The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Natalie Zemon Davis's The Return of Martin Guerre. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Natalie Zemon Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis is one of the English-speaking world’s best-known and most influential historians. She is now retired, but has taught at Brown University, the University of Toronto, the University of California at Berkeley, and Princeton University. Her pioneering work in the fields of social and cultural history emphasized the role of women, people of low social status, and other often marginalized and ignored figures. She is primarily a historian of early modern Europe, and her most famous work is The Return of Martin Guerre, which is considered one of the first “micro-histories”—accounts of the past that focus on the lives of individual people or communities rather than grand historical narratives.
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Historical Context of The Return of Martin Guerre

Mid-sixteenth-century France was in many ways a society in transition. Like many European countries throughout the early modern period, France was slowly evolving a more centralized government with a unified legal system, language, and culture. At the same time, however, it faced serious internal divisions when Protestantism began to spread into this historically Catholic country. As Davis shows, the Protestant Reformation had significant impacts at the local level, even in a small village like Artigat. Shortly after the events of The Return of Martin Guerre, religious tensions broke out into outright violence in the St Bartholomew Day’s Massacre. Many French Protestants—including Jean de Coras, a judge at the trial of Martin Guerre and author of the Arrest Memorable (1561)—were lynched by their Catholic countrymen. Natalie Zemon Davis repeatedly highlights the way these tensions informed the events of Guerre’s life in subtle and unexpected ways. Davis is one of the scholars most associated with a school of thought known as the New Historicism, a literary-critical movement that developed in universities in the mid-1980s. New Historicists emphasized the close interconnection between literary, intellectual, and cultural products (like books, news pamphlets, plays, etc.) and the social and economic context that produced them. In this sense, New Historicism is a “postmodern” approach to history and literature because it focuses on explaining social contexts, rather than uncovering supposedly immutable truths that transcend time and place. The Return of Martin Guerre is considered one of the founding texts of New Historicism because it uses traditional archival historical research methods to explore the more abstract “history of ideas” question of how people in the early modern period thought about personal identity.

Other Books Related to The Return of Martin Guerre

Davis’s account of the trial of Martin Guerre emphasizes how unusual it was for a story of love, deception, and tragedy to feature peasant protagonists, as opposed to aristocrats. In this sense, her book has much in common with other “microhistories” that focus on a specific swathe of society—women, the poor, the marginalized—who are often left out of traditional historical narratives. Perhaps the most famous example of history writing of this kind is a book roughly contemporary with The Return of Martin Guerre, David Levine and Keith Wrightson’s Poverty and Piety in an English Village (1979). This book was revolutionary in that it used the records of a single village in Essex, England, to describe wider changes in English society and culture between 1500 and 1700. The “microhistory” approach has made a huge impact on contemporary popular literary culture. For example, Rebecca Skolot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010), a bestselling non-fiction book that was later adapted into a film, tells the story of an African-America woman whose cells made major contributions to scientific research but whose own story had been all but forgotten. In The Return of Martin Guerre, Davis cites the work of Stephen Greenblatt, another significant literary historian whose work revolutionized the field of cultural history in the early 1980s. In particular, she draws on the concept of what Greenblatt called “self-fashioning”—the ways that early modern people molded their speech, clothes, gesture, and behavior in order to “advance” in society and gain wealth and public office. Greenblatt coined the term in Renaissance Self-Fashioning (1980), a book contemporary with Davis’s project that strongly influenced her thinking about the case of Arnaud du Tilh and Martin Guerre. She argues that Arnaud’s three-year-long impersonation of Martin is a more extreme example of the “self-fashioning” behavior that allowed early modern people to shape their public personae for social gain.
Key Facts about The Return of Martin Guerre
  • Full Title: The Return of Martin Guerre
  • When Written: Early 1980s
  • Where Written: United States, France
  • When Published: 1984
  • Literary Period: New Historicism
  • Genre: Non-fiction
  • Setting: France in the mid-1500s
  • Climax: Martin Guerre returns home after a decade away to reclaim his identity, which had been stolen by an impostor, Arnaud du Tilh.
  • Antagonist: Arnaud du Tilh
  • Point of View: Third person

Extra Credit for The Return of Martin Guerre

Film to Book. Unusually, The Return of Martin Guerre started as a film before it was a book. Directed by Daniel Vigne and starring the famous French actor Gérard Depardieu, the French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre came out in 1982. Natalie Zemon Davis served as a historical consultant on the film. However, she decided that she wanted to write a non-fiction account of the case that would more fully explore the story and include nuance that the film had left out.