The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XLIX
Chapter XLIX. Of ancient customs.
I should willingly pardon our people for admitting no other pattern or
rule of perfection than their own peculiar manners and customs; for 'tis
a common vice, not of the vulgar only, but almost of all men, to walk in
the beaten road their ancestors have trod before them. I am content,
when they see Fabricius or Laelius, that they look upon their countenance
and behaviour as barbarous, seeing they are neither clothed nor fashioned
according to our mode. But I find fault with their singular indiscretion
in suffering themselves to be so blinded and imposed upon by the
authority of the present usage as every month to alter their opinion, if
custom so require, and that they should so vary their judgment in their
own particular concern. When they wore the busk of their doublets up as
high as their breasts, they stiffly maintained that they were in their
proper place; some years after it was slipped down betwixt their thighs,
and then they could laugh at the former fashion as uneasy and
intolerable. The fashion now in use makes them absolutely condemn the
other two with so great resolution and so universal consent, that a man
would think there was a certain kind of madness crept in amongst them,
that infatuates their understandings to this strange degree. Now, seeing
that our change of fashions is so prompt and sudden, that the inventions
of all the tailors in the world cannot furnish out new whim-whams enow to
feed our vanity withal, there will often be a necessity that the despised
forms must again come in vogue, these immediately after fall into the
same contempt; and that the same judgment must, in the space of fifteen
or twenty years, take up half-a-dozen not only divers but contrary
opinions, with an incredible lightness and inconstancy; there is not any
of us so discreet, who suffers not himself to be gulled with this
contradiction, and both in external and internal sight to be insensibly
I wish to muster up here some old customs that I have in memory, some of
them the same with ours, the others different, to the end that, bearing
in mind this continual variation of human things, we may have our
judgment more clearly and firmly settled.
The thing in use amongst us of fighting with rapier and cloak was in
practice amongst the Romans also:
"Sinistras sagis involvunt, gladiosque distringunt,"
["They wrapt their cloaks upon the left arm, and drew their
swords."—De Bello Civili, i. 75.]
says Caesar; and he observes a vicious custom of our nation, that
continues yet amongst us, which is to stop passengers we meet upon the
road, to compel them to give an account who they are, and to take it for
an affront and just cause of quarrel if they refuse to do it.
At the Baths, which the ancients made use of every day before they went
to dinner, and as frequently as we wash our hands, they at first only
bathed their arms and legs; but afterwards, and by a custom that has
continued for many ages in most nations of the world, they bathed stark
naked in mixed and perfumed water, looking upon it as a great simplicity
to bathe in mere water. The most delicate and affected perfumed
themselves all over three or four times a day. They often caused their
hair to be pinched off, as the women of France have some time since taken
up a custom to do their foreheads,
"Quod pectus, quod crura tibi, quod brachia veilis,"
["You pluck the hairs out of your breast, your arms, and thighs."
—Martial, ii. 62, i.]
though they had ointments proper for that purpose:
"Psilotro nitet, aut acids latet oblita creta."
["She shines with unguents, or with chalk dissolved in vinegar."
—Idem, vi. 93, 9.]
They delighted to lie soft, and alleged it as a great testimony of
hardiness to lie upon a mattress. They ate lying upon beds, much after
the manner of the Turks in this age:
"Inde thoro pater AEneas sic orsus ab alto."
["Thus Father AEneas, from his high bed of state, spoke."
—AEneid, ii. 2.]
And 'tis said of the younger Cato, that after the battle of Pharsalia,
being entered into a melancholy disposition at the ill posture of the
public affairs, he took his repasts always sitting, assuming a strict and
austere course of life. It was also their custom to kiss the hands of
great persons; the more to honour and caress them. And meeting with
friends, they always kissed in salutation, as do the Venetians:
"Gratatusque darem cum dulcibus oscula verbis."
["And kindest words I would mingle with kisses."
—Ovid, De Pont., iv. 9, 13]
In petitioning or saluting any great man, they used to lay their hands
upon his knees. Pasicles the philosopher, brother of Crates, instead of
laying his hand upon the knee laid it upon the private parts, and being
roughly repulsed by him to whom he made that indecent compliment:
"What," said he, "is not that part your own as well as the other?"
—[Diogenes Laertius, vi. 89.]—They used to eat fruit, as we do, after
dinner. They wiped their fundaments (let the ladies, if they please,
mince it smaller) with a sponge, which is the reason that 'spongia' is a
smutty word in Latin; which sponge was fastened to the end of a stick, as
appears by the story of him who, as he was led along to be thrown to the
wild beasts in the sight of the people, asking leave to do his business,
and having no other way to despatch himself, forced the sponge and stick
down his throat and choked himself.—[Seneca, Ep., 70.] They used to
wipe, after coition, with perfumed wool:
"At tibi nil faciam; sed Iota mentula lana."
