Most of what is known about François Villon has been gathered from legal records and gleaned from his own writings. Villon was born to a young, poor French couple in 1431. His father died when he was a small boy, and he and his mother were left in a poverty made worse as Paris suffered through English occupation, civil war, and famine.
The boy was then brought to Guillaume de Villon, a chaplain of the church of Saint-Benoît-le-Béntourné and future professor of ecclesiastical law at the University of Paris. Master Guillaume adopted François, gave him his surname, and began teaching him Latin grammar and syntax. At the age of eleven, Villon became a student in the faculty of arts at the university, and under his adopted father’s tutelage, received his bachelor’s degree in 1449. By 1452, when Villon received his master of arts degree, the young man was on the cusp of a promising career in either church or law.
Little is known about Villon’s life during the next few years, but on June 5, 1455, Villon was arrested for killing the priest, Philippe Sermoise, in a bar brawl in Paris. On his deathbed, however, the priest publicly forgave Villon, who had fled the city. The young poet was royally pardoned.
Early in 1456, Villon returned to his home in Paris. In December, he wrote Le Lais, also known as Le Petit Testament, one of Villon’s most important works. Villon claimed to have finished the poem at Christmas, while, at the same time, he met up with a number of acquaintances and later stole five hundred gold crowns from a coffer at the College of Navarre, where the community kept their funds. In Le Lais, Villon shows himself composing the poem during the same hours he was orchestrating the robbery. In Louis Simpson’s notes to the translation, he poses the question: “Could it be that he wrote these stanzas after the robbery at the College in order to provide himself with an alibi?”
Villon left Paris shortly after the incident to find sanctuary in the provinces. Meanwhile, some of his criminal compatriots formed a small gang and conducted a crime spree throughout the north of France. When the authorities began arresting and hanging his friends, Villon was also accused and banished from Paris. He wandered for several years, and sought refuge with the Duke of Orléans, a fellow poet and admirer of his work, who eventually helped secure Villon’s pardon.
And then in 1461, after being once again imprisoned for a minor crime and then pardoned by the newly crowned King Charles VII, Villon composed what is considered his masterpiece, Le Testament. The over two thousand verses are propelled by the immediate possibility of a death sentence for Villon by hanging, and balance the extremes of anger and religious fervor.
Villon’s luck finally seemed to have run out when he was once again arrested for brawling; this time, he was sentenced to the gallows. While awaiting his death sentence, Villon composed “Ballad of Hanged Men” and “I Am Francois, They Have Caught Me.” A last minute appeal to Parliament reduced his sentence to ten years banishment from Paris on January 5, 1463. At the time, Villon was only thirty-four years old. He left the city and was never heard from again.