Fremin Le May chronicles his adventures with 15th Century French poet Francois Villon across courts, brothels and prisons in this ironic and sometimes strident confession.
Fremin Seeks Absolution from the Brothers at Fontenay-le-Comte
ENTRY: THE FIRST
I give you this confession to save my soul, and ask you as my witnesses before God to say prayers on my behalf. I have chosen you because you are my neighbors, although we know only a little about each other.
I, in the flesh, will not presume to occupy but a few moments of your time.
When you have read and considered this written confession, I ask that you pronounce your judgments.
I also ask you to appeal to God on my behalf.
You will receive an honest account of my transgressions without trying to sweeten them. Nor will I pretend to know more than I do, but present to you my complete history as best I can tell it, for even honesty is not a full guarantee of truth.
Was it not Saint Augustine who said… “If I am deceived, I exist?”
To share fully in this confession, I must also tell you of another life so intertwined with mine that I cannot separate the two. You may know of him, for he is François Villon, the poet who wrote The Testament. A poet more intimate and shameless than anyone before or since.
It is writing that kept us together then, and it is writing that holds us together even now that François is gone.
But if you believe that there is a place in heaven for Solomon, who took 700 wives and 300 concubines, then there should be a place in heaven for me and François, as well. Our sins are different, but in the end, with your appeal, may God see them as no less acceptable.
Do these words sound familiar to you, taken as they are from our current canonical wisdom? –
“However rude may be the sinner
God hates only his persistence.”
“Who’s done no wrong need not confess.”
Or then, as François, himself wrote?
“When you’re down and out,
Don’t let appeals get stuck in your throat.”
If you can follow any of these familiar ideas—then I ask you to recognize that we all must sin while you pass judgment upon this confession.
It is my request that you first judge and then ascertain with a caring heart—exactly what are the true sins that I have committed before the eyes of God? How do they align with my virtues? How must they be reconciled? And how must I atone for them?
I leave you to judge my condition for yourselves from the truth behind my adventures as described within this narrative.
I was born in Brittany in 1432.
As such, I am younger than François by just one year.
My name, Fremin Le May, was derived from Saint Firmin, whose story few people remember. And yet all Paris celebrates him, along with St. Hilaire, on January thirteenth. This is usually a dismal day, as anyone who pays attention to the weather can observe. In that season breathing is more difficult and gazes are more fixed. It is a time when poor people are content just to survive, waiting for the distant light of spring and a new cheer for living.
I grew up in a village near the forest of Paimpont in a stone house with wood and plaster walls. My father belonged to a noble family, which was nevertheless no longer noble in itself. We were too poor to exercise more than the thought of nobility.
It was the better part of my father’s job to organize the Castle Library at Trecesson. He also acted as an advisor for the rich about how to build their own libraria. Such collections usually consisted of no more than ten, or sometimes twenty books, whereas the Castle of Trecesson had more than eighty books, which made it one of the greatest libraries in Brittany.
Many of Trecesson’s volumes were illuminated, on either paper or vellum. You could read about the noble ages before us. The Song of Roland about Charlemagne’s great hero, or Les Histoires du roy Artus about King Arthur, Sir Lancelot and Tristan. And you could browse the poetry of Rutebeuf and the chronicles of Froissart, or savor The Book of the Rose, that parable of love, by Jehan de Meung and Guillaume de Lorris.
The Book of the Rose is a story that François and I read many times. It was written by two authors both of whom are remembered as having invested themselves in its labor. As such it became a great inspiration to us both, and in the end—especially to me. It represented, Good Brethren, an alternate path to what God delivered to François and to me. To how we would be remembered. And to who we are in the world. A divergence that caused many of the events in this confession to transpire in the manner that they did.
In the library of the Trecesson there were many other books. Among my favorites were—The Art of Good Living, The Art of Good Dying, The Ship of Fools, The City of God, Rhymes for Prudish Ladies, The Bestiary of Love, A Guide for New Spouses, A Guide to Herbes, The Very Useful and Profitable Mirror of the Soul, A Book of Marvels, In Praise of Women, In Praise of Victory, The Dance of the Blind, The Dance of Death, Purgatory for Bad Husbands, The Devil Pleads his Case, The Dream of the Flea, and The Way to Paradise.
Our house in Paimpont stood near a dark forest. It had pale red doors that opened in the middle, and windows held together by latticework. Within its walls were stones of brown, blue, gray and orange and it was larger than most of the houses in our neighborhood. The roof was made of small slate pieces and contained within it several gables of old wood where I sometimes imagined that I could step out into the air and walk above the landscape like an angelic spirit.
Such fanciful impressions were encouraged by the steep, slate roof with its “dragon back” crenellations, which gave the top of the house a magical character. When rains came and water poured down, it seemed that we lived inside a part of nature that was greatly excited, as if the weather had become a harbinger of far more dramatic events to come.
As to my family’s past—several of my ancestors were renowned as soldiers and were given title during The Combat of Thirty in the time of Bertrand du Guesclin. Our brief 150 years of glory was the work of my great grandfather whose name was Bertran. During the Combat of Thirty, the French general suggested to the English that rather than shed the blood of two entire armies, thirty men from each side should fight it out until one side yielded, and that would decide the outcome of the battle.
