The Return Of Martin Guerre Book Essay

The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, Massachusetts. 1983. 176 pages.

In today’s science-based world, where simple DNA tests can help free the innocent on Death Row, the story of Martin Guerre might have ended before it began. Inheritance and money were involved, and then as today we take both very seriously. The risk of exposure is greater now, but at least your life doesn’t depend on guarding against it.

In Davis’s own words, the book is an attempt to go beyond the film, “to dig deeper into the case, to make historical sense of it.” In fewer than 200 pages, Davis takes the reader along an exploratory journey into the past that includes a surprising wealth of lessons about geography, local economies and law, culture, beliefs, and customs and practices. She mixes facts such as what is known about Martin Guerre, his wife, and her family, with the conjecture necessary to build a plausible story.

Why did each player act as he or she did and how? What did each hope to gain (or not lose) and how? How did each manipulate public beliefs and opinions? Davis runs through various scenarios, focusing on the village but also referring to broader, changing political and religious issues where they can help answer the larger questions, for example, about Catholic law on marriage and what it meant at the village level, or how the new Protestantism may have been spreading in Artigat and affected the people and the case.

Although the motivations of the actors can’t be known, for the most part Davis’s conjectures seem plausible against the sketchy context she is able to provide. Like Davis, we can only guess at the emotions that must have wrenched the family members when Martin Guerre left and when he returned (and returned again) — the anger, fear, perplexity, concern, and acrimony that can accompany any unplanned or unwelcome change in a life course that has been accepted, especially when that change affects future status, comfort, and security. The older Martin Guerre’s refusal to lead a “life of quiet desperation” upsets the equilibrium the village and the families have achieved and thwarts his own objectives.

In a conclusion that’s as interesting than Martin Guerre’s case, Davis covers the relevant history of Jean de Coras, an officer of the law who found himself compelled to tell the story from a legal perspective, but can’t quite put his finger on the kind of story it is. Davis’s tale of his origins, life, career and writings (including Arrest Memorable), and own demise nearly overshadows that of Martin Guerre. For Coras, “the outcome was wretched . . . at least it makes it hard to tell the difference between tragedy and comedy.” His end, no less tragic than that of the man on trial, combined with his ambivalence toward the case and his selective account of it, made me wish I’d spent less time on Guerre and more on Coras and his rationalizations and changing sympathies.

The Return of Martin Guerre is a great way for a non-historian to learn about a time that we’d like to think was simpler, but in which a seemingly straightforward case could raise religious, judicial, and even philosophical questions around one village, one family, and one man — and whether he was, and was believed to be, Martin Guerre.


Posted inBlog, Book ReviewsTaggedeuropean history, history, Natalie Zemon Davis, nonfictionpermalink

The Inventive Peasant Arnaud du Tilh had almost persuaded the learned judges at the Parlement of Toulouse, when on a summer’s day in 1560 a man swaggered into the court on a wooden leg, denounced Arnaud, and reestablished his claim to the identity, property, and wife of Martin Guerre. The astonishing case captured the imagination of the Continent. Told and retold over the centuries, the story of Martin Guerre became a legend, still remembered in the Pyrenean village where the impostor was executed more than 400 years ago.

Now a noted historian, who served as consultant for a new French film on Martin Guerre, has searched archives and lawbooks to add new dimensions to a tale already abundant in mysteries: we are led to ponder how a common man could become an impostor in the sixteenth century, why Bertrande de Rols, an honorable peasant woman, would accept such a man as her husband, and why lawyers, poets, and men of letters like Montaigne became so fascinated with the episode.

Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the lives of ordinary people, in a sparkling way that reveals the hidden attachments and sensibilities of nonliterate sixteenth-century villagers. Here we see men and women trying to fashion their identities within a world of traditional ideas about property and family and of changing ideas about religion. We learn what happens when common people get involved in the workings of the criminal courts in the ancien régime, and how judges struggle to decide who a man was in the days before fingerprints and photographs. We sense the secret affinity between the eloquent men of law and the honey-tongued village impostor, a rare identification across class lines.

Deftly written to please both the general public and specialists, The Return of Martin Guerre will interest those who want to know more about ordinary families and especially women of the past, and about the creation of literary legends. It is also a remarkable psychological narrative about where self-fashioning stops and lying begins.

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