Nevertheless this century of strife and chaos produced a major poet and a major historian. As one result of a national economy and a centralized government, French literature now used the language of Paris, whether the author came from Brittany, Burgundy, or Provence. As if to prove that French had matured, Philippe de Comines chose it, not Latin, for his Mémoires. He took his surname from Comines in Flanders, where he was born. He came of favored lineage, for Duke Philip V was his godfather, he was brought up at the Burgundian court, and at seventeen (1464) he was on the staff of the Count of Charolais. When the Count, become Charles the Bold, captured Louis XI at Péronne, Comines resented the behavior of the Duke, perhaps foresaw his fall, and wisely passed to the service of the King. Louis made him chamberlain and enriched him with estates, and Charles VIII sent him on important diplomatic missions. Meanwhile Comines composed two classics of historical literature: Mémoires, cronique, et hystoire du roy Louis onziesme, and Cronique du roi Charles huytiesme—narratives written in clear and simple French by a man who knew the world and had shared in the events that he described.
These books instance the extraordinary wealth of French literature in memoirs. They have their faults: they spend themselves mostly upon war; they are not as fresh and vivid as Froissart or Villehardouin or Joinville: they make too many curtsies to God while admiring the unscrupulous statecraft of Louis XI; and more often than not the discursive digressions are pits of platitudes. None the less Comines is the first modern philosophical historian: he seeks the relations of cause and effect, analyzes character, motives, and pretenses, judges conduct objectively, and studies events and original documents to illuminate the nature of man and the state. In these regards he anticipates Machiavelli and Guicciardini, and in his pessimistic estimate of mankind:
Neither natural reason, nor our own knowledge, nor love of our neighbor, nor anything else is always sufficient to restrain us from doing violence to one another, or to withhold us from retaining what we already have, or to deter us from usurping the possessions of others by all possible means.... Wicked men grow the worse for their knowledge, but the good improve extremely.21
Like Machiavelli, he hopes that his book will teach princes a trick or two:
Perhaps inferior persons will not give themselves the trouble to read these memoirs, but princes... may do it, and find some information to reward their pains.... For though neither enemies nor princes are always alike, yet, their affairs being often the same, it is not altogether unprofitable to be informed of what is past.... . One of the greatest means to make a man wise is to have studied histories .... and to have learned to frame and proportion our counsels and undertakings according to the model and example of our predecessors. For our life is but of short duration, and insufficient to give us experience of so many things.22
The Emperor Charles V, the wisest Christian ruler of his age, agreed with Comines, and called the Mémoires his breviary.
The general public preferred romances, farces, and satires. In 1508 appeared the French version of Amadis de Gaule. A dozen companies of players continued to present mistères, moralities, farces, and soties—follies that made fun of everybody, including priests and kings. Pierre Gringore was a master of this form, writing and acting soties with verve and success through a generation. The most enduring farce in French literature, Maistre Pierre Pathelin, was first played about 1464, and as late as 1872.23 Pathelin is a poor lawyer starving for cases. He persuades a draper to sell him six ells of cloth, and invites him to dinner that evening to receive payment. When the draper comes, Pathelin is in bed raving with pretended fever, and professes to know nothing about the ells or the dinner. The draper leaves in disgust, meets the shepherd of his flock, accuses him of secretly disposing of several sheep, and hails him before a judge. The shepherd seeks a cheap lawyer and finds Pathelin, who coaches him to play the idiot and to answer all questions with the baa (French bé) of the sheep. The judge, baffled with baas, and confused by the draper’s mingling of complaints against both the shepherd and the lawyer, gives France a famous phrase by begging all parties, Revenons à ces moutons—“Let us come back to these sheep”;24 and finally, in despair of getting any logic out of the fracas, dismisses the case. The triumphant Pathelin asks for his fee, but the shepherd only answers “Baa,” and the clever deceiver is rooked by the simpleton. The story is unfolded with all the spirit of a Gallic altercation. Rabelais may have remembered Pathelin when he conceived Panurge, and Molière reincarnated Gringore and the unknown author of this play.
The one unforgettable figure in the French literature of the fifteenth century is François Villon. He lied, stole, cheated, fornicated, and killed like the kings and nobles of his time, but with more rhyme and reason. He was so poor that he could not call even his name his own. Born François de Montcorbier (1431), reared in plague and misery in Paris, and adopted by a kindly priest, Guillaume de Villon, he took his foster-father’s name, disgraced it, and gave it immortality. Guillaume put up with the lad’s pranks and truancies, financed his studies at the university, and took proud comfort when François received the degree of master of arts (1452). For three years thereafter Guillaume provided him with bed and board in the cloisters of St. Benoît, waiting for the master to mature.
