In his own time, Montaigne was admired more as a statesman than as an author. The tendency in his essays to digress into anecdotes and personal ruminations was seen as detrimental to proper style rather than as an innovation, and his declaration that, 'I am myself the matter of my book', was viewed by his contemporaries as self-indulgent. In time, however, Montaigne would be recognized as embodying, perhaps better than any other author of his time, the spirit of freely entertaining doubt which began to emerge at that time. He is most famously known for his skeptical remark, 'Que sçay-je?' ('What do I know?' in Middle French; modern French Que sais-je?). Remarkably modern even to readers today, Montaigne's attempt to examine the world through the lens of the only thing he can depend on implicitly—his own judgment—makes him more accessible to modern readers than any other author of the Renaissance. Much of modern literary non-fiction has found inspiration in Montaigne and writers of all kinds continue to read him for his masterful balance of intellectual knowledge and personal story-telling.
Montaigne was born in the Aquitaine region of France, on the family estate Château de Montaigne, in a town now called Saint-Michel-de-Montaigne, not far from Bordeaux. The family was very rich; his great-grandfather, Ramon Felipe Eyquem, had made a fortune as a herring merchant and had bought the estate in 1477, thus becoming the Lord of Montaigne. His father, Pierre Eyquem, Seigneur of Montaigne, was a French Catholic soldier in Italy for a time and had also been the mayor of Bordeaux. Although there were several families bearing the patronym 'Eyquem' in Guyenne, his family is thought to have had some degree of Marrano (Spanish and Portuguese Jew) origins.[source needs translation] His mother, Antoinette López de Villanueva, was a convert to Protestantism. His maternal grandfather, Pedro Lopez, from Zaragoza, was from a wealthy Marrano (Sephardic Jewish) family who had converted to Catholicism.[need quotation to verify] His maternal grandmother, Honorette Dupuy, was from a Catholic family in Gascony, France.
The coat of arms of Michel Eyquem, Lord of Montaigne
His mother lived a great part of Montaigne's life near him, and even survived him, but is mentioned only twice in his essays. Montaigne's relationship with his father, however, is frequently reflected upon and discussed in his essays.
From the moment of his birth, Montaigne's education followed a pedagogical plan sketched out by his father and refined by the advice of the latter's humanist friends. Soon after his birth, Montaigne was brought to a small cottage, where he lived the first three years of life in the sole company of a peasant family, 'in order to', according to the elder Montaigne, 'draw the boy close to the people, and to the life conditions of the people, who need our help.' After these first spartan years, Montaigne was brought back to the château. The objective was for Latin to become his first language. The intellectual education of Montaigne was assigned to a German…