feed
and lodge him for the evening. During his stay he gets into a heated
discussion with his host, who recognizes the thief in him and urges him to
repentance. Villon argues with the man that soldiers are merely
sanctioned thieves (as Diomedes had argued), and, before he and his host
part company, he claims an obdurate attachment to his only permanent
means of sustenance. Justin Huntly McCarthy, who had read Stevenson's
tale, apparently decided to play out fully the "another Alexander"
scenario, inventing a Villon who is critical of King Louis XI, but loyal to
France. Louis imprisons the poet-thief for his insults only to release him
for a one-week role as grand constable followed by a one-way trip to the
gallows. After Villon saves the embattled capital from the Burgundians, a
very untestementary Katherine de Vaucelles successfully pleads his case
before the king who commutes his sentence, allowing him to marry the
noblewoman and to retain his wealth and noble status as François
de Montcorbier. Here Villon is allowed to do just as he promised in T. .
The next first person autobiographical clip, T.413-20, serves as a textual
bridge between the lyric sequence ending the first discourse on death and
another discourse on human aging:
Puisque pappes, roys, filz de roys
Et couceuz en ventre de roynes
Sont enseveliz mors et froys
-En aultruy mains passent leurs regnes-,
Moy, povre mercerot de regnes,
Morrai ge pas? Oy ... se Dieu plaist!
Mais que j'aye fait mes estraines,
Honneste mort ne me desplaist.
The initial coordinating conjunction "puisque" sets up a syllogism wherein
the first four lines crudely summarize what Villon has been saying for over
a hundred. In the fifth line he identifies his profession with consummate
self irony "povre marcerot de regnes" (poor little word merchant), but he
baptizes the powerful with a similarly undignified marker in the next
stanza: "riche paillard". The rhyme of T.416 with T.417 reminds us that the
rhymster has effectively reduced the glory of princes to mere words. Its
petit bourgeois commercial extension in T.419's word "estraines" further
trivializes that glory. In T.418, the testator becomes his own interlocutor
asking an obvious question and giving an obvious answer "Morai ge pas?
Oy ... se Dieu plaist!", but one that echoes a similar interchange in T.325-
28, directly before the three-ballade lyric sequence:
Corps feminin, qui tant est tendre,
Poly, souëf, si precïeux,
Te fauldra il ces maulx actendre?
Oy ou tout vif aler es cieulx.
T.419-20, at the end of the autobiographical clip, present an old man's
philosophical acceptance of death, and ready us for the next stanza's
third-person clip, the "povre vieillart", a buffoonish male shadow of
Villon's aging "Belle Heaulmière".
The last of these instances, T.657-72, is bivocal, where first and third
person singular voices split the end of the "Double Ballade":
De moy, povre, je vueil parler:
J'en fuz batu comme a ru telles,
Tout nu, ja ne le quiers celler.
Qui me fist macher ces groselles
Fors Katherine de Vauselles?
Noel le tiers ot qui fut la
Mitaines a ces nopces telles.
Bien eureux est qui rien n'y a!
The four preceding stanzas depict nine famous men whose fall Villon
attributes to the machinations of women. In the fifth, a lyrico-narrative
"I" is injected to sketch the circumstances of a personal humiliation at the
hands of Katherine de Vaucelles. Villon's self portrait in this gallery of
love's fools participates in the rhetoric of social leveling so common in T.
In the next stanza, using a third person self reference marker: "ce jeune
bachelier" in T.765 and claiming he would sooner die than switch, the
testator brings himself grammatically back in line with his gallery of fools
and dons the mask of the amant fol . His male solidarity,
expressed in the proverb "toutefoys fol s'y fia" further blends the personal
with the universal.
Bertolt Brecht seems to grasp Villon's spirit of autobiographical
inclusionism, when he inserts an anachronistic self image into the fourth
stanza of the Three Penney Opera 's "Solomon Song",
You know the ever curious Brecht
Whose songs you liked to hum.
He asked, too often for your peace
Where rich men get their riches from.
So then you drove him overseas.
How curious was my mother's son!
But now that time is getting late
The world can see what followed on
Inquisitiveness brought him to this state-
How fortunate the man with none! 
The other stanzas attribute the downfall of Solomon to wisdom, that of
Cleopatra to beauty, that of Caesar to courage, and finally that of
Macheath to sexual urges.
Villon's "gracieux gallans" discussed at length in T.225-56, is a dynamic
third person plural context for his self image; a cosmos which evolves
from an egalitarian and unified past to a fragmented class dominated
present, including the dead, great lords, cloistered monks and the rest who
"mendient tous nus/Et pain ne voient qu'aux fenestres" (T.235-36). The
testator identifies himself with the last group: the "povres qui n'ont de
quoy/Comme moy" (T.245-46). This variety is impermanent because it
constantly moves toward a monolithic statis through death, returning to
egalitarian and skeletal anonymity in the Innocents Cemetary.
We encounter a polyphonic or multi-vocal self image in the counsel given
the testator by his heart in T.281-92:
De povreté me grementant,
Souventeffoiz me dit le cueur:
"Homme, ne te doulouse tant
Et ne demaiune tel douleur!
Si tu n'as tant qu'eust Jacques Cueur,
Mieulx vault vivre soubz groz bureau
Povre, qu'avoir esté seigneur
Et pourrir soubz riche tumbeau."
Qu'avoir esté seigneur ... Que dis?
Seigneur, lasse! ne l'est il mais?
