Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Write, Revise, Revolutionize

As we near the end of winter term and you find yourself spending more and more time in the library, you may catch yourself wondering- who wrote the first essay? Many scholars credit the earliest modern essay form to Michel de Montaigne, one of the most important and widely-read philosophers of the French Renaissance. In his time, Montaigne’s contemporaries often criticized him for mixing his philosophical arguments with personal anecdotes and honest observations, but today he is widely recognized for inventing a new form of written expression.

Rauner Library owns a rare copy of the definitive, complete collection of Essais published in 1595, shortly after Montaigne’s death. This edition matters because it contains more than 1400 edits that do not appear in earlier texts, a product of Montaigne’s more than two decades of writing, reflection, and revision. At age 38, Montaigne largely abandoned his political career in favor of “drawing his portrait with a pen.” After cloistering himself and 1000 books in a tower on his estate, he produced some of the most influential philosophical writings of the late Renaissance, weaving together candid introspection, academic arguments, bawdy humor, and enlightened skepticism--as well as an religious and cultural tolerance that was well before his time.  Montaigne’s work has directly emphasized writers as intellectually and stylistically diverse as Bacon, Shakespeare, and Emerson.

If you flip through Rauner’s copy of the text, you will find several pages full of handwritten notes. You may wonder who wrote them--especially since it was published posthumously. This handwriting actually belongs to Marie de Gournay, an accomplished writer and philosopher who became Montaigne’s friend and intellectual companion in 1588, when she was only 23 years old; he referred to her as his adopted daughter, and shared much of his work with her. After Montaigne’s death, his widow gave his manuscripts to de Gournay, tasking her with compiling and editing the definitive edition of Essais. She completed the project with the utmost care, adding her own preface and even correcting the printed sheets by hand before binding. de Gournay, like Montaigne, lived a life ahead of her time. She remained an unmarried female writer, and went on to publish some of the first feminist works in existence: her treatises Equality Between Men and Women (1622) and Complaints of the Ladies (1626).

You can read Montaigne’s Essais, translated into English, online. To see Rauner’s original edition, printed in French and Latin with handwritten edits by Marie de Gournay, request Rare Book PQ1641.A1 1595.

Posted for Emily C. Estelle '15

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