Monday, February 27, 2012

Michel de Montaigne (February 28, 1533)

Michel de Montaigne, the essayist and inventor of the essay form, lived his life as a French nobleman. And a fascinating life it was!

I loved the book How to Live or A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer by Sarah Bakewell. This book provides me with my main information about Montaigne. I had heard that his maternal ancestors were Jewish. People who are eager to know who was a Jew have ferreted through his works looking for evidence that he acknowledged this. They don't find much. For me, this means the topic should be dropped, but I find Bakewell's summary too interesting to leave it out of this blog. She writes:
"If his father's background was murky, a more significant secret apparently lurked in the family of his mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villeneuve. Her ancestors were merchants; they were also immigrants from Spain, which, in the context of the time, strongly suggests that they were Jewish refugees, Like many others, they converted to Christianity under duress, and left following thee persecution of Jews on the peninsula in the late fifteenth century."

"Montaigne may not have realized that he was of Jewish origin, if indeed he was. He showed no more than mild interest in the subject, mentioning Jews only occasionally in the Essays, usually either neutrally or with sympathy, but never in a way that suggested he felt personally involved. ... "

"He also expressed a wry skepticism about the 'conversions' of some recent refugees -- reasonably enough, since the act was not done by choice. If, as some have speculated, this was meant as a subtle dig at his mother's family, it would not be surprising." (p. 43-44)

In my opinion, the efforts to demonstrate consciousness of his Jewish background (if he had one) are misplaced, and end up showing more about the person speculating than about this fascinating author. I think Bakewell's treatment of the question is level-headed, and I'll leave it at that.

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