The Essays of Montaigne/Book I/Chapter XXXV

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The Essays of Montaigne by Michel de Montaigne, translated by Charles Cotton
Chapter XXXV. Of the custom of wearing clothes.

Chapter XXXV. Of the custom of wearing clothes.[edit]

Whatever I shall say upon this subject, I am of necessity to invade some
of the bounds of custom, so careful has she been to shut up all the
avenues. I was disputing with myself in this shivering season, whether
the fashion of going naked in those nations lately discovered is imposed
upon them by the hot temperature of the air, as we say of the Indians and
Moors, or whether it be the original fashion of mankind. Men of
understanding, forasmuch as all things under the sun, as the Holy Writ
declares, are subject to the same laws, were wont in such considerations
as these, where we are to distinguish the natural laws from those which
have been imposed by man's invention, to have recourse to the general
polity of the world, where there can be nothing counterfeit. Now, all
other creatures being sufficiently furnished with all things necessary
for the support of their being—[Montaigne's expression is, "with needle
and thread."—W.C.H.]—it is not to be imagined that we only are brought
into the world in a defective and indigent condition, and in such a state
as cannot subsist without external aid. Therefore it is that I believe,
that as plants, trees, and animals, and all things that have life, are
seen to be by nature sufficiently clothed and covered, to defend them
from the injuries of weather:

         "Proptereaque fere res omnes ant corio sunt,
          Aut seta, ant conchis, ant callo, ant cortice tectae,"

     ["And that for this reason nearly all things are clothed with skin,
     or hair, or shells, or bark, or some such thing."
     —Lucretius, iv. 936.]

so were we: but as those who by artificial light put out that of day, so
we by borrowed forms and fashions have destroyed our own. And 'tis plain
enough to be seen, that 'tis custom only which renders that impossible
that otherwise is nothing so; for of those nations who have no manner of
knowledge of clothing, some are situated under the same temperature that
we are, and some in much colder climates. And besides, our most tender
parts are always exposed to the air, as the eyes, mouth, nose, and ears;
and our country labourers, like our ancestors in former times, go with
their breasts and bellies open. Had we been born with a necessity upon
us of wearing petticoats and breeches, there is no doubt but nature would
have fortified those parts she intended should be exposed to the fury of
the seasons with a thicker skin, as she has done the finger-ends and the
soles of the feet. And why should this seem hard to believe? I observe
much greater distance betwixt my habit and that of one of our country
boors, than betwixt his and that of a man who has no other covering but
his skin. How many men, especially in Turkey, go naked upon the account
of devotion? Some one asked a beggar, whom he saw in his shirt in the
depth of winter, as brisk and frolic as he who goes muffled up to the
ears in furs, how he was able to endure to go so? "Why, sir," he
answered, "you go with your face bare: I am all face." The Italians have
a story of the Duke of Florence's fool, whom his master asking how, being
so thinly clad, he was able to support the cold, when he himself, warmly
wrapped up as he was, was hardly able to do it? "Why," replied the fool,
"use my receipt to put on all your clothes you have at once, and you'll
feel no more cold than I." King Massinissa, to an extreme old age, could
never be prevailed upon to go with his head covered, how cold, stormy, or
rainy soever the weather might be; which also is reported of the Emperor
Severus. Herodotus tells us, that in the battles fought betwixt the
Egyptians and the Persians, it was observed both by himself and by
others, that of those who were left dead upon the field, the heads of the
Egyptians were without comparison harder than those of the Persians, by
reason that the last had gone with their heads always covered from their
infancy, first with biggins, and then with turbans, and the others always
shaved and bare. King Agesilaus continued to a decrepit age to wear
always the same clothes in winter that he did in summer. Caesar, says
Suetonius, marched always at the head of his army, for the most part on
foot, with his head bare, whether it was rain or sunshine, and as much is
said of Hannibal:

                              "Tum vertice nudo,
               Excipere insanos imbres, coelique ruinam."

     ["Bareheaded he marched in snow, exposed to pouring rain and the
     utmost rigour of the weather."—Silius Italicus, i. 250.]

A Venetian who has long lived in Pegu, and has lately returned thence,
writes that the men and women of that kingdom, though they cover all
their other parts, go always barefoot and ride so too; and Plato very
earnestly advises for the health of the whole body, to give the head and
the feet no other clothing than what nature has bestowed. He whom the
Poles have elected for their king,—[Stephen Bathory]—since ours came
thence, who is, indeed, one of the greatest princes of this age, never
wears any gloves, and in winter or whatever weather can come, never wears
other cap abroad than that he wears at home. Whereas I cannot endure to
go unbuttoned or untied; my neighbouring labourers would think themselves
in chains, if they were so braced. Varro is of opinion, that when it was
ordained we should be bare in the presence of the gods and before the
magistrate, it was so ordered rather upon the score of health, and to
inure us to the injuries of weather, than upon the account of reverence;
and since we are now talking of cold, and Frenchmen used to wear variety
of colours (not I myself, for I seldom wear other than black or white, in
imitation of my father), let us add another story out of Le Capitaine
Martin du Bellay, who affirms, that in the march to Luxembourg he saw so
great frost, that the munition-wine was cut with hatchets and wedges, and
delivered out to the soldiers by weight, and that they carried it away in
baskets: and Ovid,

              "Nudaque consistunt, formam servantia testae,
               Vina; nec hausta meri, sed data frusta, bibunt."

     ["The wine when out of the cask retains the form of the cask;
     and is given out not in cups, but in bits."
     —Ovid, Trist., iii. 10, 23.]

At the mouth of Lake Maeotis the frosts are so very sharp, that in the
very same place where Mithridates' lieutenant had fought the enemy
dryfoot and given them a notable defeat, the summer following he obtained
over them a naval victory. The Romans fought at a very great
disadvantage, in the engagement they had with the Carthaginians near
Piacenza, by reason that they went to the charge with their blood
congealed and their limbs numbed with cold, whereas Hannibal had caused
great fires to be dispersed quite through his camp to warm his soldiers,
and oil to be distributed amongst them, to the end that anointing
themselves, they might render their nerves more supple and active, and
fortify the pores against the violence of the air and freezing wind,
which raged in that season.

The retreat the Greeks made from Babylon into their own country is famous
for the difficulties and calamities they had to overcome; of which this
was one, that being encountered in the mountains of Armenia with a
horrible storm of snow, they lost all knowledge of the country and of the
ways, and being driven up, were a day and a night without eating or
drinking; most of their cattle died, many of themselves were starved to
death, several struck blind with the force of the hail and the glare of
the snow, many of them maimed in their fingers and toes, and many stiff
and motionless with the extremity of the cold, who had yet their
understanding entire.

Alexander saw a nation, where they bury their fruit-trees in winter to
protect them from being destroyed by the frost, and we also may see the
same.

But, so far as clothes go, the King of Mexico changed four times a day
his apparel, and never put it on again, employing that he left off in his
continual liberalities and rewards; and neither pot, dish, nor other
utensil of his kitchen or table was ever served twice.