They had in the streets of Rome vessels and little tubs for passengers to
"Pusi saepe lacum propter se, ac dolia curta.
Somno devincti, credunt extollere vestem."
["The little boys in their sleep often think they are near the
public urinal, and raise their coats to make use of it."
They had collation betwixt meals, and had in summer cellars of snow to
cool their wine; and some there were who made use of snow in winter, not
thinking their wine cool enough, even at that cold season of the year.
The men of quality had their cupbearers and carvers, and their buffoons
to make them sport. They had their meat served up in winter upon chafing
dishes, which were set upon the table, and had portable kitchens (of
which I myself have seen some) wherein all their service was carried
about with them:
"Has vobis epulas habete, lauti
Nos offendimur ambulante caena."
["Do you, if you please, esteem these feasts: we do not like the
ambulatory suppers."—Martial, vii. 48, 4.]
In summer they had a contrivance to bring fresh and clear rills through
their lower rooms, wherein were great store of living fish, which the
guests took out with their own hands to be dressed every man according to
his own liking. Fish has ever had this pre-eminence, and keeps it still,
that the grandees, as to them, all pretend to be cooks; and indeed the
taste is more delicate than that of flesh, at least to my fancy. But in
all sorts of magnificence, debauchery, and voluptuous inventions of
effeminacy and expense, we do, in truth, all we can to parallel them;
for our wills are as corrupt as theirs: but we want ability to equal
them. Our force is no more able to reach them in their vicious, than in
their virtuous, qualities, for both the one and the other proceeded from
a vigour of soul which was without comparison greater in them than in us;
and souls, by how much the weaker they are, by so much have they less
power to do either very well or very ill.
The highest place of honour amongst them was the middle. The name going
before, or following after, either in writing or speaking, had no
signification of grandeur, as is evident by their writings; they will as
soon say Oppius and Caesar, as Caesar and Oppius; and me and thee, as
thee and me. This is the reason that made me formerly take notice in the
life of Flaminius, in our French Plutarch, of one passage, where it seems
as if the author, speaking of the jealousy of honour betwixt the
AEtolians and Romans, about the winning of a battle they had with their
joined forces obtained, made it of some importance, that in the Greek
songs they had put the AEtolians before the Romans: if there be no
amphibology in the words of the French translation.
The ladies, in their baths, made no scruple of admitting men amongst
them, and moreover made use of their serving-men to rub and anoint them:
"Inguina succinctus nigri tibi servus aluta
Stat, quoties calidis nuda foveris aquis."
["A slave—his middle girded with a black apron—stands before you,
when, naked, you take a hot bath."—Martial, vii. 35, i.]
They all powdered themselves with a certain powder, to moderate their
The ancient Gauls, says Sidonius Apollinaris, wore their hair long before
and the hinder part of the head shaved, a fashion that begins to revive
in this vicious and effeminate age.
The Romans used to pay the watermen their fare at their first stepping
into the boat, which we never do till after landing:
"Dum aes exigitur, dum mula ligatur,
Tota abit hora."
["Whilst the fare's paying, and the mule is being harnessed, a whole
hour's time is past."—Horace, Sat. i. 5, 13.]
The women used to lie on the side of the bed next the wall: and for that
reason they called Caesar,
"Spondam regis Nicomedis,"
["The bed of King Nicomedes."—Suetonius, Life of Caesar, 49.]
They took breath in their drinking, and watered their wine
"Quis puer ocius
Restinguet ardentis Falerni
Pocula praetereunte lympha?"
["What boy will quickly come and cool the heat of the Falernian
wine with clear water?"—Horace, Od., ii. z, 18.]
And the roguish looks and gestures of our lackeys were also in use
"O Jane, a tergo quern nulls ciconia pinsit,
Nec manus, auriculas imitari est mobilis albas,
Nec lingua, quantum sitiat canis Appula, tantum."
["O Janus, whom no crooked fingers, simulating a stork, peck at
behind your back, whom no quick hands deride behind you, by
imitating the motion of the white ears of the ass, against whom no
mocking tongue is thrust out, as the tongue of the thirsty Apulian
dog."—Persius, i. 58.]
The Argian and Roman ladies mourned in white, as ours did formerly and
should do still, were I to govern in this point. But there are whole
books on this subject.