The Return of Martin Guerre

by

Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Chapter 5 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Arnaud first arrived at a hotel near Artigat, where word spread that “Martin” had returned. At first, Bertrande, Pierre, Martin’s four sisters, and the rest of the family didn’t recognize him. But when he was able to recount memories from ten or fifteen years earlier, they embraced him. (Martin had long since been forgiven for his theft.) Even then, however, Arnaud did not immediately leave for Artigat, but stayed in the hotel to recuperate. It was there that he first got to know Bertrande.
At first, it seemed as if there was a lack of physical evidence that this really was the “returned” Martin Guerre. However, the family accepted Martin once he presented other forms of evidence. He clearly remembered events from their shared past, which they took as proof that this was Martin.
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Davis suggests that Arnaud’s ability to successfully impersonate Martin is more plausible than it may seem: after all, the Guerres hadn’t seen Martin for almost a decade and had no painted portraits by which  to remember him. Although Bertrande might have been fooled at first, Davis believes that at a certain point she must have realized that this was not her husband. The marriage between Arnaud and Bertrande was “an invented marriage,” Davis argues, and depended on Bertrande’s explicit or implicit consent and collaboration.
It might seem implausible to people today that a family could be convinced that an entirely different person was their lost father, brother, or nephew. However, Davis argues that standards of evidence were different in the early modern period. Without a photograph or even a portrait to remember him by, Martin’s family and neighbors might have indeed had somewhat hazy recollections of what he had looked like.
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Davis argues that the evidence suggests that Bertrande and Arnaud fell in love, and that Bertrande became his accomplice in the deception. There are many signs in the historical record of her care for him: for instance, she tried to physically protect him from the blows of her relatives and later talked of the intimacy of their marriage, the way they “conversed day and night.” In the next three years, they had two daughters, only one of whom (Bernarde) survived infancy. It may have been easier for them to justify this “invented marriage” because, in the sixteenth century, a contract before witnesses was sufficient to consider a couple married. According to Davis, Bertrande and Arnaud may have considered a marriage “something that was in their hands to make.”
Unlike other accounts of the story of Martin Guerre, Davis emphasizes Bertrande’s agency in choosing to accept Arnaud as her husband. Bertrande’s first marriage had been quite literally made for her: at the age of thirteen or fourteen, she was married to the husband that her parents had chosen for her. This second time, she made her own unconventional marriage. Although Bertrande and Arnaud knew that they had “invented” their relationship, they may have considered their marriage as legitimate as others because it came about as a result of their free choice.
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Bertrande and Arnaud never confessed their sin to a local Catholic priest. Davis suggests that they may have been sympathetic to the reformed religion, Protestantism, which emphasizes personal and direct connection to God—without the need for mediation by a confessor. By the 1560s, Protestant proselytizers had reached the southwest of France. Bertrande’s family converted, and it is possible that the couple had become Protestants as well. Davis notes that, for example, Arnaud did not reference saints in his final confession, and talked only of God’s mercy towards sinners—a Protestant convention of prayer. The “new religion” might have offered Bertrande and Arnaud the chance to tell their story to God alone, without need of any priest or human intermediary.
Davis is interested in the impact the “new religion”—Protestantism—might have had on Bertrande and Arnaud. For example, they may have found Protestantism empowering because it removed the need for the authority of priests in making decisions about their life and marriage. At the same time, however, Davis admits that there isn’t decisive historical evidence that Bertrande and Arnaud were Protestant. Here the historian has to extrapolate based on her own evaluation of the evidence.
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