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Montaigne, Michel de (1533–1592) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION

essays text montaigne’s court

Michel de Montaigne was born in the Dordogne region of France into a family recently elevated to the minor nobility. The infant was put out to nurse with a peasant woman and, upon his return to the family chateau, was placed in the care of a tutor. As Montaigne recounts, this German doctor spoke to him in Latin only, according to the dictates of the elder Montaigne, who had strong yet apparently kind views about his son’s upbringing (essai I:26). At the age of six, Michel was sent off to pursue a more standardized education at the College de Guyenne in Bordeaux, where, as a native speaker of Latin, he caused some consternation among the Latin masters. Almost nothing is known about his young adulthood; he may have attended law school in Toulouse; he may have spent some time in Paris.

It is likely, though not certain, that in 1554 Michel assumed a post in a local tax court. Three years later, when the tax court had merged with the Parlement of Bordeaux, Michel is documented on the role of counselors; he would serve in the Parlement for some thirteen years. Here he met Etienne de La Boétie, with whom he formed perhaps the closest emotional attachment of his life. During this time, too, Michel married Françoise de la Chassaigne. In 1568 the elder Montaigne died, and Michel, as the oldest male child, inherited the title. Two years later, Michel, now “de Montaigne,” left his position in the Parlement and went to Paris, where he published sonnets written by La Boétie, who had died in 1563. Whatever may have been Montaigne’s aims in going to Paris to publish these works under dedications to influential people, after a year at court he went home and declared his retirement to a life of quiet reflection and study.

Anticipating tranquility, he experienced instead a disturbingly mobile and disorderly mental state. In order to come to terms with, or at least take account of, the unquiet products of his mind, he began to “keep a register” of his thoughts (I:8 trans. Florio). This “register” would evolve into the Essays , the first two volumes of which were published in 1580. Three months later, Montaigne set out on his first and only international journey, the journal of which would be published after his death. In 1581 Montaigne returned to France in order to take up the mayoralty of Bordeaux, an office he held for two terms and a total of four years. Although his first impulse had been to decline the office, he later wrote that the responsibilities he faced as mayor “suited [his] disposition” (III: 10).

The last years of Montaigne’s retirement continued to be relatively active. In 1588 Catholic extremists succeeded in having him briefly confined in the Bastille. This year, too, he traveled with the court of Henri III. He later corresponded with Henri IV from his chateau and twice received him as a visitor. During these later years, too, he became acquainted with Marie de Gournay, who would become his adopted daughter and literary executor.

Montaigne was a moderate in times of violent religious and political strife. He deplored the brutalities of the Wars of Religion, whether perpetrated by Protestant or Catholic, and “took beatings,” as he put it, from extremists on both sides (III:12). The extent of the role he played in affairs of state has not been established in detail, but his importance as a negotiator between Henri III and Henri de Navarre is known. Privately, he observed the rites of the Catholic religion, while actively seeking to understand Protestant beliefs. Privately, too, he may have aspired to some more formal position at court, but he was not called, as far as we know, until Navarre came to the Crown, when Montaigne was obliged, perhaps because of ill health, to decline. The essayist died at home in September 1592, not—as he had feared—in the agony of a kidney stone attack, but of a throat infection.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

The Essays were generally well thought of when they appeared. They were variously approved as imitating Plutarch, as being unlike anything else, as coupling elegant style with freedom of expression, and as displaying wisdom untrammeled by pedanticism. In her preface to the 1595 edition Marie de Gournay complains of the cold reception accorded the Essays , but Maurice Rat places the first significant negative reaction to Montaigne’s text near the end of the reign of Louis XIII, when both literary and religious purists began to look disapprovingly at the essayist’s “portrait.” Not least among these critics was the pope, who banned the Essays in 1676. Accordingly, the Pléiade Oeuvres Completes bibliography lists no editions of the work from 1636 to 1723. Appreciative readers were not lacking during this time, however, as the support of Madame de Sévigné and La Bruyère indicates. Donald Frame points to Montaigne’s pertinence to the discourse of the late seventeenth century in Europe when he writes, “In the great line of French Moralistes , he is the first and the greatest.” Similarly, the importance of the Essays for the French Enlightenment is suggested by Pierre Villey, for whom the essayist’s “great originality is to have offered…a model of human wisdom organized solely according to the light of reason” (Villey, XXXII, my trans.).

Contemporary readings of the Essays fall into four interrelated categories. The best-established of these is the psychological reading, which, while it allows for a range of interpretations, invariably depends on the organizing and validating principle of a particular individual subjectivity. Such criticism often incorporates the idea of a historical Montaigne, the development of whose opinions and personality may be tracked through the essays (see Frame, Greene).

Recent critical work has branched out to include gender-related, socioeconomic, and textual concerns. The gender-related approach explores the cultural significance of references to, and silences about, women (see Bauschatz, Char-pentier, Parker), while socioeconomic studies focus on the text as a response to, and an account of, a specific historical moment (see Desan). Textually oriented criticism often relies on close readings that may not be so much concerned with Montaigne’s message as with the sparks of significance that fly when a modern sensibility comes into contact with the Renaissance text (Regosin). The twofold effect of this diversification has been to complicate the venerable view of the essays as a “mirror” for the reader and to demonstrate the availability of this early modern text for readings that are based in postmodern literary theory.

The Travel Journal has, to date, held a decidedly minor place in Montaigne studies. It has been, with very few exceptions, valued not as a text in its own right but rather as a source of information about the Essays , their author, and their time.

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