Michel de Montaigne, from Of Cannibals

[Click on image to enlarge] Contrary to popular conceptions, although it was a period of expanding intellectual and geographical horizons, the Renaissance was, on the whole, a profoundly intolerant age. There was very little willingness to accept the legitimacy of structures of belief, patterns of behavior, systems of rules and social organization other than one's own. Few writers managed to escape the ferocious seriousness, the sense of all or nothing, that characterized both Catholic and Protestant polemicists of the sixteenth century. Such a refusal was immensely difficult because, wherever salvation was at stake, the meaning of existence both in this world and beyond was understood to be directly involved in one's responses to alternative ways of living. Preachers and moralists dwelt upon a series of massive, irreconcilable alternatives: Civility or Barbarism, Christ or Anti-Christ, God or the Devil.

But there were certain figures who showed signs of resistance to this intense, intolerant absolutism and totalism. In Utopia, for example, Thomas More imagines a radical alternative to the whole structure of his society; Marlowe's Faustus calls into question the whole theological system, though he is ultimately crushed by it; Shakespeare's Falstaff gives voice in 1 Henry IV to skepticism about the code of honor; and Michel de Montaigne in his Essais (1580) articulates a probing, ironic doubt about virtually all of his culture's cherished values.

[Click on image to enlarge] Montaigne's great project as an essayist centered on the sustained delineation of only one character: himself. But to do this well involved reflecting on his entire universe, from the physical sensations he experienced to the books he read, from the everyday world he observed around him to the unusual people he encountered. "We should reserve a store house for ourselves . . ." he wrote in his essay On Solitariness, "altogether ours, and wholly free, wherein we may hoard up and establish our true liberty, and principal retreat and solitariness." But Montaigne's "store house," the place of private, liberated meditation, was capacious enough to accommodate the Tupinamba Indians who had been brought back from Brazil and whom he probably encountered in Rouen.

Of Cannibals was translated in 1603, along with Montaigne's other essays, by the gifted English translator John Florio, who also translated works from Italian and compiled one of the first printed foreign-language dictionaries, A World of Words (1598). Florio's translation of the Essais is by no means impeccable, but it manages to convey to the English reading public Montaigne's deep suspicion of dogmatism, his dislike of ascetic self-punishment and violence against the body, his skepticism of his culture's orthodoxies, his passion for freedom, and his astonishingly humane response to the peoples of the New World.

 

At what time King Pyrrhus >> note 1 came into Italy, after he had surveyed the marshaling of the army which the Romans sent against him, "I wot >> note 2 not," said he, "what barbarous men these are (for so were the Grecians wont >> note 3 to call all strange nations), but the disposition of this army which I see is nothing >> note 4 barbarous." So said the Grecians of that which Flamininus >> note 5 sent into their country, and Philip, viewing from a tower the order and distribution of the Roman camp in his kingdom under Publius Sulpicius Galba. Lo how a man ought to take heed lest he overweeningly follow vulgar opinions, which should be measured by the rule of reason, and not by the common report.

I have had a long time dwelling with me a man who for the space of ten or twelve years had dwelt in that other world which in our age was lately discovered, in those parts where Villegaignon >> note 6 first landed and surnamed Antarctic France. This discovery of so infinite and vast a country seemeth worthy great consideration. I wot not whether I can warrant myself >> note 7 that some other be not discovered hereafter, sithence >> note 8 so many worthy men, and better learned than we are, have so many ages been deceived in this. I fear me our eyes be greater than our bellies, and that we have more curiosity than capacity. We embrace all, but we fasten >> note 9 nothing but wind.

* * *

This servant I had was a simple and rough-hewn fellow: a condition fit to yield a true testimony. For subtle people may indeed mark more curiously >> note 10 and observe things more exactly, but they amplify and gloze >> note 11 them; and, the better to persuade and make their interpretations of more validity, they cannot choose but somewhat alter the story. They never represent things truly, but fashion and mask them according to the visage they saw them in; and to purchase credit to their judgment and draw you on to believe them, they commonly adorn, enlarge, yea, and hyperbolize >> note 12 the matter. Wherein is required either a most sincere reporter or a man so simple that he may have no invention to build upon and to give a true likelihood unto false devices, >> note 13 and be not wedded to his own will. Such a one was my man, who, besides his own report, hath many times showed me divers mariners and merchants whom he had known in that voyage. So am I pleased with his information that I never inquire what cosmographers say of it. We had need of topographers to make us particularly narrations of the places they have been in. For some of them, if they have the advantage of us that they have seen Palestine, will challenge >> note 14 a privilege to tell us news of all the world besides. I would have every man write what he knows, and no more: not only in that, but in all other subjects. For one may have particular knowledge of the nature of one river and experience of the quality of one fountain, that in other things knows no more than another man: who nevertheless, to publish this little scantling, >> note 15 will undertake to write of all the physics. >> note 16 From which vice proceed divers great inconveniences.

