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.
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