Friday 20 May 2011


I had always seen this poem as a tribute to the love and beauty that certain women can bring into our lives. The mention of Dante’s Beatrice and of Flora, the Goddess of flowers established this theme in my mind and I assumed that the other names, most of which were little more than impressive sounds to me, also illustrated this theme. Coupled with this idea is the sad realisation that with time all this must pass away. For those who use the English translation, this regret, is expressed in the wistful poetic line of D.G. Rossetti’s “But where are the snows of yester-year?” – A line that is engraved in the memory of most of us.

In doing a translation of my own, I have found it necessary to look into the names I had always skipped over previously, in order to see why they recommended themselves to Villon’s inspiration. From this I soon became disabused of the idea that Villon’s life-view was one of beauty and love. Behind the names of the ladies he had chosen were illustrations of deceit, betrayal, corruption and also of incredible cruelty from individuals and above all from the rulers and officials of church and state. A study of Villon’s biography showed that these were the terms under which the poet had lived his life. For people under the arbitrary authoritarianism of late medieval Europe, the rhetorical question in the last line of Villon’s poem was a prosaic statement of fact that life was short, nasty and meaningless: “But where are last year’s snows gone?


Dites-moi où, n'en quel pays,(1)
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiada, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine(2),
Echo, parlant quand bruit on mène(3)
Dessus rivière ou sur étang,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu'humaine.
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?(3)
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu'humaine.
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan?

Où est la très sage Hélois,
Pour qui châtré fut et puis moine
Pierre Abélard à Saint Denis ?
Pour son amour eut cette essoine(4).
Semblablement, ou est la reine
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fut jeté en un sac en Seine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ?
Fut jeté en un sac en Seine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ?

La reine Blanche(5) comme un lis
Qui chantait a voix de sirène,
Berthe au grand pied, Béatrix, Alis,
Haramburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jeanne, la bonne Lorraine.
Qu'Anglais brûlèrent à Rouen ;
Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souveraine(5)?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ?
Ou sont-ils, où, Vierge souveraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ?

Prince, n'enquerrez de semaine
Ou elles sont, ni de cet an,
Que ce refrain ne vous remaine(6)
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ?
Que ce refrain ne vous remaine :
Mais où sont les neiges d'antan ?

Tell me where, or in what land,
Is Flora(A), the Roman Beauty
Archipiada(B), or Thaïs(C),
Who was her equal in beauty.
Echo(D) speaking when sound came to her
From ‘cross river or over pond,
Who beauty had far more th’n human
But where are last year’s snows gone?
Who beauty had far more th’n human
But where are last year’s snows gone?

Where is the most learned Heloise(E)
For whom was neutered at Saint D’nis
Pierre Abélard(F), monk thereafter.
For love of her, brooked this outrage.
Similarly, where is the queen(G)
Who commanded that Buridan(H)
Be thrown in a sack into the Seine
But where are last year’s snows gone?
Be thrown in a sack into the Seine
But where are last year’s snows gone?

Queen Blanche(I), as white as a lily
Voice sweet ‘as a water-nymph’s song
Bertha Broadfoot(J), Beatrice(K), Alice
Haramburgis(L),  who ruled th’ Maine
And Joan(M), the good Maid ‘f Lorraine
Whom the English burnt at Rouen
Where are they where, Holy Virgin?
But where are last year’s snows gone?
Where are they where, Holy Virgin?
But where are last year’s snows gone?

Oh prince(N), pray inquire not this week
Where they are, nor yet this year
Lest this refrain comes in answer
But where are last year’s snows gone?
Lest this refrain comes in answer
But where are last year’s snows gone?


1)       pays…… Thaïs.  At the time of Villon, these two words rhymed, because “pays” was pronounced pay-isse.

2)      sa cousine germaine - – le cousin germain means the first cousin.  Rather than saying that they were from the same family, the poet is saying that they both excelled equally in beauty.

3)      Echo, parlant quand bruit on mène -  Echo, the water nymph, could not initiate speech, only reply after being addressed – see note (D) below

4)      Antan at Villon's time meant "last year".  It was the translation of the poem by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1828- 1882) that gave us the very famous line: “But where are the snows of yester-year” – his translation rhymes nicely but is very free, probably because of the demands of rhyme.  Another poetic translation would be to say: “the snows of yore”

5)      cette essoine –( « essoine » an old French word that means “ordeal”.

6)      La reine Blanche comme un lis  - in those days noble ladies stayed in their fine houses and prided themselves on their white skin.  Sunburn was for the peasants.