Now (to return to my purpose) I find (as far as I have been informed) there is nothing in that nation >> note 17 that is either barbarous or savage, unless men call that barbarism which is not common to them. As indeed we have no other aim >> note 18 of truth and reason than the example and idea of the opinions and customs of the country we live in. There >> note 19 is ever perfect religion, perfect policy, perfect and complete use of all things. They >> note 20 are even savage, as we call those fruits wild which nature of herself and of her ordinary progress hath produced; whereas indeed they are those which ourselves have altered by our artificial devices and diverted from their common order, we should rather term savage. In those >> note 21 are the true and most profitable virtues, and natural properties most lively and vigorous, which in these we have bastardized, applying them to the pleasure of our corrupted taste. And if, notwithstanding, in divers fruits of those countries that were never tilled, we shall find that in respect of ours they are most excellent and as delicate unto our taste, there is no reason art should gain the point of honor of our great and puissant mother Nature. We have so much by our inventions surcharged >> note 22 the beauties and riches of her works that we have altogether overchoked >> note 23 her. Yet wherever her purity shineth she makes our vain and frivolous exercises wonderfully ashamed. >> note 24

Ivies spring better of their own accord,
Unhaunted >> note 25 plots much fairer trees afford,
Birds by no art much sweeter notes record.
      Propertius, >> note 26 Elegies I.ii.10–12

All our endeavor or wit cannot so much as reach to represent the nest of the least birdlet, its contexture, beauty, profit, and use, no nor the web of a silly >> note 27 spider. "All things," saith Plato, "are produced either by nature, by fortune, or by art: the greatest and fairest by one or other of the two first, the least and imperfect by the last" [Laws X]. Those nations seem, therefore, so barbarous unto me, because they have received very little fashion from human wit and are yet near their original naturality. The laws of nature do yet command them, which are but little bastardized by ours; and that with such purity as I am sometime grieved the knowledge of it came no sooner to light, at what time there were men that better than we could have judged of it. I am sorry Lycurgus >> note 28 and Plato had it not: for meseemeth that what in those nations we see by experience doth not only exceed all the pictures wherewith licentious poesy >> note 29 hath proudly embellished the Golden Age, and all her quaint inventions to feign a happy condition of man, but also the conception and desire of philosophy. They could not imagine a genuity >> note 30 so pure and simple as we see it by experience, nor ever believe our society might be maintained with so little art and human combination. It is a nation, would I answer Plato, that hath no kind of traffic, >> note 31 no knowledge of letters, no intelligence >> note 32 of numbers, no name of magistrate nor of politic superiority, no use of service, of riches or of poverty, no contracts, no successions, no partitions, no occupation but idle, no respect of kindred but common, no apparel but natural, no manuring >> note 33 of lands, no use of wine, corn, >> note 34 or metal. The very words that import lying, falsehood, treason, dissimulations, covetousness, envy, detraction, and pardon, were never heard of amongst them. How dissonant would he find his imaginary commonwealth from this perfection!

Nature at first uprise,
These manners did devise.
      Virgil, Georgics II.20

Furthermore, they live in a country of so exceeding pleasant and temperate situation that, as my testimonies have told me, it is very rare to see a sick body amongst them; and they have further assured me they never saw any man there either shaking with the palsy, toothless, with eyes dropping, or crooked and stooping through age. They are seated alongst the seacoast, encompassed toward the land with huge and steepy mountains, having between both a hundred leagues or thereabout of open and champain >> note 35 ground. They have great abundance of fish and flesh that have no resemblance at all with ours, and eat them without any sauces or skill of cookery, but plain boiled or broiled. The first man that brought a horse thither, although he had in many other voyages conversed >> note 36 with them, bred so great a horror in the land that before they could take notice of him they slew him with arrows.

Their buildings are very long, and able to contain two or three hundred souls, covered with barks of great trees, fastened in the ground at one end, interlaced and joined close together by the tops, after the manner of some of our granges; >> note 37 the covering whereof hangs down to the ground, and steadeth them as a flank. >> note 38 They have a kind of wood so hard that, riving and cleaving the same, they make blades, swords, and gridirons to broil their meat with. Their beds are of a kind of cotton cloth, fastened to the house roof, as our ship cabins. Everyone hath his several >> note 39 couch; for the women lie from >> note 40 their husbands.

