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  • Redefining Nobility in the French Renaissance: The Case of Montaigne’s Journal de voyage
  • Alison Calhoun (bio)

La mort est l’Echo de la vie : ce que la vie a dit, soit bien, soit mal, la mort le répète : et cette répétition retentira toute l’éternité : Mais comme il dépend de nous de bien ou mal régler nostre vie, aussi dépend-il de nous de rendre bonne ou mauvaise nostre mort.1

Debilem facito manu, Debilem pede, coxa, Lubricos quate dentes: Vita dum superest bene est.2

After completing the first edition of his Essais in 1580, having spent two years suffering from kidney stones, secluded in his tower in the provinces of Bordeaux, Michel de Montaigne makes a bold move: he decides to embark upon a long journey to Italy via Germany and Switzerland on horseback. The details of this journey come down to us today in a narrative posthumously entitled Journal de voyage, a work based on a manuscript recovered only in the eighteenth century. Until [End Page 836]

now, critical literature on the Journal has focused upon Montaigne’s motives for traveling to Italy and, more specifically, to Rome. The majority of these studies conclude in varying manners that Montaigne’s travel was either psychologically necessary, medically therapeutic, or both.3 Indeed, some of the strongest examinations of Montaigne’s motives incorporate passages from the Essais or from contemporary travel and tourist guides to speculate upon his chosen itinerary.4 Yet, while these analyses ask why Montaigne decides to leave home, they have tended to ignore the question of the journal itself. In light of the unillustrious and degrading nature of its descriptions of the stone, [End Page 837] the following will explore the reasons behind Montaigne’s writing the journal.

Although Montaigne makes it rather explicit in the Au Lecteur that his motive for writing the Essais is to present himself as authentically as possible to his close family and friends,5 there is no such guiding text for the reader of the Journal. In addition, the oblique and indirect nature of the prose Montaigne weaves in the Essais is quite different from the detailed, pragmatic narrative in the Journal. Whereas in the former, the reader has to deduce the activities which might fill up Montaigne’s hours in his library and at his estate, in the Journal, the reader finds a veritable log of the day’s activities: places visited, people encountered and, of course, a thorough account of the seigneur’s health. The log approach, perhaps closer to Montaigne’s Livre de raison than to his Essais, structures much of the text so that it appears technical, sometimes repetitive and, in the case of the stone, medically thorough. In fact, many early editors claim it was poorly written, which in turn nourished the argument for its questionable authorship.6 However, regardless of its rupture and separation from the Essais, the Journal’s récit has a style important in its own right. For example, Terence Cave characterizes the narrative of the Journal as “disjointed,” “variable,” and always “une suspension de toute péripétie définitive.”7 Furthermore, in what we might call its poetics of suffering and curing, the treatment of the stone should be carefully regarded in relationship to the text’s more conventional views of nobility. The Journal tends to ironically combine more predictable observations of Montaigne, the wealthy tourist, with details from the toilet, even though in Montaigne’s time, the garderobe—as Marie de Gournay characterizes the object of his franchise in her preface to the Essais (1595)—was not an acceptable subject for writing.8 Hence the [End Page 838] reader’s puzzlement: Does the Journal provide a “noble” account of Montaigne’s time abroad, or are his “virtuous” actions sullied by the surplus of facts about his illness? Moreover, if the details from the passing of each stone do indeed overshadow the “noble” activities, was there perhaps some other objective at play?

The following study investigates the interplay between suffering and nobility in the Journal in order to show how it was a contrived effort on Montaigne’s part, as...


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