7)      ce refrain vous remaine : - remaine = ramène – thus comes back to you in reply.

In the next section are:
Followed by-


(A)    Flora la belle Romaine - His description of Flora as a beautiful woman of Rome, tells us that Villon is not referring to the Flora, who,in Roman mythology, was the goddess of flowers and spring. Instead, a courtesan of Rome, who was very successful and accumulated great wealth, gave herself the name of Flora. She bequeathed her fortune to the city and funded the Floralies, the flower festivals named after her. We note that Villon begins with a lady who made her career in prostitution.

B)  Archipiada- Archipiada is, in fact, Alcibiades who was a famous Athenian male but because of a mistranslation of the ancient text was thought by scholars in the Middle Ages to be an Athenian woman of great beauty. As a result, Villon includes a man in his list of ladies of a bygone age. Archipiada came from one of the leading aristocratic families of Athens and became the disciple and friend of Socrates. He was renowned for his strikingly good looks and was part of the gilded youth of the city, involved in numerous scandals. It is possible that his lifestyle might have given rise to some ambiguity about his sexuality in those days as well.

C) Thaïs: Thais was a Greek courtesan, famous for her beauty. She lived during the time of Alexander the Great (356- 323BC) and accompanied him on his campaigns. She was later the lover and possibly a wife of Ptolemy 1, King of Egypt. This is the second courtesan in Villon’s list of illustrious ladies. In the Parisian underworld that Villon frequented, it is to be presumed that there were many women who expected money for their favours.
D) Echo : Echo was a beautiful water nymph who had one failing: she was fond of talking, and always wanted to have the last word. One day Juno was looking for her husband, who was amusing himself in the company of the nymphs. Echo kept talking to Juno until the nymphs made their escape. When Juno discovered Echo’s trick, she told her: "You shall forfeit the use of that tongue with which you have cheated me, except for that one purpose you are so fond of answering back. You shall still have the last word, but no power to speak first." As a result of Juno's spell on her, Echo could speak only when spoken to.

E) Hèloise (1101-1164) was the beloved niece of an important cleric, Canon Fulbert. We are told that she was no mean beauty and was outstanding for her learning. She fell in love with her much older tutor, Pierre Abélard

(F)Pierre Abélard (1079- 1142), who was a notable theologian.They became lovers and she had a child. Her family strongly disapproved. It is suspected that Canon Fulbert paid some men to attack and castrate Abélard. After this mutilation, Abélard became a monk. The correspondence of the lovers survived. We note the brutal savagery of the times and particularly shocking is its initiation by a senior man of religion, Canon Fulbert.

(G) la reine qui commanda que Buridan fût jeté en un sac en Seine – In fact two future queens of France could have given this order:
At the end of the reign of Philip IV , who reigned from 1284 until 1314,two of his daughters in law, who later were briefly queens of France were involved in a lurid scandal. The princesses were Margaret, wife of the future King Louis X, and Blanche, wife of the future King Charles IV. A third daughter-in-law, Jeanne, Countess of Burgundy, wife of the future Philip V was accused of knowledge of these affairs. These royal ladies had enjoyed orgies with invited lovers and afterwards had disposed of them, by having them tied in sacks and thrown into the Seine to drown.

(H) -BuridanThe story is told that the philosopher, Buridan, discovered these secrets and went to the Tower to enjoy the pleasures but to survive had arranged for friends to be waiting in a boat below to break his fall and save him from drowning.
In 1314, Margaret of Burgundy and Blanche of Burgundy were accused of adultery, and their alleged conspirator lovers were tortured, flayed and executed. Margaret of Burgundy was imprisoned along with her sister-in-law Blanche of Burgundy. The third princess, Jeanne, was put under house arrest.
In 1315, after her husband had become king, Margaret was strangled, allegedly on her husband's orders, in order to allow him to remarry. The second princess, Blanche, was rejected as wife by her husband and three months after he ascended to the throne (1322), Charles IV obtained an annulment from the pope. The third princess, Jeanne, was more fortunate. Her husband was under the thumb of his forceful wife and stood by her. He used his influence to have her name cleared and to allow her to return to court. She was queen during Philip V’s reign from 1317- 1322.
This sensational historical scandal has become known as “The Affair of the Tour de Nesle”.
We note the immorality, corruption and brutality taking place in the autocratic Christian monarchies of Europe in the middle Ages.

