Identity Theft in 16th Century Provincial France: Natalie Zemon Davis' the Return of Martin Guerre
Although books frequently inspire films, it is fairly rare for movies to inspire books, much less scholarly books. However, that is precisely how Natalie Zemon Davis' the Return of Martin Guerre came into being. Davis was asked to act as a historical consultant on a French film, called "The Return of Martin Guerre." Inspired by her work on the film, Davis decided to use the historical evidence she accumulated in her research, much of which was not seen in the movie, to reconstruct the historical narrative of the time period in a gripping, engaging, and cinematic fashion. Fiction, or even fiction based upon fact, usually focuses on histories of individuals, not on the grand sweep of history. However, Davis wishes to show over the course of her book that history can be just as interesting and personalized as fiction, and that personalized history can reveal much about wider historical and social trends.
The 16th story of rural French Pyrenees Peasant life seems made for cinema. The story of Martin Guerre is strange, inexplicable, and dramatic. How could a man leave, abandon his wife, then return -- only to be unmasked as an imposter by the 'real' Martin? The court's investigation revealed that Martin Guerre's wife Bertrande de Rols had in fact been living with a man named Arnaud du Til. How could she had done such a thing, how could she (as she later claimed) have no idea that du Til was a different man than the man she married? For years she and the real Martin had lived together, had a child together, and lived according to all outside perceptions, relatively happily as man and wife. The idea that a man could come into town, say that he was her husband, and be taken by his wife and family to be the real Martin seems absurd.
But the sexual alliance, Davis speculates, between Bertrande and the imposter was likely much happier and pleasurable for Bertrande, who married the first Martin as a teenager. The young couple had trouble consummating the marriage for years because of her young husband's impotence, which was widely attributed to a curse upon the marriage. This early childlessness was one reason that Bertrande had a freedom and independence to her spirit, Davis adds, as for a long time Bertrande was freed from some of the burdens of constant childbearing that her contemporaries would have suffered, in an age before birth control.
True, the 'real' Martin Guerre was hardly a shining example of an ideal husband, yet another reason that Bertrande may have had a motivation to 'mistake' the imposter as the real Guerre. While the false Martin Arnaud du Til had committed a capital offence, a crime under the law, namely stealing a man's identity, entrapping his wife into committing adultery, and claiming his property, Martin Guerre had left his wife in a kind of social limbo -- a moral, if not a social crime. Bertrande could not get remarried, as her husband was still apparently alive. Martin had left her behind and fled the town to join the army, after a dispute with his father about stolen grain.
This meant that Bertrande was not a widow who could lay claims to her husband's property as a means of financial support. Obviously, her situation suited the family of Martin, but not the interests of the strong-willed Bertrande. Eventually it seemed as if Martin would never return, and Bertrande would be destitute -- then, enter Arnaud. The obvious conclusion, which Davis does not take as obvious but spends the greater proportion of her book examining and proving as best she can (because she admits there is no way to conclusively 'prove' what exists in a historical character's head), is that in fact Bertrande was aware of the ruse, but had good reasons for not revealing that Arnaud was not Martin Guerre. She was not the foolish woman some historians have made her out to be, easily duped by a con man.
One of the problems Davis encountered as a scholar was the fact that she is dealing with a preliterate society, where most people could not read, left little historical data after their death in comparison to our own society, and where there are few competing historical accounts about the lives of people who are not famous. Her main source, besides the records of the village, is that of the trial judge of the case, Jean de Coras, who questioned Guerre and recorded his impressions of the man. Davis notes that Coras had strong Protestant sympathies, which eventually resulted in a loss of his position and his life. He was also an eloquent and meticulous writer, and Davis uses his words to validate the existing data she has about marriages, deaths, births, and wills.
Davis, in an effort to make her text more engaging, and to make the story more illuminating than beyond a mere curiosity, fleshes out the psychological profiles of the main characters, most notably Bertrande. She uses Bertrande as an example of the fact that not all women were 'oppressed' in the Middle Ages, contrary to what one might expect and that women had a strong role in the society and law of the village. For example, rather than leaving everything to sons, the wills of the village of Artigat record that many fathers gave dowries to their daughters and also, if a man died without sons, the property passed equally to all the daughters, and was divided equally. It did not pass to a distant male relation.
One of the most interesting aspects of the tale is how it illuminates the religious conflicts of the period. For example, Protestantism, then an emerging new religious force, looked more favorably upon the rights of individuals to choose their marriage partners, even against the explicit wishes of their family, Catholicism did not. Consequently, the town tended to be divided on the question of Guerre's true identity. Believers in the new and sympathizers of the religion supported the new Martin, Catholics tended to support the original Martin, and the Guerre family who believed that the first man to return was an imposter. This also shows how ideology can influence perceptions of what is true and what is a lie -- although both Protestants and Catholics knew the same facts, they perceived them differently because of their religious orientations.
Davis' tale, perhaps reflecting its cinematic origins, evolves like a story, not simply a dry historical account or analysis of primary sources. It also shows how in an age before photography, what we assumed people 'looked like' in both our memory and in reality was far more unstable than it is today. The unveiling of the false Martin came not after people grew suspicious of his very different appearance, but because of a dispute his uncle with the false Martin about a piece of land Martin wished to sell. The uncle believed that no true relation of his would want to sell a piece of ancestral land, and took the man to court. Bertrande only caved into familial pressure, not because she was suddenly convinced that she had believed a lie all this time about her new husband, but because her mother wanted her to change her testimony in the court.
Davis' approach to history is daring. She dares to suggest that ordinary people and the lives of ordinary people are just as instructive and illumination as the lives of the famous about how daily life transpired long ago. The features of the case seem strange, but the participants were in many ways just like 'you and me' in terms of their places in society. Her work may come under criticism…