By Rob Vest
A Review/ Critique of The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zeamon Davis
The Return of Martin Guerre relates the true story of Martin Guerre, a
sixteenth century French peasant whose identity is stolen by a clever usurper
while he is away from home, and the subsequent reclaiming of his identity
upon his return.
Martin, a restless, athletic young man of Basque descent living in the village of Artigat, leaves his wife Bertrande and their infant child Sanxi in 1548. Martin and Bertrande were married by arrangement at a young age, and their ten-year union was fraught with problems, not the least of these being that Martin was impotent for the first eight years. In 1556, eight years after his disappearance, a man arrives in Artigat claiming to be Martin Guerre. After some initial doubts, “his” wife, young son, friends, and relatives welcome the stranger with open arms as if he were Martin himself. But something is rotten in the village of Artigat - unbeknownst to his family, the real Martin Guerre is in Spain, serving in the army of King Phillip II. This new “Martin” is actually a clever imposter named Arnaud du Tilh, a peasant from the village of Lombez, who bears more than a passing resemblance to the real Martin.
Du Tilh’s initial success in pulling off this scheme is due not only to the physical similarities between himself and Martin, but also because he has been preparing for this role for many months, gathering information from the gossip networks of travelers familiar with Artigat and its inhabitants. Arnaud is helped in addition by the fact that Martin has been away for eight years, and his family does not have any painted portraits of their missing relative by which to easily remember him. Perhaps most importantly, Bertrande longs for the return of her husband, and this Martin is much more caring and considerate than his predecessor. By the time he arrives to claim the role of Martin Guerre, du Tilh’s knowledge of the intimate details of Martin’s life, combined with his appearance, acting ability, and Bertrande’s easy acceptance, is enough to convince nearly everyone in the village that the true Martin Guerre has finally returned.
Things go well for the next three years or so, until the new Martin finds himself in a disagreement over money with “his” uncle, Pierre Guerre. While Martin was away, Pierre cared for his nephew’s property and family, even going so far as to marry Bertrande’s widowed mother. When “Martin” asks for the profits that his uncle had reaped from his land, the elder Guerre refuses (why Pierre refuses is unknown - perhaps he feels he does not owe his nephew, after caring for his wife and child, or perhaps Pierre is simply greedy). After the new Martin files a civil suit against Pierre, the elder Guerre begins to suspect that “Martin” is not whom he claims to be. All the initial doubts regarding “Martin’s” identity, long thought resolved, come rushing back. The new Martin seems to have forgotten most of the Basque language, no longer desires to engage in swordplay or athletics, and “his” son bears little resemblance to the man who now bears his father’s name. On top of this, “Martin” has recently proposed to lease (or even sell) some of “his” ancestral property in the Basque country, a move that is not in accordance with Basque custom, and certainly will do nothing but harm to “Martin’s” relationship with Pierre.
The elder Guerre therefore convinces Bertrande to bring a case against “her” husband, though she seems reluctant to do so. Her unwillingness to file suit against the imposter may be because the new Martin appears to be a much better husband and father (aside from the real Martin’s son, Sanxi, Bertrande also has a daughter, Bernarde, by the imposter) than the old Martin. Nevertheless, Bertrande plays along with Pierre’s plans, hoping to lose her case.
The subsequent trial, held early in 1560 at Rieux, divides both the village and “Martin’s” extended family. On one side of the Guerre family stand Pierre, his wife (who also happens to be Bertrande’s mother), and his sons-in-law. On the other, “Martin,” his four sisters, and his two brothers-in-law, with Bertrande caught in the middle. Among those not related to Martin, the village cobbler (who claims that the new Martin’s feet are too small to belong to the original), and relatives and acquaintances of du Tilh support Pierre, while members of some of the most respected local families, such as Jean Loze and Catherine Boeri, support the imposter. Davis also theorizes that the conflict of Protestantism and Roman Catholicism may have also played a part in “choosing sides,” with the majority of Catholics supporting Pierre, and most Protestant sympathizers siding with “Martin.” The vast majority of locals, however, remain undecided, or refuse to favor one side over the other.
