A short biography of the author of the Essays
Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) is often reduced to the story of the origin of his Essays: a man cutting himself off from the world and retiring to his tower to work alone. However, this story, for which he is responsible, hides much of the rest of his life. Montaigne was married, had children — although only one of his daughters, Léonor, survived into adulthood — looked after his younger siblings, traveled, entertained visitors, and was involved in local and national politics. He belonged to the regional gentry of southwestern France and held positions common to men of his rank: member of the Parlement of Bordeaux (one of France’s provincial courts), mayor, and, occasionally, representative of the king of France. He was ambitious, a reluctant but effective manager of his family’s estate, and an excellent horseman. Finally, he wrote and published to make a name for himself.
Michel Eyquem de Montaigne — he dropped his surname, Eyquem, later in life — came from a well-to-do family of merchants who had bought their way into the lower ranks of the aristocracy. His father had made sure he received a good education, exposing him to Latin at a very young age and sending him to an excellent school. His family connections allowed him, by 1556, to become a magistrate, first in Périgueux and then in Bordeaux, one of France’s wealthiest cities at the time. Yet, although his connections and relative wealth had helped him secure a comfortable situation, the intricacies of local and national politics proved frustrating to him.
France, in the second half of the sixteenth century, was torn by a civil war brought on by the Protestant Reformation. Catholics, moderates and hardliners alike, opposed the spread of Protestantism and the rise of a Protestant aristocracy, particularly in the southwest of the country where Montaigne lived. Moderate Catholics supported the French Crown and its occasional efforts to find compromises to let Huguenots (French Protestants) practice their faith. Hardliners opposed such efforts, both fighting Protestants and their allies and openly challenging the king for political dominance.
During his fourteen years of service as a magistrate, Montaigne found he had little taste for, or little success in, the political and legal battles erupting around him: between members of the court, between the city of Bordeaux and the king of France, and between Protestants and Catholics. A moderate Catholic with some Protestant family members and acquaintances, Montaigne was broadly supportive of the French Crown’s temporary compromises and acquired a reputation for being a reasonable and loyal subject of the king at a time when reason and loyalty seemed on the wane.
In 1570, having inherited his father’s estate of Montaigne (1568) and frustrated with his career in Bordeaux, Michel Eyquem left magistracy behind. Far from completely retiring, however, he put his education and connections to good use to establish himself as a learned gentleman. He published two books: a translation (1569) and an edited volume of poetry by his late friend Étienne de la Boétie (1571); he started working on his own book; he sought allies and patrons who could enhance his status. Luckily for him, he was also the kind of person the king of France (and the king’s powerful mother, Catherine de’ Medici) needed: a loyal, moderate Catholic who had contacts among Huguenots in southwest France, a man wealthy enough to require no real payments for his services, and a member of the lower aristocracy eager to move up in the world.
For the next few years, as the religious civil war continued, Montaigne’s life was divided between reading and writing at his home, and cultivating his connections. His work paid off: by the end of the decade, he had published the first edition of the Essays and risen high enough through the ranks of the aristocracy to be granted an audience with the king of France to present him with a specially bound copy of the book. (Another copy found its way to Queen Elizabeth I. Its provenance is unknown.) In 1580, buoyed by his recent successes, Montaigne traveled to Italy hoping to be nominated ambassador to Rome. A year later, however, after someone else had been given the position, he was recalled to France to be made, like his father before him, mayor of Bordeaux.
The political situation there continued to be volatile for the following decade and Montaigne’s fortunes varied accordingly. He managed to serve two two-year terms as mayor, had to flee his home and live on the road for a time to stay ahead of war and disease, and was occasionally called upon to facilitate negotiations with the Huguenots. (Montaigne’s connections to Henry of Navarre, a Protestant who had become heir presumptive to the throne of France, had made him, once again, useful to the king.) He continued to work on the Essays throughout, making hundreds of corrections and adding an entire new book until, in 1588, he had an expanded edition ready to publish. With age, his writing had become more personal, more introspective, and more philosophical. He had also grown skeptical of his ability to effect change and was trading his political ambitions for literary ones.
Montaigne died in 1592, likely of complications from a stroke, leaving a copy of a 1588 edition of the Essays full of notes — scholars refer to it as the “Bordeaux Copy” — which his adopted daughter, Marie de Gournay, collected and organized to publish, in 1595, in the first posthumous edition of the Essays. By then, Montaigne’s European fame was already established: an early, fragmentary translation in Italian by Girolamo Naselli had come out in 1590 and a complete English translation by John Florio was to follow in 1603. Several bootleg editions in French had also already been circulating, particularly in Geneva where Protestants valued Montaigne’s rejection of dogmatic thinking.
What started nearly 450 years ago as a cautious and somewhat dry “attempt” — the original meaning of “essai” in French — at writing historical and moral commentaries, proved to be anything but the waste of time Montaigne forewarned us about in his preface. Historians, philosophers, scholars of Early Modern literature, and essayists have found and still find much to study in the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, while others continue to enjoy listening to this curious and affable man whose gentle skepticism, humor, and intelligence remain accessible and engaging to us today.