Cannibalism in two societies

In "Of Cannibals" by Michel de Montaigne, the narrator describes a supposedly savage society. He relays in great detail the day-to-day lives and traditional values of the cannibals, paradoxically presenting gruesome accounts of war and violence while praising them to be a "pure" and "simple" people. He asserts that people label what is unfamiliar and unpracticed by their own society to be "barbaric," making these cannibals barbarous to the French. By contrasting the cannibals' society with an allegedly civilized society, he points out that barbarity is not always only physical.

They have continual war with the nations that live further within the mainland, beyond their mountains, to which they go naked, and without other arms than their bows and wooden swords, fashioned at one end like the head of our javelins. The obstinacy of their battles is wonderful, and they never end without great effusion of blood: for as to running away, they know not what it is. Every one for a trophy brings home the head of an enemy he has killed, which he fixes over the door of his house. After having a long time treated their prisoners very well, and given them all the regales they can think of, he to whom the prisoner belongs, invites a great assembly of his friends. They being come, he ties a rope to one of the arms of the prisoner, of which, at a distance, out of his reach, he holds the one end himself, and gives to the friend he loves best the other arm to hold after the same manner; which being done, they two, in the presence of all the assembly, despatch him with their swords. After that, they roast him, eat him amongst them, and send some chops to their absent friends. They do not do this, as some think, for nourishment, as the Scythians anciently did, but as a representation of an extreme revenge; as will appear by this: that having observed the Portuguese, who were in league with their enemies, to inflict another sort of death upon any of them they took prisoners, which was to set them up to the girdle in the earth, to shoot at the remaining part till it was stuck full of arrows, and then to hang them, they thought those people of the other world (as being men who had sown the knowledge of a great many vices amongst their neighbours, and who were much greater masters in all sorts of mischief than they) did not exercise this sort of revenge without a meaning, and that it must needs be more painful than theirs, they began to leave their old way, and to follow this. I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horror of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own. I conceive there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead; in tearing a body limb from limb by racks and torments, that is yet in perfect sense; in roasting it by degrees; in causing it to be bitten and worried by dogs and swine (as we have not only read, but lately seen, not amongst inveterate and mortal enemies, but among neighbours and fellow-citizens, and, which is worse, under colour of piety and religion), than to roast and eat him after he is dead.


1. The scene of cannibalism takes on an air of celebration, with words and phrases such as "regales," "assembly of his friends," and "friend he loves best." Does this description of cannibalism as a communal feast lessen or heighten the shock of eating human flesh? What does this do for the Montaigne's argument?

2. What effect do the figurative phrases "eating a man alive," "tearing a body limb from limb," and "roasting it by degrees" have on the reader? Does Montaigne use these phrases to the same end Swift uses the phrase "devoured"?

3. How effective is the juxtaposition of the literal cannibalism of the savages to the figurative cannibalism of Montaigne's own society? ("...there is more barbarity in eating a man alive, than when he is dead... in roasting it by degrees... than to roast and eat him after he is dead.") After the detailed account of the cannibals, is it less convincing to read of the ills of civilized society only figuratively?

4. Does the normalcy of violence in the cannibals' society parallel the normalcy of suffering in French society? How does Montaigne connect the two?


Text (1877 edition: Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazilitt.)

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20 September 2007