For twelve hours, the brave knights fought at one another with swords, daggers, battle-axes and pikes. Wounded heroes persisted while losing blood—the weight of their armor pushing them down—until some were reduced to defending themselves on bended knee. When death came, it came slowly to these strong men, and more than a few died many hours after the battle was over.
The French won at nightfall, and my grandfather, Bertran Le May, was knighted there and then.
It is a story I still cherish despite its pain and suffering. For, Good Fathers, what is life about if it’s not to learn how to persevere?
Stories from childhood help to mold us.
You have heard the story of my ancestry.
But stories that are half myth and half real may also take hold.
My favorite story from childhood is one that you must know so well that I needn’t tell it. It’s the history of King Arthur and his knights, who came to the Forest of Paimpont in pursuit of Joseph of Arimethia and the Holy Grail. In my imagination, I grew up beside King Arthur in the fairyland of Paimpont. My mother, who grew up there as well, also seemed to belong to that ancient time, holding secrets that our current age has forgotten.
To this fine legend, I owe a commitment to courage and a no longer popular belief in the generosity of the spirit.
Now I must tell you another legend from my childhood, which in this case is true—in fact a part of history, about a man whom my father once knew. This legend is the very opposite of King Arthur’s. A tragic story of death and evil. A haunting story of what ills might someday lie before us all if we lose our way in mind and heart.
This story became a symbol of corruption and terror—a warning. But in the end, as you shall see, perhaps even a cause for optimism.
The man in question began his career well. He rode beside Jehanne of Arc as she took France from the English. In his youth, he was a great warrior, with his silver armor and red gloves—at Chinon, Poitiers, Blois, Orléans, Meung and Patay. He stormed the Castle of La Hire where he killed the English captain with his fists.
However, this same man sank to an abyss so low that hell itself opened its maw just for him, expecting with great confidence to swallow him up. If he was saved, it was only through the intervention of good grace far beyond normal expectation.
Let us begin when our nobleman is awarded all military honors, and seen as one of the greatest heroes of France. The first step in his long decline is the theater—most particularly those mystery plays, which are performed as religious lessons for ever larger audiences.
How could a man dishonor himself through his lavish support of lessons about the Last Judgment, the Birth of Christ, the Baptism in Jordan, and the Nativity?
This you shall see as it happened to this man, this Gilles.
In the finest of shows the scenery was elaborate. Tapestries moved. Beds moved. Coverlets moved. Tables moved. The stage was built in the fashion of scaffolds, so that the lower scaffold became Hell, the middle scaffold became Earth, and the highest scaffold was a platform for Heaven. Fires blazed in the lowest scaffold, where the actors playing the damned suffered with mortal discomfort and sweat.
A play could last for a full day.
When Gilles de Retz sponsored a play, the advertisements proclaimed Entirely new and elegant costumes. In fact, not a single costume was ever reused for casts, even if these sometimes exceeded a hundred actors.
It is not surprising, then, that Gilles de Retz, the great Marshall of France, soon fell into debt.
The next step in his decline combined vanity with greed and led to a cruel urge for acquisition that denied the sanctity of human life. Gilles believed that he could find eternal youth and repay his debts by transforming base metals into gold.
He had two castles, one by the rivers Crume and one by the River Sevre. In these castles the Marshall had laboratories filled with tubes and oubliettes where the stench of sulfur troubled the atmosphere.
He hired several magicians, three from France and one from England.
Gilles also imported an Italian magician as a servant. This man used phosphorous and other substances to deceive his patron, conjuring through these the shapes of frogs, serpents, leopards and dragons to show that he was in dialog with the Devil, who alone of all powers could grant Gilles de Retz the gold that he desired most. To do his bidding this false Devil insisted on human blood, and especially the blood of innocents.
A woman named Henriette worked for Gilles, and went from town to town covering the side of her face with her hood. Even so, she was seen by many of the villagers who also noticed that children sometimes disappeared after she left.
Imagine her manner as she lured them to herself, offering them some present or sweet. Her hand was hidden in shadow behind the glittering bauble that kept the child’s attention. Her veil disguised her smile, so taut and false behind its gauze, which nevertheless could not completely cover her dull, black eyes.
No one knows exactly what she said. No one survived to tell.
During his trial in Nantes Gilles de Retz, under the name Egedius, confessed to petitioning the Devil for the purposes of making gold. Before he was done he also confessed to the killing of more than 140 children, mostly boys. He would pamper them and dress them up and treat them to a fine dinner, and then lead them into a room where the true nature of their ordeal would quickly become apparent. They were sometimes killed by decapitation. Sometimes he hung them up by the neck from ropes.
For weeks and then months he confessed, detailing each thing and then begging for forgiveness in the most abject way.
Gilles was burned alive, along with his evil, Italian servant, as well as Henriette and a man called “Poitou.”
Yet, despite his atrocities, his confessors sought to pardon his soul because of the sincerity of his confessions. Even the local populace whom had been so wronged cried pardon for this monster, as Gilles de Retz once again became a man in their eyes.
