The Absence of the Body in Montaigne's Analysis of Cannibalism

Charles Vallely '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

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Cannibalism, by definition, is a practice wholly concerned with the body: the bodies of the dead, often sacrifices, are consumed by others, who acknowledge their own bodies in the very act of the ritual and ingestion. But, in Montaigne's analysis of cannibalism and the people that practice it, the body seems to disappear from their culture and appear, paradoxically, in European culture.

In preparing their prisoners for this ritual, "the barbarians" "give them all the regales they can think of" (p. 5), thus not only extending the courtesies of their culture, but also including them in the celebration. They are treated less as bodies and more so as fellow human beings, taking part in the celebrations, though they prefigure their own death. When they are killed, it is done so quickly by the owner of the prisoner and "the friend he loves the best" (p. 5), the body instantly-for Montaigne, it is the next sentence-becomes "chops" to be sent to "absent friends" (p. 5). The body, while always present, has been circumvented: the prisoner went from being a fellow celebrator to a warm offering to friends.

Because the body is given meaning in each stage, it tends to lose its corporeal meanings. But, as Montaigne writes, the body remains the subject in European practices of torture. A process is carried out "by degrees" (p. 5), extending over a period of time, not circumventing the body, but rather focusing on it. Accordingly, when Europeans torture their enemies, they are left with that moment — which they prolong — in which the prisoner's body is most human. Thus, Montaigne arrives at a notion that it is more humane to ignore the humans involved in such a process, just as, paradoxically, the "barbarians" do.

After having a long time treated their prisoners very well, and given them all the regales they can think of, he to whom the prisoners 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. 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 these 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 horrors 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. [p.5]


1. When the speaker compares the two ways in which the societies treat the bodies of their prisoners, what is the significance of the detail of European prisoners "roasting by degrees" (p.5)?

2. When Montaigne writes, "I am not sorry that we should here take notice of the barbarous horrors of so cruel an action, but that, seeing so clearly into their faults, we should be so blind to our own" (p. 5), he echoes Swift's explanation of the effect of satire: "Satire is a sort of glass wherein beholders generally discover everybody's face but their own." Does this quotation inform Montaigne's? Does Montaigne think, or express, that Europeans view the cannibals, or other cultures, as a form of satire?

3. Montaigne writes that the "barbarians" were horrified by what they saw as "revenge without a meaning" (p. 5)? What is the importance of symbolism in cannibalism? Does Montaigne suggest at all that the "barbarians" are na•ve for not acknowledging the body without meaning? Is symbolism an excuse or justification built into their culture?

Cited Works

de Montaigne, Michel. Of Cannibals. Trans. Charles Cotton.

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Last modified 14 February 2004