Montaigne and the macaques

From The Guardian:

Michel-de-Montaigne-007 Sometime late in the 16th century the French philosopher and essayist Michel de Montaigne received an unwelcome knock at the door. His house stood on a hill a few miles north of the Dordogne, about 30 miles east of Bordeaux. Its walls overlooked his poultry yard and vegetable garden, the surrounding fields neatly embroidered with vines. At one corner stood a tower containing his library, some sooty paintings, a table and a chair. And standing as a solitary sentinel over all this was an ancient porter, “whose function”, admitted Montaigne, “is not so much to defend his door as to offer it with more grace and decorum”, making an attack on it “a cowardly and treacherous business . . . it is not shut to anyone that knocks”. Summoned from his books, Montaigne found himself confronted by a neighbour – a man he knew almost “as an ally” – standing “completely terrified” on his doorstep. He had, he said, just been set upon by an enemy about a mile away, and begged to be let in. This Montaigne did – “as I do to everyone” – trying his best to calm and reassure his terrified countryman. But then, rather ominously: Four or five of his soldiers arrived, with the same bearing and fright, in order to be admitted. And then more and more after them, well-equipped and well-armed, until there were twenty-five or thirty of them, pretending to have the enemy at their heels. This mystery was beginning to arouse my suspicion. I was not ignorant of the sort of age in which I lived, how my house might be envied . . . However . . . I abandoned myself to the most natural and simple course, as I do always, and gave orders for them to be let in.

The “sort of age” in which Montaigne lived was that of the French wars of religion, which stretched from 1562 to 1598. Montaigne's house stood in the middle of the region of the most intense fighting. And he himself, having tried to negotiate between the warring factions, had made enemies on both sides. It was this civil unrest, combined with Montaigne's trusting nature, that the neighbour planned to use to his advantage. Having tricked his way in, he now stood in Montaigne's living room, his men greatly outnumbering Montaigne's, and his objective clearly within his grasp. But then, just as suddenly as he had embarked on his treacherous undertaking, the neighbour left: “He remounted his horse, his men keeping their eyes on him for some signal he might give them, very astonished to see him leave and abandon his advantage.” When Montaigne sits down to recount these events in his Essays, he says that his neighbour – “for he was not afraid to tell this story” – admitted that it was Montaigne's demeanour that had defeated his stratagem: “He has often said to me since . . . that my face and my frankness wrestled his treachery from him.”

More here.