François Villon is banished from Paris

The French poet was ordered to leave his city on January 3rd, 1463.

The very image of a poet: a woodcut of Villon, from the first edition of 'Le Grand Testament', 1489
The very image of a poet: a woodcut of Villon, from the first edition of 'Le Grand Testament', 1489

The great French poet was also a killer, a thief and a roistering drunken brawler, who spent a good deal of his life either in prison or wandering around France until forced to move on from places which had had enough of him. He was apparently born in Paris in 1431 of humble origins, was brought up by a foster-father from whom he took his surname and gained a master’s degree at the University of Paris in 1452. Three years later he and some companions were involved in a drunken quarrel in which he killed a man with his dagger. He was banished from Paris but given a royal pardon, only to be banished again for leading a gang that stole gold coins from one of the university’s colleges. A poem of this time is a sardonic will bequeathing his hair clippings to his barber and small amounts of cash to three money-lenders.

Villon was in prison in Blois and released in 1457 and again in the Bourbonnais region in 1461, when he wrote his Le Grand Testament, in which he regretted his dissipated youth in the taverns and brothels of Paris. In 1925 Ezra Pound wrote an opera based on it. Villon was soon in prison again in Paris for robbery and in the following year was condemned to death for his part in a brawl. The sentence was commuted to banishment from Paris for ten years. Now in his early thirties he left the city once more and nothing was ever heard of him again. When, where and how he died is unknown.

Villon had a gift for acrostics and liked to use thieves’ slang. His poems were first published in 1489 by a Parisian bookseller, Pierre Levet. His most quoted and most haunting line, as translated into English by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, comes in his ballad on beautiful women of the past: Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?, ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’.