Montaigne’s Latin


February 12, 2017

I found this remarkable passage from Montaigne on Facebook; since it was new to me and I figure will be new to at least some of my readership, I thought I’d rescue it from the oblivion that is the fate of all FB posts and copy it here:

The expedient [for learning Latin] found by my father was to place me, while still at the breast and before my tongue was untied, in the care of a German (who subsequently died in France as a famous doctor); he was totally ignorant of our language but very well versed in Latin. He had been brought over expressly and engaged at a very high fee: he had me continuously on his hands. He had two others with him, less learned: their task was to follow me about and provide him with some relief. They never addressed me in any other language but Latin. As for the rest of the household, it was an inviolable rule that neither he nor my mother nor a manservant nor a housemaid ever spoke in my presence anything except such words of Latin as they had learned in order to chatter a bit with me. It is wonderful how much they all got from it. My father and mother learned in this way sufficient Latin to understand it and acquired enough to be able to be able to talk it when they had to, as did those other members of the household who were most closely devoted to my service. In short we became so latinized that it spilled over into neighbouring villages, where, resulting from this usage, you can still find several Latin names for tools and for artisans. As for me I was six years old before I knew French any more than I knew the patois of Périgord or Arabic. And so, without art, without books, without grammar, without rules, without whips and without tears, I had learned Latin as pure as that which my schoolteacher knew – for I had no means of corrupting it or contaminating it. So if they wanted me to assay writing a prose (as other boys do in the colleges by translating from French) they had to give me some bad Latin to turn into good. And Nicholas Grouchy, Guillaume Guerente (who wrote a commentary on Aristotle), George Buchanan, that great Scottish poet, Marc-Antoine Muret whom France and Italy recognise as the best prose-writer in his day, who were my private tutors, have often told me that in my infancy I had that language so fluent and so ready that they were afraid to approach me.

—On Educating Children 1:26, M.A. Screech translation

It’s quite a jolt to think of his father doing such a thing in the 1530s, when such experiments seem more typically a post-1960s thing. As John Emerson pointed out on the facebook, the most endearing bit is In short we became so latinized that it spilled over into neighbouring villages, where, resulting from this usage, you can still find several Latin names for tools and for artisans.