The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XLVI

Chapter XLVI. Of names. Edit

What variety of herbs soever are shufed together in the dish, yet the
whole mass is swallowed up under one name of a sallet. In like manner,
under the consideration of names, I will make a hodge-podge of divers

Every nation has certain names, that, I know not why, are taken in no
good sense, as with us, John, William, Benedict. In the genealogy of
princes, also, there seem to be certain names fatally affected, as the
Ptolemies of Egypt, the Henries in England, the Charleses in France, the
Baldwins in Flanders, and the Williams of our ancient Aquitaine, from
whence, 'tis said, the name of Guyenne has its derivation; which would
seem far fetched were there not as crude derivations in Plato himself.

Item, 'tis a frivolous thing in itself, but nevertheless worthy to be
recorded for the strangeness of it, that is written by an eyewitness,
that Henry, Duke of Normandy, son of Henry II., king of England, making a
great feast in France, the concourse of nobility and gentry was so great,
that being, for sport's sake, divided into troops, according to their
names, in the first troop, which consisted of Williams, there were found
an hundred and ten knights sitting at the table of that name, without
reckoning the ordinary gentlemen and servants.

It is as pleasant to distinguish the tables by the names of the guests as
it was in the Emperor Geta to distinguish the several courses of his meat
by the first letters of the meats themselves; so that those that began
with B were served up together, as brawn, beef, bream, bustards,
becca-ficos; and so of the others. Item, there is a saying that it is a
good thing to have a good name, that is to say, credit and a good repute;
but besides this, it is really convenient to have a well-sounding name,
such as is easy of pronunciation and easy to be remembered, by reason
that kings and other great persons do by that means the more easily know
and the more hardly forget us; and indeed of our own servants we more
frequently call and employ those whose names are most ready upon the
tongue. I myself have seen Henry II., when he could not for his heart
hit of a gentleman's name of our country of Gascony, and moreover was
fain to call one of the queen's maids of honour by the general name of
her race, her own family name being so difficult to pronounce or
remember; and Socrates thinks it worthy a father's care to give fine
names to his children.

Item,'tis said that the foundation of Notre Dame la Grande at Poitiers
took its original from hence that a debauched young fellow formerly
living in that place, having got to him a wench, and, at her first coming
in, asking her name, and being answered that it was Mary, he felt himself
so suddenly pierced through with the awe of religion and the reverence to
that sacred name of the Blessed Virgin, that he not only immediately sent
the girl away, but became a reformed man and so continued the remainder
of his life; and that, in consideration of this miracle, there was
erected upon the place where this young man's house stood, first a chapel
dedicated to our Lady and afterwards the church that we now see standing
there. This vocal and auricular reproof wrought upon the conscience, and
that right into the soul; this that follows, insinuated itself merely by
the senses. Pythagoras being in company with some wild young fellows,
and perceiving that, heated with the feast, they comploted to go violate
an honest house, commanded the singing wench to alter her wanton airs;
and by a solemn, grave, and spondaic music, gently enchanted and laid
asleep their ardour.

Item, will not posterity say that our modern reformation has been
wonderfully delicate and exact, in having not only combated errors and
vices, and filled the world with devotion, humility, obedience, peace,
and all sorts of virtue; but in having proceeded so far as to quarrel
with our ancient baptismal names of Charles, Louis, Francis, to fill the
world with Methuselahs, Ezekiels, and Malachis, names of a more spiritual
sound? A gentleman, a neighbour of mine, a great admirer of antiquity,
and who was always extolling the excellences of former times in
comparison with this present age of ours, did not, amongst the rest,
forget to dwell upon the lofty and magnificent sound of the gentleman's
names of those days, Don Grumedan, Quedregan, Agesilan, which, but to
hear named he conceived to denote other kind of men than Pierre, Guillot,
and Michel.

Item, I am mightily pleased with Jacques Amyot for leaving, throughout a
whole French oration, the Latin names entire, without varying and
garbling them to give them a French cadence. It seemed a little harsh
and rough at first; but already custom, by the authority of his Plutarch,
has overcome that novelty. I have often wished that such as write
histories in Latin would leave our names as they find them and as they
are; for in making Vaudemont into Vallemontanus, and metamorphosing names
to make them suit better with the Greek or Latin, we know not where we
are, and with the persons of the men lose the benefit of the story.

