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
Dear Brethren, Igive 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. But I, in the flesh, will not presume to occupy more than a few moments of your time. Only after you have read and considered this written confession, shall I ask that you pronounce your judgments.
You will receive an honest account of my transgressions without any willful attempt to obscure 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,I am deceived, therefore I exist?
To share fully in this confession, I must also tell you of another life so intertwined with mine that I dare not separate the two. You may know of him, for he is François Villon, the poet who wrote The Legacy andThe Testament.A poet more willing to shake the stick of truth than anyone before or since. Aside from our caring friendship, it ispoetrythat kept us together then, and it is poetry most of all that holds us together even now that François has been gone for more than twenty years.
If you believe that there is a place in heaven for Solomon, who took 700 wives and 300 concubines, then it is my honest faith that there should be a place in heaven for me and for François, as well. Our sins are different, but in the end, with your appeal, God will see each of our trespasses as no less acceptable than Solomon’s.
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.
So it is that I petition you now, by presenting you with three questions.
- Exactly what are the true sinsthat I have committed before the eyes of God?
- How do they align with my virtues?
- How must I atone for them?
I was born in Brittany in 1432.
As such, I am younger than François by one year.
My name was derived from Saint Firmin, the martyr and the confessor, whose confusing story few people remember. And yet all Brittany celebrates him, along with St. Hilaire, on January thirteenth. This is usually a dismal day, as anyone who pays attention to the weather will observe. In that season breathing is more difficult and gazes are more fixed.
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 too poor to exercise more than the thoughtof nobility.
It was the better part of my father’s job to organize the Castle Library at Trecesson. Many of Trecesson’s volumes were illuminated, on either paper or vellum. Such collections usually consist 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.
You could read about the noble ages before us. The Song of Rolandabout Charlemagne’s great hero, or Les Histoires du roy Artusabout 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 Roseis a story that François and I read many times. It was written by two authors both of whom are remembered as having invested themselves together in its labor.
In the library of the Trecesson there were many other books. Among some of the more notable titles 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 liked to imagine that I could step out into the air and walk above the landscape.
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 our roof’s precipitous incline, 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 given title during The Combat of Thirtyin the time of Bertrand du Guesclin. Our brief years of glory were most of all the work of my great grandfather whose name was also 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 then and there.
Beyond this history, stories from childhood also helped to inspire me.
My favorite tale from childhood is 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 with its giant, moss-covered trees.
As she recited these stories, my mother seemed to belong to that noble time.
It was a romance that we often shared together.
Whenever I return to my own childhood in Brittany, there are two things that I remember most.
The first I am less proud of, and yet I can still recall it vividly.
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, Gerard, two years older than I, with curly hair—tall, proud and very self-satisfied. He came from wealth and could afford to indulge his desires. He assumed that he was entitled to anything he wanted and believed himself to be superior to all those around him.
One day he pretended to take an interest in my younger sister, Marthe. At first he treated her like a queen, but soon he was leading her around like a begging dog. Then he promptly turned his back on her and pretended not to know her at all.
As she was only in her fourteenth year, this crushed her as you might well imagine.
We were lucky to grow up in a town honoring education, in which reading and writing for both sexes was treated as sacred in a local school attended to by monks and nuns. But this blessing quickly began to feel tainted when we saw Gerard every day on our way to class. There we were forced to endure his public conceits, while witnessing his latest amorous adventures, all accompanied by pomp and boasting.
In the face of these displays, my poor sister began to decline into a shadow, withered by isolation and shame.
Adding to my outrage, while on a playground where we sometimes played stoolball and threw horseshoes, this young man, this Gerard, cast a stone at a friend of mine for no reason other than to show his contempt. He hit him in the ear, causing him to lose his hearing on that side of his head.
By then I had witnessed all I could stand. I sensed that the anger I felt would corrupt me well into the future if I took no action to release it in the present.
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 fifteen and he was sixteen, and so I might have been afraid. But I was nearly as tall as he was, and 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 a snarling predator.
My surprise had worked.
With just one more stroke from my wooden sword he fell to the ground, landing upon his knees and putting his hands down. When I struck him twice upon the back, he rolled over and begged 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 I tapped him on the thigh and requested that he walk in the direction of our school. He stared at me with eyes widened in desperation. But I remained silent behind my wolf’s mask. And seeing no other option, he quickly turned from me and lurched forward through the mist and bushes with brown-red leaves of autumn, carrying his clothes in his arms.
In this manner, I escorted him into the schoolyard, fully naked, until he was surrounded by our classmates. From the edge of the forest I watched him, distraught and cowering, but still afraid to run back into the woods alone to seek the privacy of his house. And far too troubled to clothe himself amidst the crowd.
Then, before anyone might notice me, I retreated further into the forest to remove my costume. There was much commotion as you may imagine, but fortunately no one seemed inclined to look his attacker. They were too distracted by Gerard’s dance of disgrace as they surrounded him in their astonishment.
When the clock struck the hour, both monks and nuns emerged outside. The nuns were all aghast until one of the monks escorted Gerard into a place of privacy where he might dress himself without distraction.
Nonetheless, his era of entitlement had ended.
From that day onward, he went from being a snarling jackal to a timid, if sometimes gruff, housecat. Sometimes he looked at me with suspicion. And yet he was never sure, nor was I ever about to confess my deed to him, as I have just done for you. For now, as I look back, I stand ashamed of my anger, as justified as it seemed and felt at the time.
In God’s eyes, I know now that I should have found another way.
The second thing in my childhood that most stands out, grew from my love of the earth and her treasures. This is something that still causes me to smile, and I share it with you now as a positive sign of character. Of seeing me, hopefully, for who I am, or who, at least, I was meant to be.
It began the year before the adventure with Gerard, when I was only fourteen, but lasted for several years beyond. Moreover, it was an act of building and creation rather than of intimidation and revenge.
Brittany is famous for its ancient rocks and boulders, which are often bigger than a man, some of which stand in lines and circular patterns in honor of ancient ceremonies whose meanings have long been forgotten. I loved Brittany’s 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. The most beautiful stones may also have moss in brilliant green. And if one touches their smoothness and the wetness, it is like entering an undiscovered place of magic.
My wall first began out of a 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 seek a more formal organization for the new collection. Within the month, this became a wall about chest-high, three stones wide on the bottom and two on the top, which would serve as a boundary between the cleared land around our house and the wilderness beyond.
The wall was serpentine in line. It had many partitions and irregularities, such that my mother and sister began to plant flowers and herbs in its vicinity. Those in our neighborhood, seeing that I alone had built it, called it “Fremin’s Wall.” And from what I’ve heard, this name survives to this day.
On the rare occasions when I revisit my childhood home in Brittany, I still relish the feel of those stones. And I still celebrate the wall’s endurance as a monument to those many moments of communion with nature when what I touched and saw reflected who I was, and even more, what I aspired to be. A monument to building something beautiful from God’s hardened tears without questioning the labor or the outcome.