They rise with the sun, and feed for all day as soon as they are up, and make no more meals after that. They drink not at meat (as Suidas >> note 41 reporteth of some other people of the East which drank after meals), but drink many times a day, and are much given to pledge carouses. Their drink is made of a certain root, and much of the color of our claret wines, which lasteth but two or three days. They drink it warm. It hath somewhat a sharp taste, wholesome for the stomach, nothing heady, but laxative for such as are not used unto it, yet very pleasing to such as are accustomed to it. Instead of bread, they use a certain white composition, like unto corianders confected. I have eaten some, the taste whereof is somewhat sweet and wallowish. >> note 42

They spend the whole day in dancing. Their young men go ahunting after wild beasts with bows and arrows. Their women busy themselves therewhilst with warming of their drink, which is their chiefest office. >> note 43 Some of their old men, in the morning before they go to eating, preach in common to all the household, walking from one end of the house to the other, repeating one selfsame sentence many times, till he have ended his turn (for the buildings are a hundred paces in length). He commends but two things unto his auditory: first, valor against their enemies; then lovingness unto their wives. They never miss (for their restraint >> note 44) to put men in mind of this duty, that it is their wives which keep their drink lukewarm and well-seasoned. The form of their beds, cords, swords, blades, and wooden bracelets (wherewith they cover their hand-wrists when they fight), and great canes, open at one end (by the sound of which they keep time and cadence in their dancing), are in many places to be seen, and namely in mine own house. They are shaven all over, much more close and cleaner than we are, with no other razors than of wood or stone. They believe their souls to be eternal, and those that have deserved well of their gods to be placed in that part of heaven where the sun riseth, and the cursed toward the west, in opposition. They have certain prophets and priests, which commonly abide in the mountains, and very seldom show themselves unto the people. But when they come down, there is a great feast prepared and a solemn assembly of many townships together. (Each grange as I have described maketh a village, and they are about a French league one from another.) The prophet speaks to the people in public, exhorting them to embrace virtue and follow their duty. All their moral discipline containeth but these two articles: first, an undismayed resolution in war; then an inviolable affection to their wives. He doth also prognosticate of things to come, and what success they shall hope for in their enterprises. He either persuadeth or dissuadeth them from war; but if he chance to miss of his divination, and that it succeed >> note 45 otherwise than he foretold them, if he be taken he is hewn in a thousand pieces, and condemned for a false prophet. And therefore he that hath once misreckoned himself is never seen again.

Divination is the gift of God, the abusing whereof should be a punishable imposture. When the divines amongst the Scythians >> note 46 had foretold an untruth, they were couched along upon hurdles >> note 47 full of heath or brushwood, drawn by oxen, and so, manacled hand and foot, burned to death. Those which manage matter subject to the conduct of men's sufficiency >> note 48 are excusable, although they show the utmost of their skill. But those that gull and cony-catch >> note 49 us with the assurance of an extraordinary faculty, and which is beyond our knowledge, ought to be double punished: first, because they perform not the effect of their promise; then for the rashness of their imposture and unadvisedness of their fraud.

They war against the nations that lie beyond their mountains, to which they go naked, having no other weapons than bows or wooden swords, sharp at one end as our broaches >> note 50 are. It is an admirable >> note 51 thing to see the constant resolution of their combats, which never end but by effusion of blood and murder: for they know not what fear or routs are. Every victor brings home the head of the enemy he hath slain as a trophy of his victory, and fasteneth the same at the entrance of his dwelling place. After they have long time used and treated their prisoners well, and with all commodities >> note 52 they can devise, he that is the master of them, summoning a great assembly of his acquaintance, tieth a cord to one of the prisoner's arms, by the end whereof he holds him fast, with some distance from him, for fear he might offend >> note 53 him, and giveth the other arm, bound in like manner, to the dearest friend he hath, and both in the presence of all the assembly kill him with swords: which done, they roast and then eat him in common, and send some slices of him to such of their friends as are absent. It is not, as some imagine, to nourish themselves with it (as anciently the Scythians >> note 54 wont to do), but to represent an extreme and inexpiable revenge.