His daughter erected an expiatory altar in his remembrance, which in subsequent years became dedicated to the Good Virgin of Mother’s Milk—and so, in the strangest of circumstances, his altar became a place of prayer for new mothers seeking to breastfeed their young.
There were two things for which I was most remembered as a boy.
The first I am less proud of, and yet I can still think of it vividly, as if it were yesterday.
I was lost to fantasies of being a knight, and often pretended to fight among my friends with wooden swords. These ‘swords’ were little more than boards with handles, and suited more to games of fancy than true sport.
But on one occasion, my urge to fight erupted into more serious fulfillment.
There was a young man, two years older than I, with curly hair—tall, proud and very self-satisfied. He assumed that he was entitled to anything he wanted, and believed himself to be a superior being to all those around him. While he came from wealth and could afford to indulge his desires, he didn’t come from nobility in any true sense.
One day he pretended to take an interest in my younger sister.
At first he treated her like a queen, but soon he was leading her around like a dog.
Then he promptly turned his back on her and seemed not even to know her.
As she was only in her thirteenth year, this crushed her as you can well imagine.
To make matters worse, every day we both saw him at school. There we were forced to endure his public conceits, while witnessing two new amorous adventures, all accompanied by pomp and boasting. In the face of these displays, my poor sister declined into a shadow, withered by isolation and shame.
Once while on the playground, this young man, this Gerard, threw a stone at a friend of mine for no reason other than to show his contempt. He hit my friend in the ear, causing him to lose some of his hearing.
Good Fathers, by then I had witnessed all I could stand. I feared the rage I felt might corrupt me if I took no action to release it.
Early one morning, when a quiet rain fell and the weather was soft with mist and fog, I hid in wait for Gerard. I held a wooden sword in my hand and wore the wolf’s mask my father kept for festivals upon my head. I was only fourteen and he was sixteen, and so I might have been afraid. But instead, I fancied myself an avenger with the might of both heaven and hell on my side.
As soon as Gerard emerged along a forest trail, I leapt out from behind a tall oak and struck him hard upon the knees.
He looked at me like a sheep staring at snarling predator.
My surprise had worked.
With just one more strike he fell to the ground instantly, landing first upon his knees, then his hands.
Then I struck him twice upon his back.
He rolled over with a wild look in his eyes and asked for mercy.
Trying to distort my speech into a lower, more somber voice, I granted him a pardon. But my pardon came at a price. I demanded that he remove all his clothes and stand up, so he might face God openly to confess his sins.
He did this grudgingly but quickly—looking all the while at the ground and not at me.
Then, after a brief ceremony of confession in which he mostly mumbled mindless words, I tapped him on the thigh and demanded that he run in the direction of the school.
He stared at me with eyes widened in desperation. Then he lurched forward through the mist and bushes with brown-red leaves of autumn.
In this manner, I drove him into the schoolyard, fully naked, until he was surrounded by his classmates. I watched him there, ashamed and cowering, but still afraid to run back into the woods alone to seek the privacy of his house.
Before the schoolmaster came out, I retreated into the forest to remove my costume. There was much commotion as you might imagine, but no one seemed inclined to hunt for me.
The schoolmaster soon found a coat for him.
But his era of “entitlement” had ended.
From that day onward, he went from being a snarling jackal to a housecat.
After that time he often looked at me with suspicion from the corners of his eyes—as if he secretly knew it was me who had put the burden of truth upon him in a rude attempt to liberate my sister from her shame. And yet he was never sure, nor was I ever about to confess my deed to him, as I have just done for you.
The second thing for which I was famous drew from my love of the earth and her treasures. As a youth, I was restless and anxious to use my body. As an example, I built a stone wall when I was thirteen.
Brittany is famous for its ancient rocks and boulders, which are often bigger than a man, and which stand in lines and patterns whose meanings have long been forgotten. I loved stones for their variety in shape, texture and color, for while one may think of them as gray, many are in fact either brown, or red, or blue, and some have crystals in them in such proportions as to appear more like jewels than rocks. Many of the most beautiful stones have moss in brilliant green, and if one touches the smoothness and the wetness, it is like entering an undiscovered place almost feminine to the touch.
The wall began out of my desire to create a pile of pretty rocks.
However, within the course a single summer morning, I amassed such a horde that I began to wish for some more formal organization for my collection.
This became a wall about chest-high, three stones wide on the bottom and two on the top. For many days over a period of years I worked on this wall, which gradually became a boundary to the cleared land around our house.
By the time the wall was done it had many partitions and irregularities, such that my mother and sister began to plant flowers and herbs in its vicinity. It numbered several acres in length and was serpentine in line.
The neighborhood, seeing that I alone had built it, called it “Fremin’s Wall,” and this name has still survived even to this day. Even recently when I have come upon it, I still relish the feel of the stones and celebrate the fact that it has endured as a monument to that quiet moment in my life. A monument to a time when I believed in building something beautiful from God’s hardened tears without questioning the labor or petitioning for rest.