Tag Archives: french


If art recreates life, than Francois Villon’s life provided plenty of fodder for his art. His existence, albeit for the most part unsavory, infused his poetry with an intensity that elided artifice. Nowhere is this more apparent than in his ballad “L’Epitaphe” that he wrote while awaiting his death sentence by hanging all the while looking out of his cell window at those who were previously hung.


(Opening of “L’Eptiaphe” from the first dated edition of Villon’s works, published by Pierre Levet in 1489 – Reserves des Imprimes, Bibliotheque Nationale)

Villon was born Francois de Montcorbier, but adopted the surname of Guillaume Villon, his childhood caregiver. He began his ascent into society well enough having reached the University of Paris and obtained a Master of Arts by 1452, only to take a turn for the worst beginning with a brawl in 1455 where he killed a priest (which some testified was self defense). He was pardoned only to find himself on the opposing side of the law later in the same year after being implicated in the robbery of a large sum of money from the Faculty of Theology. Following a few years of more or less vagabonding (with stints at the courts of Charles D’Orleans at Blois and Jean II, Duke of Bourbon at Moulins), he was imprisoned again. This time his savior was Louis XI, whose visit to the region of Meung-sur Loire, where Villon was imprisoned, prompted a dispersal of amnesties from which Villon benefited.

Less than a year later Villon was imprisoned for the last time, and sentenced to hang. This is the point when most believe he composed “L’Epitaphe,” while awaiting his punishment, unbeknownst to him that his sentenced would be commuted to exile from Paris. He followed these orders and little to nothing is known of his life after this point.

However, despite living through the ordeal, the immediacy of the poem at the moment where his life was about to be taken away is not altered. Before going further, here is the poem, along with my translation:

Frères humains, qui après nous vivez,
N’ayez les cœurs contre nous endurcis,
Car, si pitié de nous pauvres avez,
Dieu en aura plus tôt de vous mercis.
Vous nous voyez ci attachés, cinq, six:
Quant à la chair, que trop avons nourrie,
Elle est piéça dévorée et pourrie,
Et nous, les os, devenons cendre et poudre.
De notre mal personne ne s’en rie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

Si frères vous clamons, pas n’en devez
Avoir dédain, quoique fûmes occis
Par justice. Toutefois, vous savez
Que tous hommes n’ont pas bon sens rassis.
Excusez-nous, puisque sommes transis,
Envers le fils de la Vierge Marie,
Que sa grâce ne soit pour nous tarie,
Nous préservant de l’infernale foudre.
Nous sommes morts, âme ne nous harie,
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

La pluie nous a débués et lavés,
Et le soleil desséchés et noircis.
Pies, corbeaux nous ont les yeux cavés,
Et arraché la barbe et les sourcils.
Jamais nul temps nous ne sommes assis
Puis çà, puis là, comme le vent varie,
A son plaisir sans cesser nous charrie,
Plus becquetés d’oiseaux que dés à coudre.
Ne soyez donc de notre confrérie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

Prince Jésus, qui sur tous a maistrie,
Garde qu’Enfer n’ait de nous seigneurie:
A lui n’ayons que faire ne que soudre.
Hommes, ici n’a point de moquerie;
Mais priez Dieu que tous nous veuille absoudre!

Our human brothers, who live after us,
Don’t against us harden your hearts,
For, if pity on us poor ones you take,
God on you will have sooner mercy.
You see us here hanging five, six:
Of our flesh, that we have well nourished,
It has been devoured and rotted,
And us, the bones, are becoming ashes and dust.
Of our misfortunes do no laugh,
But pray God that he may absolve all of us!

If brothers we call you, do not become
Disdainful, even though we are killed
For justice. Each time, you know
That not all men have good sense;
Pardon us, for we are transitioned
Towards the son of the Virgin Mary,
That his grace for us not dry up,
But us preserve from the infernal lightning
We are dead, let no soul us trouble;
But pray God that he may absolve all of us!

