Tag Archives: middle ages

L’Epitaphe

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.

villon-epitaph

(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.”

Here is my favorite reading of the ballad. I know the background music *can* be distracting, but I think it really adds to the emotion of the piece. Absolutely beautiful.

 

Sources:

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.

Children in the Middle Ages

Today I read this post on Medievalists.net debunking certain common myths about the Middle Ages (the one about tomatoes being poisonous was a new one for me), and it got me thinking about another common myth that I hear all the time: people in the Middle Ages didn’t love their children.

This reminded me of a paper I wrote a few years ago tracing the concept of childhood through time (however, for the purposes of the class I was in, it did not extend back beyond the 16th century). Out of curiosity I spent a little time today looking at different sources where children were mentioned in medieval writing to briefly outline the ways they were viewed (and I am purposely not looking at other representations via other forms of art, even though I am sure they would produce a bevy of marvelous sources).

I actually began by looking at Philippe Aries’ theory of childhood (since he pretty much started it all) and then Nicholas Orme who counters Aries’ argument almost to a point of literary attack. Orme (among others) believes Aries argued that children didn’t exist. Of course they existed. He simply postulated that it wasn’t until the mid seventeenth century that children, and by extension childhood, were seen as they are now. In other words, the idea that children are fragile, innocent beings in need of coddling and extreme protection is a modern convention. While he may have overstepped in his analysis when stating that children did not at one point in history receive love from their parents, he never outright stated this as can be seen from the very first page of his book, and his overall argument for the most part relied on the treatment of children and not the emotional implications of having them. I think this is the key to correcting the myth about parents’ lack of love for their children in the Middle Ages – it was not that they loved their children any less than they do now, but it was simply not exhibited in the same ways.

children

(A child is depicted in the Massacre of the Innocents in the middle, and at the bottom three boys are playing a board game. It is the bottom picture that is of interest – children taking part in what would appear to be normal childhood activities. MS Ludwig IX 2).

Children were sent off for apprenticeships or marriage at young ages, but for the most part, even if only through letters, they maintained contact with their parents who inquired frequently about their well being and at times even took action to rectify wrongs against their children. When conducting some unrelated research on the Yeoman in the Canterbury Tales I came across an article describing the relationship between the Yeoman and the Knight and Squire. Despite the title of the work (see below in Sources), the article is mainly concerned with the father/son relationship between the Knight and Squire, attesting to the unusual nature of a kin pairing at a time when most young men were sent off to fulfill their service under the tutelage of another. Basically children left the home at a very young age, and when they didn’t, their roles in the home would in modern times be regarded in a negative light, feeding the notion that children were either unimportant, unloved, and even abused. Yes, children would play (see above), their imaginations would get the best of them (considering the amount of medieval toys and infant instruments that we have catalogued), but they were also expected to fulfill certain roles that extended beyond keeping their rooms neat and picking up their things. No one had time for fantasy when there was water to be brought, bread to be made, wood to be cut, laundry to be beaten, and numerous other chores. However, delegating responsibilities earlier in the life of a child than is common today does not denote lack of love or emotional investment.

Another contributing factor to this myth is the shortage of children depicted in manuscripts. Aside from those of notable birth, few babies or small children can be seen gracing medieval manuscripts in illumination or text. A few have argued that this is due to the high infant mortality rates, meaning parents did not want to become attached to a child they could potentially lose. However, records indicate that many parents went to great lengths to save their children when possible, and R. Finucane shows evidence of parents going on pilgrimages to pray for their ill children or severely grieving their loss.

children1

(Although this is the baby Jesus, and not a “common” child, the interesting part of this portrait is the baby walker being depicted. Not to mention this picture comes from an entire manuscript filled with domestic scenes that most of us would recognize today. Hours of Catherine.)

I also noticed a few pieces discussing the more natural order of infancy and motherhood, namely in regards to nursing a baby – a debate that continues well in our day. Le Chanson du Chevalier du Cygne et du Godefroid du Bouillon touches this subject in depth. 

children2

(Nature forging a baby. British Library, Harley 4425.)

 

Haggadah

(From the Golden Haggadah. A family portrait as everyone, including children, partakes in different chores).

This is a very brief discussion, but for more information (and a lot more manuscript pictures) go here, and/or see my direct sources. Enjoy!

 

Sources

Aries, Philippe. Centuries of Childhood.

Crawford, Sally. Childhood in Anglo-Saxon England.

deMause, Lloyd. The History of Childhood: the evolution of parent-child relationships as a factor in history.

Finucane, Ronald. The Rescue of the Innocents: Endangered Children in Medieval Miracles.

Hanawalt, Barbara. Growing Up in Medieval London: The Experience of Childhood in History.

Orme, Nicholas. Medieval Children.

Scala, Elizabeth. “Yeoman Services: Chaucer’s Knight, His Critics, and the Pleasure of Historicism”

Shahar, Shulamith. Childhood in the Middle Ages.