Now, if François Villon is famous for anything — I mean, apart from poetry — it’s being a little bit of a hellion. I am no expert on Villon, but I came across an incident that happened to him in 1455, recounted in Jean Verdon’s Night in the Middle Ages, a very strange book.
One of the things that I like without being able to name or understand is that quality that depositions and incident reports have — when summarised, people’s recollections of things that happen to them have this odd, slightly stiff, slightly jumbled quality. This seems particularly the case in the middle ages, which I think is probably something to do with the scribal style, I don’t know. But if you read any trial transcripts from the middle ages or the Renaissance, they have this particular quality about them. It’s exactly the quality that true-crime books don’t have.
Anyway, I don’t have the original document, so I’m just going to give Verdon’s summary of the record here. This is what happened to François Villon on June 5, 1455 — or at least, according to him.
… at around nine o’clock at night, François was sitting on a stone bench on the rue Saint-Jacques with a priest and a woman going by the name of Isabeau. They were happily chatting when a priest, Philippe Sermoise, and Jean le Mardi suddenly appeared. Seeing Villon, Philippe shouted, “I deny God! Master François, I’ve found you; you can be sure that I’ll make you angry.” Villon replied, “Have I done you wrong? What do you want of me? I believe I have done you no harm. Dear brother, what are you angry about?”
He got up to offer him his seat, but Philippe refused … Sermoise drew his dagger and struck him in the face, cutting his lip. Villon’s two companions had discreetly gone off … Villon backed off, a stone in his right hand, a dagger in his left. As the priest pursued him, Villon stabbed him in the groin.
Then he went to a barber-surgeon to have his wound treated. To follow police rules, the barber asked his name. Villon said he was Michel Mouton …
For me … I think the thing that does it for me is the “I deny God!” bit. Like, François backing away and being all “but what have I done?” is something you could find in any old statement by a guy trying to prove self-defence. But “I deny God” seems like over-egging the pudding a little bit, don’t you think? “Oh, yeah, officer, he was shouting all kinds of stuff about how he hated God. Then he just attacked me for no reason. What could I do but stab him in the dick?”