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Making it Relevant: Villon the Villain

July 27, 2009

My field trip to the new John Dillinger exhibit at the Indiana State Library has done more than make me reconsider my childhood aspirations to become an international jewel thief; it has reminded me of one of the most valuable gems in all of the humanities – Francois Villon. Rogue, rake, and rascal all, Villon was a second-class criminal who wrote first-class poetry. We may very well even consider him the founder of gangsta rap. As the Dr. Dre or Snoop Dogg of medieval France, he celebrated his villainy and criticized his society in such style that baggy, underwear-revealing blue jeans dominated the Parisian fashion scene for much of the 13th century. He shot cops, robbed banks, and generally kicked back and chilled “like it ain’t no thang.” His artistic legacy blossoms within the verses of one of his only known published works, Le Testament.

His biography is the stuff of all the best Hollywood films. Born into an impoverished family, his natural ability earned him an excellent education at the University of Paris. In a tavern one evening, he drew a dagger against an attacker who died from the wounds. Thus began the criminal career that had him banished from Paris, robbing cathedrals for their gold, and leading an infamous band of student thieves all across the French countryside. After years of this life, he was condemned to be hanged. As he awaited execution, his Ballade of the Hanged sprung forth from his pen as a marvelous contemplation on death, exile, and forgiveness – ideas proper for the condemned but just as important for us.

Villon’s supplications, of course, prompt us to consider that mysterious land of death. It is Hamlet’s “undiscovered country,” which has puzzled people for time immemorial and which the intellect seems entirely unable to grasp. Villon, as one condemned by his society, asked what his own legacy would be after he took that journey – and we all will one day too.

One legend holds that when Villon’s executioners went to his cell to bring him to the block, he had disappeared. History proper holds that his sentence was commuted to banishment. Nevertheless, after 1463, his published works and public crimes vanish from the pages of history. At 34-years-old, Villon vanished like a wisp of wind into the unknown stories of our history and culture. While we will never know what happened to the condemned man, Villon’s tremendous contribution to the humanities, and his notorious villainy, remain gifts to us that no thief could steal.

This weekly series (by Joshua Eskew, a senior at Marian College studying English and communication, and an intern with the Indiana Humanities Council) will help expose the relevance of studying the classics.

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