The rain us has steamed and washed,
And the sun dried and blackened;
Magpies, crows, our eyes have gouged,
And pulled out our beards and eyebrows.
Never, at no time, at rest are we;
Now here, now there, how the wind changes;
At its pleasure it us carries,
More pecked from birds than a thimble.
Thus do not be of our brotherhood,
But pray God that he may absolve all of us!

Prince Jesus, who of all is master,
Guard that Hell doesn’t over us have lordship:
To it we have nothing to do or to make,
Men, here there is no mockery,
But pray God that he may absolve all of us!

This is a straight forward ballad which includes three stanzas, each consisting of ten lines with ten syllables each, and a brief envoi, all using the same rhymes, and each stanza ends with the same line. Unlike the English ballad that is best suited for more joyous occasions (with a few exceptions), and often accompanied by a song, the French ballad is far more somber. Here however, the form is far overshadowed by the content.

Life and death are the central themes, from the title that denotes an inscription on a tombstone, to the juxtaposition between those who will remain alive and those who have already hung, amongst whom the poet counts himself.

As he begins by beseeching his audience to have pity, his lines act as a memento mori, reminding his audience that they too will die even if not by being hanged as convicts. Further, in the end, it is only the soul that survives and repentance saves all regardless of what may have been while the soul lived among “de la chair,” (the flesh).

The imagery of salvation and the afterlife directly opposes the carnally grotesque and disfigured bodies that hang rotten and devoured, which is further made obvious by giving the corpses a voice. In death they are vocal and retain the potential for salvation, even as the living whom they address remain muted at the sight of the decaying bodies, silently judging their crimes, practically oblivious to their own impending deaths. Through their refusal to speak, to pray for the corpses as the speaker wills them to do, they negate their own salvation because as they pray, God will not only save those for whom they pray, but “tous nous,” all of us.

Thus Villon not only throws in his lot with the convicted men hanging outside his window, but through his constant use of “nous,” us, and his reoccurring refrain for each stanza, “mais priez Dieu que tous nous vueille absouldre!” he becomes the spokesman for mankind, using his last words as a universal warning for all to repent, so that God “may absolve all of us.”


De Vere Stacpoole, Henry. Francois Villon: His Life and Times, 1431-1463.

Fox, John. The Poetry of Villon.

Peckham, Robert. Francois Villon: A Bibliography.

Siciliano,Italo. Francois Villon et les themes poetiques du moyen- age.

De la jeune Dame et Coindeta sui

The other night I began tinkering with Lancelot’s adventure with the flying chess board. While this has absolutely nothing to do with my current research efforts, having acquired transcriptions of the manuscript I wish to work with, and no longer handicapped by the itsy bitsy pictures of the manuscript, I have found a translator’s paradise, randomly translating passages that I find most interesting. If you know me, you will know my predilection towards chess in medieval literature, making that particular passage all the more enticing. I do plan on blogging my findings soon, but that strand of research is a little more involving, meaning, it would not be feasible right now (of course in an ideal Christene-land I would just spend numerous  hours each day until I have translated the entire series and followed my whims of research into all crevices of rather “trivial” pursuits… *sigh*) Anyway, while running some searches to that end, I came across a mention of Clement Marot, and his “De la jeune Dame qui a vieil mary,” and it instantly reminded me of another poem someone had mentioned over a year ago.

First, here is Marot’s poem, with my translation:

De la jeune Dame qui a vieil mary

En languissant, et en grefve tristesse,
Vit mon las cueur, jadis plein de liesse,
Puis que lon m’a donne Mary vieillard.
Helas pourquoy? rien ne sçait du vieil art
Qu’apprend Venus, l’amoureuse Deesse.

Par un desire de monstrer ma prouesse
Souvent l’assaulx: mais il demande: ou est ce?
Ou dort, peult estre, et mon cueur veille a part
En languissant.

