The Return of Martin Guerre: Natalie Zemon Davis

★★★★

In 1560 Jean de Coras, judge of the Parlement of Toulouse, found himself faced with an extraordinary case which had come up on appeal from the court at Rieux. A woman, Bertrande de Rols, claimed that the man with whom she had lived for four years was not, in fact her husband Martin Guerre, but an impostor. The husband himself denied the charges and claimed that his wife was being unwillingly coerced by his avaricious uncle, who hoped to get his hands on the family inheritance. This alone would have offered de Coras an intriguing case, but the complex tale of Martin Guerre presently developed an unexpected twist that elevated it into one of the most fascinating courtroom dramas in history. Natalie Zemon Davis’s reconstruction is a classic of modern historical writing, offering an irresistible glimpse of the social and sexual mores of the Renaissance.

I imagine you know the story of Martin Guerre, even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film (on which Zemon Davis was historical consultant), so I won’t worry too much about spoilers. In any case, Zemon Davies tells us the grand twist on the very first page of the preface. But first, the context: young Martin comes from a prosperous peasant family of Basque heritage, who have moved to the town of Artigat in the French county of Foix. He is married at a very young age – fourteen, probably – to an even younger wife, Bertrande de Rols; for eight years they have no children, but then (in Bertrande’s words) the evil spell that has been cast over them is lifted and they have a son. Shortly after this, Martin leaves Artigat after a disagreement with his father. No one hears anything of or from him for eight years.

Then Martin Guerre returns. He seems different, somehow, to the man who left. At first, his friends and family have some doubts, but there are no photographs, no portraits, and the man seems to know things that only Martin himself could have known. They welcome him back and his wife Bertrande takes him back into her bed. Four further years pass, and then a disagreement springs up between Martin and his uncle Pierre. Shockingly, Pierre suddenly claims that this man is not his nephew, and institutes a court case against him, accusing him of imposture on Bertrande’s behalf. The village is scandalised – but fascinated. As the case gets underway, the inhabitants of Artigat are asked to rack their brains as never before – to try to remember, without any visual or written aids, whether the man in front of them is the same man who left the village more than a decade earlier. And then, at the final moment, when judgement is about to be handed down, something miraculous occurs. A traveller enters the courtroom, hobbling on a wooden leg, and proclaims himself to be the real Martin Guerre.

This story has been told and retold for four hundred years. Immediately after the trial, two accounts were published, one by a young man named Guillaume Le Sueur, who seems to have present in some capacity, and the other the Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, the lead judge in the case. Zemon Davis relies heavily on both documents, but her heart is clearly with that written by de Coras: a brilliant, bright, well-travelled man who was captivated by the psychological character of this remarkable case. His account of the case bends the genres of the time, part law-tome, part memoir, part meditation:

Here is a law book that calls into question the workings of the law; an historical account that raises doubts about its own truth. This is a text that moves among the moral tale, comedy and tragedy. Heroes seem villains and villains seem heroes, and the story is told in two ways at the same time.

And yet, if de Coras found the case so confusing at the time – with the benefit of eyewitness reports and the presence of the two competing Martin Guerres before him – how is Zemon Davis to offer further insight four hundred years later? Well, she goes back to the archives. She studies every ‘scrap’, every reference, every hint in order to understand how someone could carry off such an imposture for four years. Who was complicit? Who genuinely believed? How easy was it to impersonate someone else in 16th-century France, or to prove imposture in an age and a social class where virtually no one could read or write, and portraits were entirely absent? Could a woman really have taken a stranger to her bed for four years without suspicion? And – perhaps strangest of all – what happened to Martin Guerre during those eight lost years?

This is a great courtroom drama, a fascinating detective story and a tribute to all those academics who spend their lives in dusty archives poring over land records and church court accounts. Zemon Davis brings the characters back to life with startling vividness: not only the three protagonists – husband, impostor and wife – but also the man through whom the story received its most authoritative form, Jean de Coras himself. And, by focusing in on this very unusual case, Zemon Davis unearths details about what life was life for those millions of peasants who lived ordinary, unexceptional lives. There are some things that are never quite explained – probably can’t be – such as how the impostor knew so much about Martin Guerre’s friends, family and history by the time he arrived in the village. But what emerges is the picture of a whip-smart, ambitious, playful, lively and gregarious man, a trickster of the most dazzling kind, who was able to take on the expectations of an entire village and – almost – mould them to his will.

An incredible story. It’s short (125 pages), colourful and compelling: a fine example of how history can be given the pace and intrigue of a psychological thriller. And its close focus on a very intimate story raises questions that spiral out to impact the entire age in which Martin Guerre and his contemporaries lived – questions of faith, moral duty, law, family and identity. Zemon Davies truly is one of the greats, both in her methodology and in her writing, and I can’t wait to read more of her work.

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2 thoughts on “The Return of Martin Guerre: Natalie Zemon Davis

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Glad this caught your fancy, Jennifer, and I hope you enjoy it! Zemon Davis is a great historian – she’s one of a whole subgenre of scholars who focus in on apparently insignificant details in archives, or single court cases, which can turn into fascinating explorations of everyday life. Well worth reading!

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