François Villon and the mal-turned church (Dennis Aubrey)


I innocently recall
the distant bells
of Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné.
and quickly end my prayer
invoking Guillaume de Villon’s bald pate.

“An Angel”, Yukio Tsuji 1987

Today’s post has nothing to do with Romanesque or Gothic churches or anything else that we normally write about. Today is about the poet-thief François Villon and a church associated with him in Paris. We have never photographed the church and never will be able to because it is long-gone. But the story is fascinating.

I first heard of the Église Saint Benoit le Bétourné while researching our last post on the Église Saint-Géraud in Monsempron-Libos, a small town in the Lot-et-Garonne. The French Wikipedia article on the town reads, “La nouvelle église Notre-Dame de Libos est construite entre 1879 et 1891 à l’ouest de la place Centrale, cette église présente la rare particularité de n’être pas orientée comme traditionnellement vers le levant mais vers le couchant, et ce dès la construction, comme jadis, par exception, au Moyen-Âge à Paris, Saint Benoit le Bétourné ainsi nommé pour son inversion.”

“The new church Notre-Dame de Libos was constructed between 1879 and 1891 to the west of the Place Centrale. This church presents a particular rarity because it is not oriented traditionally toward the east, but towards the sunset, and this construction, was formerly an exception in the Middle Ages in Paris; Saint Benoit le Bétourné so named for its inversion.”

Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné in 1808, Paris ( Île-de-France)

I have always thought that I was reasonably well-versed in Parisian history – I can even take you to the spot on Rue de la Ferronnerie where Henri IV was assassinated by Ravaillac. But I was totally ignorant of Saint Benoit le Bétourné! According to the 14th century French scholar Raoul of Presles the original church on the site just a block from the Sorbonne was founded by Saint Denis of Paris. When I was young, the story of Saint Denis particularly fascinated me: Christian legend claimed that the decapitated 3rd century bishop picked up his head and walked several miles while preaching a sermon on repentance. He carried the head through Paris preaching. When he arrived at the site of the Église Saint Benoit le Bétourné in what is now the 5th arrondissement of Paris, he delivered a sermon on the Holy Trinity and dedicated it to “Benoît Sire Dieu” (“Blessed be the Lord our God”). The spelling changed over the centuries and so the church’s dedication seems to have shifted to honor the founder of the Benedictine order, Saint Benedict (in French “Benoît”) of Nursia. A later church was built on the site in the 6th century and dedicated to the martyrs Sergius and Bacchus.

Statue of Saint Denis, Notre Dame de Paris (Photograph by Thesupermat, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons)

The medieval church was built in the 13th century and the master builder for some reason placed the choir in the west, not the east. This led to the nickname “le bétourné” (“the [church] turned the wrong way round”). The church was rebuilt in the early 16th century by Francis I who had the altar placed in the traditional eastern position. Saint Benoit received a new nickname – “le bistourné” (“the twice-turned [church]”), later bowdlerised into “le bestourné”, possibly to bring it back closer to its old name.

There was a second name for the medieval church – “le Bétourné Mal Tourné” – meaning that it was built wrong. After Francis I’s renovation, the church was known as “le Bétourné Bene Versus”.

Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné in 1810, Paris (Île-de-France)

In 1831 the church was converted into the théâtre du Panthéon, which was itself demolished in 1854 to build rue des Écoles. From this old Parisian church, there remained the holy sepulcher which was entrusted to Saint Etienne du Mont. The church organ and a statue of the Virgin were sent to Saint Jacques du Haut Pas. The portal of the church was also installed in one of the courtyards of the Hotel de Cluny (installé dans une des cours de l’Hôtel de Cluny.)

Turgot map detail – 1739, Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné

The Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné has a strong tie to the original bad boy of French poetry, François Villon. François was born François Villon de Montcorbier in Paris in 1431 but his father died when he was a young boy. He was subsequently adopted by Guillaume de Villon who gave him his name, raised him, and eventually sent him to study for the priesthood at the nearby Collège de Navarre on the Rue Saint-André-des-Arts. Villon earned his Master of Arts in Theology degree in 1452, but he much preferred drinking and carousing in taverns.

He became a thief and on Christmas night of 1456 he participated in a robbery at the Collège de Navarre for which he was banished from Paris. He returned in 1461 but was involved in a brawl where a pontifical notary was stabbed to death. He was subjected the la question de l’eau (water torture) and convicted of murder. On appeal his sentence was reduced to ten years of exile. He left Paris in January 1463 and was never heard from again.

Anthony Bonner speculated the poet, as he left Paris, was “broken in health and spirit.” Bonner writes further: “He might have died on a mat of straw in some cheap tavern, or in a cold, dank cell; or in a fight in some dark street with another French coquillard; or perhaps, as he always feared, on a gallows in a little town in France. We will probably never know.”

Villon’s fate has disappeared into the swirling dark waters of history just like the wonderfully named Église Saint-Benoît-le-Bétourné.

2 thoughts on “François Villon and the mal-turned church (Dennis Aubrey)

  1. This is a fascinating story and will give me some things to search for next time I am in Paris. Thank you for sharing it!

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