Dites-moi ou, n’en quel pays

Here is one of the most famous French poems of the 15th century, from Francois Villon, a notorious low-life character who mis-spent his life and was in and out of prison for much of it. It is a poem of nostalgia for the great beauties and remarkable women of previous ages. The final line of each stanza has been memorably translated into English as “Where are the snows of yesteryear?”.

A side benefit of reading this poem is to try and find out about the women who it immortalises, there are indeed some remarkable women mentioned.

François VILLON   (1431-?)

Ballade des Dames du temps jadis

 
Dites-moi où, n’en quel pays,
Est Flora la belle Romaine,
Archipiades, ne Thaïs,
Qui fut sa cousine germaine,
Echo, parlant quant bruit on mène
Dessus rivière ou sur étang,
Qui beauté eut trop plus qu’humaine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Où est la très sage Héloïs,
Pour qui fut châtré et puis moine
Pierre Esbaillart à Saint-Denis ?
Pour son amour eut cette essoine.
Semblablement, où est la roine
Qui commanda que Buridan
Fût jeté en un sac en Seine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

La roine Blanche comme un lis
Qui chantait à voix de sirène,
Berthe au grand pied, Bietrix, Aliz,
Haramburgis qui tint le Maine,
Et Jeanne, la bonne Lorraine
Qu’Anglais brûlèrent à Rouen ;
Où sont-ils, où, Vierge souvraine ?
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

Prince, n’enquerrez de semaine
Où elles sont, ni de cet an,
Que ce refrain ne vous remaine :
Mais où sont les neiges d’antan ?

From <http://poesie.webnet.fr/lesgrandsclassiques/poemes/francois_villon/ballade_des_dames_du_temps_jadis.html&gt;

Each of the first three stanzas is in the form of a question, asking where are the women mentioned, whether they are real or mythical, a sort of “where are they now” game. The first stanza has Flora, Arcibiades, Thais, and Echo, so all from classical history or mythology.

The second stanza enquires after Heloise, the lover of Abelard and then the unnamed queen who ordered that theologian Jean Buridan be thrown into the river Seine tied in a sack.

The third stanza talks of Queen Blanche, big-footed Bertha,(Charlemagne’s mother, I think), Beatrice and Alice, and Joan of arc, who the English burned at Rouen.

The fourth and final stanza is addressed to the prince and asks him not to find out this week or this year what happened to these women, so that he will still be able to ask, in the catchy words of the refrain, “Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Catchy indeed, and a fascinating glimpse into mediaeval history. I wonder which women would figure in a modern version of this poem?

 
The Poetry Dude

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