Which we prove thus: Some of them perceiving the Portugals, who had confederated themselves with their adversaries, to use another kind of death when they took them prisoners — which was to bury them up to the middle, and against the upper part of the body to shoot arrows, and then being almost dead, to hang them up — they supposed that these people of the other world (as they who had sowed the knowledge of many vices among their neighbors, and were much more cunning in all kinds of evils and mischief than they) undertook not this manner of revenge without cause, and that consequently it was more smartful >> note 55 and cruel than theirs, and thereupon began to leave their old fashion to follow this.

I am not sorry we note the barbarous horror of such an action, but grieved that, prying so narrowly into their faults, we are so blinded in ours. I think there is more barbarism in eating men alive than to feed upon them being dead; to mangle by tortures and torments a body full of lively sense, to roast him in pieces, to make dogs and swine to gnaw and tear him in mammocks >> note 56 (as we have not only read but seen very lately, >> note 57 yea and in our own memory, not amongst ancient enemies but our neighbors and fellow-citizens; and, which is worse, under pretense of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.

Chrysippus >> note 58 and Zeno, archpillars of the Stoic sect, have supposed that it was no hurt at all, in time of need and to what end soever, to make use of our carrion bodies and to feed upon them, as did our forefathers, who, being besieged by Caesar in the city of Alexia, resolved to sustain the famine of the siege with the bodies of old men, women, and other persons unserviceable and unfit to fight.

Gascons >> note 59 (as fame reports)
Lived with meats of such sorts.
      Juvenal, Satires XV.93–94

And physicians >> note 60 fear not, in all kinds of compositions availful for our health, to make use of it, be it for outward or inward applications. But there was never any opinion found so unnatural and immodest that would excuse treason, treachery, disloyalty, tyranny, cruelty, and suchlike, which are our ordinary faults.

We may then well call them barbarous in regard of reason's rules, but not in respect of us that exceed them in all kind of barbarism. Their wars are noble and generous, and have as much excuse and beauty as this human infirmity may admit: they aim at nought so much, and have no other foundation amongst them, but the mere jealousy of virtue. >> note 61 They contend not for the gaining of new lands; for to this day they yet enjoy that natural uberty >> note 62 and fruitfulness which without laboring toil doth in such plenteous abundance furnish them with all necessary things that they need not enlarge their limits. They are yet in that happy estate as they desire no more than what their natural necessities direct them: whatsoever is beyond it, is to them superfluous. Those that are much about one age do generally inter-call one another brethren, and such as are younger they call children, and the aged are esteemed as fathers to all the rest. These leave this full possession of goods in common and without division to their heirs, without other claim or title but that which nature doth plainly impart unto all creatures, even as she brings them into the world. If their neighbors chance to come over the mountains to assail or invade them, and that they get the victory over them, the victors' conquest is glory, and the advantage to be and remain superior in valor and virtue; else they have nothing to do with the goods and spoils of the vanquished, and so return into their country, where they neither want any necessary thing nor lack this great portion, >> note 63 to know how to enjoy their condition happily, and are contented with what nature affordeth them. So do these when their turn cometh. They require no other ransom of their prisoners but an acknowledgment and confession that they are vanquished. And in a whole age a man shall not find one that doth not rather embrace death than either by word or countenance remissly to yield one jot of an invincible courage. There is none seen that would not rather be slain and devoured than sue for life or show any fear. They use their prisoners with all liberty, that they may so much the more hold their lives dear and precious, and commonly entertain them with threats of future death, with the torments they shall endure, with the preparations intended for that purpose, with mangling and slicing of their members, and with the feast that shall be kept at their charge. >> note 64 All which is done to wrest some remiss >> note 65 and exact some faint-yielding speech of submission from them, or to possess them with a desire to escape and run away; that so they may have the advantage to have daunted and made them afraid, and to have forced >> note 66 their constancy. For certainly true victory consisteth in that only point.

No conquest such, as to suppress
Foes' hearts, the conquest to confess.
      Claudian, Panegyric on the Sixth Consulate of Honorius, 248–49 >> note 67

* * *

These prisoners, howsoever they are dealt withal, are so far from yielding that, contrariwise, during two or three months that they are kept, they ever carry a cheeerful countenance, and urge their keepers to hasten their trial; they outrageously defy and injure >> note 68 them. They upbraid them with their cowardliness, and with the number of battles they have lost against theirs. I have a song made by a prisoner, wherein is this clause: "Let them boldly come all together and flock in multitudes to feed on him; for with him they shall feed upon their fathers and grandfathers, that heretofore have served his body for food and nourishment. These muscles (saith he), this flesh, and these veins, are your own; fond >> note 69 men as you are, know you not that the substance of your forefathers' limbs is yet tied unto ours? Taste them well, for in them you shall find the relish of your own flesh." An invention that hath no show of barbarism. Those that paint them dying, and that represent this action when they are put to execution, delineate the prisoners spitting in their executioners' faces and making mows >> note 70 at them. Verily, so long as breath is in their body, they never cease to brave and defy them, both in speech and countenance. Surely, in respect of us these are very savage men: for either they must be so in good sooth, >> note 71 or we must be so indeed. There is a wondrous distance between their form and ours.

