The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Chapter 1 Summary & Analysis

In 1527, Martin Guerre’s father, Sanxi Daguerre, moved to a village called Artigat in southwest France, leaving behind the family property on the border between France and Spain. With Sanxi came his wife, his son Martin, and his brother Pierre. Why the family chose to leave their ancestral home is unknown, but Davis suggests that perhaps they were trying to avoid French-Spanish military conflict or the plague. Whatever the reason, the family left Basque country and crossed the Pyrenees to the region near Toulouse, which had become increasingly economically important as the city grew in wealth and power. They finally stopped in the village of Artigat, a farming and artisanal community that had grown prosperous through trade routes with Toulouse and neighboring villages.
Davis begins her story with the migration of the Daguerre family—a long journey for a family to make in the sixteenth century, and one that would have involved significant cultural and economic adjustments. Significantly, the family left their ancestral property behind. Property was closely linked to identity in sixteenth-century France. When the Daguerres left their family property and moved to the village of Artigat, they were essentially changing their identity and starting a new life far from everything they had known before.
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The Daguerres had to adjust to some new social customs. In Artigat, property was divided equally among sons, rather than simply being inherited by the oldest son. It was thus much easier to sell property in Artigat than in Basque country, where land could only be separated from the family that owned it with great difficulty. Artigat also had a linguistically mixed makeup; people tended to speak of mix of Occitan, the language of southern France, and a Catalan dialect.
In Artigat, the Daguerres had to adjust to a new language and culture. This was a region that placed less of an emphasis on the close link between property and identity. Here, property was divided equally among children (which tended to make landholdings smaller) and was much easier to sell, suggesting that people were less attached to property as a marker of identity.
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The villagers didn’t owe service or taxes to a feudal lord, so there wasn’t much legal oversight. Instead, they tended to settle disputes locally. The local lord was Jean d’Escornebeuf, but he had little authority over the community. The nearest legal authorities were in the town of Rieux and the city of Toulouse. Davis suggests that all this would have appealed to the Daguerres, who had previously lived in a community where they had a great deal of personal freedom.
The relative freedom of Artigat from feudal control was appealing to the Daguerres. However, Davis suggests that the case of Martin Guerre would not have happened had there been more direct legal oversight. The village community largely had to regulate itself, making it very difficult to determine what counted as convincing legal evidence.
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The Daguerres changed their name to the more familiar “Guerre” and learned to speak the local language, Occitan. They ran a successful tilework business and farmed the local land. Davis explains that Martin’s mother would have adapted her dress to the way that other women dressed in the community. They would have all become more accustomed to using written language, since Basque was not usually used for record-keeping. However, Davis suggests that although they probably learned enough writing skills to keep simple accounts, they probably would not have learned to read, since there was no schoolmaster in Artigat who could have taught them. Meanwhile, the Guerres had four more daughters.
The Daguerres settled into their new life by adapting to the local culture. After moving to Artigat, the family had to take on a new identity. Far from their native land, they would have changed their dress, customs, and language. This assimilation even extended to changing their name, suggesting that changing the place where they lived and owned property amounted to a change in their entire identity.
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The Guerres were evidently successful at integrating, because in 1538 Martin married Bertrande de Rols, the daughter of a well-off local family who brought a substantial dowry. That Bertrande’s father thought this was a successful match suggests just how well the Guerres had been accepted in Artigat. Martin was only fourteen at the time of the marriage, and Bertrande was probably a similar age. From the evidence of contemporary marriage contracts, Davis guesses that Bertrande’s dowry was probably around 50 to 150 livres, equivalent to the price of a vineyard or field. Martin and Bertrande were married in the village church and then ceremonially put to bed with a “resveil,” a spiced drink designed to ensure the fertility of the marriage.
The marriage of Martin and Bertrande was considered the final measure of the Guerres’ assimilation into Artigat society. People today tend to think about marriage as a deeply personal component of their identity, but this demonstrates that, in the sixteenth century, marriage was closely tied to the exchange and ownership of property—like, for example, Bertrande’s dowry. Bertrande was married at a young age and had no choice of her husband, demonstrating women’s lack of agency and control over their lives in this period. 
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