When Martin left Artigat, Bertrande was probably about twenty-two years old. Davis explains that Bertrande would have grown up learning household and domestic skills before she was married. Bertrande, too, was considered “bewitched” for having failed to conceive a child with Martin, since one contemporary source—the Malleus Maleficarum—explains that the devil can bewitch women to make their husbands “loathsome” to them. However, Davis considers it unlikely that Bertrande loathed Martin. Although her family urged her to separate from him (since impotency was grounds for dissolving a marriage), she never did. Her refusal to have her marriage dissolved allowed her to have a childhood with Martin’s sisters, to live outside her parents’ home, and kept her from being forced to marry again. Then, when Bertrande might have felt more ready for sex and childbirth, the “spell” causing Martin’s impotence was mysteriously lifted.
Many accounts of the story of Martin Guerre depict Bertrande as a victim or a simple dupe, but Davis doesn’t believe this was true. Rather, she writes a new narrative that highlights some of the ways that Bertrande was in fact quite strong-willed. For example, Davis suggests that despite being married at quite a young age, Bertrande may have used the excuse of the “spell” to deliberately delay the consummation of the marriage and childbearing until she felt ready for sex. In this sense, Bertrande found ways to gain power for herself within the limited roles allowed to women in this period.
In this period, Davis explains, women were subject to the authority of men and were considered to be the property of their husbands and fathers. Although they had little formal legal and political power, women like Bertrande played an important role in the economic life of the community and found a way to exercise influence in more subtle ways. For example, women performed important economic tasks (like trimming vines, cutting grapes, spinning thread, and making bread). Some women even lent out small sums of money with interest or worked as midwives and surgeons.
Davis resists the tendency to depict all women in the sixteenth century as subject to the authority of men. Although there was great legal and economic inequality, she also highlights the ways that women like Bertrande played important roles in their communities and exercised power in ways that might not be immediately apparent.
Women were often left at a disadvantage when they were widowed. Wives inherited property from their husbands only when explicitly specified in the will. However, there were also advantages to widowhood, as widowed women had more freedom, could own property, and were addressed by the honorific “Na.” For example, one local noblewoman owned and leased her own land after the death of her husband. After Martin’s departure, Bertrande was left with the ambiguous status of neither wife nor widow, since, under canon law, a wife could not remarry without firm proof that her husband had died.
The problem for Bertrande, Davis suggests, was that sixteenth-century French society only offered women a limited selection of roles: “respectable” wife, mother, or widow. After Martin’s departure, it wasn’t clear whether Bertrande was a wife or a widow. Thus, her social, legal, and economic position in the community was in dispute. This shows just how closely women’s power was linked to their respectability in their family roles.
Martin’s parents eventually forgave him for his disappearance, and Martin’s father named Martin as his heir in his will when he died. Still, Martin’s departure was a disaster for Bertrande. She experienced a considerable reduction in status. For instance, since she no longer had a household of her own, she had to live under the same roof as her mother again. Pierre had married Bertrande’s widowed mother, thus taking responsibility for Martin’s family by marriage. In the meantime, Bertrande waited more than eight years for Martin’s return without remarrying. Davis suggests that she might have been helped in her solitude by her four sisters-in-law and by the wise woman who had helped her during her period of “bewitchment.” Perhaps she dreamed that her husband would return and be different.
Like Martin’s identity, Bertrande’s identity was also defined by her property and role as a member of two land-owning families—the Guerres and the Rols. Without her husband, it wasn’t clear how Bertrande could make her way in the community or how people would view her. Davis points out that the fact that Bertrande didn’t marry again for more than a decade testifies to her stubbornness, authority, and strong moral values.