Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Book Report: Natalie Zemon Davis: "The Return of Martin Guerre"

In the 1540s in a village of Languedoc, a well-off peasant abandoned his wife. The villager, Martin Guerre, had married Bertrande de Rois at a very young age, and suffered from impotence. Also, apparently, he was having some sort of financial difficulties. By leaving his wife, he had put her status in some jeopardy, but Bertrande carried on as a mother and chaste woman.

Several years later, Martin returned and was accepted by the villagers as well as by Bertrande. Only, this was not Martin Guerre, but the wily peasant Arnaud de Tilh. Living as Martin Guerre for three or four years, the peasant Tilh, or as he was known "Pansette" (the belly) at home, was caught when he tried to bring charges against Guerre's Uncle for lost money. The Uncle had Pansette charged at Rieux and later Toulouse for stealing his cousin's identity. The imposter was nearly declared innocent in these hearings. But, then, the real Martin Guerre returned.

The story has been recounted several times, most notably by Montaigne, but never has it been historicized as effectively as it is here by Natalie Zemon Davis. Working from court records and the accounts of two of the judges, Davis recounts the life of the 16th century peasant in a way that recalls the great Emmanuel Le Roy Laururie. We get a real sense of the ways that these people lived and thought, and even understand how they could be fooled by this clever fake for three or four years.

Davis's only real misstep is in asserting that Bertrande must have been a willing accomplice in fashioning a new life with the pseudo-Martin. This seems like it may have been the case, but Davis has no documentary evidence whatsoever for the assertion, a main pillar of her study. Moreover, she assumes that the 16th century rural peasant thought like a 20th century urban feminist, like Davis herself.

Surely, a wife would know her husband in the bedroom. But, maybe not. By all accounts, the real Martin had only slept with his wife a handful of times, and maybe only once. Moreover, the young woman could have been much more trusting of a male authority figure than a modern woman would be. Certainly, it's plausible that Bertrande was not duped at all and was as much a trickster as Pansette. But, we have no evidence to assert that, and she was found innocent at the time.

That aside, the story is fascinating and the prose is lively. This is, after all, what history is- telling interesting stories. If it all sounds familiar, the story was also made into a film with Gerard Depardieu in the early 80s and remade as Sommersby with Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. The story will likely continue to fascinate as we continue to ponder if there is a core to selfhood or if we are all simply impostors in the role of our own lives.


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