In this critique of The Return of Martin Guerre, I will identify Natalie Zemon Davis’ purpose in writing this book and how well she fulfilled her purpose. Also I will evaluate the merits and shortcomings of this book in relation to the themes, sources used, and the author’s writing style.
Davis’ theme was the story of a rich peasant who left his wife and child. After several years, an imposter assumed Guerre’s identity and his life. The imposter Guerre lived there for several years before being accused of not being Martin Guerre. The imposter, Arnaud du Tilh, almost convinced the court he was Guerre when the real Martin Guerre limped into court. Davis recounted this tale, which seemed to be straight from a serial drama, with historical precision and analysis. She examined sources to determine why the peasants and judges acted as they did.
Before she began this book, Natalie Zemon Davis had collaborated on the film screenplay with two other people. Davis states that her purpose in writing the book was that she was troubled when the film was “departing from the historical record” (viii). Davis said she returned to her sources to “find out why Martin Guerre left his village and where he went, how and why Arnaud du Tilh became an imposter, whether he fooled Bertande de Rols, and why he failed to make it stick” (ix).
Davis’ conclusions regarding the aforementioned questions were very logical and acceptable. For example, despite the court’s declaration that Bertrande was deceived by Arnaud du Tilh (which meant they could exonerate her), Davis contends she was not deceived and offered evidence to support that conclusion. The most compelling evidence was the fact that du Tilh had extensive knowledge regarding Martin and Bertrande’s private life, which he could only have gotten from Bertrande herself. This suggests that Bertrande was ‘prepping’ him to assume Martin’s identity.
Author’s Writing Style
Davis did an admirable job of turning a rather sordid incident into an interesting tale. She very clearly made the reader see exactly why the impersonation of Martin Guerre was possible to begin with and then why other peasants and the upper classes were so fascinated by it. It seemed very farfetched that someone as well known in the village of Artigat as Martin Guerre was could be impersonated at all. Davis offers three plausible reasons why this could happen: (1) that a ‘Martin’ was wanted in Artigat, to fulfill his place in village society, (2) he came announced by his wife, uncle, and sisters which “predisposed people to accept him”, and (3) ‘Martin’ convinced them by calling them by name and recalling anecdotes from the past (43).
I liked very much how Davis intertwines the story of Martin Guerre with images of peasant life in the Renaissance period, especially their pervasive belief in magic. For example, the belief that Martin’s initial impotence was that Martin and Bertrande were under “the charms of a sorceress” who was jealous of their marriage (21). Also it was believed that Arnaud du Tilh used magic to impersonate Martin Guerre.
I also found the descriptions of the trial very interesting, but surprising also. What intrigued me was that the courts declared Bertrande and Arnaud’s daughter legitimate. The precedent for that ruling was that in order for a child to be declared illegitimate, the mother and father both ‘had to be conscious of the circumstances” (89).
Davis used extensive primary sources in researching this book. The two accounts of the story of Martin Guerre that appeared shortly after the trial were given prominence in Davis’ text. Chapters ten and eleven in the book offer background information of the two authors. Davis also points out where the two men differ in their accounts. For example, Le Sueur says that the pseudo Martin “forgot the name of a godparent at Martin Guerre’s confirmation, but in Coras he never forgets” (108). Davis contends that Coras wrote his book in that manner to be a moral tale.
This was an enjoyable text to read. While showing that incredible things like this happen in real life and not just on television, the book also gives the reader a clear picture of peasant life during the Renaissance period and a description of their current laws.