The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Le Sueur’s book followed what Davis calls the “expected path” of a news pamphlet—it became more legendary, and the facts got increasingly muddled. By contrast, Coras’s book proved immensely popular, and was re-printed frequently throughout the sixteenth century and translated into several languages. Coras himself died in 1572, lynched at the St Bartholomew Day Massacre, an attack on French Protestants by their Catholic countrymen.
Davis suggests that Coras’s death in an act of religious violence is significant because it throws new light on Martin Guerre’s story. As religious dissent in the country grew and there was increasing doubt about which was the “true” church, Davis suggests, people might have been even more drawn to this story of imposture and the elusiveness of truth.
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Some people read about the case of Martin Guerre as part of their legal training, while others read it as a “marvelous” and “prodigious” popular legend. Davis notes that people frequently bound Coras’s book with other books about the case, and that it sometimes appeared alongside accounts of floods, comets, and other miraculous incidents. Almost all of these other accounts of the case emphasized Arnaud as the protagonist and downplayed Bertrande’s agency, depicting her as the deceived and manipulated wife. The exception is a 1592 poem by a man that identifies with the tricked wife, admitting that “many girls I have seen with the same appearance…could change places readily / And deceive me easily,” thus expressing sympathy for Bertrande.
As Davis shows, the story of Martin Guerre looks very different not only based on who is writing it, but also who is reading it. Law students reading Coras’s book as a case study might read the story differently than people who saw it as a popular and suspenseful legend. What most of these reader responses have in common is that they de-emphasize Bertrande’s agency. However, Davis’s account re-centers Bertrande in the case, offering another example of a new way to tell an old story.
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Michel de Montaigne, a famous writer and essayist, had witnessed the trial at Toulouse as a young man. In his essay “Of the Lame,” he argued that witches should not be burned because there is always a lack of evidence, since it is impossible to prove beyond a shadow of doubt that someone is a witch. To prove his point, he cited the trial of Martin Guerre, a case in which it was very difficult to prove that either of the men was the “true” Martin.
The case of Martin Guerre in many ways tested the limits of the legal system and the standards by which evidence is judged, posing the question: without any objective markers of identity, how could someone prove that they were who they said they were? Montaigne took this problem to its logical conclusion, arguing that the case shows the limits of people’s ability to perceive the truth.
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Related Quotes
Montaigne thought that the case “far-exceeded…our knowledge,” and he suggested that the judge was not empowered to condemn Arnaud and sentence him to death under such poor evidence. He uses a popular proverb (“He knowes not the perfect pleasure of Venus that hath not layne with a limping woman”) to underscore the limitations of people’s ability to reason due to faulty assumptions (such as the assumption that “what they lack in their legs they make up for in their genitals”). Montaigne argued that people’s imagination often gets the better of them in such cases, and Davis points out that it was not entirely clear that even Martin’s wooden leg was as clear a sign as the court took it to be.
Montaigne saw the story of Martin Guerre as a cautionary tale that demonstrates the unreliability of evidence admitted in court. Multiple witnesses disagreed as to whether Arnaud really was the “true” Martin, even at the end. The wooden leg was taken as an indisputable marker of Martin’s identity, but even then, there was some room for doubt, since perhaps the story of Martin’s amputation was itself untrue. In cases where the death penalty is the punishment, Montaigne argued, it is not acceptable to condemn people to death in the absence of clear and indisputable evidence.
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