Michel de Montaigne's Anthropologic Love Song

Michel de Montaigne attempts to convince his countrymen that their society's practices are more barbarous than those of a tribe of New World natives in his essay "Of Cannibals." However, cannibalism is not their only behavior that he defends by comparing it supposedly civilized Europeans. De Montaigne also asserts that polygamy, as practiced among the tribes, demonstrates "a truly matrimonial virtue." Yet to Montaigne it is not enough simply to condone the natives' actions. He must also prove that their behavior is a result of enlightened, morally superior reasoning. In order to prove that the natives understand the merits of polygamy, de Montaigne refers one of the tribe's love songs.

And that it may not be supposed, that all this is done by a simple and servile obligation to their common practice, or by any authoritative impression of their ancient custom, without judgment or reasoning, and from having a soul so stupid that it cannot contrive what else to do, I must here give you some touches of their sufficiency in point of understanding. Besides what I repeated to you before, which was one of their songs of war, I have another, a love-song, that begins thus:

"Stay, adder, stay, that by thy pattern my sister may draw the fashion and work of a rich ribbon, that I may present to my beloved, by which means thy beauty and the excellent order of thy scales shall for ever be preferred before all other serpents."

Wherein the first couplet, "Stay, adder," &c., makes the burden of the song. Now I have conversed enough with poetry to judge thus much that not only there is nothing barbarous in this invention, but, moreover, that it is perfectly Anacreontic. To which it may be added, that their language is soft, of a pleasing accent, and something bordering upon the Greek termination.

It is obvious here that Montaigne assesses the natives' behavior with an Old World lens. By using words like "couplet" and "Greek termination," he appeals to the interests and skill set of his audience.


1. Why does de Montaigne cite the love song? What does he think it says about the culture of the New World?

2. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "adder" as a serpent, or poisonous snake. Why would a love song compare its subject to a serpent?

3. De Montaigne compares the New World love song to the Greek, erotic poet Anacreon. Is this comparison sound? Does the reference to the ancient Greek poet increase our trust in de Montaigne?

4. De Montaigne makes a great effort to prove that the natives are enlightened enough to understand their own polygamous behavior. Does he take the same precautions when defending their cannibalism?


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

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24 September 2007

24 September 2007