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A definitive biography of the great French essayist and thinker

One of the most important writers and thinkers of the Renaissance, Michel de Montaigne (1533–92) helped invent a literary genre that seemed more modern than anything that had come before. But did he do it, as he suggests in his Essays, by retreating to his chateau and stoically detaching himself from his violent times? Philippe Desan overturns this long standing myth by showing that Montaigne was constantly connected to and concerned with realizing his political ambitions—and that the literary and philosophical character of the Essays largely depends on them. Desan shows how Montaigne conceived of each edition of the Essays as an indispensable prerequisite to the next stage of his public career. It was only after his political failure that Montaigne took refuge in literature, and even then it was his political experience that enabled him to find the right tone for his genre. The most comprehensive and authoritative biography of Montaigne yet written, this sweeping narrative offers a fascinating new picture of his life and work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691183008
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 01/29/2019
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 832
Sales rank: 785,794
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.20(h) x 1.80(d)

About the Author

Philippe Desan is the Howard L. Willett Professor in Renaissance Literature and History of Culture at the University of Chicago and the author of many books.

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A Life

By Philippe Desan, Steven Rendall, Lisa Neal


Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4008-8339-4


The Eyquems' Social Ascension

"And if I were to live a long time, I do not doubt that I would forget my own name." Montaigne's name constitutes the author's memory and incarnates the history of a family and its social ascension, but we still need to know what name Montaigne is talking about. Is it Michel Eyquem, his patronymic, or Michel de Montaigne, the name of his estate and his seigneury? The answer to this question differs over time, and the passage from Eyquem to Montaigne is a textbook case for the study of the social history of the class of wealthy merchants and bourgeois who became gentlemen at the end of the fifteenth and throughout the sixteenth centuries. The author of the Essais was the first member of his family to give up the name of his ancestors and retain only the name of his seigneury. In fact, the biography of "Michel, seigneur Montaigne" begins long before his birth. To understand his familial milieu, we have to study the social ascension of the house of Montaigne that started in the middle of the fourteenth century. The economic transformations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries favored the emergence and domination of well-off merchant families who had settled in the great European cities.

Political power slowly but surely shifted toward centers of exchange and commerce, particularly cities built on navigable waterways or at the mouths of rivers. Bordeaux was ideally situated to become a hub serving most European ports. Its access to the ocean gave a major advantage to those whose main activity consisted in warehousing merchandise and sending it on by sea to new markets. In the fifteenth century, during the decline of the English presence in the region, Bordeaux was a land of opportunity, and a significant number of merchants emigrated there from other parts of France and also from Spain and Portugal. For example, an edict of 1464 authorized emigrants to settle in Bordeaux in houses they found empty and to obtain letters of naturalization. Very early on, the wheels of commerce and the administrative control of the city were concentrated in the hands of a few families that had been able to benefit from the commercial development of Guyenne after the departure of the English.

In the fourteenth century, the name Eyquem was quite common in the Bordeaux region. It was spelled "Ayquem" and "Aiquem" as well as "Eyquem" and is found in several localities, including Mérignac, Taillan, Pessac, Camblanes, Blanquefort, and Langon. The Eyquems of Blanquefort — from whom the Montaignes descended — settled in Bordeaux in the early fourteenth century and joined the jurade as early as 1358, a sign that they had already achieved a significant economic success. Wealthy Bordeaux families formed a bourgeoisie that was little inclined to discuss its origins. Focused on the future, they practiced endogamy to increase their status in the city and to favor their access to municipal political power. Their goal was to advance their social position by means of marriages with other great bourgeois families. In the city, a political void allowed these families to take control of the administration in order to manage the regulation of their economic and commercial activities. By the middle of the fifteenth century, English power had grown considerably weaker in Guyenne, and in 1453 the battle of Castillon put an end to three centuries of English domination in Aquitaine. A parlement was established in 1462, and the city's privileges were approved and confirmed by Charles VIII in 1483. The king was generous toward the bourgeois of Bordeaux, declaring them free and exempt from having to pay subsidies and land taxes or make compulsory loans. Troops could not be billeted in the city without the consent of the mayor and the magistrates, and the city's guard as well as its police were entrusted to the citizens. However, after the English left, Guyenne's share of the land tax to be collected in Aquitaine was doubled. In this context of European expansion and political reforms, the city of Bordeaux underwent an unprecedented economic growth at the end of the fifteenth and the beginning of the sixteenth centuries.