Their men have many wives, and by how much more they are reputed valiant, so much the greater is their number. The manner and beauty in their marriages is wondrous strange and remarkable: for the same jealousy our wives have to keep us from the love and affection of other women, the same have theirs to procure it. Being more careful for their husbands' honor and content than of anything else, they endeavor and apply all their industry to have as many rivals as possibly they can, forasmuch as it is a testimony of their husbands' virtue. >> note 72 Our women would count it a wonder, but it is not so. It is a virtue properly matrimonial, but of the highest kind. And in the Bible, Leah, Rachel, Sarah, >> note 73 and Jacob's wives brought their fairest maiden-servants unto their husbands' beds. And Livia seconded the lustful appetites of Augustus, to her great prejudice. And Stratonice, the wife of King Deiotarus, did not only bring a most beauteous chambermaid, that served her, to her husband's bed, but very carefully brought up the children he begot on her, and by all possible means aided and furthered them to succeed in their father's royalty. And lest a man should think that all this is done by a simple and servile or awful >> note 74 duty unto their custom, and by the impression of their ancient custom's authority, without discourse or judgment, and because they are so blockish and dull-spirited that they can take no other resolution, it is not amiss we allege some evidence of their sufficiency. >> note 75 Besides what I have said of one of their warlike songs, I have another amorous canzonet, >> note 76 which beginneth in this sense: "Adder, stay; stay, good adder, that my sister may by the pattern of thy parti-colored coat draw the fashion and work of a rich lace for me to give unto my love; so may thy beauty, thy nimbleness or disposition be ever preferred before all other serpents." The first couplet is the burden >> note 77 of the song. I am so conversant with poesy that I may judge this invention hath no barbarism at all in it, but is altogether Anacreontic. >> note 78 Their language is a kind of pleasant speech, and hath a pleasing sound, and some affinity with the Greek terminations. >> note 79

Three of that nation, ignorant how dear the knowledge of our corruptions will one day cost their repose, security, and happiness, and how their ruin shall proceed from this commerce, which I imagine is already well advanced (miserable as they are to have suffered themselves to be so cozened by a desire of newfangled novelties, and to have quit the calmness of their climate to come and see ours), were at Rouen in the time of our late King Charles the Ninth, who talked with them a great while. They were showed our fashions, our pomp, and the form of a fair city. Afterward some demanded their advice, >> note 80 and would needs know of them what things of note and admirable they had observed amongst us. They answered three things, the last of which I have forgotten, and am very sorry for it; the other two I yet remember. They said, first, they found it very strange that so many tall men with long beards, strong and well-armed, as it were about the king's person (it is very likely they meant the Switzers >> note 81 of his guard), would submit themselves to obey a beardless child, and that we did not rather choose one amongst them to command the rest. Secondly (they have a manner of phrase whereby they call men but a moiety >> note 82 one of another), they had perceived there were men amongst us full-gorged with all sorts of commodities, and others which, hunger-starved and bare with need and poverty, begged at their gates; and found it strange these moieties so needy could endure such an injustice, and that they took not the others by the throat, or set fire on their houses.

I talked a good while with one of them, but I had so bad an interpreter, and who did so ill apprehend my meaning, and who through his foolishness was so troubled to conceive my imaginations, that I could draw no great matter from him. Touching that point wherein I demanded of him what good he received by the superiority he had amongst his countrymen (for he was a captain and our mariners called him king), he told me it was to march foremost in any charge of war. Further, I asked him, how many men did follow him. He showed me a distance of place, to signify they were as many as might be contained in so much ground, which I guessed to be about four or five thousand men. Moreover, I demanded if, when wars were ended, all his authority expired; he answered that he had only this left him, which was that when he went on progress >> note 83 and visited the villages depending of him, the inhabitants prepared paths and highways athwart the hedges >> note 84 of their woods, for him to pass through at ease.

All that is not very ill; >> note 85 but what of that? They wear no kind of breeches nor hosen. >> note 86


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