The Return Of Martin Guerre Essay

Although most, if not all, would assume the lives of peasants are insignificant in the greater scheme of things, the popular story of Martin Guerre unfolds via peasants making major, life-altering decisions based on self-interest. The individual lives of the peasants do make a difference. Natalie Zemon Davis tells the tale of peasants looking out for themselves in The Return of Martin Guerre, and rarely do they allow others to interfere with their own goals and ambitions. Davis attempts to fill in the gaps of the story with her own personal opinion; although, her opinion sometimes counters the contemporaries of the story. Many sources used by Davis are logically sound; however, many more sources raise questions of their own authenticity and sensibility. Davis also takes a deep look into the lives of the peasants to probe what drives them and what so eagerly fuels their individualistic desires. Davis details the life of the peasants in not only one specific place, but also details the customs of numerous places such as Hendaye, Artigat, and the court at Rieux in a contrast/compare style.

Davis builds a world of stairs where those on the lowest rung are always looking somewhere higher up, yet they are always able to keep a taut rein on their lives. The characters of this tale are brought to a startling realism by Davis-she details every possible thought and action that could have led them down the path that they chose, and she even speculates on alternatives to the choice they made. She shows the life of the real Martin Guerre as full of regret and disgust at things gone wrong. His wife, Bertrande de Rols, is expressed as a manipulator that is always weighing her options and scheming to rise ahead. Subsequently, there is Arnaud du Tilh; without his appearance, no story would have likely taken place because it took a man of his shrewdness and his love of vice to create such a fantastical plot. A desire to attain one's own interests so eagerly is proven repeatedly by Davis as though she is obviously attempting to lead us in that direction by her outlook on this part of the past.

Davis reveals herself to the reader via the way she fills in gaps and makes assumptions. One such example is the approach in which she speculates on events that happen in the story. Not once will she allow herself to see any kind of coincidence. It is not enough that Protestantism came to the towns surrounding Artigat, but she forces the reader to accept that Bertrande and Arnaud must have been touched by its message. She blatantly carries the idea that peasants are making decisions based on self-interest when she tells the reader the positive reasons for them converting to Protestantism. She believes they converted because it would have given them a better excuse to be married (consensual marriage) and would have allowed them to be free of confessing the sin of adultery to a priest. On the topic of religion, she also assumes that Protestants and their sympathizers would favor Arnaud du Tilh. She does not accept the fact that adultery is still a sin in Protestantism. This could even be Davis' way of taking an unfair shot at Protestantism, assuming she is Catholic or a Catholic sympathizer. Davis portrays her concept that peasants hated nobility and that nobility had no business interfering in the lives of peasants. She puts images of pride for the town of Artigat that had no nobility, and the nearest noble was treated just like a commoner by Artigat when he began buying land. Davis never stops to speculate on the positives of nobility. She decides that the idea of a non-noble village was an influence on the Guerre's moving from Hendaye to Artigat. Another of Davis' major beliefs that she holds to is the notion that du Tilh would still have been caught in his lie regardless of the rift forged between he and Pierre Guerre. This reveals her bias towards a firm belief in the cliché, "you get your just desserts". One of her most illogical views is her countering of one of the beliefs of Jean de Coras; a contemporary of du Tilh's time, the main judge in this case, and the first man to write about this case. Coras understood that Martin Guerre returned and then learned of this case. For some mysterious reason (perhaps just to concur with her other belief that coincidences never happen), Davis claims he returned because he had heard about the case. She does not provide anything more than mere speculation to back up her idea. Perhaps she received this idea from one of her sources that she sited in the bibliography. One such source she must have mainly drawn from was Coras', Arrest Memorable. This is a very reasonable source; however, she also draws from Guillaume Le Sueur's Histoire. Davis confesses in the opening of Chapter Ten that little is known about him other than he had personal goals that he hoped would be achieved by his book (perhaps he fictionalized certain portions in hopes of adding new insight to the case). She also admits that there were sometimes disagreements between Coras and Le Sueur, which raises questions on how respectable Histoire really is. Although she filled in the missing pieces of this chunk of history with her personal assumptions, Davis seems to hit the nail on the head when depicting medieval life in France.