To conclude, 'tis a scurvy custom and of very ill consequence that we
have in our kingdom of France to call every one by the name of his manor
or seigneury; 'tis the thing in the world that the most prejudices and
confounds families and descents. A younger brother of a good family,
having a manor left him by his father, by the name of which he has been
known and honoured, cannot handsomely leave it; ten years after his
decease it falls into the hand of a stranger, who does the same: do but
judge whereabouts we shall be concerning the knowledge of these men. We
need look no further for examples than our own royal family, where every
partition creates a new surname, whilst, in the meantime, the original of
the family is totally lost. There is so great liberty taken in these
mutations, that I have not in my time seen any one advanced by fortune to
any extraordinary condition who has not presently had genealogical titles
added to him, new and unknown to his father, and who has not been
inoculated into some illustrious stem by good luck; and the obscurest
families are the most apt for falsification. How many gentlemen have we
in France who by their own account are of royal extraction? more, I
think, than who will confess they are not. Was it not a pleasant passage
of a friend of mine? There were, several gentlemen assembled together
about the dispute of one seigneur with another; which other had, in
truth, some preeminence of titles and alliances above the ordinary
gentry. Upon the debate of this prerogative, every one, to make himself
equal to him, alleged, this one extraction, that another; this, the near
resemblance of name, that, of arms; another, an old worm-eaten patent;
the very least of them was great-grandchild to some foreign king. When
they came to sit down, to dinner, my friend, instead of taking his place
amongst them, retiring with most profound conges, entreated the company
to excuse him for having hitherto lived with them at the saucy rate of a
companion; but being now better informed of their quality, he would begin
to pay them the respect due to their birth and grandeur, and that it
would ill become him to sit down among so many princes—ending this farce
with a thousand reproaches: "Let us, in God's name, satisfy ourselves
with what our fathers were contented with, with what we are. We are
great enough, if we rightly understand how to maintain it. Let us not
disown the fortune and condition of our ancestors, and let us lay aside
these ridiculous pretences, that can never be wanting to any one that has
the impudence to allege them."

Arms have no more security than surnames. I bear azure powdered with
trefoils or, with a lion's paw of the same armed gules in fesse. What
privilege has this to continue particularly in my house? A son-in-law
will transport it into another family, or some paltry purchaser will make
them his first arms. There is nothing wherein there is more change and

But this consideration leads me, perforce, into another subject. Let us
pry a little narrowly into, and, in God's name, examine upon what
foundation we erect this glory and reputation for which the world is
turned topsy-turvy: wherein do we place this renown that we hunt after
with so much pains? It is, in the end, Peter or William that carries it,
takes it into his possession, and whom it only concerns. O what a
valiant faculty is hope, that in a mortal subject, and in a moment, makes
nothing of usurping infinity, immensity, eternity, and of supplying its
master's indigence, at its pleasure, with all things he can imagine or
desire! Nature has given us this passion for a pretty toy to play
withal. And this Peter or William, what is it but a sound, when all is
done? or three or four dashes with a pen, so easy to be varied that I
would fain know to whom is to be attributed the glory of so many
victories, to Guesquin, to Glesquin, or to Gueaquin? and yet there would
be something of greater moment in the case than in Lucian, that Sigma
should serve Tau with a process; for

                         "Non levia aut ludicra petuntur

     ["They aim at no slight or jocular rewards."—AEneid, xii. 764.]

the chase is there in very good earnest: the question is, which of these
letters is to be rewarded for so many sieges, battles, wounds,
imprisonments, and services done to the crown of France by this famous
constable? Nicholas Denisot—[Painter and poet, born at Le Mans,1515.]—
never concerned himself further than the letters of his name, of which he
has altered the whole contexture to build up by anagram the Count
d'Alsinois, whom he has handsomely endowed with the glory of his poetry
and painting. The historian Suetonius was satisfied with only the
meaning of his name, which made him cashier his father's surname, Lenis,
to leave Tranquillus successor to the reputation of his writings. Who
would believe that Captain Bayard should have no honour but what he
derives from the deeds of Peter Terrail; and that Antonio Iscalin should
suffer himself to his face to be robbed of the honour of so many
navigations and commands at sea and land by Captain Paulin and the Baron
de la Garde? Secondly, these are dashes of the pen common to a thousand
people. How many are there, in every family, of the same name and
surname? and how many more in several families, ages, and countries?
History tells us of three of the name of Socrates, of five Platos, of
eight Aristotles, of seven Xenophons, of twenty Demetrii, and of twenty
Theodores; and how many more she was not acquainted with we may imagine.
Who hinders my groom from calling himself Pompey the Great? But after
all, what virtue, what authority, or what secret springs are there that
fix upon my deceased groom, or the other Pompey, who had his head cut off
in Egypt, this glorious renown, and these so much honoured flourishes of
the pen, so as to be of any advantage to them?

          "Id cinerem et manes credis curare sepultos?"

     ["Do you believe the dead regard such things?"—AEneid, iv. 34.]

What sense have the two companions in greatest esteem amongst me,
Epaminondas, of this fine verse that has been so many ages current in his

          "Consiliis nostris laus est attrita Laconum;"

     ["The glory of the Spartans is extinguished by my plans.
     —"Cicero, Tusc. Quaes., v. 17.]

or Africanus, of this other,

          "A sole exoriente supra Maeotis Paludes
          Nemo est qui factis me aequiparare queat."

     ["From where the sun rises over the Palus Maeotis, to where it sets,
     there is no one whose acts can compare with mine"—Idem, ibid.]

Survivors indeed tickle themselves with these fine phrases, and by them
incited to jealousy and desire, inconsiderately and according to their
own fancy, attribute to the dead this their own feeling, vainly
flattering themselves that they shall one day in turn be capable of the
same character. However:

                              "Ad haec se
          Romanus Graiusque, et Barbaras induperator
          Erexit; caucus discriminis atque laboris
          Inde habuit: tanto major famae sitis est, quam

     ["For these the Roman, the Greek, and the Barbarian commander hath
     aroused himself; he has incurred thence causes of danger and toil:
     so much greater is the thirst for fame than for virtue."
     —Juvenal, x. 137.]