(I) La reine Blanche comme un lis - Blanche de Castille (1188-1252 was the wife of Louis VIII of France(1187 -1226). She was an extraordinary woman and was one of the most dominant characters in Europe during the first half of the 13th century.
She was the daughter of the King of Castille and granddaughter of King Henry II of England. In May 1200,as part of an attempted political settlement between France and England, she was married to Louis, the eldest son of King Philip II of France. She was then 12 years old. On the death of King John of England in October 1216, her husband Louis, claimed the English throne based on the Engish lineage of his wife and he led an invasion of England. As Louis’ father refused to back his son’s claim, it was the formidable Blanche, who organized his military support from Calais. Their venture met with failure.
Blanche became Queen of France in 1223, when Louis VIII ascended to the throne. However,he died a mere three years later in 1226, when their eldest son, Louis, was only 12 years old. During his illness before his death, Louis had shown his confidence in Blanche by decreeing that she should be appointed regent until Louis IX came of age in 1234.
In this period, Blanche again showed her metal breaking up a league of barons that threatened the authority of the monarchy (1226). She also repelled an attack from England (1230). Even when Louis became king in his own right, she remained a power in the background and he was overawed by her. When Louis married, Blanche ruled that when she was in court, she did not wish to see the new Queen Margaret except when he “went to lie with her”.
The Queen mother assumed the regency again in 1248, when the French king, a faithful servant of the Pope, absented himself from his kingdom to lead the 7th Crusade to the Holy Land – of which she strongly disapproved. In the King’s absence, she kept the country firmly under control and extorted from the people the crippling sums of money, required to finance his mission. This included the ransom paid for the captured Louis.The second regency ended with her death in 1252.
Villon gives Blanche some charm. He says her voice had a magical sweetness.
He also says that she had the pure white complexion of a well-bred noble lady. Some attributed this to her English blood, even though the English royal family had been French since the French conquest and occupation of England in 1066.
Villon may not have any qualms about another feature of her history: the period of her reign marked one of the greatest crimes against humanity in European history.
In the 13th century, the Languedoc area of France was known for the sophistication of its cultural life and the tolerance and liberalism of its people. Here a new religion was born, which put forward new ideas at variance with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, some of whose practices they also criticized. The name given to these people was "Cathars".
By the early 13th Century Catharism was probably the major religion in Languedoc.
In 1208, Pope Innocent III ordered a crusade against the Cathars. A holy army was sent to wipe out the heretics, led first by clerics but later taken up by the Kings of France. Their first atrocities, the slaughter of 20,000 people in Beziers, and the mass bonfire of heretics at Minerve, had taken place earlier in 1209 and 1210, but the husband of Blanche of Castille was at his father’s side, when Philip II joined the Vatican’s crusade in 1217.
It was during Blanche’s first regency that the Dominican Inquisition against Languedoc was instituted, when all Cathars who refused to renounce their faith were hanged or were burnt at the stake.
The terror continued throughout the years of her reign, including the burning of 200 Cathar leaders outside Carcassonne Castle in 1244.
It gives one pause for thought that the illustrious lady with the pale complexion and beautiful voice helped to institute the tradition of ideological genocide so often repeated since, not only by the Church.

(J)  Berthe au grand pied – Bertrada of Laon. She was the wife of Pépin le Bref, named on account of his short stature, who had the title King of the Franks from 752-768. There is a Latin description for her that means “Queen of the goose-foot”. I have not found any reference to her beauty in the historical accounts, and the photo of her statue gives no indication. Bertrada and Pépin were the parents of Charlemagne, who was crowned head of the Holy Roman Empire by the Pope in 800, consolidating the united absolute power of sword and cross.
Perhaps it was the major historical stature of her son that merited Villon’s inclusion of Queen Berthe.

(K) Beatrix.- This is Dante’s Beatrice, a young lady of Florence, Béatrice Portinari, who lived from about 1265-1290. He loved her from afar and she became for him the incarnation of beauty and kindness. He paid tribute to her in his writings, including in the lines of the Divine Comedy

(L) Alis Haramburgis - The correct spelling is Erembourg apparently. It is difficult to find any details of this lady. On the Internet, there is Alice of Anjou who lived from about 1107 – 1155 - the daughter of Fulk, Count of Anjou and Erembourg.

(M) Jeanne, la bonne Lorraine- This was of course Joan of Arc, who was born in what is now Neufchâteau sur la Meuse and therefore in Lorraine. So many people have written about her that there must be someone who has made claims about her beauty. Nevertheless, I have not found one to quote.
It is thought that Villon was born on the day that Joan was executed. My most poignant memory from my recent research is that when Joan was tied to the stake, she asked to have a cross held in front of her eyes as the flames burnt up her living body.
Villon’s line suggests that her execution was an act of national revenge by the English. However, her condemnation was as a heretic, who had been shown in an ecclesiastical court to have offended the teachings of the Church. The fate she suffered was the normal, routine application of holy justice, as was being served out to the men, women and children of Languedoc. The majority of us will ponder the darkness of soul of those who could perpetrate this grotesque act of cruelty against a teenage girl.

