Femmes Fatales of Yesteryear

François Villon is the 15th Century French poet who is most famous in the English speaking world today for the plaintive line
    Where are the snows of yesteryear?   (Où sont les neiges d’antan?)
which serves as a refrain in his poem Ballade des Femmes du Temps Jadis. The translation of “antan” as “yesteryear” is due to the Victorian poet and pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who did much to popularize Villon’s poetry in 19th Century England. The title of the poem itself also presents a challenge to a translator. Most Victorians preferred The Ballad of Women of Yore which sounds too folksy today, but which still is decidedly better than Rossetti’s own The Ballad of Dead Ladies. Today, to keep it simple, it is commonly rendered in English as The Ballad of Women of Time Gone By.
The poem tells of dynamic women of history, starting with Flora and Thais, grand courtesans of antiquity. The second stanza leaps forward from the ancient world to the Middle Ages and the stories of two pairs of star crossed lovers: Heloïse and Abelard; Marguerite de Bourgogne and Jean Buridan.
Here is the second stanza as written by Villon in what is now archaic French:
Où est la très sage Heloïs,
Pour qui fut chastré et puis moyne
Pierre Esbaillart à Sainct-Denys?
Pour son amour eut cest essoyne.
Semblablement, où est la royne
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fust jetté en ung sac en Seine?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan!
Here is Rossetti’s version which does stay true to the rhyme, meter and feel of Villon’s poetry with archaisms of its own: ween = think, dule = agony, teen = misery:
Where’s Héloise, the learned nun,.
For whose sake Abeillard, I ween,
Lost manhood and put priesthood on?.
(From Love he won such dule and teen!)
And where, I pray you, is the Queen.
Who willed that Buridan should steer.
Sewed in a sack’s mouth down the Seine?
But where are the snows of yester-year?.
But “Lost manhood” is so lame compared to Villon’s vivid “chastré” (castrated) and the important visual reference to the Benedictine abbey at St. Denis (Sainct-Denys) is just dropped – hmm, High School English teachers used to insist that poetry should always strive to be concrete and that it is prose that delights in the abstract, a point apparently missed by poet Rossetti.
Finally here is a contemporary literal English translation – from a website named the Bureau of Public Secrets:
Where is Héloïse, so wise, for whom
Pierre Abelard was first unmanned
then cloistered up at Saint Denis?
For her love he bore these trials.
And where now can one find that queen
by whose command was Buridan
thrown in a sack into the Seine?
Where are the snows of yesteryear?
In depicting them the way he does as women of intrigue, Villon casts Héloïse and Marguerite as femmes fatales much in the style of a 1940s film noir, say Gloria Grahame and Jane Greer. In fact, although we tend to think of Héloïse as a sweet young thing who was seduced by her tutor, hers is the complex story of an accomplished and ambitious woman; in Villon’s poem, she is “sage Heloïs,” but Villon’s word “sage,” which in today’s French means “obedient,” is translated into modern French by words like “savante” and into English as “learned” (Rossetti’s choice) or “wise” (the Bureau of Public Secrets’ choice). Indeed, Héloïse went on to have a brilliant career in the Church reaching the rank of abbess and being named a territorial prelate (prelate nullius), a “bishop without a diocese” who reports directly to the Pope – the highest clerical position a nun can attain. Abelard, once her tutor and lover, suffered castration at the hands of members of Héloïse’ family but he did manage to carry on with his theological and philosophical work which has earned him a place among the deep thinkers of the Middle Ages.
And then there are the queen and the Buridan who finish out this stanza. Jean Buridan, like Abelard, was also one of the great intellectuals of the late Middle Ages – logician, philosopher, theologian, physicist, professor at the University in Paris. (There is more on him in the post on the pre-history of AI – click HERE – including the most clever proof of the existence of God of the age of Scholasticism, pace Anselm and Thomas.)
But who was the Queen who is purported to have had Buridan placed in a sack and drowned in the Seine like a cat? Historians tell us that she was Marguerite de Bourgogne, Queen of Navarre, wife to the dauphin Louis Le Hutin (the Quarrelsome) and daughter-in-law to one of the most powerful of French kings, Philippe Le Bel (the Handsome) – the king who destroyed the Knights Templar of DaVinci code fame, the king who successfully contested the power of the papacy which resulted in moving the popes from Rome to Avignon for 100 years. Next in line to be Queen of France and renowned for her beauty, Marguerite brought youth and gaiety to the Court. However, in today’s idiom, a tabloid headline of springtime 1314 would have read: “Marguerite de Bourgogne caught in flagrante delicto” and the text would go on to recount how Marguerite was having trysts with young knights in a tower across the Seine from the Palace of the Louvre – La Tour de Nesle (The Tower of Nesle).
Marguerite was outed by her sister-in-law, Isabelle de France, the daughter of Philippe Le Bel, wife of the English King Edward II and Queen of England – herself renowned for her wit and her beauty but also known as the She-Wolf of France (la Louve de France). Isabelle’s suspicions about her vivacious sister-in-law were aroused when she observed that two handsome young Normand knights who were visiting the English Court were sporting especially stylish aumônières (alms purses) that she herself had given as gifts to Marguerite – regifters beware! For a picture of an elegant aumônière of that era, click HERE .
