The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Chapter 10 Summary & Analysis

After the trial, both Coras and another Toulouse lawyer, Guillaume Le Sueur, began writing their version of events. Le Sueur was a little-known author of some translations and history books, and in 1560 he wrote the “Admirable History of the Pseudo-Martin of Toulouse,” based on the court’s notes and perhaps on his own experience of the trial. Coras, on the other hand, was better-known: born in 1515, he was a judge and university law professor in Toulouse whose lectures drew large crowds. By the time of the trial, he was considered an “illustrious” author and scholar and even had a biography of him written by a former student.
Davis spends most of the last chapters of the book describing the characters of the people who told Martin Guerre’s story to posterity. As she shows, the story looked very different through the eyes of Le Sueur, a little-known translator, versus Coras, a celebrity law professor. Coras had already had a successful literary and legal career by the time of the trial, which gave him a ready-made audience for his narrative.
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Coras had personal experience with the law. After his mother died, she left him her property, and Coras sued his father for access to the inheritance. Meanwhile, he married (twice), had a son, and continued to lecture and write law books. He was very fond of his wife, to whom he wrote long love letters, and he became increasingly interested in the Protestant cause. He wrote a treatise against clandestine marriages, a book that he hoped would influence public opinion outside the university. All this meant that Coras had reason to be sympathetic with Arnaud.
Davis points out the significant similarities between Coras and Arnaud, the man he would later write about. Like Coras, Arnaud was poised, intelligent, a Protestant sympathizer, seemed to love his wife, and had been willing to sue his uncle for his patrimony, just as Coras had sued his father. This demonstrates how the past experiences and sympathies of an author can influence how they frame a narrative.
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Although Coras was initially sympathetic to Arnaud, he eventually realized his mistake. Even so, he remained fascinated by the case, because Arnaud’s deception demonstrated just how quickly the valued qualities of charm, eloquence, and “self-fashioning” could turn into outright lying. Coras accused Arnaud of being a magician aided by an evil spirit, but he also recognized that there was something in the case that spoke to the broader social condition of people in sixteenth-century France. Writing a book would allow him to revisit the case and examine its implications.
Davis discusses Arnaud’s case through the lens of the idea of “self-fashioning”—the way that early modern people could project a certain image of themselves through, for instance, careful selection of clothing and gestures. These qualities were widely applauded in courtiers. In Arnaud’s imposture of Martin Guerre, however, we see the darker and more extreme implications of a widespread social practice.
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