Encyclopædia Britannica, Ninth Edition/Montalembert, Charles Forbes de
MONTALEMBERT, Charles Forbes de (1810-1870), historian, was born on 29th May 1810. The family was a very ancient one, belonging to Poitou, or rather to Angoumois. Direct descent is said to be provable to the 13th century, and charters and other documents carry the history of the house two centuries further back. For some generations before the historian the family had been distinguished, not merely in the army, but for scientific attainments. Montalembert's father, René, emigrated, fought under Condé, and subsequently served in the English army. He married a Miss Forbes, and his eldest son Charles was born at London. At the Restoration René de Montalembert returned to France, was raised to the peerage in 1819, and became ambassador to Sweden (where Charles received much of his education) in 1826. He died a year after the overthrow of the legitimate monarchy. Charles de Montalembert was too young to take his seat as a peer (twenty-five being the necessary age), but he retained other rights; and this, combined with his literary and intellectual activity, made him a person of some importance. He had eagerly entered into the somewhat undefined plans of Lamennais and Lacordaire for the establishment of a school of Liberal Catholicism, and he co-operated with them, both in the Avenir (see Lamennais, vol. xiv. pp. 239, 240) and in the practical endeavour, which absorbed some of the best energies of France at the time, to break through the trammels of the system of state education. This latter scheme first brought Montalembert into notice, as he was formally charged with unlicensed teaching. He claimed the right of trial by his peers, and made a notable defence, of course with a deliberate intention of protest. His next most remarkable act was his participation in the famous pilgrimage to Rome of his two friends. This step, as is well known, proved useless to mitigate the measures which private intrigues, and perhaps a not altogether injudicious instinct, prompted the Roman curia to take against the Avenir and the doctrines of its promoters. Montalembert, however, submitted dutifully to the encyclical of June 1835, and only devoted himself more assiduously to the work on which he was engaged, the Life of St Elizabeth of Hungary. This appeared in 1836. It displayed Montalembert's constant literary characteristics, and, though inferior to Les Moines d'Occident in research and labour, is perhaps superior to it as a work of art. The famous speech by which Montalembert is best known,—“Nous sommes les fils des croisés et jamais nous ne reculerons devant les fils de Voltaire”, expresses, or at least indicates, his attitude not insufficiently. He was an ardent student of the Middle Ages, but his mediæval enthusiasm was strongly tinctured with religious sentiment, and at the same time by no means connected with any affection for despotism. Montalembert still clung to his early liberalism, and he made himself conspicuous during the reign of Louis Philippe by his protests against the restrictions imposed on the liberty of the press, besides struggling for freedom in national education. The party which he represented, or rather which he strove to found, was by no means wholly Legitimist at heart, and at the downfall of Louis Philippe Montalembert had no difficulty in accepting the republic and taking, when elected, a seat in the assembly. He had not a little to do with the support given by France to the pope. As he had accepted the republic, he was not disinclined to accept the empire; but the measures which followed the coup d'état disgusted him, though he still sat in the chamber. A defeat in 1857 put an end to his parliamentary appearances. He was still, however, recognized as one of the most formidable of the moderate opponents of the empire, and he was repeatedly prosecuted for anti-imperialist letters and pamphlets. In the ten years between 1840 and 1850 he had written little but political pamphlets, but after the establishment of the empire, and especially after he lost his seat in the chamber, he became more prominent as an author. Even before this he had produced a volume on the Avenir Politique de l'Angleterre (1855), and another on Pie IX. et Lord Palmer-ston (1856), besides numerous articles and pamphlets, the chief of which were perhaps Une Nation [Poland] en Deuil, and L'Église Libre dans l'État Libre.
His great work, the fruit of many years labour, did not appear till he was fifty years old, and ten years before his death, which occurred before its completion. Les Moines d'Occident depuis St Benoît jusqu'à St Bernard has some of the peculiar drawbacks which have characterized almost all historical work of any literary pretensions during the present generation. It is planned on too large a scale, and executed with too much regard to profusion of picturesque detail and abundance of fluent argument on points which the writer has at heart. Its best passages are inferior to the best of a younger writer of very different opinions though not dissimilar style and temperament—M. Ernest Renan; but it is a work of great interest and value.
Montalembert, who had married Mademoiselle de Merode, sister of one of Pius IX.'s ministers, but who had no male offspring, died in March 1870, the year so fatal to France. His health had long been very bad, and was understood to have suffered from the chagrins attending his exclusion from political life and the defeat of most of his plans. Since his death his works have appeared in a complete edition. They have, regarded from the literary point of view, many of the faults of their time. A voluminous and vigorous writer, Montalembert was more of a journalist, a pamphleteer, and an orator than of a man of letters properly so called. His talents were diffused rather than concentrated, and they were much occupied on merely ephemeral topics. But of picturesque eloquence in a fluent and rather facile kind he was no inconsiderable representative.