Michel de Montaigne
The wide-ranging 16th century works of Michel de Montaigne are still studied by scholars all over the world. Indeed, his views on intolerance and his awareness of the capability that mankind has for destruction resonate strongly with many in today’s turbulent world.
The life of Michel de Montaigne
The French writer Michel Eyquem de Montaigne (latterly Lord Montaigne) was born on 28 February 1533. He was raised in the Château de Montaigne which lies at the western edge of the Périgord Pourpre in the Dordogne. Michel de Montaigne was born into a wealthy household. His great grandfather had made money in commerce and acquired the estate as well as a noble title.
The early years of Michel de Montaigne
Michel’s upbringing was a little unusual to say the least. He was only spoken to in Latin (even by the servants) and, to ensure his brain wasn’t impaired in any way, Michel was woken by a musician each morning. He was home schooled and didn’t learn French until he was 6.
After studying law, Michel de Montaigne became a member of the board of a new tax court of the Périgueux. When this was dissolved, he went on to enter the parliament of Bordeaux where he met Etienne de la Boetie. Etienne was a highly regarded civil servant and a writer and scholar. The two formed an incredibly strong bond (Eitienne featured in a piece written by Michel on friendship in one of his most famous works). When Etienne died of dysentery it left a huge void in Michel’s life. (His death may even have contributed to Michel embarking on his writing career.) You can see Etienne de la Boetie’s old home. It is one of the most famous medieval houses in Sarlat.
In 1565 Michel married Francoise de la Chassaigne. Tragically, 5 of his 6 daughters died in infancy. Only his sixth, Leonore, survived.
Aside from his academic prowess, Michel was respected for his tolerance and diplomacy. He is also said to have had a wicked sense of humour. Michel de Montaigne was a Catholic while many of his neighbours were Protestant. While the Religious Wars were raging Michel is said to have taken great pleasure in ringing the bell in his chapel as loudly and as frequently as possible. An act solely undertaken to rile the Protestants! However, Michel went on to play a crucial role in resolving disputes during the religious conflicts.
Michel de Montaigne books
Michel’s first book was published in 1569. This was a translation into French of a Spanish work on Natural Theology and undertaken at the request of his father. 4 years later, Michel sold his seat in the Bordeaux Parliament (perfectly legal back then!) and retired to the château he had been born in to meditate, read and write.
His library, (installed in a tower at Château de Montaigne) contained over a thousand books and it is here that Michel de Montaigne began work on his Essays.
Michel de Montaigne Essays
These extensive works established a new literary form and marked the author out as one of the most significant philosophers of the French Renaissance. Michel chose to write about himself in order to arrive at possible truths concerning man. He questioned widely held beliefs in an intimate and captivating way. The first two books of his Essays took 9 years to write and were published in 1580.
“A man who fears suffering is already suffering from what he fears”
Michel de Montaigne
In amongst this writing Michel de Montaigne was called upon to act as a mediator in the religious conflicts. He was well-respected by both King Henry III (a Catholic) and King Henry of Navarre (a Protestant) so his council was much in demand.
Time to travel
Travel was the order of the day in the next chapter of Michel de Montaigne’s life. Fed up with the state of affairs in France, Michel set about exploring Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland. He kept a journal during his travels and although not intended for publication, this went to print in 1774.
However, he was soon pulled back into the spotlight. While travelling in Italy, Michel was informed that he had been elected as Mayor of Bordeaux (a position his father had once held). At the insistence of Henry III, Michel took up office. He held the position for two terms during which time his excellent mediating skills were needed to preserve the peace between the Catholic majority and the Protestant League in Bordeaux. However, near to the end of his second term Michel was powerless to stop an outbreak of the plague. It raged through Bordeaux killing a third of the population.
Back to his beloved Essays
Michel de Montaigne went back to his beloved tower and back to writing. Over the next 2 years (and despite being called upon again to mediate in diplomatic affairs) he completed the third book of his Essays. His life continued to be eventful. During a trip to Paris in 1588, Michel de Montaigne was arrested twice and imprisoned. He also oversaw the publication of a fifth edition of the Essays which contained new additions. Michel also helped to keep the peace following the assassination of Henry III.
Michel de Montaigne spent his final years at the Château de Montaigne where he continued to read and work on his Essays. He died on 23 September 1592 while hearing Mass in his room.
Visit his library
Château de Montaigne burned down in 1885. It was subsequently rebuilt and is now a private property. Luckily, the château tower was unscathed in the fire and it is now open to the public.
On the ground floor of the tower you will find a pretty chapel. The first floor contains Michel’s bedroom but it is the top floor which has the most appeal. It is here, in the former library, where Michel wrote his Essays. There are still beams inscribed with some of his musings, but be warned, you will need to brush up on your Latin, Greek and French to understand them.
Michel de Montaigne quotes
Today, many of his quotes still ring true. Among them are;
“The most certain sign of wisdom is cheerfulness.”
“On the highest throne in the world, we still sit only on our own bottom.”
“Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.”
“The greater part of the world’s troubles are due to questions of grammar.”
“The thing I fear most is fear.”
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