England came late to the Renaissance. But by the time it arrived, its greatest contribution would be literary. John Donne, William Shakespeare, and Ben Jonson served a literate aristocracy eager to be informed and entertained.
Into the late sixteenth century comes the observant figure of Michel de Montaigne, a French statesman and prolific essayist who wrote about nearly everything his mind encountered, “from cannibals to codpieces, suicide to faith,” as Will Hamlin, WSU’s English literature and Renaissance scholar, puts it. For most English readers of the time, Montaigne’s French Essais were made accessible by a translation undertaken by his contemporary John Florio, a language teacher who also wrote dictionaries and linguistic guides.
The son of Italian Protestant refugees, Florio was born in London in 1553 and moved to Switzerland with his parents when England reverted to Catholicism. As a young man, Florio returned to England and taught at Oxford in the 1570s. He was known for his fluency in French, English, and Italian. He worked with the support of wealthy patrons, eventually landing in the household of Lucy Russell, Countess of Bedford, as a language tutor. It was she who asked him to translate Montaigne. “And he really couldn’t say no,” says Hamlin.
The project took at least five or six years, much of which Florio spent living at the countess’s country house. He dedicated his book not only to the countess, but to five other women of the aristocracy, effectively tying himself to several of England’s leading families. By trading Montaigne’s French details for ones more familiar to English readers—a vineyard becomes a farm—Florio succeeded in reaching the English audience.
Florio knew Shakespeare personally, says Hamlin. And Shakespeare lifts a large passage of Florio’s translation of Montaigne’s essay “Of Cannibals” in The Tempest. “We already know that lots of published writers in England read Montaigne,” says Hamlin. “But who else did?” To answer his question, Hamlin focuses on the period between the first publication of the translation and when it becomes widely recognized as a great work.
“I wanted to know about the readers before they knew Montaigne was going to be read for the next 500 years,” says Hamlin. “There are hundreds and hundreds of readers who marked up their books. And they’re reading and then passing the book on to others.” Hamlin’s pursuits culminated in his own book Montaigne’s English Journey: Reading the Essays in Shakespeare’s Day.
Supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship for mid-career scholars who have demonstrated “exceptional capacity for productive scholarship,” Hamlin sought out the surviving copies of the first century of Florio’s translation at more than 100 different libraries in France, England, Scotland, and North America. Florio’s first edition of Montaigne’s Essais was published in 1603 by the same printer that issued Shakespeare’s First Folio some years later. There are 110 of these known to exist. Two more editions were printed in 1613 and 1632. Of the 353 known copies in the world, Hamlin saw 263 of them. “Overall I found more than 7,000 annotations,” he says.
One heavily marked copy had three different writers commenting on the same passage. “And there are about 20 copies in the world that have annotations on every page,” says Hamlin. Most of the time, it’s impossible to tell who the readers were. But Hamlin has managed to identify about 50, a fair number of them women. “People were interested in Montaigne’s thoughts about education,” he says. They also focused on sexuality, medicine, religious belief, freedom of thought, and the constraints of custom.
“Montaigne is the most interesting of all French writers, I think,” says Hamlin. “He may not have the same status of Shakespeare, but I find him amazingly forward-thinking for his time.” In his essay “Of Cruelty,” for example, Montaigne reproaches a European culture where brutality was commonplace, censuring hunting and mistreatment of animals. “You don’t find many people from the sixteenth century making that argument,” says Hamlin.
Hamlin’s own project took eight years, during which he endured “long, long, long, long days,” waking up in cities like London and rushing to early morning trains that took him to distant places like Leeds, Liverpool, and Newcastle. Then he would spend the day with a particular book, sometimes skipping meals to capture more time, and head back to his residence around midnight.
“I went to London 11 times, Paris three times, Boston and New York two times each, and spent many days in California,” he says. One of his best days was in a library at Lyme Park in Cheshire, a private estate managed by the National Trust in England. Spending the November day in the home’s wood-paneled library, Hamlin had access to just one electrical outlet, only a few hours with the book, and about 900 pictures of marginalia to shoot. “There was no time to read,” he says. “I was frantically taking pictures.”
Just as the day was starting to darken, he sought out the caretakers and asked them why the house seemed so familiar. It turned out to be the setting for Pemberley, Mr. Darcy’s estate in the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice. The caretakers were amused to find that rare visitor more interested in an old book than in the celebrity of the great house. “Since it was November, no one was visiting,” says Hamlin. “They gave me the keys so I could go out and walk on the grounds while it was still light.”
Although many of the books he sought were in accessible libraries, some were in private collections, and Hamlin took pains to see them, asking librarians and intermediaries to contact the owners and request access.
Three copies now reside in WSU’s archives, including one Hamlin bought in Canada. The notes in that one came from an older secretary hand that Hamlin believes dates to around 1610. The handwriting on one page took him 10 days to decipher, he says. The notes alluded to Genesis and original sin and offered a vehement rebuttal of the argument Montaigne was making in the text. “From what I can tell, it was a theologian.”
By undertaking his detailed case study of early seventeenth century English readership, Hamlin explores how readers first encountered this unknown text, through their notes engaged in animated dialogue with the author, and established a foundation for Montaigne’s later reputation in England. “This is a book that was widely and enthusiastically read,” says Hamlin. And that early reception established patterns of focus and interpretation that shaped the later appropriation of the work by major writers.