Under Francis I the Anciennes Coutumes de Guyenne ("ancient customary laws of Guyenne") were reformed to take into account the local bourgeoisie's demands. The three estates of the sénéchaussée of Guyenne assembled in February 1520 to modify the old Coutumier. Several articles were suppressed or changed and new ones were added. The work lasted five months and the reformed Coutumier went into effect toward the end of 1527. Its territory was extended to include the former sénéchaussée of Bordeaux. The new customary law of Guyenne, which heavily favored the bourgeoisie, consisted of 117 articles written in a rather disorderly fashion and without much equity. Questions of inheritance and testamentary succession strongly recentered customary law around the transmission of property, and the goal of the great majority of the articles was to provide better protection for private property and to favor bourgeois property owners over the feudal territorial rights of noble landlords. The first article sets the tone of this rewriting of customary law. It stipulates that every son of a merchant family engaged in commerce or other business (banking, brokerage, purchasing) "can make commitments without his father's consent, in matters concerning merchandise or business." For example, children had the right to do business under their own names without depending on the authority of their fathers. In the same spirit of liberalizing mercantile law, Article V reorganized the law governing the legacy of goods to descendants by specifying that lineal transmission henceforth always had priority over feudal law. Inheritances, successions, transmissions, and donations of buildings, as well as the regulation of rents and mortgages, were subjected to new interpretations favorable to the rising bourgeoisie and represented more than sixty articles in the Coutumes générales de la ville de Bordeaux et de la sénéchaussée de Guyenne between 1520 and 1527. The revision of customary law at the beginning of the sixteenth century was the end result of a long process of political redistribution in Bordeaux and in Guyenne.

The Eyquems were among the small number of families that very soon came to hold the reins of the city's administration. Montaigne's ancestors made a fortune selling woad and smoked herring. The Eyquems followed the social trajectory typical of wealthy merchant families and used their economic success to gain access to political power. No matter what Montaigne says about it, his family's past in Guyenne is not of noble origin, but is instead associated with commerce and merchandise, which may explain why the historical periods mentioned in the Essais are mainly Antiquity and the immediate present. The last hundred years are not referred to anywhere in the text, because for obvious reasons Montaigne is not interested in retracing the history of his family. There are only vague remarks about his grandparents and great-grandparents, on both the paternal and maternal sides. Of course, Montaigne talks about his father and brothers, but he remains almost completely silent about his earlier ancestors. We are told only that he was born of "a race famous for integrity," and that his nobility goes back "more than a hundred years before me." The limit of one hundred years is not chosen by accident. In the sixteenth century, the rules governing membership in the nobility varied depending on the region. In his Traité des nobles et des vertus dont ils sont formés, François de L'Alouëte proposes that nobles be forced to produce "once in their lives a description and genealogy of the race from which they come and descend from father and from mother to the fourth degree, and beyond as far as they can go and extend themselves," and to deposit these descriptions in the hands of the bailiffs or seneschals so that they could be consulted in case of need. In Aquitaine, custom required a person to have "lived nobly" for one hundred years on his land before he could claim to be noble "by prescription." Usually leaving aside this quantitative conception of nobility, Montaigne prefers a qualitative definition, reminding his reader repeatedly that he behaves as a lord and lives nobly on his lands.

Belonging to the nobility of the sword, the only noble race, also meant performing military service. Montaigne wholeheartedly adhered to what was called the "soldierly" spirit of the nobility, even if he did not wear the sword into combat as his father had done. This correspondence between the social order and the main activity of the members of the nobility is often foregrounded in the Essais. In contrast, the world of commerce and merchandise remains a taboo subject. For Montaigne, money distorts human relations, corrupts traditional values, and injures the spirit of the nobility. He prefers battlefields to markets. It suffices to see the way in which he talks about the Indians of the New World and projects onto them his idea of nobility to see that he fully adheres to the military and chivalric principles that defined the noble ideal. Marked by this idealization of military values and their transformation into virtues, Montaigne reminds us that his father participated in the military campaigns in Italy during Francis I's conquest and then loss of Milan. He describes himself as a soldier even though he took part in no battles and witnessed only one military siege — perhaps two — as an observer and not as a knight in the service of the king. If Montaigne is proud to be a Gascon, that is partly because of the military reputation the young men of his region enjoyed at the time. He repeatedly emphasizes this origin that made him an excellent horseman and indirectly authorized him to assert his membership in the French nobility. In his Essais Montaigne always distinguishes himself from the mercantile class (mercadence) and the world of the bourgeoisie.