"Love may do much, but money more." This was a popular proverb among peasants in 16th century France. This quote characterizes peasant life in all aspects. Though the world offered much to its citizens, the peasants always wanted more; they wanted more money, which would in turn, provide more power. Whatever is beneficial to them, they seek without regards as to the effects it would have on others. In this age of France, trade between villages and towns was bountiful. This emphasis put on business reveals the peasant motto "but money more"; many believed trading would bring them greater riches and opportunity. Marriage was a major vessel used by peasants (and really all estates in medieval France) by which they sought out power and wealth. One such example is the marriage of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre. The Guerre's attempted to use their son, Martin, to make connections with a significant, prominent family in the society of Artigat. They hoped that this new bonding would help them make vital connections to a higher class of peasant. Although it was shunned by most in the Catholic Church and by attorneys (they viewed it as a nuisance), consensual marriage was legal and only required the bride and groom to agree on it. It was usually eschewed because it did not give the families (those who actually hoped to gain something from the marriage) any voice in the matter. However, most marriages were arranged by the parents. The main purpose of the marriage was to produce children; love was not a factor. The more children (especially males) a family has, the greater fortune it will likely bring to the family. A childless marriage was grounds for a divorce at this time; without children, a marriage, in essence, has no purpose. Many people simply did not find that their present situation was going well. Many departed themselves from reality by joining the army (this was common due to the current war between France and Spain). Others did not take such a drastic step; they simply picked up everything they owned and moved to a new village to start a new life in hopes of better fortune. Around this time, as ideas moved about rather swiftly due to peasant migration, Protestantism arose to challenge the authority of Catholicism. Peasants broke into church buildings and smashed images of the saints and other artwork. Protestantism found its fuel in its central doctrines: such as scripture being open to individual interpretation. Peasants saw these doctrines as loopholes and alternatives to the harsh, Catholic teachings. The courts, at this time, were attempting to instill the public with more conservative decisions that would favor marriage to divorce and put an emphasis on the familial unit, especially the children; this they did in hopes of ending decisions based solely on self-interest. There are scenarios where execution is used as a form of punishment for adultery. Davis accentuates the generalities of medieval life in France and also provides particularities, such as the property of Pansette staying within his family instead of going to the king, as was the custom. Though the generalities are of high acclaim, Davis deserves more accreditation for her description of the social structures of the various settings in the story.

Davis meticulously sets up the social setting in all the major locations mentioned in The Return of Martin Guerre. Davis first plunges into Hendaye, examining its foundations in order to expose why Sanxi Guerre would ever have wanted to leave. One comment from an observer notes that the people of this region were happy, dancing people; the observer seems to emphasize "both men and women". Davis seems to break them into separate groups as if there was some discord between the two groups at times. The reader is informed that the women of the Labourd region are very straightforward, always making their desires known. If the women had their wishes, as Davis implies, then the men must have let them have their way for the village to be as "gay" and cooperative as it seems. This much laid-back male was still at the head of the household and his inheritance was extremely significant; family lands stayed in the family by law. Most of this is in stark contrast with the society of Artigat. Inheritance was often sold off and land did not usually stay within the family. The men of Artigat controlled much of the land and did most of the work and bartering, although women stepped in when necessity called them. Women of this society were known by their father's name (i.e. Bertrande de Rols) all through their lives. A woman who was older and unwed was not well received by the community in most cases because she was not seen as the ideal village mother. The life of a woman in Artigat encouraged her to calculate her every move to insure success in life. Bertrande waited for her husband to return so she would appear very virtuous; had she not been so diligent, things would have been rather hard on her when Arnaud arrived. Bertrande also had to decide that divorce would not help the situation when impotence reigned the marriage. The women had to know how to manipulate their husbands since they were excluded from village meetings unless a decree was being announced. The family life of this community was looser than that of Hendaye. Clan lines did not divide the community, political opinion did. The richer the family was, the greater its political voice. Oddly enough, Davis leaves out any religious information on the description of Hendaye; this leaves the reader to assume that the land was untouched by Protestant concepts. On the contrary, Davis believes Protestantism grasped the town of Artigat with its principles, dethroning Catholicism. Magnifying the sociality further, the most individualistic quality of the tale appears; the peculiar cast of characters.

