History of the Memoir: Michel de Montaigne

by Nynke Passi


More about the History of the Memoir: Michel de Montaigne

Though many illustrious examples of prose discussion about daily life, history, or philosophical musing can be found in Oriental and in classical Greek and Latin literature, the modern personal essay and memoir have their origins in the European Renaissance when the sense of “I” and “self” began to take center stage. Over time, the “informal” essay and the memoir went through many transformations.

In the sixteenth century, the French magistrate Michel de Montaigne took himself as subject matter and wrote 107 essays in a casual, candid style. These essays (called “Essais,” meaning “attempts” or “experiments” in French) had a profound influence on readers across continents, cultures, and generations. One of the most uniquely modern aspects of Montaigne’s work was his way of investigating contradictory values within himself, never settling for easy answers. He freely observed his own prejudices, tastes, and inconsistencies of character. This is why modern audiences still read Montaigne, and why modernist essayists continue to emulate him. Such willingness to embrace the ambiguity of human life indicates an ability to expand beyond the boundaries of the self, a willingness to witness or observe the self objectively. Because Montaigne’s insights come from such a deep, expanded level of awareness, they enliven universal values. The reader not only learns about Montaigne, but about him or herself.

Montaigne’s informal essays became the model for the modern literary personal essay and the memoir. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries especially British writers, such as Virginia Woolf and E. B. White, continued in Montaigne’s footsteps. They, too, wrote about personal subjects in a highly digressive, unsystematic manner and tested their own boundaries, exploring the dynamic interplay of inner and outer values.

Here you can read more about Montaigne on Wikipedia: Montaigne on Wikipedia

Here you can read his Essays, via the Gutenberg Library: Essays, Montaigne


The Tower in which Montaigne wrote at his estate

Here an article from The New Yorker about the History of the Memoir, written by Daniel Mendelsohn. What does the popularity of the Memoir tell us about ourselves? The History of the Memoir, New Yorker

More about the Memoir here on Wikipedia: Memoir on Wikipedia