(N) The Prince- Villon writes this poem in 1461 for the King. There were in fact two kings of france in that year as  Charles VII died in July and his son, Louis XI ascended the throne Villon dedicated many of his poems to the King or to some other member of the royal family. This was normal when power was centred on a monarch ruling by divine right. Under the feudal system, vassals were required to court favour.

Biography of François Villon

The resources for a biography of Villon are limited. It has to be compiled using facts and events that he mentions in his own writings – which may or may not be true - and from the appearance of his name in legal records, mainly as a consequence of his misdemeanours in the eyes of the authorities. Different biographers stress different detail and give different interpretations. From this sometimes confusion of sources, I found it necessary to fix the biography at least in my own mind for my interpretation of the poem. The following are the biographical notes that I put together:

The principal dates of his life
Villon was born François de Montcorbier in 1431 in Paris but no record of his death has been found. The last evidence about him is dated 1463. The poet was, therefore, only about the age of 32 or 33, when he disappeared for good.

Villon's childhood
He was born to very young parents, but he lost his father when he was still a boy and his mother (who was still living when Villon was 30 years old) had to struggle against great poverty and the privations of life in a country where war had been raging as long as people could remember. This is known in history as the Hundred Years’ War (1337- 1453).

For a reason that is still not known, while still a boy, he left his mother to go and live with Guillaume de Villon, who was chaplain at the church of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné. François later adopted the surname of this eminent priest, whom he described as “more than a father”.

Villon’s youth
His guardian saw that he had a good education. Villon started his schooling at the age of 12 and he finished, nine years later, with a Master of Arts degree from the University of Paris(1452). This qualification could have opened for him a career in law or the church. Unfortunately, the conditions at the time were not favourable. Between 1451 -1454, there was conflict between Paris University and the king, Charles VII, which led to riots, strikes, and university shutdown. In his writing, Villon ruefully admits that he allowed this disruption to distract him from his studies and from the goals that he had previously set himself.
Nothing is known about Villon for the period from 1453 until the middle of 1455. In some of the fiction written about him, there is an assumption that he lived a life of wild adventure and excess typical of many students with no work to engage their time and free of all responsibility. Other scholars have vehemently rejected this depiction, which has become part of the legend of Villon. Neverthless, the political conditions described above would have provided a favourable background to such a lifestyle and Villon’s clash with authority in June 1455 would seem to illustrate a disorderly way of life.

Villon’s first major misdeed – 5th June 1455
Villon’s first clash with authority could have involved drunkenness and sexual jealousy. Villon was on the streets of Paris with a perhaps doubtful priest and a girl called Isabeau, when they met a Breton graduate also with a priest, whose name was Philippe Sermoise. There was an argument that developed into a brawl and knives were drawn. Sermoise was alleged to have drawn first blood, cutting Villon’s mouth. The latter retaliated by throwing a stone at Sermoise which hit him in the face causing injuries from which the priest later died. Villon ran away from Paris and a sentence was passed on him, banning his return to the city.

This ban was lifted in January 1456 in response to a petition listing Villon’s scholastic record and also claiming that Sermoise had pardoned him before his death.

Villon’s second major misdeed – Christmas Eve 1456
In the Christmas period of 1456, Villon took part, in the company of other students, in a burglary from the chapel of the College de Navarre, when 500 gold coins were stolen. At first, the gang seemed to have got away with the crime as the loss was not discovered until March 1457. Two months later, in May 1457, Guy Tabarie,a student collaborator let slip details of the robbery and was arrested. In the following year, he would name Villon as the ringleader.

Villon attempted to give himself an alibi by claiming to have been at home composing his famous poem “Le Lais”, at the time when other people were rifling the coffers of the College de Navarre. In fact, this is generally accepted as fabrication and that he began this poem later, in the early months of 1457.

“Le Lais” was written to say farewell to his friends as he intended to leave Paris. The poem tells that he is leaving Paris because of disappointment in love. The arrest of Guy Tabarie would seem to have constituted a more pressing reason and a further violent episode hastened his departure. Villon was involved in another violent brawl, apparently over a girl called Catherine de Vaucelles, who is mentioned several times in his poetry. Villon got very much the worse of this encounter and made a rapid, undignified exit from Paris.

