Montaigne essayed his sexual difficulties and inadequacies

In his influential Essays {Essais}, the leading sixteenth-century philosopher Michel de Montaigne shared himself much more honestly and extensively than persons using social media commonly do today. Montaigne explained:

Every one of my parts, each as much as another, makes me myself. I owe to the public my complete portrait.

{ Chacune de mes pieces me faict esgalement moy que toute autre. Et nulle autre ne me faict plus proprement homme que cette cy. Je dois au publiq universellement mon pourtrait. }[1]

Montaigne therefore discussed his sexual difficulties and inadequacies. His frank self-disclosure built in part upon medieval poetry presenting old men’s sexual difficulties.

Montaigne suggested that his penis is small. Defending women switching sexual partners, Montaigne declared:

When I have found a woman discontented with me, I have not immediately gone and accused her of fickleness. I have asked myself rather if I don’t have reason to accuse Nature:

If my penis isn’t sufficiently long, if it’s not good and thick

surely then Nature has treated my unlawfully and unjustly

even good matrons know all too well
and do not gladly see a tiny penis

and Nature has inflicted on me the most enormous injury.

{ Quand j’en ay veu quelqu’une s’ennuyer de moy, je n’en ay point incontinent accusé sa legereté; j’ay mis en doubte si je n’avois pas raison de m’en prendre à nature plustost.

Si non longa satis, si non bene mentula crassa,

Certes, elle m’a traitté illegitimement et incivilement,

Nimirum sapiunt, videntque parvam
Matronae quoque mentulam illibenter.

Et d’une lesion enormissime. }[2]

In truth, men with small penises shouldn’t accuse Nature of doing an enormous injury to them. Burnel the donkey failed to understand that his penis was sufficient and good. Men shouldn’t be asses like Burnel.

Portrait of Michel Montaigne, made in 1584

Montaigne defended men’s penises against a hypothetical conviction of rebelliousness. Montaigne apparently referred implicitly to his own difficulties:

We are right to note the license and disobedience of this member which thrusts itself forward so inopportunely, when we don’t want it to, and fails so inopportunely, when we need an affair the most. It imperiously contests for authority with our will. It stubbornly and proudly refuses all our incitements, both mental and manual. Yet if this member were arraigned for rebelliousness, found guilty on these charge, and then I was retained to plead its cause, I would doubtlessly cast suspicion on our other members, its companions, for having deliberately brought a trumped-up charge. They seek to be raised relative to it because of fine envy at its importance and sweetness of usage. They would be plotting to arm everybody against it, maliciously accusing it of a defect common to them all.

{ On a raison de remarquer l’indocile liberté de ce membre, s’ingerant si importunement, lors que nous n’en avons que faire, et defaillant si importunement, lors que nous en avons le plus affaire, et contestant de l’authorité si imperieusement avec nostre volonté, refusant avec tant de fierté et d’obstination noz solicitations et mentales et manuelles. Si toutesfois en ce qu’on gourmande sa rebellion, et qu’on en tire preuve de sa condemnation, il m’avoit payé pour plaider sa cause: à l’adventure mettroy-je en souspeçon noz autres membres, ses compagnons, de luy estre allé dresser, par belle envie de l’importance et douceur de son usage, cette querelle apostée, et avoir par complot armé le monde à l’encontre de luy: le chargeant malignement seul de leur faute commune. }[3]

Montaigne argued that other bodily members act similarly. He argued that men sometimes defecate, urinate, and pass gas without consciously willing the action. Moreover, the penis deserves more respect than the bowels, bladder, and anal sphincter. Summing up, Montaigne declared:

Finally, on behalf of my noble client, may it please the court to consider that, in this matter, my client’s case is inseparably and indistinguishably joined to a consort. Yet the suit is addressed to my client alone, employing arguments and making charges which, granted the characteristics of the Parties, can in no way be brought against the aforesaid consort. By this can be seen the manifest animosity and legal impropriety of the accusers. The contrary notwithstanding, Nature registers a protest against the lawyers’ accusations and judges’ sentences, and she will meanwhile proceed as usual, as one who acted rightly when she endowed the aforesaid member with its own particular privilege to be author of the only immortal achievement know to mortals.

{ En fin je diroy pour monsieur ma partie, que plaise à considerer, qu’en ce faict, sa cause estant inseparablement conjointe à un consort et indistinctement, on ne s’adresse pourtant qu’à luy, et par des arguments et charges telles, veu la condition des parties, qu’elles ne peuvent aucunement apartenir ny concerner son-dit consort. Partant se void l’animosité et illegalité manifeste des accusateurs. Quoy qu’il en soit, protestant que les advocats et juges ont beau quereller et sentencier, nature tirera cependant son train : qui n’auroit faict que raison, quand ell’ auroit doué ce membre de quelque particulier privilege, autheur du seul ouvrage immortel des mortels. }

Surely a fair appellate judge would overturn a charge and conviction of rebelliousness against Montaigne’s penis.

Montaigne himself wasn’t satisfied with his penis’s behavior. As an old man, he declared:

But it’s most unwise (is it not?) to bring our inadequacies and weaknesses to a place where we would desire to please and to leave there a good impression and reputation. For the little I need nowadays

even for one go,
limp work.

I wouldn’t embarrass any woman whom I hold in reverence and awe:

you escape being mistrusted,
you whose life staggers
to limp fifty years.

Nature should be content to have made that age pitiful, without making it also ridiculous. I hate to see old age with an inch of paltry vigor that arouses it three times a week, dashing about and bragging with the same vehemence as if it had a good day’s legitimate work in its belly.