Puis quand je veulx luy jouer de finesse,
Hone me dict: Cesse, ma fille, Cesse!
Garde t’en bien, a honneur prens esgard!
Lors je respons: Honte, allez a lescart:
Je ne veulx pas perdre ainsi ma jeunesse
En languissant.

Of the Young Lady With An Old Husband

Languishing and in grave sadness
Lives my weary heart, once full of joy,
Since I was given an old husband.
Alas why? He knows nothing of the ancient art
Taught by Venus, Goddess of love.

By a desire to demonstrate my prowess
I often advance at him: but he asks: what is this?
Or sleeps, perchance, as my heart sleeps apart

Then when I want to betray him,
Shame says to me: Cease, my girl, Cease!
Guard yourself well, guard your honor!
Then I reply: Shame, away depart:
I do not want to spend my youth

(Side note: A huge thanks to Jenni Nuttall and Sjoerd Levelt who helped me figure out how to put columns in my blog – and I really hope this comes across everyone else’s screen as well).

Since many of the French ballads and chansons are found online, I looked this one up. While I could not find this particular one, I did find several by Clement Marot, performed by George Enescu at l’Accademia di Romania.

Clement Marot has an interesting history and brought much to the French literary tradition, which appears to be a constant with several authors of the time period (e.g. Francois Villon and Charles D’Orleans – who predate him a bit, but are still within range). However, his work departs from those of the previous generation as he is considered to have greatly influence the Pleiade poets through his various experiments with forms. This is immediately evident from his language that celebrates life not like the duke of Orleans who fixates on its juxtaposition to death, nor like Villon, whose poetry is in line with a memento mori. Rather, he abandons these motifs, as well as the artificial archaism that was currently popular. In doing so, the poem, though written circa 1532 is extremely easy to read. For example, while I comment that this is my translation above, it is not terribly different from others – there are very few ways you can translate his straightforward words that bear only slight connotations, and for the most part rely on dictionary definitions.

This particular poem was written only a little over a year before he left France, having now been put in jail twice for supposedly having eaten bacon publicly during Lent. Once he made his way out of France (another commonality between himself and Villon and the duke of Orleans), he composed the Blasons du corps feminin that, just like they sound, glorified the feminine body and also brought him infamy.

clément marot

(Clement Marot, portrait by Corneille de Lyon)

However, as I mentioned, reading Marot’s poem reminded me of another. I am referring to the anonymous 13th century female troubadour ballad, Coindeta sui. This is in no way related to my immediate research, but is far more in line with it (concerning the idea of women finding a means of expression and participating in literary culture), and if nothing else, it serves as a good exercise in translation. When I chanced upon this poem a while back it had already been translated, but I looked up the original and realized the translation I had found was more of a recreation than a pure translation (although it was beautifully done). I have rather pedantic tendencies in my translations, so I thought I would attempt a truer version of the poem, even if it is not as beautiful as the other, and certainly nowhere near as melodic as the original. In fact, after looking up the poem to gain insight into its origin and history, several scholars refused to translate it, believing such an endeavor would be superfluous and destructive to the quality of the original. Nevertheless, here it is:

Coindeta sui

Coindeta sui! si cum n’ai greu cossire
per mon marit, qar ne. l voil ne. l desire.
Q’en be. us dirai per que son aisi drusa,
Coindeta sui!
Qar pauca son, ioveneta e tosa,
Coindeta sui!
E degr’aver marit dunt fos ioiosa
Ab cui toz temps pogues iogar e rire.
Coindeta sui!

Ia Deus mi.n.sal se ia sui amorosa,
Coindeta sui!
De lui amar, mia sui cubitosa,
Coindeta sui!
Anz quant lo vie ne son tant vergoignosa
Q’er prec la mort qe.l venga tost aucire.
Coindeta sui!