Selon les davitiques diz
Son lieu ne congnoistra jamaiz.
A Narrated second person singular pronouncement is followed by the
testator's reaction to the demise of Jacques Cueur, resolved in a quotation
from Psalm 103 . Before the dark
tone of a contemplation on death can grip readers, Villon makes a
disruptive and digressive denial of his moral and intellectual powers to
guide them in such a venture, claiming that he, a sinner, has no place in
something which is the domain of theologians and preachers. The obvious
rhetorical function of this polyphony is that of a bridge between Villon's
discourses on poverty and death. It is also worth noting quite another
attitude promoted in the poet's response to Franc Gontier. "Il n'est tresor
que vivre à son aise" (T.1481, 1492, 1502 and 1506).
An interesting third person autobiographical vessel for the testator is his
fictional scribe Fremin l'Estourdi. He is clearly identifiable with the poetic
"I" through the reversed proverb "Selon le clerc est deu le maistre" in
T.568. Fremin's fictional role of taking dictation from the testator and
transcribing La Belle Heaulmière's monologue is a comedic
strategy to divert blame for inevitable errors. Ironically, his very existence
is made tenuous through his name and the imperfections alleged by a
testator who wonders if he is even awake and who would readily curse
him "s'il me dement" (T.587). In his first appearance, Fremin serves to
draw the reader's attention away from a lengthy encounter with La Belle
Heaulmière. Here, the scribe's alleged professional weaknesses
create a dilemma for the reader, who is led to believe in T.453-56 that he is
an ear witness along with the testator, and who now discovers his
experience has been filtered through an unreliable transcription. The
second appearance of Fremin occurs directly after Villon's announced
intention to begin his bequests. The lengthy set of instructions is a
procedural fanfare to set up the digressive and marvelously comedic false
start that begins with an invocation of the Trinity in T.793.
Villon's instructions regarding his burial contain two intriguing instances
of self representation. T.1868-75 clearly call for an artist's sketch or
painting. The self irony that demands so impermanent and fragile a
memorial is only partially revealed at this point. A more complete
revelation comes when the testator orders his epitaph in the even more
impermanent medium of charcoal. In the middle of his funeral planning,
the poet orders an epitaph that is polyphonic in execution. A text
commanding voices instead of a voice commanding a text, the huitain and
accompanying rondeau seem to reverse the process of T. itself. The
rondeau is a bitonal description of the testator coaxed from the throats of
visitors, alternating liturgical, courtly, anatomical and culinary language.
It is third person singular sung by third person plural; but what emerges is
the testator's first person singular voice in his "J'en appelle"
Aside from the previously discussed interjection of the testator's heart,
there are three other instances where he reports the biographical
observations of a hypothetical interlocutor in a second person voice: T.572-
76, T1591-92 and T.808-12. The first two speakers accuse the poet of a
weakness for women of ill-repute. He counters the first with a long
scholastic-style argument of how honest women might come to this state,
and the second with a pseudo-chivalric claim that he is nobly inspired to
take up arms to protect Fat Margot. In the third, after the testator's near
blasphemous allegation about the patriarchs couched in anatomical
humor, a detractor attempts to weaken his argument with the observation
that he is no theologian. Villon ripostes by offering scriptural proof from
Jesus's parable of Lazarus and Dives in Luke 16: 19-31. In all three
instances mentioned, the interlocutor momentarily becomes a straw man
until contextual irony and tonal shifts deconstruct the testator's
The "Ballade de conclusion" provides an important last example of self
imaging discourse. Unlike the third-person clips I have discussed, it is
textually dissociated from the first-person autobiographical voice, but is
presented instead by a first-person biographical narrator. Was the
otherness of this disembodied voice the reason for the ballad's exclusion
from most of the text's reception history? We may never know. In focusing
on the last two lines of the ballade: "Ung traict but de vin morillon/Quand
de ce monde veult partir", I discern an epanadileptic symmetry in their
match with the first two lines of T. "En l'an trentïesme de mon age,/
Que toutes mes ontes j'euz beues". An extension of this symmetry is
suggested by the fact that the ballad discusses Villon after his death, while
the same number of lines in the beginning of T. focus on his misery before
his release from prison and recovery of life: "Et vie me recouvra", as he
puts it. We also note that, like the "Ballade de merci" immediately
preceding final ballad, what follows T.28 is a prayer beginning with a
series of veiled curses against Thibaut d'Aussigny and resolved in a
statement of good will toward the king and his family. The prayer in the
"Ballade de merci" begins with an address to groups of people for whom
Villon had relative good will and ends with an openly violent curse against
the bishop and his men. Thus, in a limited sense, the end of T. is both joined
to and reverses the process of the beginning.
In conclusion, I hope to have convinced readers that Villon's presentation
of self in T. was at least as polyphonic as the music of his day, that its
integration was purposefully crafted and that the testator identified
himself with well-known figures whom he perceived to have problems
similar to his own. It is significant that the most recent major research on
Villon's persona is an literary typology study, linking Villon and Job, by
Prof. Barbara N. Sargent-Baur .
Indeed the T. appears to be autobiographically a book of bad times. But we
may be sure that the poetic voices struggling and evolving in the
testamentary cocoon finally emerge free from the poet's somewhat
tarnished "bien renommé" to be custodians and co-fashioners of
his legend, which is popularly and canonically celebrated in 35 different
Robert D. Peckham
presented at a regional MLA meeting in 1991