Thursday, February 26, 2009

L’Epitaphe Villon: Ballade Des Pendus

The French poet François Villon (François de Montcorbier, François Des Loges, c.1431–1463) was a thief, a murderer, and a moralist. A famous poem, known as Villon's Epitaph or The Ballad of the Hanged Men, was written while awaiting execution. It captures a bit of the macabre sensibility of late-medieval meditations on death, speaking in the voice of the dead. Here are two translations, the first from Humour of France, (1893), by Elizabeth Lee, Paul Frenzeny.

In ballad form that Villon made for himself and his companions,
expecting no better than to be hanged in their company.
BROTHERS that after us on life remain,
    Let not your hearts towards us be of stone;
For if to pity us poor wights you're fain,
    God shall the rather grant you benison.
    You see us six, the gibbet hereupon:
As to the flesh that we too well have fed,
Tis all devoured and rotted, shred by shred.
    Let none make merry of our piteous case,
Whose crumbling bones the life long since hath fled:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!
Yea, we conjure you, look not with disdain,
    Brothers, on us, that we to death were done
By justice. Well you know, the saving grain
    Of sense springs not in every mother's son:
    Wherefore, pray for us, now that we're undone,
To Christ, the son of Mary's maidenhead,
That He leave not His grace on us to shed,
    And save us from the nether torture-place.
Let none work woe on us : we are well sped:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!
We are all blanched and soddened of the rain,
    And eke dried up and blackened of the sun:
Corbies and pyets have our eyes out-ta'en,
    And plucked our beard and hair out, one by one.
    Whether by night or day, rest have we none:
Now here, now there, as the wind shifts its stead,
We swing and creak and rattle overhead,
    No thimble dinted like our bird-pecked face.
Folk, mock us not that are forspent and dead:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!
Prince Jesus, that o'er all art Lord and Head,
Let us not fall into the Place of Dread;
    But all our reckoning with the Fiend efface.
Brothers, be warned, and shun the life we led:
    The rather pray, God grant us of His grace!

L’Epitaphe Villon: Ballade Des Pendus
Translated by Tony Kline

My brothers who live after us,
Don’t harden you hearts against us too,
If you have mercy now on us,
God may have mercy upon you.
Five, six, you see us, hung out to view.
When the flesh that nourished us well
Is eaten piecemeal, ah, see it swell,
And we, the bones, are dust and gall,
Let no one make fun of our ill,
But pray that God absolves us all.
No need, if we cry out to you, brothers,
To show disdain, if we’re in suspense
For justice’s sake. How few of the others,
Are men equipped with common sense.
Pray for us, now beyond violence,
To the Son of the Virgin Mary,
So of grace to us she’s not chary,
Shields us from Hell’s lightning fall.
We’re dead: the souls let no man harry,
But pray that God absolves us all.
The rain has soaked us, washed us: skies
Of hot suns blacken us, scorch us: crows
And magpies have gouged out our eyes,
Plucked at our beards, and our eyebrows.
There’s never a moment’s rest allowed:
Now here, now there, the changing breeze
Swings us, as it wishes, ceaselessly,
Beaks pricking us more than a cobbler’s awl.
So don’t you join our fraternity,
But pray that God absolves us all.
Prince Jesus, who has all sovereignty,
Preserve us from Hell’s mastery.
We’ve no business down there at all.
Men, you’ve no time for mockery.
But pray to God to absolve us all.

Tarot's own Hanged Man, Le Pendu in the French decks, was hung by one foot. This was a method of execution by which 15th-century Italians sometimes dispatched particularly notorious criminals, principally traitors. (Hence the common Italian name for the card, Il Traditore.) The depiction of a traitor was an allegory, a personification of Betrayal. As such, it symbolized the downfall of a great man, so often caused by that crime. If we were to write an epitaph for the figure, it might be much like that of Villon.


  1. Hello Michael,
    Wonderful objective commentary on the tarot, congratulations!

    I thought Moakley's book was a bit speculative personally, and wasn't entirely convinced by her efforts to use the tarot as a document of the parade of triumphs, particularly taking Petrarch as a model. However, her reference to the hanged man as a traitor caught my attention, as has this post. Do you happen to know any other literary references to the punishment of treachery in this way beyond that of the effigies of Muzio Attendolo?


    Michael Pearce

  2. Thanks very much for the comments.

    You might want to start with this thread on the Aeclectic Tarot forum.

    Andrea del Sarto's "Hanged Man" sketches

    There are a lot of references to this practice in Northern Italy, and some surviving illustrations. There are also related practices, some of which Moakley cited as well.

    Best regards,