Mais d’una ren m’en son ben acordada,
Coindeta sui!
Se.l meu amic m’a s’amor emendada,
Coindeta sui!
Ve.l esper a cui me son donada,
Plang e sospir quar ne.l vei ne.l remire.
Coindeta sui!

En aquest son faz coindeta balada,
Coindeta sui!
E prec a tut que sia loing cantada,
Coindeta sui!
E que la chant tota domna ensegnada,
Del meu amic q’eu tant am e desire.
Coindeta sui!

E dirai vos de que sui acordada,
Coindeta sui!
Que.l meu amic m’a longament amada,
Coindeta sui!
Ar li sera m’amor abandonada,
E.l bel esper que tant am e desire.
Coindeta sui!

I Am Pretty

I am pretty and my heart grieves
Due to my husband, who I neither want nor desire
I will tell you of my desire for love,
I am pretty!
I am petit, young and fresh,
I am pretty!
And deserve to have a husband who brings me joy
With whom I can always play and laugh.
I am pretty!

God save me if I ever loved him,
I am pretty!
I am bitter to love him,
I am pretty!
And when I see him, I feel shame
That I pray death will come take him soon.
I am pretty!

But of one thing my mind agrees,
I am pretty!
If my friend should give me his love,
I am pretty!
This hope is all I have been given,
I cry and sigh for having no sight of him,
I am pretty!

And for this a pretty ballad,
I am pretty!
And pray it is sung everywhere,
I am pretty!
And that other knowing women sing,
About my friend who I want and desire.
I am pretty!

I will tell you of the one thing I agree,
I am pretty!
That my friend has loved me so long,
I am pretty!
To him I abandon my love
And the hope of want and desire.
I am pretty!

I have to say that this was far more difficult for me than previous French poetry – it is of the southern region and relies heavily on dialect.


Orally relayed, this is an exquisite poem. However, the content, at least for me, is justified and simultaneously hollow. Of course I understand the plight of the young girl, forced to marry a much older man, against her will. She wishes his demise (and here I believe it has less to do with his actual age as it does with her choice in the matter). Yet, her very real plight is lessened through her superficial excuse. Even aside from my own translation, the typical understanding of “coindeta” relies on a meaning of beauty and youth, with previous adjectives being “lovely,” “fair,” and “graceful.” While she may be all of those things, I think this refrain (“coindeta sui” is repeated three to four times in each of the five stanzas), detracts from her more serious condition of being married off against her will, regardless of either of their physical traits. His age or virility almost seems a pretext to her want for another, which, for whatever reasons, she cannot have (and I am willing to bet there are socio-economic reasons for her being denied a marriage of her choice). In short, regardless of his age or appearance, he was thrust upon her against her will, and thus she sings her unhappy lament at the situation.


I was unable to find this exact song as well (although Amazon does sell it). However, here are other lovely songs of the troubadour tradition:



Chambers, Frank M. An Introduction to Old Provencal Versification. Volume 167.

Medieval Oral Literature. ed. Karl Reichl.

Medieval Women’s Song: Cross-cultural Approaches. eds. Klinck, Anne L. and Ann Marie Rasmussen.

Ouvres Completes de Clement Marot, available from the Harvard Library via Google Books.

Songs of the Women Troubadours. eds. Bruckner, Matilda T, Laurie Shepard, and Sarah White.

Charles D’Orleans – Le temps laissie son manteau…

Charles de Valois at the age of fourteen became the Duke of Orleans after the murder of his father, Louis d’Orleans (brother to Charles VI of France). His history is well known, and easily found, so I won’t go into too much detail with it, but during his various periods of captivity he composed most of his famous works in both English and French, including his ballades and chansons. Despite the political upheaval of the time, little of it comes out in his poetry.

In 1440 he returned to France and spent the next ten years entangled in various political activities, after which he retired to his chateau at Blois where he focused on his poetic endeavors and welcomed the likes of Rene of Anjou and even Francois Villon into his home. During this period he composed the majority of his rondeaux, traditional short fixed form lyrics with recurring lines.

