Michel Eyquem de Montaigne was influential as a Renaissance courtier during the reign of Charles IX and, especially, as the author of Essais, through which he introduced a new literary form impressive for personal candor and humane skepticism.
Montaigne was born on the family estate Château de Montaigne in Perigord near Bordeaux, France. His father was a wealthy merchant who purchased the titled nobility and seigneurie of Montaigne. His mother was of Spanish Jewish ancestry, although her family had earlier converted to Catholicism. Montaigne spoke Latin as his principal tongue until 6 years of age, when he was enrolled at the nearby College de Guyenne. It is believed that he later studied law at Toulouse until 1557, when he became a conseiller de parlement in Bordeaux and entered into a close friendship with Etienne Boétie. Boétie’s death in 1563 affected Montaigne profoundly. In 1565, he married Francoise de La Chassaigne, and the couple had six children, of whom only one, Lenore, survived to adulthood. In 1568, Montaigne’s father died and he inherited the Château de Montaigne.
Montaigne’s first major work was a translation—at the request of his father—of Raymond Sebond’s Theologia naturalis. He then edited Boétie’s works and resigned from his judicial post in 1571 to begin his Essais in the comfort of his Château library, with the first edition being published in 1580.
Montaigne’s retirement was affected by troubles with kidney stones. In 1580-1581, this ailment caused him to seek treatment in France, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and Italy. Journals from these travels were later published in 1774 as the Travel Journal. In retirement, he was also an important figure in the religious wars because his status as a devout but moderate Catholic engendered unique bilateral trust, as was evident in his mediations between the Catholic King Henry III and the Protestant Henry of Navarre (who eventually named Montaigne a gentleman of his chamber). While visiting Rome in 1581, he learned of his election as the mayor of Bordeaux, to which he returned to serve until 1585, again moderating during a period of religious strife and plague.
Montaigne continued his Essais, and in 1588 he met the writer Marie de Gournay, whom he took on as his fille d’alliance. De Gournay published Montaigne’s works posthumously. Also in 1588, while visiting Paris, he was briefly jailed in the Bastille on suspicion of agency for Navarre. On the assassination of King Henry III in 1589, he helped to sustain Bordelaise loyalties to Navarre (who subsequently became King Henry IV of France and Navarre). Montaigne died in 1592 at the family château and was buried with full Catholic rites and a unique legacy of literary, philophical, diplomatic, and theological humanism.
- Montaigne, M. (1965). Michel de Montaigne: The complete essays of Montaigne (D. Frame, Trans.). Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
- Montaigne, M. (1983). Michel de Montaigne: Travel journal (D. Frame, Trans.). San Francisco: North Point Press.
- Tannenbaum, S. A. (1942). Michel de Montaigne: A concise bibliography. New York: S. A. Russell.