It should be no surprise that author Sarah Bakewell found in the 16th-century French writer Michel de Montaigne a voice that is entirely of the present.
For more than 400 years, Montaigne’s empathy, equanimity and lightly worn wisdom have made him relevant to almost any age.
“Essays” (1580), his magnum opus, became a Renaissance bestseller, and save for the 150-odd years it was banned by the Catholic Church, beginning in 1676, it established Montaigne’s legacy as a leading man of letters.
Bakewell’s new biography, “How to Live: A Life of Montaigne,” already a bestseller in England and recently published in the States, captures the reasons why. Montaigne’s life was extraordinary: he was born to a Bordeaux nobleman, floundered in his early political career, but went on to reinvent himself as a writer, philosopher and adviser to the king. He traveled widely, thought deeply, lived fully and wrote about it all exceptionally well.
But there is an equally extraordinary story that Bakewell admits is as fascinating as it is elusive: Montaigne’s Jewish roots. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villeneuve, was probably descended from Spanish Jews. And for the past several years, some Renaissance scholars have been trying to write this overlooked part of Montaigne’s background back into his biography.
Bakewell, who is not a scholar, remains agnostic on the central issue — whether Montaigne even knew of his mother’s Jewish roots — but she does address it in her book. And in an interview from England last week, she said she was fascinated by the question.
“[I’m] flummoxed as to what to make of this whole story,” she said. “My curiosity is piqued.” She added that “there’s enormous disagreement about the question” of whether Montaigne knew of his possible Jewish past, but that she “just tried to reflect that in my book rather than weigh in on it myself.”
Since the late-19th century, scholars have suspected Antoinette de Louppes of being a descendant of Marranos, or Spanish Jews forced to convert to Catholicism. Louppes’ family settled in Bordeaux not long after Spain expelled its Jews, Marranos included, in 1492, and many of the refugees were known to have settled in that region.
In his writings, however, Montaigne gives plenty of reason to doubt his own knowledge of his Jewish roots. He not only professes his Catholic faith but is also silent about his mother’s background. And while he writes about Jews occasionally, he approaches them in the same way he did almost all the non-Christians he encountered: with genuine curiosity, but personal detachment.
Still, in the few instances where he does mention Jews, he is markedly sympathetic. It is all the more striking because he wrote at a time when anti-Jewish sentiment ran deep. In “Essays,” for instance, Montaigne expresses admiration for Portuguese Jews who had killed their own children rather than convert them to Christianity. In another section commenting on the biblical tale of the Maccabees, he invents a line about God seeking vengeance on those who persecute Jews.
And in his posthumously published writings about his foreign adventures, “Journal de Voyage” (1774), he notes a visit to a Verona synagogue. He also describes attending another synagogue in Rome, spending a day in the city’s Jewish quarter, and even watching a circumcision.
But what may be even more striking is what Montaigne leaves out, said Elizabeth Mendes da’Costa, a British scholar who is at the forefront of those re-evaluating Montaigne’s Jewish identity. For instance, Montaigne is curiously silent on a notorious spectacle he attended in Rome, the Carnevale di Roma— an annual Roman event where Jews were forced to run naked through the streets.
Contemporaries of Montaigne wrote gleefully about the Carnevale, but Montaigne hardly gives it any mention at all. We only know he attended because his secretary documented that he did, though that secretary was fired four days later.
Montaigne gives no explanation for the removal of his secretary, but Mendes da’Costa suggests that it may have stemmed in part from a fight over Carnevale. “Did a disagreement over the Jews oblige Montaigne to release the secretary from his duties?” she wrote in an article published in French Studies Bulletin, an Oxford University journal, in 1998. “Although only a hypothesis, this explanation satifisfies our conviction that the [Carnevale] events must have moved Montaigne.”
Others scholars have read into Montaigne’s silence a concealed outrage, but Mendes da’Costa offers an interpretation that is more in line with Montaigne’s generally empathetic temperament. Montaigne may have been disgusted by the event, she argues, but he chose not to rail against it in writing since that would only draw more attention to it, further embarrassing Jews.
“Because he was so restricted about what he positively could say, I look at what he could have said but didn’t,” Mendes da’Costa said in an interview from England. She will present a paper expanding on these ideas at the Renaissance Society of America’s annual conference in Montreal this March.
Fifty years ago, if Montaigne was noted as a religious thinker at all, it was for his Catholicism. The lack of Jewish material in his writings caused most scholars to simply skip over the Jewish question. But scholars today are more conscious of it, said George Hoffmann, a Montaigne scholar at the University of Michigan. “There are very few people who dismiss the Jewish influence,” he said, “but we just don’t know what to make of it.”
In fact, before Montaigne was banned by the Catholic Church, his argument for belief in God was mostly in tune with 16th-century Catholic theology. As Bakewell writes in her biography, his emphasis on doubt and the limits of human reason led him to put ultimate faith in God.
But the Church leaders who later banned his work thought true belief rested on unblinkered certainty. Any doubt was unacceptable. Moreover, Montaigne’s suggestion that animals might be better at certain tasks than humans — octopi can change colors to disguise themselves; humans can’t — crossed the line. “People became increasingly disturbed by this picture of themselves as less refined or capable than an octopus,” Bakewell writes. “It seemed degrading rather than merely humbling.”
Today, Bakewell and other scholars even doubt the sincerity of Montaigne’s Catholicism. They find it more plausible that his explicit embrace of the Catholic Church was more for political appeasement than genuine belief. Montaigne lived amidst the French civil wars that pitted upstart French Protestants, or Huguenots, against traditional Catholics.
Throughout Montaigne’s career, they argue, he felt a need to defend his traditional French and Catholic bona fides, since so much of his background put him in doubt: not only his mother’s possible Jewish past, but his father’s only recent ascent into the noble class.
Moreover, he was educated at a university that was a bastion of New Christians (the more respectable name for recent converts, as opposed to the derogatory “Marranos”). One of his closest friends there was the poet Étienne de La Boétie, whose death forms one of the most moving chapters on loss found in “Essays”.
What is less well known is that while Boétie lived his entire life as a New Christian, he converted back to Judaism on his deathbed. We know this because Montaigne recorded it, and then wrote a private letter about the experience to his father, in 1563.
After the priest recited the final Christian prayers at his bedside, Boétie “paused to recover breath a little, but noticing that the priest was about to go away,” Montaigne writes, “he called him back, and proceeded: ‘I desire to say, besides your hearing this: I declare that I was christened and I have lived, and that so I wish to die, in the faith in which Moses preached in Egypt.”
Mendes da’Costa contends that Boétie would have only shared this information with a person having a similar background to his own, like Montaigne. But Bakewell said she was not sure what to make of it, saying it was only “truly fascinating.” She added: “The only thing I’d like to offer in way of comment is that this kind of ambiguity and complexity are wonderfully typical of everything involving Montaigne. His writings are so rich, so contradictory, and so finely nuanced, that one really does find something new every time one looks into them.”