gazette logo
   A Memorial University of Newfoundland Publication

mun logo
October 30, 2003
 Fall Convocation


Fall Convocation

Friday, October 17, 2003

Address to convocation
by Dr. Natalie Zemon Davis


Dr. Natalie Zemon Davis
Dr. Natalie Zemon Davis

To be here at this convocation at Memorial University today, to share with students from such a wide range of disciplines the delight of a degree, to witness the retirement of three distinguished professors from their years of teaching at Memorial University – all of this is a signal honour for me, one for which I am very grateful. I have long been an admiring reader of the writings of colleagues at Memorial University, especially in history and anthropology; two of them were even students of mine years ago at the University of Toronto. But I have never been to Newfoundland before, and born in Detroit, I have the mid-westerner’s awe for the stark northern splendour of this province. I also have the historian’s appreciation for the role of Newfoundland and of Memorial University as a bridge between the cultures and peoples of the British Isles, western Europe and Canada, and among the peoples of Canada itself, from its oldest inhabitants to its most recent arrivals.

Historians are wary about drawing direct lessons from the past. Even when we recognize common patterns in different periods, we know that the distinctive features of a society and chance events can lead to surprising outcomes. But history can make us aware of possibilities – possible ways of living, thinking, and organizing things – which can suggest new ideas for interpreting the present and imagining the future. I want to tell you about two people from the past – an elderly man and a young woman, who lived in 16th-century France, and who can suggest to us the paths of courage, truth-telling, innovation, and peacemaking in terrible times.

France was riven by holy war in the last half of the 16th century. Protestants had destroyed Catholic statues and mocked and killed the wicked priests. Catholics had massacred the heretical Protestant worshippers, forcing the living to convert or go into exile. Over 20 years and more, the two religious parties killed each other on the battlefield and assassinated each other’s leaders, each proclaiming that only one true religion must be allowed in France. Meanwhile the peasants wept over their lands and crops destroyed by fruitless battles, and a small band of judges, lawyers, scholars, and city folk exhorted the warring enemies to find some grounds for agreement, stop the fratricide, and live in peace.

One of the most important spokespersons for peace was Michel de Montaigne. He was somewhat unusual from the start. His father was a Gascon landowner, recently ennobled, and a Catholic, but on his mother’s side Montaigne had Jewish ancestors, a mixed origin that aroused his curiosity about people different from himself. After his university studies he was named judge in the High Court of Bordeaux, a post that involved him in the royal world of favour and advancement, but from which he tried to keep some internal detachment. After 13 years he resigned his judgeship – he referred to it as his "servitude" – because he wanted to spend the rest of his life writing in independence. He also had found it unsettling to impose the death sentence when evidence was so uncertain, as in the Martin Guerre impostor case. It would be better to tell the parties to come back in 100 years.

In the next years, he did not abandon public service entirely, using his good offices to try to create alliance between Protestant prince and Catholic prince. Especially he wrote his Essays and took his message to French readers through the printing press. He would write about himself and his world with as much honesty and truthfulness as he could muster. It wasn’t easy, but truth was the "translator of our soul," essential for our human connection; lying "betrayed public life." So he spoke not only of his own tastes and faults, but of the habits, achievements, misdeeds, and crimes of his contemporaries. His essay on the "cannibals," that is, the Tupinamba of Brazil, was an effort at anthropological description of people who had been called "savage" and "barbaric" by other writers of his day. "I find nothing barbarous or savage among these people," Montaigne said. "Everyone calls ‘barbarous’ the things they are not accustomed to." He, Montaigne, found the Tupinamba’s practice of eating the flesh of slain captives of war much less "barbarous" than that of his French contempories, who eat their enemies alive, torturing them in trials, burning them in judgement, and slaughtering them in religious massacre.
Montaigne’s criticism went as high as the king and the pope, although sometimes expressed obliquely and always without arrogance. He knew his truth telling was limited by the uncertainty of his own knowledge and the imperfection of human reason. You did your best, but you could always be wrong. His belief in Catholic theology came from faith alone, he said; he was loyal to the Holy Mother Church because one needed a frame of agreement among people. But this did not prevent him from asking, "What do I know?"