Tonight I wanted to look at one of his poems (accent marks are omitted):

“Le temps a laissie son manteau”

Le temps a laissie son manteau
De vent, de froidure et de pluye
Et s’est vestu de brouderie,
De soleil luyant, cler et beau.

Il n’y a beste, ne oyseau,
Qu’en son jargon ne chante ou crie:
Le temps a laissie son manteau!

Riviere, fontaine et suisseau
Portent, en livree jolie,
Gouttes d’argent d’orfaverie,
Chascun s’abille de nouveau:
Le temps a laissie son manteau.

Here is a common translation:

“The season has shed its mantle”

The season has shed its mantle
Of wind, cold and rain,
And has clothed itself in embroidery,
In gleaming sunshine, bright and fair.

There is no animal or bird
That does not sing or call in its own tongue:
The season has shed its mantle!

Stream, fountain and brook
Bear, as handsome livery,
Silver drops of goldsmith’s work;
Everyone puts on new garments:
The season has shed its mantle.

A laissie” has the connotation of something sliding, or of letting go, and combined with the imagery of spring I visualize the female form allowing the coat of winter to slide down her shoulder onto the ground as she welcomes the oncoming season.

I am not entirely sure I like the translation of “mantle” that is now most commonly accepted. Aside from the similarity with “manteau” I see no reason to use it, and would much prefer the lesser known versions that translate it to “coat” or “cloak.”

I love the imagery in the third line of embroidery. Much like now, in the fifteenth century when a woman was expecting, others would embroider blankets for the new baby as gifts. Here the image of embroidery plays with this idea as the new season is clothed in the embroidery reserved for a newborn. Further, imagine the change in clothing from cloak, or coat, heavy for winter, to lighter garments. The fourth line, focusing on sunshine, also alludes to the light of the sun and ties in with the lightness of the season as the word used “luyant” brings forth “lumiere” (light from the sun), but also “leger” (light as in light weight) that is made more apparent by the following adjectives-  “cler” (clear, as in transparent or translucent such as embroidery or light clothing, and “beau” (fair, with the implication of something pretty, dainty, and light).

In the second stanza the imagery moves towards the physical attributes of the natural world – from the personified Spring (perhaps in feminine form) to the actual animals and birds crying out with glee at the arrival of the new season. This is a joyous occasion.

The last stanza takes the invocation even further, refocusing it on even the inanimate yet intricate parts of nature that also share in festivities of welcoming Spring. Here the rich garments that adorn the rivers and brooks are more natural elements, yet described in terms of livery with silver and gold – concepts the reader could understand and use as points of comparison. The last two lines sum up the entirety of the poem, where “chacsun” (everyone, or everything) changes their wardrobe, and thus lets go of their winter cloaks.

I could not find the actual manuscript this was in. I found a reference to it stating it comes from MS. 25458, Bibliotheque National de France, and that the poem was on folio 365.  I found the manuscript online, and while it does contain Charles d’Orlean’s works, the particular excerpt was nowhere in the 528 pages of the manuscript.

This is the only picture I can provide:

charles d'orleans


The picture comes from French Poetry translated by Stanley Appelbaum.

I cannot tell for certain, but it appears two different hands worked on this text. The last five lines seem less careful than the first part, indicating that perhaps the first part was copied, while the latter writer was more confident and less concerned with making mistakes. Of course this is complete conjecture since the picture is not of the best quality, nor have I been able to find where it comes from, and it doesn’t help that the picture provided is not in color (the MS in question is written in predominantly red and redish brown ink).  Also, it makes little sense as to why two people would split such a short poem. However, what I can say with more certainty is that this handwriting (top or bottom) of my picture is unlike MS 25458.

If anyone knows anything about this, please let me know (more for my own curiosity than anything else) and it would be greatly appreciated.

In the meantime, here is Alain Jacques beautifully singing the poem: