28 July 2013

Treasured Books No. 3: Michel de Montaigne

A detail of an anonymous portrait of Michel de Montaigne,
courtesy The Guardian and Bridgeman Art Library

There are some authors who come to be constant companions, whose words enter our minds as easily as conversations with a dear friend. This summer, despite a larger than usual stack of stimulating reading, I've found myself drawn back into Montaigne's Essays. Michel de Montaigne has been called by many the father of the familiar essay, and with an umbrella of influence that includes Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, Virginia Woolf and Anne Fadiman, it's no wonder. 

An anonymous 17th century portrait of Montaigne,
courtesy the University of Chicago's Montaigne Studies Forum

Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, one of the most influential writers of the French Renaissance, was born near Bordeaux in the Chateau de Montaigne on February 28, 1533. His father was a wealthy humanist merchant who, unusually for the time,  meticulously planned his son's education, even arranging for him to have the advantage of Latin as his first language. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: "Given the huge breadth of his readings, Montaigne could have been ranked among the most erudite humanists of the XVIth century. But in the Essays, his aim is above all to exercise his own judgment properly. Readers who might want to convict him of ignorance would find nothing to hold against him, he said, for he was exerting his natural capacities, not borrowed ones. He thought that too much knowledge could prove a burden, preferring to exert his ‘natural judgment’ to displaying his erudition." 

The Chateau de Montaigne, in Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, in the Dordogne, France.
The castle dates to the 14th century and was Montaigne's family home.
Image courtesy Wikipedia

Indeed, Montaigne is known for being extremely quotable. When I first read the Essays, being an incurable note-taker, I found myself practically re-writing the entire text! Here, I've used what I consider to be tremendous will-power to limit myself to a few gems to give you the flavor of Montaigne's voice:

"He who should teach men to die would at the same time teach them to live."
--Essays, Book I, Ch. 19, That To Study Philosophy Is to Learn to Die

"Accustom him to everything, that he may not be a Sir Paris, a carpet-knight, but a sinewy, hardy, and vigorous young man."
--Essays, Book I, Ch. 25, On the Education of Children

"I speak the truth, not so much as I would, but as much as I dare; and I dare a little more, as I grow older."
--Essays, Book II, Ch. 2, Of Repentance

"If anyone is charmed by his own knowledge, whilst he looks only on those below him, let him but turn his eye upward toward past ages and his pride will be abated, when he shall find so many thousand wits that trample him under foot." 
-- Essays, Book II, Ch. 6, Use Makes Perfect

"The middle sort of historians (of which the most part are) spoil all; they will chew our meat for us."
--Essays, Book II, Ch. 10, Of Books

An anonymous portrait of Montaigne, ca. 1590
Image, courtesy the Montaigne Studies Forum

My 4-volume set of the Essays was published in 1880 in Boston by Houghton, Mifflin & Co. Bound in green tooled leather, with not-very special end papers, these octavos are perfect for me: neither too precious to take along in the car or plane, nor too ordinary to spend hundreds of hours with. The pages, 133 years old now, have the lovely texture of the text imprinted into the paper, and I find myself reading as much with my fingers as my eyes, a sort of aesthetic braille.
They have a charming detail: the frontispiece of each volume includes Montaigne's seal, a set of balance scales with his motto: 'Que sais-je"-- "What do I know?" His library, into which he "retired" to write his essays, is a beautiful space. Montaigne inscribed the following above the fireplace:

IN THE YEAR OF CHRIST 1571 Michael Montaigne, aged 38, on his birthday, the day preceding the Calends of March, already long wearied of the servitude of the law-courts, and of public offices, has retired, with faculties still entire, to the arms of the learned virgins, there to pass in all quiet and security, such length of days as remain to him, of his already more than half-spent years, if so the fates permit him to finish this abode and these sweet ancestral retreats consecrated to his freedom and tranquility and leisure.

Montaigne's tower library, the only surviving 16th century section of the Chateau.
Image courtesy St. Georges.

The ceiling in Montaigne's library, with inscribed beams. For a translation of the
maxims inscribed, click here.
Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

Montaigne's voice has traveled from this inspiring library, down through the centuries with no loss of humor, potency or relevance. These are the perfect books to pick up and enjoy as the mood strikes, as the essays can be taken individually. But beware-- Montaigne is so likable,  so entertaining, that you might find yourself, like me, lost in conversation with him while the rest of your reading stack grows unchecked.

03 July 2013

The Bayeux Tapestry

 A detail of the Bayeux Tapestry, with the Norman cavalry ready for battle.
Courtesy, Web Gallery of Art

I've long been fascinated by historical needlework and am an avid practitioner: after all, there is no better way to understand and appreciate an artistic process than to physically do it. There is also something very satisfying in having physical proof of a winter's evenings spent stitching by the fire. As I work, my mind often wanders, and I imagine the long line of people who for thousands of years have sat near a light, needle and thread in hand. Here we have a rare cultural relic, a process which has changed very little-- the linen, needles, silks and wools may be machine made now, but the techniques are the same. The stitches I learned from a beloved teacher are the descendants of those recorded as early as the 5th century BC in China, where they were developed as mending and reinforcing stitches for garments. 

A detail of a needlework project I did a few cold winters ago for my husband. 
Many of the stitches are identical to those in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Image copyright, Parvum Opus.

Scene 43a, depicting the Normans' battle preparations: HIC FECERUN[T] PRANDIUM.
"Here they made breakfast." Courtesy Wikipedia.

You're surely familiar with the Bayeux Tapestry, but I hope you'll enjoy revisiting it as its one of those objects that never fails to amaze. A brief bit of history, from Wikipedia: The Bayeux tapestry "is an embroidered cloth- not an actual tapestry- nearly 70 meters (230 ft) long, which depicts the events leading up to the Norman conquest of England concerning William, Duke of Normandy and Harold, Earl of Wessex, later King of England, and culminating in the Battle of Hastings."

"Here, Bishop Odo, holding a club, gives strength to the boys."
Courtesy Wikipedia.

"According to Sylvette Lemagnen, conservator of the tapestry, The Bayeux Tapestry is one of the supreme achievements of the Norman Romanesque... Its survival almost intact over nine centuries is little short of miraculous... Its exceptional length, the harmony and freshness of its colors, its exquisite workmanship, and the genius of its guiding spirit combine to make it endlessly fascinating."

William, Duke of Normandy
Image courtesy BBC

In this scene, Harold is struck in the eye by an arrow and dies. 
HIC HAROLD REX INTERFECTUS EST, "Here King Harold is slain."
Courtesy Wikipedia.

The tapestry includes about fifty scenes embroidered on linen with Latin tituli or captions. 
No one knows for sure who commissioned or fabricated it, but it's possible that William's half-brother, Bishop Odo had it made in England sometime in the 1070s. After a long and complicated journey, the tapestry has found a permanent home in the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux in Bayeux, Normandy, France.

A view of a section of the Bayeux Tapestry inside the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.
From the UNESCO homepage, courtesy of the French State.

One of my favorite scenes in the tapestry depicts Halley's comet, which appeared in March of 1066.  The comet was considered to be a bad omen for Harold, who would die in the battle of Hastings later that year. In 1066, in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Eilmer of Malmesbury wrote of Halley's comet: " You've come, have you? You've come, you source of tears to many mothers, you evil. I hate you! It is long since I saw you; but as I see you now you are much more terrible, for I see you brandishing the downfall of my country. I hate you!"  

Scene 32 from the tapestry, with the tituli: "ISTI MIRANT[UR] STELLA[M]",
or "the people marvel at the star". The comet is visible at the top right.
Image courtesy Wikipedia.

If you have the opportunity, I heartily recommend a visit to the Musée de la Tapisserie de Bayeux.  It's nearly impossible to get a feel for the scale and texture of the actual piece which is truly magnificent in person. Until then, I do hope you'll enjoy the following video, which cleverly animates a section of the tapestry, and perhaps, even pick up a needle and thread and continue the conversation with the talented embroiderers who created this beautiful piece almost a thousand years ago.