Revisiting the public and private life of the extraordinary humanist in light of religious divisions of the 16th century.
In this translated work of scholarly minutiae, French Renaissance historian and Montaigne expert Desan (Renaissance Literature and History of Culture/Univ. of Chicago; editor: The Oxford Handbook of Montaigne, 2016, etc.) asserts that readers should not ignore Michel de Montaigne’s life (1533-1592) as a public official, the details of which shed light on his lifelong literary achievement, the Essays. Indeed, Montaigne’s act of intimate literary introspection invites critics to delve into his biography, beginning with his assumption of the noble name of Montaigne for the first time in his family’s history since his wealthy merchant forebears purchased the Montaigne seigniory in Bordeaux a century before. As the first surviving son, classically educated, a magistrate by profession and then mayor of Bordeaux, like his father, Montaigne had unique ambitions of social ascension during the era of smoldering Catholic-Protestant tensions. He served several kings as well as (Protestant) Henry of Navarre, who would become Henri IV, and he conceived of his writing as history and politics, but the essays would change over time to reflect his gradual withdrawal from public life (he never became an ambassador) and adoption of the life of a gentleman author. Desan shows how Montaigne assumed the métier of a writer from 1588 onward, literally annotating his previous essays by writing in the margins and altogether inventing a new style—what Desan terms more of a memoir than essay. Would his life had been remarkable if he had not written the Essays? No. Would he have been so well-known had not a brilliant young admirer, Marie de Gournay, devoted her life to editing and publishing his evolved essays posthumously? Probably not. Desan delves into these questions and much more in a hefty biography that will appeal most to academics.
A dense work to be read in conjunction with the humanist’s own eloquent writing.