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Michel de Montaigne

MONTAIGNE, MICHEL DE (1533–1592), French writer and philosopher. His mother, Antoinette de Louppes de Villanueva, came from a Spanish Jewish family. One of her ancestors, Mayer Pacagon of Catalayud was forcibly converted to Catholicism and took the name of Lopez de Villanueva. His descendants, however, remained secretly faithful to Judaism, and several of them were persecuted by the Inquisition. One of them, Juan de Villanueva, from whom Montaigne's mother was descended, fled to Toulouse, France, where he settled. She later married the Catholic Eyquem de Montaigne, her uncle's business partner. Montaigne studied at the College de Guyenne run by Portuguese New Christians and, later, at Toulouse University, a center of New Christian ferment and heterodoxy. From 1557 to 1570 Montaigne held a post at the Bordeaux Parliament and at the Court of France. He began his literary career in the late 1560s by translating the Natural Theology of Raimond Sebon, a Spanish theologian, and editing the works of his deceased friend, La Böetie, a gifted young writer and thinker. In 1571 Montaigne retired from public life and wrote his Essais but, after a journey through Italy (1580–81), he was elected mayor of Bordeaux. In spite of his return to public office, Montaigne devoted much of his time to the continuation of the Essais. His humanistic skeptical philosophy, which had an enormous impact on later writers, undermined thinkers' acceptance of received theories. Philosophers such as Bacon, Descartes, Gassendi, and Pascal tried to overcome Montaigne's skepticism by finding new or different bases for knowledge. Montaigne also had a deep influence on English literature. Shakespeare cited him in a number of plays, notably in The Tempest, and he also inspired Dryden. The essay, as a literary form, is Montaigne's creation, and admirably suits the freedom of thought and open-mindedness he wished to attain.

It is difficult to know what Montaigne actually thought of the Jews, for this was a dangerous subject in those days of religious intolerance. Almost all his references to the Jews, however, show a sympathetic attitude. In the Essais he mentions disapprovingly the persecutions in Portugal, as well as the Jews' stubborn loyalty to their religion (Book I, chap. 14). But it is in the Travel Diary (Journal de Voyage), not intended for publication (it saw the light for the first time in 1774), that numerous references are found to Jewish life and customs, as Montaigne saw them at first hand during his Italian journey. There is no doubt that he went out of his way to visit synagogues, attend Jewish ceremonies, and converse with Jews. Montaigne gives a detailed, accurate and sympathetic account of Sabbath services and a circumcision ceremony. He comments on the communal participation in prayer, study, and discussion, and on the widespread knowledge of Hebrew, even among children. On February 6, 1581, he witnessed a pre-Lent "entertainment": burlesque races on the Corso, in which half-naked Jews had to take part. He also attended a conversion sermon, given by a famous preacher, himself a converted Jew, who used his talmudic knowledge to convince his brethren to convert. In all these instances his tone is objective, detached, and completely free from the accepted prejudices of the time. But two facts remain puzzling: Montaigne's obvious interest in Jewish life and his refraining from any mention of his mother in the Essais, a largely autobiographical work. Some critics interpret this as proof that Montaigne was deeply preoccupied with his Jewish identity and, for reasons of caution, deliberately avoided any reference to it. This may be so, but one basic fact is unknown, whether Montaigne even knew of his mother's Jewish ancestry. It seems doubtful, as her ancestors had been Christian for several generations, and no one, in those intolerant days, would have gone out of his way to unearth his Jewish ancestry. Montaigne may have had other reasons for emphasizing his father's influence and ignoring his mother's. His education, which partially determined his philosophical direction, was shaped by his father. Furthermore his mother, like his siblings who are absent from the Essais, converted to Protestantism and this, for a public figure such as Montaigne, was not an asset in the midst of the religious wars. As to his display of interest in Jewish life in Italy, it could well be that of a liberal humanistic non-Jew, keen as he was on heterodox, free, original ways of living and thinking, as manifested in various groups of outsiders, and unaffected by the current oppressive Church restrictions. Unless other manuscripts come to light, which is unlikely, the question remains open.


Th. Malvezin, Michel de Montaigne, sonorigine, sa famille (1875); H. Friedrich, Montaigne (1949); D. Frame, Montaigne, a biography (1965); A. Thibaudet, in: NRF (1922); C. Roth, in: Revue des Cours et Conférences (1937); H. Friedenwald, in: JQR 31 (1940); A. Lunel, in: Bulletin des Amis de Montaigne, no. 19 (1956); M. Catalane, in: Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies (Jerusalem, 1973).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.