Montaigne's Essays/Book I/Chapter XV

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Essays by Michel de Montaigne, translated by John Florio
The Fifteenth Chapter: Of the punishment of Cowardise

I have heretofore heard a Prince, who was a very great Captaine, hold opinion, that a souldier might not for cowardise of heart be condemned to death: who, sitting at his table heard report of the Lord of Vervins' sentence, who for yeelding up of Bollein, was doomed to lose his head. Verily there is reason a man should make a difference bet ween faults proceeding from our weaknesses and those that grow from our malice. For in the latter we are directly bandied against the rules of reason, which nature hath imprinted in us; and in the former, it seemeth, we may call the same nature, as a warrant, because it hath left us in such imperfection and defect. So as divers nations have judged that no man should blame us for anything we doe against our conscience. And the opinion of those which condemne heretikes and miscreants unto capitall punishments, is partly grounded upon this rule: and the same which establisheth, that a Judge or an Advocate may not bee called to account for any matter, committed in their charge through oversight or ignorance. But touching cowardise, it is certain the common fashion is, to punish the same with ignominie and shame. And some hold that this rule was first put in practice by the Law-giver Charondas, and that before him the lawes of Greece were wont to punish those with death, who for feare did run a way from a Battell: where hee onely ordained, that for three dayes together, clad in womens attire, they should be made to sit in the market-place: hoping yet to have some service at their hands, and by meanes of this reproch, they might recover their courage againe. Suffundere malis hominis sanguinem quam effundere: 'Rather move a man's bloud to blush in his face, than remove it by bleeding from his body.' It appeareth also t hat the Roman lawes did in former times punish such as had run away by death. For Ammius Marcellinus reporteth, that Iulian the Emperor condemned ten of his Souliliers, who in a charge against the Parthians, had but turned their backs from it; first to be degraded, then to suffer death, as he saith, according to the ancient lawes, who neverthelesse, condemneth others for a like fault, under the ensigne of bag and baggage, to be kept amongst the common prisoners. The sharp punishment of the Romans against those Souldiers that escaped from Cannæ: and in the same warre against those that accompanied Cn. Fulvius in his defeat, reached not unto death, yet may a man feare, such open shame may make them despaire, and not only prove faint and cold friends, but cruell and sharpe enemies. In the time of our forefathers, the Lord of Franget, whilom Lieutenant of the Marshall of Chastillions company, having by the Marshall of Chabanes beene placed Governor of Fontarabie, in stead of the Earle of Lude and having yeelded the same unto the Spaniards, was condemned to be degraded of all Nobilitie, and not onely himselfe, but all his succeeding posteritie declared villains and clownes, taxable and incapable to beare armes; which severe sentence was put in execution at Lyons. The like punishment did afterward all the Gentlemen suffer, that were within Guise, when the Earle of Nansaw enired the towne: and others since. Neverthelesse if there were so grosse an ignorance, and so apparent cowardize, as that it should exceed all ordinary, it were reason it should be taken for a sufficient proofe of inexcusable treacherier and knaverie, and for such to be punished.