Had Davis made a fictional story, she could not have created more realistic, quirky characters as those that are in The Return of Martin Guerre. We are introduced (in this order) to Martin Guerre the stoic, Bertrande de Rols the stubborn, and Arnaud du Tilh the suspect. Martin Guerre grew up in a family of girls and moved to Artigat unexpectedly in his early youth. Davis describes Martin as a man who never really found much pleasure in his life. He was arranged to marry Bertrande de Rols and after many years of impotence, they finally had a child. Then, Martin Guerre unexpectedly left. The only probable reason is that he had stolen some grain from his father (a sin nearly unpardonable in the Basque custom); this was likely contrived of by Guerre as an excuse for his abrupt departure. When he abruptly returned to Artigat and ended the trial, he put all the blame on his wife, Bertrande, whom he had deserted. Coras describes his face as apathetic and silent when the judges claimed he was at least partially responsible for the mess. Guerre was a man who never found any pleasure in life and ran away from problems seeking only his personal satisfaction in a brand of stoicism where pleasure in this world is temporary if even existent. Martin's aloof, stoic nature is well contrasted by his wife's stubborn calculations. At a tender age, barely at puberty, Bertrande was married off by her well-to-do family. By marrying so young, she skipped the usual adolescent years and experiences and was forced to grow up all too quickly. This can be attributed to her stubborn nature-at heart, Bertrande de Rols was always a stubborn, rebellious teenager waiting to grow up. In some aspects, she did very well. She was able to keep a firm control on her life, and she is the ideal wife of the society of Artigat. She did what she could to hold a respectable, virtuous reputation as a front to the community. After Guerre left, she became more obstinate (she also would not divorce him during the couple's impotent stage) and would not divorce her husband that had deserted her. Her most deciding moment was in accepting Arnaud du Tilh as her husband. No wife could be fooled by a faux husband; he could not possibly show all the little signs that the true one had, and certainly not in bed (Arnaud was very fertile). She accepted him with open arms because it would show her as a virtuous woman who had rightly waited for her husband (it would also gain back her social status; older women with no husbands were frowned upon by Artigat). She was also eager at times; once she finally brought the suit on Arnaud du Tilh, she did it fervently, and when Martin Guerre returned, she hastily expressed regret for taking in an imposter. Martin was depressed by the world, Bertrande was uninterested by anything beyond herself, but du Tilh took advantage of everything life handed him. He was gifted with intelligence in his youth (so clever that he was suspected of magic), and indulged in all sorts of vices. Arnaud, like Martin, looked to the army for something new and exciting. Arnaud used it as a gateway into the vacant position of husband of Bertrande de Rols. Instead of rushing into the position, Arnaud, or Pansette as he was also called, gradually learned of the man Martin Guerre and made a 180 degree turnabout in his personality. Pansette was man with a love of vices; the replacement Martin Guerre was a respected businessman, husband, and father. Nevertheless, he did err; Pansette was fallible after all. He overstepped the boundary he created when he asked for his inheritance that was being held by Pierre Guerre. In his appeal at Toulouse and at the trial at Rieux, Pansette never sought legal advice and yet he still astounded Coras. He did learn to accept defeat however. Once the trial was over Pansette repented and apologized to all who were involved. The end: and no one lived happily ever after.

"[...] a case so extraordinary", says Davis, "that one of the men that judged it wrote a book about it." The case of Martin Guerre certainly was an extraordinary one. One so well written by Davis, that it sends a manifestation of the self-serving peasant life of medieval France and a new revelation on the social structuring of the peasant villages to the reader. The cast is brought to life in a vivid, vibrant, and a startlingly down-to-earth manner to which the reader can easily relate. Unfortunately, Davis uses very questionable resources to create such a whimsical plot and an assortment of characters with amazing depth. Previously touched on in paragraph two, Coras was shown to be a very reliable source, and Le Sueur was shown to be rather questionable indeed. Another dubious source is Jean Baptiste's Les Imposteurs that claims to have changed the language of Coras because of its "rudeness". Then there is Charles Hubert's Le Faux Martinguerre that is so "romanticized as to be unrecognizable". If Davis knew these two sources were so far off from the truth, then why in the world did she use them? She offers no explanation. Another poor source used by Davis is Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre. Davis tells the reader that it is a "novel" based on a "nineteenth-century English report of the case" instead of on the original work done by Coras. From the bibliographical notes, it can be deduced that a few of the sources were very logical and worthy to be used. One such is F. Gayot de Pitaval's Causes celebres; this author took an open mind to the case and speculated further than any his predecessors on the evidence of Bertande being an accomplice. Jacques-Auguste de Thou wrote Historiarum; he was the Parlementaire of Paris, which gives credibility to his writing. Davis uses questionable foundations for her book, but she certainly has something important to tell; peasants of this time made decisions for themselves out of self-interest, without regarding the emotions of others. These decisions have rattled the courts of centuries past and the minds of today's historians. The tale of Martin Guerre is one of manipulation, vice, and pride; the only gifts recognized by peasants as having any use.