A Family Matter

Montaigne's great-grandfather, Ramon Eyquem, was born in 1402; Ramon's father was Martin (?) Eyquem and his mother was Jeanne de Gaujac, the daughter of a family that exported wine, salted fish, and woad in Bordeaux. Ramon took over the business of his uncle Guillart Eyquem, and around 1440 he married Isabeau de Ferraignes, the sister of Henri de Ferraignes, one of the first members of the Bordeaux parlement. The latter was connected, by his first marriage, to the noble Madeleine de La Mothe, the daughter of Jean de La Mothe, lord of Cambes, and by his second marriage, to the noble Jehanne du Puy, the daughter of Hélie du Puy, lord of La Jarthe. The marriage linking the Eyquems to the Ferraigneses marks the starting point of an alliance that was profitable for the Eyquems both financially and as a way of cultivating useful relationships. Thanks to her brother, Isabeau also offered her husband an opportunity to gain access to new power groups. From the middle of the fifteenth century on, the bourgeois family of the Eyquems signed its notarized documents with the title "honorable man Ramon Ayquem, merchant in the parish of Saint-Michel and bourgeois of Bordeaux." He was among the city's influential merchants and joined the jurade in 1472.

Ramon Eyquem's everyday life was completely focused on pecuniary matters. Like many bourgeois who had grown rich, he invested his profits in real estate. In a logic of accumulating lands and houses, he reasoned and acted as a merchant would and was not yet cut out to be a noble. He left this concern about nobility to his children; his role was limited to preparing the terrain for the generations to come. Everything he did had as its aim to make his family's name known and respected. Ramon was a prosperous merchant, and he rapidly made himself known as an "entrepreneur" in all sorts of commercial projects. He established his home on the Rue de la Rousselle in Bordeaux and began by exporting mainly salted fish, but he soon diversified his activities and began selling wine and woad, depending on the market opportunities. Like other big merchants of the time — the Carles, the Le Ferrons, the Pontacs, and the Makanams — Ramon Eyquem took an active part in the city's political life, which greatly helped him in his personal affairs. At the end of the fifteenth century, the wine trade had supplanted that in woad and had become the main source of income for the bourgeois of Bordeaux and the region.

In 1477, one year before his death, Ramon Eyquem bought the noble houses of Montaigne and Belbeys, in the barony of Montravel, along with their lands, vineyards, woods, and mills, from Guillaume Duboys, for 900 Bordeaux francs. This transaction made it possible to move from "Eyquem" to "Montaigne." The estate of Montaigne is located on a hill between the Dordogne River and a stream called the Lidoire, and is now situated within the departments of Gironde and Dordogne, about forty-five kilometers due east of Bordeaux. The buildings and lands of Montaigne and Belbeys had first been sold to Thomas Pons, Lord of Clermont, for 300 gold royals and an annual income of thirty livres tournois. But Pons was unable to raise the sum asked and Guillaume Duboys had the sale canceled on October 10, 1477. The same day, he sold his lands to Ramon Eyquem and promised to transmit to him the list of the esporles for the past six years. The payment of this fee was required when there was a change of owner. The amount of the esporle was generally modest, but this tax had an important symbolic function because it made it possible to anticipate the prescription of the landed seigneury and to assert the new lord's right over the property in the event of a challenge. On November 30, 1477, Ramon Eyquem took possession of his land and the noble house of Montaigne, 103 years before the first publication of the Essais. In accord with the custom associated with the transmission of property, Ramon had traveled to his lands in the company of the former owner, who entered his former home in Ramon's company and then left alone, witnessed by all the neighbors who had gathered there for the occasion. Ramon spoke a few words before a notary and then sat down to table, which allowed him to be officially recognized as the new master of the estate.

Around 1450, two children had been born to Ramon and Isabeau Eyquem: Grimon, Montaigne's grandfather, and Pey (Pierre), their second son. In documents notarized in the 1470s, Grimon and Pey are described as "honorable men ... merchants of the parish of Saint-Michel." Ramon also had two daughters, Pérégrina and Audeta. In a process of marriage and mixture between the rising bourgeoisie and a nobility in decline, Ramon married his daughters to Jean de Lansac and Bernard de Verteuilh, respectively; Lansac and Verteuilh were the heirs of noble families that had found it necessary, for financial reasons, to connect themselves with families from the bourgeoisie. In 1473, while he was getting ready to go on a pilgrimage to Saint James of Compostela, Ramon wrote a testament in which he left his wife a large number of buildings and lands, provided monetary dowries for his two daughters, and designated his two sons, Grimon and Pey, as universal heirs. He died in June 1478, less than a year after acquiring the seigneury of Montaigne. In 1488, after the death of his brother, who had no children, Grimon remained alone to turn the Eyquems' affairs to good account. Thanks to his acute business sense, especially in exports, his fortune grew considerably. He specialized in the trade in wine and salted fish with England and Spain, which led Scaliger to say, not without irony, that Montaigne's father was a fishmonger. A document from 1477 presents Grimon as a ship owner who is chartering a caravel, the Nicholas de Saint-Paul, to transport fifty casks of wine to the port of La Crotoy in Picardy. His commercial profits allowed him to increase his real estate holdings and to buy more and more forests, houses, and lands around his noble house of Montaigne.