In 1584, a young woman of 19 read Montaigne’s essays and was overwhelmed with admiration. "So excited was I that my family wanted to give me medicine [to calm me down]." Her name was Marie de Gournay, born into a noble family of Picardy and self-taught in literature, Latin and even Greek. She wrote Montaigne a fan letter, and a few years later the famous man of letters in his mid-50s met the aspiring young female author. There ensued a remarkable – and in the 16th century unheard of – literary friendship between Montaigne and Gournay. He read and commented on her early writing; she discussed with him editorial revisions for his essays. When he died in 1592, Montaigne made Marie de Gournay his literary executor – an extraordinary choice for a men of letters and shocking to his learned male contemporaries. Undeterred, Gournay published the definitive editions of Montaigne’s Essays in the next years along with some explosive writing of her own.

Montaigne himself had never believed such friendship was possible with a woman until he met Gournay. In his youth, he had known a "perfect friendship," "indivisible," with a judicial colleague and writer a few years older than himself. After his friend’s early death, Montaigne had written an essay "On Friendship," celebrating their alliance and maintaining in classical fashion that high friendship was possible only between men. With a woman, there could only be passion or polite conversation.

Meeting Marie de Gournay, he changed his mind: "The judgment she made of my first Essais, and she a woman, in this century so young and so alone – an amazing occurrence." He called her his "daughter by alliance" and spoke of "the perfection of a very holy friendship" between them. And he let the world know about it in the last collection of his Essais. Marie de Gournay responded in kind, describing him as a spiritual father, in whose footsteps she had followed. She lived on until she was 80, publishing before she died The Equality of Men and Women – a book of uncompromising affirmation for the similarity of women and men in regard to virtue, intelligence, and potentiality. Even God’s decision to make Jesus Christ a male was historically contingent, not a sign of male superiority.

I tell you about these people from the 16th and 17th century partly to show what surprises the past holds for us. Perhaps I can even entice some of you to make a film about Montaigne and Gournay, though if you do, please don’t reduce it to a love affair. Especially these stories give us hope about the possibility of innovation and change for the better. Montaigne died before peace was finally made in war-exhausted France, but he was one of the people who shaped the compromises and assumptions on which peace was based. Montaigne and Gournay improvised a male-female literary friendship for which there was no previous model. Their example widened the sense of the possible in gender relations for those that came after them.

The values which their lives and writings expressed speak to us, too, across the centuries. (Montaigne would be delighted to know this, as he always speculated about how big his audience would be.) They speak to the graduate of 55 years ago, like me, who would still like to fulfill her student-activist hope of keeping the world from blowing up. They speak even more to the new graduates like you, with an excellent education behind you and an exciting future opening before you. In a world where some have made market fundamentalism their secular religion and have abandoned altruism, Montaigne and Gournay remind us that we can invest our work lives with ethical values and generosity. In a world where some leaders falsify and their lies are carried unchecked through mass media, Montaigne’s questioning through the printing press reminds us that we must struggle for truth and try to speak it through our wider networks. In an age once again beset by calls to crusade and jihad, with its self-righteous polarities, its would-be world emperor, demagogic tyrants, and death-loving extremists, Montaigne reminds us that we must bear witness for peace.

The paths to peace are many. May you find them and create new ones – for the sake of all of us folk all over the world who just want to live our lives, for the sake of the students you will one day have, of your future clients, partners, customers, patients, viewers or listeners, for the sake of the children you will one day bring into the world. All good wishes to your generation, and many thanks to the community of Memorial University for letting me salute you on this very special day.


    Top Stories

James Burke
Lt.-Gen. Rick Hillier

Next issue: November 13, 2003

Questions? Comments?
E-mail our editor.