{ Mais n’est ce pas grande impudence d’apporter nos imperfections et foiblesses en lieu où nous desirons plaire, et y laisser bonne estime de nous et recommandation? Pour ce peu qu’il m’en faut à cette heure,

ad unum,
Mollis opus

je ne voudrois importuner une personne que j’ay à reverer et craindre:

Fuge suspicari,
Cujus heu denum trepidavit aetas,
Claudere lustrum.

Nature se devoit contenter d’avoir rendu cet aage miserable, sans le rendre encore ridicule. Je hay de le voir, pour un pouce de chetive vigueur qui l’eschaufe trois fois la semaine, s’empresser et se gendarmer de pareille aspreté, comme s’il avoit quelque grande et legitime journée dans le ventre }[4]

The essayist lamented:

Assaying us, the women might perhaps find us not worthy of their choice:

After exploring his thighs and a cock like a damp leather
thong, which falls to stand even when urged by a weary hand,
she deserts the impotent bed.

{ En nous essayant, elles ne nous trouvent, à l’adventure, pas dignes de leur chois,

experta latus, madidoque simillima loro
Inguina, nec lassa stare coacta manu,
Deserit imbelles thalamos. }[5]

Men’s impotence is an epic disaster. Old men are relatively prone to it. A medieval poem observed:

Love looks for young men to play with young women.
Venus despises old men, who are beset with infirmities.

{ Amor quaerit iuvenes, ut ludant cum virginibus;
Venus despicit senes, qui impleti sunt doloribus. }[6]

Montaigne apparently knew well the reality of old men’s sexual difficulties.

portrait of Michel de Montaigne, made in 1590

Medieval literature recognized the possibilities of miracles, even for old men. The right attitude and the right circumstances can make an old man young again:

Recently grown old, I’m becoming young again.
Aging in reverse,
I don’t restrain
my emotions.
When my friends
chide me,
they incite me more
and make me go crazy.
May I die while having sex!

My love had grown old,
until, in a thoroughly loving event,
it rekindled.
A little spark of sexual desire
— a new spark toward a new little love —
deprived me of my senses.
In this flame may I die
while with pleasure I’m wounded.
By the earnestness of the offense,
the fault is made faultless,
and her beauty incites
the vehemence of my love.

{ Nuper senex iuvenesco,
desenesco
nec compesco
motus animi.
Nam cum proximi
me castigant,
plus instigant
et me cogunt furere.
Moriar in Venere.

Amor noster senuit,
dum re peramata
renovata
Veneris scintillula
in novam novellula
michi me subripuit.
In hac flamma morior,
dum iocunde saucior.
Honestate criminis
culpa deculpatur,
et furori virginis
forma suffragatur. }

Of course, burning passion can be painful for an old man, especially if he consciously tries to resist it:

He is twice jabbed
who strives
to kick against the goad.
So it is right that I should suffer
and be tortured
a thousand times
and more
on the brink of death.
Spare me, Venus, spare me!
My fire blazes
in its leader’s head!

{ Bis pungitur,
qui nititur
repugnare stimulo.
Ergo iuste patior
et crucior
milies
ac pluries
mortis sub articulo.
Parce, Venus, parce!
Noster ignis aestuat
principis in arce! }

The fire blazing in the leader’s head seems to be in the head of his rebellious penis. As Montaigne argued, a man’s penis has a mind of its own. For that it shouldn’t be charged with a crime.

Medieval poetry indicates that old men competed with young men in loving women. The physical reality of aging disadvantages old men. Not surprisingly, the old man Paulino hesitated to marry the old woman Polla because he thought he couldn’t adequately serve her as his wife. But a husband doesn’t have to be as vigorous as Charlemagne’s peer Oliver to have a happy marriage. Men’s sexual inadequacies often are mainly in their own minds. So it probably was for Michel de Montaigne.

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Notes:

[1] Michel de Montaigne, Essays {Essais} 3.5 (389v), “On some lines of Virgil {Sur des vers de Virgile},” French text from the Villey & Saulnier (1965) version of the 1595 edition of Essais, English translation from Screech (1993) p. 1004. Subsequent English translations from Essais are similarly sourced, with some modifications in the English translations. The quotation references are from Screech’s footnotes.

[2] Montaigne, Essais 3.5 (389v). The first Latin quote is Priapeia 80.1, and the second is Priapeia 8.4-5.

[3] Montaigne, Essais 1.21 (35v), “On the power of the imagination {De la Force de l’Imagination}.”

[4] Montaigne, Essais 3.5 (389v). The first Latin quote is Horace, Epodes 12.15-6; the second, Horace, Odes 2.4.22-4.

[5] Montaigne, Essais 3.5 (389v). The first Latin quote is Martial, Epigrams 7.57.3-5.

[6] Carmina Burana 152, “No summer has appeared in times past {Aestas non apparuit praeteritis temporibus},” stanza 4, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). Here are some Latin reading notes for this poem.

[7] Carmina Burana 104, “I am fed up with my sickness {Aegre fero, quod aegroto},” stanzas 2-3, Latin text and English translation (modified) from Traill (2018). The subsequent quote is similarly from Carmina Burana 104, stanza 5. Id. notes that 5.1-2 is a proverbial expression derived from Acts 26:14, which in the Vulgate: “It’s hard for you to kick against the goads {durum est tibi contra stimulum calcitrare}.”

[images] (1) Portrait of Michel de Montaigne. Painted in 1587 and attributed to Étienne Martellange. Source image via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Portrait of Montaigne. Painted about 1590. Via Wikimedia Commons.

References:

Screech, M. A., trans. 1993. Michel De Montaigne: the Complete Essays. London, England: Penguin Books.

Traill, David A. 2018, ed. and trans. Carmina Burana. Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library, 48-49. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Villey, Pierre, and Verdun Louis Saulnier. 1965. Les essais de Michel de Montaigne. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

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