Excerpted from Montaigne by Philippe Desan, Steven Rendall, Lisa Neal. Copyright © 2017 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Prologue xi

Introduction xvii

Questions of Method and the Politics of a Book xix

Part One—Ambitions

1 The Eyquems’ Social Ascension 3

A Family Matter 7

“Nobilibus parentibus” 13

Living Nobly 20

“We Latinized Ourselves” 28

The Balance Sheet of a Humanist Education 37

2 A First Career as a Magistrate (1556–1570) 48

Parlementary Habitus 55

From the Cour des Aides in Périgueux to the Parlement in Bordeaux 67

Michel de Montaigne, Royal Councillor 84

The Religious Question 101

3 La Boétie and Montaigne: Discourse on Servitude and Essay of Allegiance 112

The Letter about La Boétie’s Death 117

La Boétie’s Political Treatises: The Memorandum and the Discourse 123

Voluntary Servitude and Allegiance 133

The Politics of a Friendship 143

4 “Witness My Cannibals”: The Encounter with the Indians of the New World 155

Tupinambas and Tabajaras 159

From Rouen to Bordeaux 167

“Their Warfare Is Wholly Noble and Generous” 175

A “Simulacrum of the Truth” 179

5 The Making of a Gentleman (1570–1580) 183

The Break with the Parlement 185

Montaigne as Editor of La Boétie’s Works 199

Dedicatees Influential at the Court 207

An Inconvenient Publication 217

An Influential Neighbor: The Marquis of Trans 222

Honorific Rewards and Clientelism 232

Montaigne at Work 246

6 The Essais of 1580: Moral, Political, and Military Discourses 254

“A Discourse on My Life and Actions” 256

The First Reader of the Essais 269

“Of the Battle of Gods” 277

An Apology for Sebond or a Justification of Montaigne? 285

A Skeleton in the Closet 299

A Royal Audience and a Military Siege 307

Part Two—Practices

7 The Call of Rome, or How Montaigne Never Became an Ambassador (1580–1581) 319

On Territory “Subject to the Emperor” 321

The Ambassador’s Trade 326

A Montaigne in Spain 351

Montaigne in Rome 357

Paul de Foix and the Suspicion of Heresy 371

Roman Citizen 377

The Essais “Castigated and Brought into Harmony with the Opinions of the Monkish Doctors” 386

The Sociability of the Baths 392

The Travel Journal and the Secretary 401

8 “Messieurs of Bordeaux Elected Me Mayor of Their City” (1581–1585) 408

The Mayor’s Book 412

Bordeaux and Its Administration 422

The Public Welfare 436

A Contested Reelection 444

Manager of the City and “Tender Negotiator” 455

An “Administration . . . without a Mark or a Trace”? 473

9 “Benignity of the Great” and “Public Ruin” (1585–1588) 482

“Through an Extraordinarily Ticklish Part of the Country” 487

Secret Mission 501

“I Buy Printers in Guienne, Elsewhere They Buy Me” 508

Imprisoned in the Bastille 523

“A Girl in Picardy” 530

Observer at the Estates General of Blois 539

“Actum est de Gallia” 545

10 The Marginalization of Montaigne (1588–1592) 549

A Tranquil Life 551

“The Only Book in the World of Its Kind” 566

From History to the Essay: Commynes and Tacitus 580

Socrates or Political Suicide 589

Montaigne’s Death 603

Part Three—Post Mortem

11 Montaigne’s Political Posterity 613

Political Appropriations 614

Censure and Morality 621

Epilogue 631

Abbreviations 635

Notes 637

Bibliography 723

Translations Cited 765

Index 767

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"The new standard biography of Montaigne. Phillipe Desan throws new light on Montaigne's rewriting of the Essays through a study of his changing political aspirations."—Peter Mack, University of Warwick

"Philippe Desan's biography offers a refreshing corrective to those Lives of Montaigne that have underplayed his political activities and aspirations by presenting his literary activities as belonging to their own autonomous sphere. The book offers some intriguing new interpretations, including a compelling account of the different circumstances that surround—and intentions that may animate—the various editions of the Essays."—Richard Scholar, University of Oxford

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