By Guest writer Prof John O’Brien Emeritus Professor of Durham University
Never judge a book by its cover! This age-old advice is never truer than in the case of the Maynooth copy of the Essais by the French writer, Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592). Externally, the book is a mid-to late 19th-century ‘Spanish pattern’ binding. Its real value lies within. It is, for a start, a printing of the first posthumous edition of the Essais overseen by Montaigne’s adoptive daughter, Marie de Gournay (1565-1645). Only a few hundred of these were printed in 1595, so the copy has some rarity value. Yet there are three other characteristics of the Maynooth Montaigne which make it a truly exceptional copy.
In the first place, this copy was a gift from Gournay to an acquaintance of hers, Henri de Beringhen (1603-92), whose aunt ran a literary salon that Gournay attended in the 1620s. Her dedication to Beringhen is shown in the illustration . Although partly cropped, it is perfectly legible. We have almost no other copies of the 1595 edition with dedications by Gournay, so this in itself is valuable evidence of her circle of friends.
Secondly, the Maynooth Montaigne contains a number of ink corrections. About 17 of these are to be found in most copies of the 1595 printing and will have been done either by Gournay or by the printshop as the sheets came off the press. Over and above these, however, there are additional corrections in Gournay’s own hand, one of which is illustrated here . In fact, the Maynooth Montaigne is second only to a copy now in Antwerp in having such a large number of corrections by Gournay herself. They constitute extremely important proof of the time and effort she continued to expend on getting the text of the Essais right.
One set of corrections, however, is without precedent in any other copy of the 1595 Essais. A passage at the end of chapter 17 of book 2 contains Montaigne’s praise of Gournay. For reasons which are unclear, but may be related to her own ascent as a writer, Gournay cut down this passage. Her alterations are shown on the Maynooth Essais . They correspond to the text of the Essais printed in 1625, so we can be sure that it was around that date that she gave this presentation copy to Beringhen.
Finally, the Maynooth Montaigne contains reset sheets on pp. 63 and 64. Late in the printing cycle, it was discovered that text had been omitted. It was quickly added in some copies. This is an exceedingly rare feature found to date in only three other copies worldwide.
If just one of these features were present in the Maynooth Montaigne, that would make it of great interest. But having three such pushes it into the exceptional category, of outstanding value to scholars of Montaigne and of the history of printing.
Further reading: John O’Brien, ‘Gournay’s Gift: A Special Presentation Copy of the 1595 Essais of Montaigne’, The Seventeenth Century, 29/4 (2014), pp. 317-36.