It must have saddened the hearts of Guillaume and François’ mother to see him turning from piety to poetry, from theology to burglary. Paris was rich in rakes, trulls, quacks, sneak thieves, beggars, bullies, procurers, and drunks, and the reckless youth made friends in almost every category; for a while he served as a pimp.25 Perhaps he had received too much religion, and found a cloister cloying; it is especially difficult for a clergyman’s son to enjoy the Ten Commandments. On June 5, 1455, a priest, Philippe Chermoye, started a quarrel with him (says François), and cut his lip with a knife, whereupon Villon gashed him so deeply in the groin that within the week Philippe was dead. A hero among his comrades, an outlaw hunted by the police, the poet fled from Paris and for almost a year hid in the countryside.
He returned “shrunk and wan,” sharp of features and dry of skin, keeping an eye out for the gendarmes, picking a lock or a pocket now and then, and hungering for food and love. He became enamored of a bourgeois lass, who bore with him till she could find a better cavalier, who beat him; he loved her the more, but commemorated her later as “ma damoyselle au nez tortu”—“my lady of the twisted nose.” About this time (1456) he composed Le petit testament, the shorter of his poetic wills; for he had many debts and injuries to repay, and could never tell when he might close his life with a noose. He scolds his love for the parsimony of her flesh, sends his hose to Robert Vallée, to “clothe his mistress more decently,” and bequeaths to Pernet Marchand “three sheaves of straw or hay, upon the naked floor to lay, and so the amorous game to play.” He devises to his barber “the ends and clippings of my hair”; and leaves his heart, “piteous, pale, and numb and dead,” to her who had “so dourly banished me her sight.” 26
After disposing of all this wealth he seems to have lacked bread. On Christmas Eve, 1456, he joined three others in robbing the College of Navarre of some 500 crowns ($12,500?). Buttressed with his share, François resumed his stay in the country. For a year he disappears from historic sight; then, in the winter of 1457, we find him among the poets entertained at Blois by Charles of Orléans. Villon took part in a poetic tournament there, and must have pleased, for Charles kept him through some weeks as his guest, and replenished the youth’s leaking purse. Then some prank or quarrel cooled their friendship, and François returned to the road, versifying an apology. He wandered south to Bourges, exchanged a poem for a present with Duke John II of Bourbon, and rambled as far as Roussillon. We picture him, from his poetry, as living on gifts and loans, on fruit and nuts and hens plucked from roadside farms, talking with peasant girls and tavern tarts, singing or whistling on the highways, dodging the police in the towns. Again we lose track of him; then, suddenly, he reappears, condemned to death in a prison at Orléans (1460).
We do not know what brought him to that pass; we know only that in July of that year Marie of Orléans, daughter of the poet duke, made a formal entry into the city, and that Charles celebrated the occasion with a general amnesty to prisoners. Villon emerged from death to life in an ecstasy of joy. Soon hungry, he stole again, was caught, and—his previous escapades being held against him—was thrown into a dark and dripping dungeon in the village of Meung-sur-Loire, near Orléans. Four months he lived there with rats and toads, biting his scarred lip, and vowing vengeance on a world that punished thieves and let poets starve. But not all the world was unkind. Louis XI, passing through Orléans, declared another amnesty, and Villon, told that he was free, danced a fandango on his prison straw. He rushed back to Paris or its vicinity; and now, old and bald and penniless at thirty, he wrote his greatest poems, which he called simply Les Lais (The Lays); posterity, finding so many of them cast again into the form of ironic bequests, termed themLe grand testament (1461–62).
He leaves his spectacles to the hospital for blind paupers, so that they may, if they can, distinguish the good from the bad, the lowly from the great, among the skeletons in the charnel house of the Innocents. So soon in life obsessed with death, he mourns the mortality of beauty, and sings a Ballade des dames du temps jadis—of yesterday’s belles:
Dictes moy ou, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiades, ne Thaïs,
Qui jut sa cousine germaine,
Echo parlant quant bruyt on maire,
Dessus rivière ou sus estan,
Que beaulté of trop plus qu’humaine.
Mais ou sont les neiges d’autan?*
He considers it nature’s unforgivable sin to ravish us with loveliness and then dissolve it in our arms. His bitterest poem is Les regrets de la belle heaulmière—the lament of the fair helm-maker:
Where is that clear and crystal brow?
