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Michel-Eyquen de Montaigne
Writer, b. at the château of Montaigne, in Périgord, France, on 28 Feb., 1533; d. there, 13 Sept., 1592. His great-grandfather had been a Bordeaux merchant of wines, salt fish, etc., and it was he who purchased the estate of Montaigne. His father entered the army and married Antoinette de Louppes or Lopes, of Jewish origin, and for two years was mayor of Bordeaux. At an early age Michel had a German tutor, who was obliged to speak to him in Latin only. At the age of six and a half he was sent to the College of Guyenne at Bordeaux, where he remained seven years. It is believed that he studied logic and dialectics for two years at the Bordeaux Faculty of Arts, with Marc-Antoine de Muret as tutor. He afterwards studied law, possibly at Bordeaux, more probably at Toulouse. Having become counsellor at the Cour des Aides of Périgord, he was soon incorporated like his colleagues in the Parlement of Bordeaux. But the new counsellor had no liking for his profession, and he was often absent from the Parlement. From 1561 to 1563 he attended the court. From 1559 he knew La Boétie, his chosen friend, and like himself a counsellor in the Parlement of Périgord and his elder by six years; but death soon separated them (1563).
Two years later Montaigne married Françoise de la Chassaigne, the daughter of a parliamentary advocate. They had five daughters, only one of whom survived him. In 1570 at the age of thirty-seven he sold his post of counsellor, and in the following year retired to the château de Montaigne. There, from 1571 to 1580, he wrote his "Essays". The first edition of this work contained only two books. He then set out on a journey which lasted a year and a half, of which he has written in his "Journal." He went to Lorraine and Alsace, started for Switzerland, crossed Bavaria and came down to the Tyrol, saw Venice and reached Rome, the end of his journey, where he received letters of citizenship. During his absence he had been made mayor of Bordeaux, which office he held for four years (1581-85), his duties coming to an end when the pest broke out. Montaigne being absent from the town did not feel obliged to return to it. In 1588 he published a new edition of his "Essays", corrected and augmented by a third book. He continued to revise his work until his death. In 1595 Mlle de Gournay, the young woman who at the age of twenty-two became his enthusiastic admirer, and whom he called his daughter, issued a new edition, in which she inserted the revisions and additions when he had indicated in a copy in 1588.
It is impossible to analyse the "Essays". They are a long conversation in which the author sets forth in haphazard fashion his memories and his reflections. His memories are the result of his personal experience and especially of his very extensive reading. According to his own expression he himself is "the subject of his book". But what excuses him is doubtless the fact that in depicting himself he often depicts human nature in general. He is a charming conversationalist, a writer full of pith and colour, artlessness, grace, and life. His literary merits add to the dangers of his book, which is deliberately lascivious and as a whole openly favourable to the Pyrrhonians. He has even written that it is "a slack ear for a shapely head". However, on the other hand, he thanked "our sovereign Creator for having stayed our trust on the everlasting foundation of His holy word". He also said that outside of the path pointed out by the Church reason "is lost, embarrassed, shackled". In a letter he relates in a Christian manner the Christian death of his friend La Boétie. He himself, as soon as he became ill, would not send for a priest, and in his last illness did not depart from this custom. Pasquier relates that he "caused Mass to be said in his chamber and when the priest came to the elevation the poor gentleman raised himself as well as he could in bed with hands joined and thus yielded his soul to God". He died therefore in a supreme act of faith.
Bonnefon, Montaigne et ses essais (1892); Guizot, Montaigne (1899); Champion, Introduction aux Essais de Montaigne (1900).