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Call it the Villon epiphany. François Villon was a 15th-century French poet. His work has been passed down in many hand-scribed manuscripts, but none of them are originals in the author’s hand. On an autumn day in 1980, Stephen Nichols was in Paris studying different parchment manuscripts of the poet’s Le Testament. Like all textual scholars of the day, Nichols, who is now a Johns Hopkins professor emeritus in the Department of German and Romance Languages and Literatures, often worked from a modern critical edition of Villon’s work; that is, a text assembled from multiple sources by scholars and meant to represent the definitive version that Villon intended. “I was astounded to see the way the texts had been prepared and presented in the critical edition, which tied them up very nicely and gave them endings,” Nichols says. “In the [actual medieval] manuscripts, I couldn’t find those endings! I suddenly realized that editors, starting in the early 19th century, couldn’t stand that a literary work didn’t have a nice ending. And I realized that I was looking at evidence that in the Middle Ages, people had a high tolerance for just reading poems that didn’t have to have a neat beginning, middle, and ending.”