In the 1540s in Languedoc, France, a rich peasant named Martin Guerre left his wife, child and property and was not heard from for eight years. Upon returning, Guerre lived in relative marital bliss with his wife Bertrande, until three years later when Bertrande declared that she had been tricked by an imposter and brought her purportedly fraudulent husband to court. The case garnered so much attention that it was referred to the high court in Toulouse. At the trial, the husband was so compelling in reciting the details of Martin’s life – his Basque heritage, his interpersonal relationships, and his intimate experiences with Bertrande – that the judges were on the verge of dismissing the case. However, before the verdict could be rendered, a man appeared who completely altered the outcome of the trial. That man was Martin Guerre. Consequently, Arnaud du Tilh (the imposter) was forced to confess to fraud, and was subsequently executed.

Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre successfullyemploys a micro-historical approach to thoroughly examine this remarkable tale of marital deceit. Davis’ microhistory is based primarily on two accounts of the trial that were widely disseminated after its conclusion – one by judge Jean de Coras who acted as the trial’s lead justice, and another by legal scholar Guillaume Le Sueur. Additionally, Zemon Davis employs court and financial records to reconstruct the aspirations and agency of Arnaud, Martin, and most importantly, Bertrande. Critically, however, Davis’ account is not intended to solely unearth the personhood of these figures; rather, the intent of her work is to demonstrate that the experiences of these three villagers “are not too many steps beyond the more common experience of their neighbors, [and] that an impostor’s fabrication has links with more ordinary ways of creating personal identity” (Zemon Davis, VII). Thus, The Return of Martin Guerre does not simply provide a descriptive account of an isolated deception; instead, Zemon Davis seeks to analyze the social conditions that could produce such a seemingly bizarre and duplicitous act.

In reviewing The Return of Martin Guerre, I intend to focus on three critical elements of the narrative and the methodology it employs. First, I contend Zemon Davis successfully uses her micro-historical lens to unearth the aspirations of Bertrande, who, in my opinion, is the most enigmatic figure in this saga. I believe that Zemon Davis rightfully concludes that Bertrande was not a victim of Arnaud’s deception; rather, she was wholly complicit in constructing a fraudulent marriage that allowed her the rare opportunity to act autonomously in a community that largely consigned women to a position of inferiority. Second, Zemon Davis’ work demonstrates the complex nature of France’s legal system in the sixteenth century – a system that allowed peasants meaningful judicial recourse and employed jurisprudential standards in deciding cases. Finally, while Zemon Davis’ work provides an incredibly compelling account of the trial, she fails to link the relationship of Bertrande and Arnaud to emerging Protestantism in the region (a core argument of her text).

Zemon Davis’ work reveals a critical aspect of this well-documented saga that had previously gone unreported: Martin Guerre’s wife was likely complicit in assisting Arnaud in his deception, even going so far as to aid him in his defense. Indeed, not only did Arnaud have an encyclopedic knowledge of Martin Guerre’s personal relationships, but the testimony he provided in his defense was entirely congruent with Bertrande’s account of their life together. As Zemon Davis argues, if Bertrande desired a conviction she could have easily contradicted Arnaud’s statements in open court, or merely prompted the judges to ask questions that could have trapped the imposter. Thus, Zemon Davis concludes that Bertrande must have assisted Arnaud in constructing his account of Martin’s life. In addition, Zemon Davis compellingly argues that Bertrande was not particularly interested in pursuing these charges against the fake imposter as the charges originated at the behest of Martin’s uncle, Pierre. For Zemon Davis, the impetus for these charges was Pierre’s vehement opposition to the “new” Martin’s request for him to disclose the financial records of their family business. This account is buttressed by evidence that Bertrande was coerced into bringing the case to trial with Pierre being briefly imprisoned for threatening her with violence should she refrain from doing so. Therefore, it is highly probable that Bertrande was complicit in facilitating Arnaud’s deception.