Those eyebrows arched, and golden hair?
And those bright eyes, where are they now,
Wherewith the wisest ravished were?
The little nose so straight and fair,
The tiny, tender, perfect ear;
Where is the dimpled chin, and where
The pouting lips so red and clear? 28
The description proceeds from lure to lure, omitting none; and then, in plaintive litany, each charm decays:
The breasts all shriveled up and gone,
The haunches, like the paps, withdrawn,
The thighs no longer like to thighs,
Withered and mottled all like brawn—
which here, alas, means sausages (saulcisses).
And so, no longer loving love or life, Villon bequeaths himself to the dust:
Item, my body I ordain
Unto the earth, our grandmother;
Thereof the worms will have small gain;
Hunger hath worn it many a year.
He leaves his books gratefully to his foster-father; and as a parting gift to his old mother he composes for her a humble ballad to the Virgin. He asks mercy of all but those who imprisoned him: of monks and nuns, mummers and chanters, lackeys and gallants, “wantons who all their charms display... brawlers and jugglers and tumblers gay, clowns with their apes and carpets spread .... gentle and simple, living and dead—I cry folk mercy, one and all.”29 So
Here is ended (both great and small)
Poor Villon’s Testament! When he is dead,
Come, I pray you, to his funeral,
Whilst the bell tinkles overhead ...
Prince, that art gentle as a yearling gled,
Hear what he did with his latest sigh;
He drank a long draught of the vine-juice red.
Whenas he felt his end draw nigh.30
Despite these wills and farewells, he could not so soon turn down the cup of life. In 1462 he went back to Guillaume de Villon and the cloisters, and his mother rejoiced. But the law had not forgotten him. The College of Navarre had him arrested, and consented to his liberation only on condition that he repay it his share of the loot of six years back—forty crowns a year for three years. On the night of his release he had the ill luck to be with two of his old crime mates when they started a drunken brawl in which a priest was stabbed. Apparently Villon had no blame in the matter; he withdrew to his room, and prayed for peace. Nevertheless he was again arrested; he was tortured by having water forced down his throat to the bursting point; and then, to his astonishment, he was condemned to be hanged. For several weeks he lay in close confinement, hoping and despairing. And now, expecting death for himself and his companions, he indited a pitiful farewell to the world.
Men, brother men, that after us yet live,
Let not your hearts too hard against us be;
For if some pity of us poor men ye give,
The sooner God shall take of you pity.
Here are we five or six strung up, you see,
And here the flesh, that all too well was fed,
Bit by bit eaten and rotten, rent and shred,
And we the bones grow dust and ash withal;
Let no man laugh at us discomforted,
But pray to God that He forgive us all . .
The rain has washed and laundered us all five,
And the sun dried and blackened; yea, perdie,
Ravens and pies with beaks that rend and rive
Have dug our eyes out, and plucked off for fee
Our beards and eyebrows; never we are free,
Not once, to rest; but here and there still sped,
Drive at its wild will by the wind’s change led,
More pecked of birds than fruits on garden wall;
Men, for God’s love, let no gibe here be said,
But pray to God that He forgive us all.31
Not yet quite hopeless, Villon persuaded his jailer to take a message to his foster-father, and to convey to the court of the Parlement an appeal from a sentence so clearly unjust. Guillaume de Villon, who could forgive seventy times seven, once more interceded for the poet, who must have had some virtues to be so undiscourageably loved. On January 3, 1463, the court, say its record, “ordered that... the sentence preceding be annulled, and—having regard to the bad character of the said Villon—that he be banished for ten years from the town .... and viscounty of Paris.”32 François thanked the court in a joyful ballad, and asked for three days’ grace to “provide for my journey and bid my folk adieu.” It was granted, and presumably he now saw his foster-father and his mother for the last time. He packed his bundle, grasped the bottle of wine and the purse that good Guillaume gave him, received the old man’s benediction, and marched out of Paris and history. We hear nothing of him more.
He was a thief, but a melodious thief, and the world has need of melody. He could be brutally coarse, as in the Ballade de la Grosse Margot, and he flung obscene epithets at women who fell short of his desires, and he was impishly frank in anatomical details. All this we can forgive for the sins that were committed against his sins, and the ever resurgent tenderness of his spirit, and the wistful music of his verse. He paid the penalty for wnat ne was, and left us only the reward.