After the judge declares “Martin” guilty at Rieux, the imposter appeals his case to the Parlement (court) of Toulouse, where a second trial is held roughly three months after the first. This second trial seems to go much better for the false Martin. The accused’s story never falters, and meshes perfectly with Bertrande’s testimony. “Martin” is also well spoken, exceedingly clever, and a follower of the burgeoning Protestant faith, a religion which the two judges who are assigned to question du Tilh also favor. However, just when it appears that a ruling will be granted in the imposter’s favor, the real Martin, now hobbling on a wooden leg (having lost his original in battle), arrives in Toulouse and du Tilh’s plans are dashed. Bertrande wastes no time in selling her lover out by asking the true Martin for forgiveness. The false Martin is subsequently found guilty and hanged, while everyone else lives happily ever after (well, perhaps not happily, but at least they live).
The author, Natalie Zemon Davis, reconstructed this tale from several sixteenth-century primary resources, such as the government archives (including court records) of Artigat, Foix, Toulouse, and Auch. Davis also had at her disposal a contemporary account, Arrest Memorable, written by Jean de Coras, one of the judges at Toulouse. She additionally utilized many secondary resources, including Historia, another contemporary account “collected” (likely taken from the words and papers of another judge at the trial, Michel Du Faur) by Guillaume Le Sueur, who may have served the court in some minor role. Davis relied quite heavily on both Coras’ and Le Sueur’s accounts; though more weight was given to Coras’ text in places where the two accounts conflicted. Davis used multiple editions and translations of both of these texts in her research. Other sources referenced by Davis include other, non contemporary versions of the tale of Martin Guerre (usually less reliable due to romanticization), the personal letters of Jean de Coras, and several works on various aspects of Basque, French and Spanish history and life (marriage, family, economics, religion, politics, etc).
Davis takes great care throughout her narrative not to romanticize the tale. All aspects of the story are scrutinized thoroughly before arriving at her conclusions. She takes into account things that most people would not even consider, such as the role that Protestantism may have played in deciding the imposter’s fate during the trial, the likely possibility that Bertrande may have acted as an accomplice in the charade, the influence of superstition (du Tilh’s cleverness being mistaken for witchcraft at one point), and Basque customs regarding the buying and selling of land. She is careful to take all possibilities into account when drawing her conclusions, such as whether the two Martins had met prior to their confrontation in Toulouse, why the real Martin Guerre returned to his home in the first place, how the imposter was able to fool the inhabitants of Artigat so easily, how Bertrande was able to avoid any charges of adultery, and the question of whether du Tilh could have continued with the charade had he stayed in Pierre Guerre’s good graces.
I found much of The Return of Martin Guerre to be an engaging read, particularly when the book centers on the events revolving around the people in the story. Some of the most interesting events I found in the tale were the troubles of Martin and Bertrande’s marriage, the deception of Arnaud du Tilh, Bertrande’s complicity in the crime, the trial, the harshness of the criminal justice system of the day, and the final verdict. However, I found Davis’ writing to be far less enjoyable in those parts of the novel wherein she relates conditions in sixteenth century France that are not directly tied to the main thread of the story. I found my interest waning as I read about trade in the region of Artigat, life in the Basque country, and the rise of Protestantism among the French. While I do find such details less interesting than the rest of the book, I also realize that such minutiae are necessary in “fleshing out” the story, and are nearly unavoidable when dealing with an academic work. Perhaps Davis could have livened up these parts of her novel by adding some humor, or by giving the reader a few modern analogies, or possibly by finding a way to merge these issues more closely with the central story. To add a minor gripe, I found the use of endnotes, rather than footnotes, annoying, as it’s much more convenient to glance at the bottom of the page than it is to constantly turn to the back of the book. Of course, I also realize that typesetting endnotes is cheaper and more convenient, but I find that fact to be of little solace.
The Return of Martin Guerre has also left me with some unanswered questions, though perhaps this is due more to lack of data than lack of effort on the writer’s part. For instance, I would have liked to learn how Sanxi, the real Martin’s son, viewed the accusations and trial. After all, the boy spent more time with the imposter than he did with his real father. How did du Tilh’s execution affect Sanxi’s relationship with Martin, who by today’s standards would be viewed as a “deadbeat dad?” I also would have appreciated more detail on how du Tilh managed to convince Martin’s family and the villagers of Artigat of his adopted identity. In addition, I think Davis should have elaborated more on how du Tilh learned the location of Martin’s white hosen, as I’m not completely convinced such information would be so readily available via gossip, as the author claims.
Despite such minor qualms, I still find this to be an excellent book. I think The Return of Martin Guerre is historically significant because it gives the reader some insight into peasant life in sixteenth century France, while keeping him entertained. Davis is able to weave details about marriage, superstition, gender roles, familial relations, religion, and the harsh criminal justice of the time into an intriguing tale that educates as well as entertains.
The Return of Martin Guerre