Villon's "Ballad of Dead Ladies" - A Critical Edition from Manuscript C

To understand the "Ballade des dames du temps jadis", we need to know that its first appearance chronologically was in the part Villon's Testament, often referenced with the term "les regrets", where the poetic voice vacillates between repentance and a generally serious contemplation, with some comic interludes and overtones. Specifically, it is a part of the voice's meditation on death (T281-426: h.XXXVII-XLXXX, pp. 32-36), reminiscent of well-known Bible passages such as, Psalm 103 ("Laus misericordiae Dei"). It is also the first of a triptych of ballads, which participate in the well-known topos, ubi sunt qui ante nos fuerunt. This 28-line ballad is preceded by a poeticized lesson on the post-mortem decomposition of the human body, followed by a rhetorical question, asking if the same applies to the tender flesh of women. We should not overlook the fact that the title, "Ballade des dames du temps jadis," so frequently influential in our reading of the poem, is not Villon's but that of sixteenth-century editor, Clément Marot, also a published poet, and quite confident of the appropriateness of his editing techniques. The poem does not appear in any of the four principal early sources (ACFI) without the title "Ballade", which may itself be simply a scribal tradition, but which sets the fixed-form poem apart from the octaves preceding it. Though Villon's Testament is often described as an anthology of fixed-form poems set in the context of a satirical will, there is no fifteenth-century source evidence pointing to the status of separate poem for this ballad. It is doubtful its inclusion in two sixteenth-century manuscript anthologies (P and R) of Villon's fixed form poems represents a pre-testament state.

The poem mentions, explicitly or implicitly fifteen known real and mythological figures. Among the thematic reductions we hear about this ballad, are that it is based on a list of famous women who have been worrisome or treacherous to men, and that they are mentioned in chronological order. In point of fact, their order is only roughly chronological. There is one man, who is feminized, and one woman who dresses in men's clothing in the group. Some of the females are not human or are women who have been deified. In one case, a nymph, who could only repeat the end of others' sentences, has wasted away to a mere voice because of her sorrow over being spurned by a half-human male. In another, the identity of the woman can only be inferred through association with the name of her male victim.

The text I present is essentially that of manuscript C, except in three places where I find the readings are opaque, or run against an acknowledged historical truth, without adding anything genuinely in the spirit of Villon to the sense of the phrase. Rejected readings from manuscript C are explained below the text, and accompanied by a varia lectio, including significant variants from principal sources. I have hyper-linked the text with articles and notes on the famous people mentioned or the events they represent, some in the text, with a number of supplements in the right column. Other aids for use and study include a lightly annotated Middle French edition, with a facing Modern French translation. There are also available a number of different online English translations of this ballad, though, in some case the reader may have to search though other poems on a page. Translations by

There are also translations of this ballad in languages other than English available online:

All discussion of manuscripts and early printed books reflect the sigla named in Robert D. Peckham, François Villon, A Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1990), pp. 7-27, but which are common in most modern critical editions. I have provided a bibliography of various critical issues concerning the ballad as and web data document connecting this ballad with certain works in American Literature


Dictes-moy ou, n'en quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiades, ne Thaÿs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo parlant quant bruyt on maine
Dessus riviere ou sur estan,
Qui beaulte ot trop plus qu'umaine;
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten ?

Ou est la tres sage Esloÿs,
Pour qui chastres [fut] et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart a Saint-Denis?
Pour son amour eust ceste essoyne.
Semblablement, ou est la royne
Qui commanda que Buriden
Fut gecte en ung sac en Saine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?

La reine blanche comme liz
Qui chantoit a voix de seraine,
Berte au plat pie, Bietrix, Aliz,
Haranburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jehanne la bonne Lorraine
Qu'Engloys brulerent a Rouen;
Ou sont-ilz, ou, Vierge souveraine?
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?

Prince, n'enquerrez de sepmaine
Ou elles sont, ne de cest an,
Qu'a ce reffraing ne vous remaine:
Mais ou sont les neiges d'anten?








Archipiades-2     Thaÿs-2



Pierre Esbaillart-2


Jehanne-2    Jehanne-3

Rejected lessons from manuscript C:

333: Etha . C is alone. The scribe or the tradition could easily have misinterpreted "c" for "t" and "o" for "a". There is no sensible place for "etha" in the interpretation of this line. "Equo" (AF) is a legitimate and attested spelling.

338: fut chartres et . "Chartrer" means "garder en prison" or "garder dans un lieu renfermé" in A. J. Greimas Dictionnaire de l'ancien français (Paris: Larousse, 1968). The adjective "chatres" stands against the weight of witnesses AI (F has "chartreux") and the the common versions of the story of Abelard and Heloise, where part of Abelard's punishment was castration. This line does not seem to connect logically with C's next line.

339: Pieres en bailla : This is not a logical substitute for Esbaillart (pierre esbaillars A, pierre esbailhart F). The spelling "Esbaillart", though not a common variant for Baliardus, is that of source I.

Varia lectio outside of manuscript C:

331: Archipiade A, Archypiades F, Archipiada I / Phias A.
334: sus est. AI.
337: Eloys AF, Helloys I.
340: son avoir eust IA son amour ot A / ceste estraine A.
342: Buridan AFI.
345: comme ung lyz I.
348: herault burgis A, Harenbouges F, Heramburgis I.
351: et aussi la belle Helayne F.
353: n'enqueres AFI.
354: ou ilz sont I
355: car ce refrain le vois remaine F / ramaine A.

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TennesseeBob Peckham
Director, The Globe-Gate Project
University of Tennessee-Martin