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Unit information: Me, Myself, and I: The Essais of Michel de Montaigne in 2018/19

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Unit name Me, Myself, and I: The Essais of Michel de Montaigne
Unit code FREN30114
Credit points 20
Level of study H/6
Teaching block(s) Teaching Block 1 (weeks 1 - 12)
Unit director Dr. Tomlinson
Open unit status Not open




School/department Department of French
Faculty Faculty of Arts


In a three-volume work for which he invented a term that we today take for granted, Les Essais, Michel de Montaigne moves from the personal to the political, from his sexual failings to his fear of death by choking, from the merits of cannibalism to what the intelligence of his pet cat says about what it means to be human. Switching subject from one second to the next, dismissing structure, filling his work with stolen quotations from writers modern and ancient, he writes page upon page about himself – what he thought, what he did and didn’t (and couldn’t) know, people he met, what he ate, where he went, how he felt, whom he loved – declaring, with spectacular self-regard, and in a focus on the individual that was without precedent in European culture, ‘Je suis moi-même la matière de mon livre’.

The Essais were a Renaissance bestseller, inspiring Shakespeare, becoming a must-have for every gentleman and gentlewoman’s library, and upsetting the Catholic church so much that they were later banned. What is it about Montaigne’s writing that had, and continues to have, such impact? Are today’s readers of the Essais, professional and lay, right to see in him the roots of what we understand as ‘modernity’? What can the many ways in which Montaigne has been read and reinvented tell us about his writing and our place as readers? In this course, you will study his fascinating and idiosyncratic writing at close quarters and will consider what Montaigne asks of his reader and what his reflections on how he lives might do for us as we make daily decisions on how we lead our lives. Through the course you will gain extensive knowledge of the cultural contexts in which Montaigne is working, will scrutinize the ways in which the Essais exploit and depart from inherited modes of writing, and will develop a nuanced understanding of the purpose, modes, and practices of his radically innovative mode of writing.

Intended learning outcomes

By the end of the course, students will have:

1) developed the capacity to understand and appraise the ways in which Montaigne’s writing departs from the conventions of humanist culture and recognize and reflect on how the Essais have been interpreted since their publication.

2) identified, examined, evaluated, and criticized scholarship on Montaigne and formulate a synthetic appraisal of a sample piece of scholarship.

3) applied the understanding gained to the creative close analysis of the Essais.

4) demonstrated the ability to distinguish between dominant critical interpretations of the Essais and, moving beyond synthesis into creative analysis, to generate, construct, express with clarity, and defend nuanced arguments both in written form and orally.

5) the ability to work collectively in small groups to produce a joint 20-minute recording

Teaching details

2-hours of seminar each week

Assessment Details

Discursive recorded presentation (in form of 25-minute podcast performed in small groups), accompanied by 500-word book review by each participant (35%) (ILO 1, 2, 3, 5)

3000-word essay, accompanied by 400-word abstract of the essay’s argument (65%). Students will have the opportunity to construct essay titles of their choice. (ILO 1, 3, 4)

Reading and References

Primary Text

Michel de Montaigne, Les Essais (selected chapters from all three volumes)

Indicative Scholarship

Antoine Compagnon, Nous, Michel de Montaigne (1980)

Ian Maclean, Montaigne philosophe (1996)

Marie-Luce Demonet and Alain Legros (eds), L’Écriture du scepticisme chez Montaigne (2004)

Ullrich Langer (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Montaigne (2005)

Terence Cave, How to Read Montaigne (2007)

Sarah Bakewell, How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer (2010)

Philippe Desan (ed.), Oxford Handbook to Montaigne (2016)

Neil Kenny, Richard Scholar, and Wes Williams (eds), Montaigne in Transit (2017)

Warren Boutcher, The School of Montaigne in Early Modern Europe (2017)