But why would Bertrande knowingly perpetuate a fraudulent marriage? It is in answering this question that The Return of Martin Guerre is most impactful. In the sixteenth century, marriage among the French peasantry was primarily an economic institution. Bertrande was offered to Martin for marriage in order to solidify their respective families’ economic prospects in Languedoc; however, their marriage was not a particularly happy one. Although they had one child together, Martin suffered from impotence, and many villagers reported that the couple quarreled regularly. Additionally, when Martin disappeared for eight years, local marriage laws prevented Bertrande from receiving a divorce. Therefore, upon meeting the “new” Martin (a figure who resembled Martin, but did not appear identical), Bertrande had the ability to do something she had been unable to do in her marriage: make an autonomous decision about whether to enter into a relationship. By accepting Arnaud, living with him, and having two children with him, Bertrande was able – albeit in a limited fashion – to break free of the particular constraints that had been imposed upon her by virtue of her class and gender. Thus, the seemingly bizarre act of harbouring a fraudulent husband does not seem so absurd when considered within the context of a patriarchal society that systematically denied women the ability to make decisions about their amorous relationships. Therefore, while Bertrande’s harbouring of Arnaud is undeniably abnormal, this case does elucidate much about the unique plight of female peasants in sixteenth century France.

Another crucial aspect of Zemon Davis’ text is her analysis of the French legal system. Specifically, by employing the texts of two legal professionals, Zemon Davis highlights that members of the peasantry could seek meaningful recourse in France’s legal system. Indeed, despite Pierre having important connections with local aristocrats and landholders, the jurists were unwilling to be influenced by these relationships, and genuinely strived to provide the imposter with a fair trial. This crucially assists in dispelling the notion that French peasants had no access to a fair and responsive system of justice – a point of particular importance when considering that peasants in many other European states were largely subject to arbitrary standards of justice meted out by feudal lords and local aristocrats.

In addition to the surprisingly equitable nature of the French legal system, Zemon Davis’ work also highlights the system’s myriad complexities. For instance, rather than being bound to a specific interpretation of the law when addressing the sentencing of Arnaud, Bertrande and Pierre, Coras based his decision on the principle that maintaining Bertrande’s family should be the main aim of the court. He upheld this principle by releasing Pierre for charges of intimidation and through classifying the two children Bertrande had with Arnaud as “legitimate” heirs to their family’s estate. In order to buttress these verdicts Coras employed jurisprudential frameworks that had been reached in previous decisions. Thus, judges in sixteenth century France not only addressed cases that dealt with the peasantry, but were also granted a large degree of discretion in rendering their verdicts. Ultimately, Zemon Davis demonstrates that the peasantry did have meaningful access to justice in France, while unearthing the complexities of the French legal system.

While Zemon Davis’ micro-historical approach richly outlines the social circumstances of the French peasantry in the sixteenth century, she utterly fails to connect the relationship of Bertrande and Arnaud to emerging Protestantism in rural France. Specifically, Zemon Davis contends that Bertrande and Arnaud must have been a part of this groundswell of emerging rural Protestantism because the Catholic Church would have “excommunicated them as notorious adulterers unless they separated immediately” (Zemon Davis, 47). Zemon Davis asserts that because Protestantism relied less on institutional intermediaries in order to foster a relationship with God, Arnaud and Bertrande would have been attracted to this emerging form of religiosity. Finally, she notes that Arnaud’s final confession (prior to his execution) possessed “no references to Catholic formulas or the saints” (Zemon Davis, 48).

In this context it appears that Zemon Davis is merely asserting that Bertrande and Arnaud were Protestant absent much substantiation. While it is true that they may have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church had they disclosed their adultery, such a fraudulent relationship would have very likely elicited the scorn of local Protestants as well. Moreover, the absence of explicit references to Catholicism in Arnaud’s confession certainly implies that he was not a fervent Catholic; however, the absence of such references does not necessarily mean he was a practicing Protestant. Thus, by concluding that Bertrande and Arnaud were Protestant without convincing evidence, Zemon Davis only detracts from the core aim of her work: unearthing the personhood and aspirations of the French peasantry.

Ultimately, The Return of Martin Guerre is a fascinating mircohistory that illustrates much about the experience of the French peasantry. Zemon Davis crafts a masterful narrative, uncovering Bertrande’s complicity in continuing a fraudulent marriage, while delivering important contextual knowledge of the French legal system. While Zemon Davis’ failure to demonstrate Arnaud and Bertrande’s supposed Protestantism shows the extrapolatory limitations of a micro-historical approach, her work is truly impressive. Zemon Davis’ writing compels the reader to empathize with the decisions Arnaud, Martin and Bertrande were forced to undertake. Thus, at the end of the work, you are left with a genuine understanding of these figures’ social constraints, their society’s legal system, and most importantly, their personal aspirations. It is for that reason that I strongly recommend The Return of Martin Guerre.


Published by Laura Madokoro on March 19, 2014 at 3:19 pm under Uncategorized.

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