Monday, August 15, 2016

On the move with Montaigne


The French philosopher Montaigne (1533-1592) felt most at ease on horseback. No wonder that he loved travelling. Many trips had a practical reason. “For business”, as we would say today. But once he made a long tour through Central Europe and Italy, which lasted 17 months. As a tourist. The trip would even have lasted longer, if the French King hadn’t ordered Montaigne to return home for taking up the office of mayor of Bordeaux. He obeyed reluctantly.
Montaigne started his trip in Paris. It brought him to Switzerland, Southern Germany and Austria and finally to Rome. He kept a travel diary, which was not meant for publication, although he used some of his experiences in his Essays. The diary was discovered only two centuries later. It showed that Montaigne was an observant person. He wrote about the towns and the landscapes he passed, the habits and customs of the people, the food they ate, the design of the houses and palaces he visited and the rooms where he slept, the beauty of the women he saw, and much more. On my travels sometimes I pass places where Montaigne had stayed a while more than four centuries ago. And so it happened also a few weeks ago.
I first crossed Montaigne’s path when I arrived in Augsburg in Germany and then a few days later again in München. Montaigne doesn’t tell much about his stay in München, but he gives an extensive description of his observations in Augsburg, which was called the most beautiful town of Germany. He tells us that Roman Catholics and Protestants peacefully lived together and that mixed marriages between them were not exceptional. The Protestant ministers were paid by the Senate. For Montaigne all this was remarkable, for in his France one religious war followed another. But in the Thirty Year’s War (1618-1648) the situation would change in Augsburg, too, and nowadays it is an almost exclusively Roman Catholic town.
After München our ways parted, for we followed different roads to the south. However, our most interesting “meeting” had yet to come. When I went home again after a short visit to Northern Italy, our paths crossed anew. Now I followed exactly the same route Montaigne had travelled, but in the opposite direction. In Brixen I came on Montaigne’s road and I made a stop in Vitipeno. Montaigne had spent there the night. I arrived there before noon. I walked through the main street with its medieval houses and a high wall tower on the end. Just when I passed the gate under the tower, its bells ringed the Angelus. Montaigne certainly must have walked here, too, in his black or white clothes of a commoner. He preferred not to present himself as a noble on his trips, so that it was easier to make contact with the common people. Was the street then as crowded as today? If so, probably most of these people will not have been tourists, as now is the case.
Next via the Brenner Pass to Austria and Innsbruck. Of course, I took the old road that was also used by Montaigne. Then the road was busy and also safe. The latter was not obvious four centuries ago. Today the road is still safe but it has become quiet, used by locals and a lost tourist only. Montaigne was right: the road is easy to go, although it is a mountain pass.
Montaigne and his company stayed two nights in Innsbruck; I stopped there only for a lunch and a quick visit, since I had been there before. In the nearby Seefeld it was just the other way round and I spent there the night. Before I left next morning, I wanted to visit the pilgrimage church. I parked my car in front of a hotel that dates from the 14th century, as an inscription on the wall says. Was it here that Montaigne had taken the lunch? Then he walked to the church where he was informed why it was a pilgrims place. As Montaigne tells us: “The church ... is ... famous for a miracle. In 1384 a certain man ... refused to content himself on Easter day with the Eucharist as offered to the people, and demanded to receive that which was wont to be given to the priesthood alone. While he had this in his mouth the earth beneath him opened and swallowed him up to the neck, and while he held for a moment to the corner of the altar the priest withdrew the Host from his mouth [and the man was saved]. They still exhibit the hole covered with an iron grating, the altar which bears the impress of this man’s fingers, and the Host of a reddish hue like drops of blood.” Would Montaigne have believed it? In his Essays he is very sceptical about miracles.
Now I stood there, 436 years later, on exactly the same place, looking at the same hole covered with a grid and at the fingers prints in the altar. Just the idea. Impressed by this “meeting” I left the church. In the nearby Mittenwald, already in Germany, where Montaigne had stayed in the inn, I took a cup of coffee. Then our ways parted another time.

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