Nothing much is known about his whereabouts in the next years, but it is believed that he was moving around in the Loire valley, associating with a clandestine criminal society called the “coquillards”, whose mysterious jargon he used in several ballads. (A recent scholar, Thierry Martin, interprets some of the difficult jargon which he continued to use for some of his poems as homosexual slang.)

As a result of the revelations of Guy Tabarie in 1458, Villon was sentenced in absentia to banishment from the capital. He did not attempt to return for four years.

Villon and the court of the Duke of Orleans
It is astonishing to discover that during these years of banishment, Villon, a convicted criminal, had contact with and access to the highest nobility in France. Poems that he had sent to Charles, Duke of Orleans won his approval and Villon was given entry into his royal court.
The Duke was an accomplished poet and encouraged others to emulate him by inviting their participation in poetry competitions that he devised. Among the three poems of Villon accepted for Charles’s compendium was one written for the birth of the Duke’s daughter on the 19th December 1457 and it is assumed that Villon attended the Orleans court at Blois from then until the last months of 1457.
He fell out of favour with the Duke and subsequently left the court after his third poem was seen to be an attack on a courtier called Fredet, who was Charles’s favourite. Although the Duke accepted two further ballads from him in 1458, Villon was never again received at court.

Villon’s third recorded misdeed
The next historical record found for Villon refers to the Summer of 1461. It was in this year that Charles VII died and Louis XI ascended the throne. In Villon’s own writings, we find the statement that he had spent the summer months in the prison of the Bishop of Orleans at Meung-sur-Loire. It is assumed that his crime was once again robbing churches.
It was a very fortuitous event that led to his release. The new king was celebrating his accession by making grants of clemency to those in prison. After a visit to Meung, on the 2nd October 1461, by King Louis and Duke Charles of Orleans, Villon was freed from jail.

In an attempt to restore himself in favour, Villon wrote a patriotic ballad to the king and a poem to the Duke of Orleans. As he did not receive any response, Villon decided to end his exile and to go back to Paris.

Back in Paris, he wrote a ballad presenting himself as a reformed character but in a subsequent ballad expressed his disappointment that respectable people were reluctant to accept him.

By the end of 1461, he had probably already sunk back into the murky underworld of Paris. It was in this year that Charles VII died and Louis XI ascended the throne It was then that Villon started work on his masterpiece: “Le Testament”, in which our poem, “Ballade des dames du temps jadis” is found.
The first line tells us that he is now in his thirtieth year.
His poems are sometimes addressed to rejects of society like himself and sometimes to kings and princes. They tell of the privations of contemporary life and of social injustice. They speak of the brevity of human existence and the failings of love. They tell also of the cruel sufferings of those who fall foul of the law.
These poems like most of his work have great immediacy and sincerity and this stems from Villon’s direct, personal experience.

Villon’s 4th recorded misdeed
On the 2nd November 1462 he was again arrested. This time it was for petty larceny, but it gave the opportunity for the unfinished business of the burglary from the College de Navarre, six years earlier, to be resurrected.
After the hearing, Villon was granted his freedom on his undertaking to repay his share of the loot stolen from the College. This amounted to the large sum of 120 livres that he was committed to find.

Villon’s 5th and final recorded misdeed
At the end of November 1462, Villon was involved in yet another brawl. Significantly perhaps, a man who was attacked and injured was the lawyer who had questioned Guy Tabarie. Although Villon claimed not to have played an active part, his record condemned him and he was tortured and sentenced to hang. While awaiting execution, Villon composed his “Quatrain” and “Ballade des pendus”.
As the day of his hanging drew near, Villon addressed an appeal to the Parlement de Paris. Once again, he was lucky and his capital sentence was commuted to 10 years banishment from Paris.
A free man once again, Villon wrote two satirical ballads about this latest experience.
After this there is no further record of him to be found. At the age of only 34, he left the capital and was never heard from or heard about again.

Click here to return to the full index of this selection of Brassens songs

I enjoy the musicality of Eva Denia's version of this song:

Click here to return to the full index of this selection of Brassens songs

1 comment:

Mal said...

Oh, this is absolutely magnificent. I'm going to enjoy working my way through. The background research on Villon and the Demi mondaine dames du jadis, especially Blanche' s collusion with the work of Pope not-so Innocent and Philippe Le not-so Bel is fascinating. I hope Le Moyennageux is on your to-do list. It took me years to work out what G B's ' anges du guet' were! Can't believe how long I was perusing this - well past my bedtime. Many thanks.