Marguerite was then found out by the agents of her father-in-law, Philippe Le Bel. The knights, in fact two brothers, were tortured, forced to name Marguerite and then sadistically executed. Marguerite herself was imprisoned; while she was in prison, Philippe Le Bel died and she became Queen of France when her quarrelsome husband assumed the throne as Louis X. She died not long after, either from tuberculosis or by the hand of an assassin delegated by Louis X – the latter theory bolstered by the fact that there was no reigning pope at the time to dissolve the royal marriage (the cardinals were busy in a conclave in Lyon trying to elect a French pope to be installed at Avignon, eventually John XXII): so Marguerite’s timely demise left the king free to remarry, which he promptly did, this time to Clémence de Hongrie. Not surprisingly, there is no crypt for Marguerite at the royal necropolis in the Basilica of St. Denis, just outside Paris; however, the Benedictine abbey to which Abelard was confined still stands there despite being omitted in Rossetti’s too unfaithful translation.
History and legend quickly merged and the polymath Jean Buridan, an ordained priest but a Parisian man-about-town, was soon “implicated” in the affair. The version of the story that Villon employs adds the twist that Marguerite would have her lovers, Buridan among them, tied up in sacks and thrown into the Seine as the parties fines (discreet French phrase for orgies) would wind down. In the tale, there is also a shift from young knights to university students of the Latin Quarter: Buridan gets involved when he realizes that his students are disappearing without explanation but Buridan thwarts his fate by having friends waiting in a boat to fish him out when he is thrown into the River Seine.
Villon is known as le poète maudit (the cursed poet) and much of his own turbulent life story is known only through police records: he was banished from Paris three times, the first time for killing a priest in a brawl – amazing how being banished from Paris was punishment enough, an attitude Parisians still share! So it is not all that surprising that he would show interest in a sinner like the Marguerite of these legends. But a baroque tale like this calls for the pen of an Alexandre Dumas and, indeed, with Frédéric Gaillardet, he did co-author the hit play La Tour de Nesle (1832) where the lovers’ trysts are cast as mysterious, murderous bacchanals and where infinitely more intrigue (including parricide and incest) is added to the connection between Marguerite and Buridan – the character of Marguerite is so strong that it is considered the model for the dazzling Milady de Winter of The Three Musketeers. Apropos, Dumas actually fought a duel (though with pistols) with Gaillardet over a dispute about authorship – both men survived unnerved but unscathed and the two reconciled some years later in Paris.
The play has been made into several movies going back to the early silent era: the pioneering French director of full-length films Albert Capellani made his La Tour de Nesle in 1909 – two full years before his Les Misérables! But then over 200 movies have been made based on Dumas’ work over the years, certainly a record for authors – and the most glamourous Hollywood stars have been cast as Milady: Lana Turner, Faye Dunaway, Milla Jovovich. And then there have been radio shows, TV versions etc; today movie trailers and full showings are available on youTube. The story of Marguerite and Buridan has also inspired artists; for a painting of them together by the eminent 19th Century salon painter Frédéric Peyson, click HERE .
Medieval carryings on aside, the 14th Century scandal of La Tour de Nesle had serious political consequences: the affair lent support to the thesis that women lacked the moral qualities to serve as reigning monarchs on their own. The issue came up right away with the sudden death in 1316 of Louis X whose child with Clémence de Hongrie, Jean 1er Le Posthume, died in infancy – which made Marguerite and Louis X’s daughter Jeanne the logical heir to the throne; instead after a proper bout of intrigue (and it didn’t help that the affair of La Tour de Nesle cast doubt on the legitimacy of Jeanne), the throne was accorded to Louis’ scheming brother who became Philippe V le Long (The Tall). All these machinations became codified in the Salic Law of Succession (La Loi Salique) which postulated that not only could a woman not become monarch of France but that, per the Encyclopedia Britannica, “persons descended from a previous sovereign only through a woman were excluded from succession to the throne.” This issue continued to lead to constant conflicts over the succession to the throne of France – a longer one of these conflicts being the 100 Years War (1337–1453). BTW, the last woman “of time gone by” that Villon alludes to  in his poem is Joan of Arc herself, without whom that war would have lasted 200 years! Interestingly, the mischievous poet does not refer to her victories in battle but rather to how the perfidious English burned her at the stake:
Et Jehanne, la bonne Lorraine,
Qu’Anglois bruslèrent à Rouen
Or in the Bureau of Public Secrets’ literal translation:
and Joan, the good maiden of Lorraine
who was burned by the English at Rouen
One can see the not-so-subtle condescension shown by Villon toward Joan of Arc – rather like calling Golda Meir the “sweet girl from Milwaukee” rather than the “Iron Lady of Israeli politics.”
But getting back to the tale of La Tour de Nesle, Marguerite de Bourgogne is not the only femme fatale in the story. There is also Isabelle, the She-Wolf of France, who outed poor Marguerite; clearly the sobriquet “She-Wolf” implies that she was someone to reckon with and someone worthy of Villon’s attention. More to come. Affaire à suivre.

Post Scriptum

For Villon’s text of the complete poem, click HERE .
For Rossetti’s, click HERE .
For the Bureau’s, click HERE .