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Durham University

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Publication details for Prof John O'Brien

O'Brien, John (2017). “Le Propre de l’homme” Reading Montaigne’s ‘Des cannibales’ in Context. Forum for Modern Language Studies 53(2): 220-234.

Author(s) from Durham


This article undertakes an ‘embedded reading’ of the term ‘cannibale’ in book 1, chapter 31 of Montaigne’s Essais, bringing out the preconceptions about both the term and the Brazilian natives which Montaigne does so much to revise. Different understandings of ‘cannibale’ and associated terms such ‘barbare’ and ‘sauvage’ are explored, with radically different implications for ‘le propre de l’homme’ to which such descriptors are linked. It is shown that the French Wars of Religion played a major role in undermining distinctions between epithets designating civilized and barbaric, human and inhuman, and Christian and pagan. Three examples of seventeenth-century discussions of ‘Des cannibales’ are provided in order to demonstrate the long-term effects of Montaigne’s work.