The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Epilogue Summary & Analysis

By 1563, everything seemed back to normal in Artigat. Pierre and Martin were on good terms, their names appearing together on contracts and in lawsuits. Although there is no record of what happened between Martin and Bertrande, Davis suggests that they had reason to make peace, as Martin needed a wife to care for him in his infirmity, and Bertrande needed a father for her children and to maintain her respectable reputation. Moreover, they both needed to maintain appearances in order to preserve their position in the eyes of the village community. After all, “if she were an adulterer, then he was a cuckold.” After Bertrande’s death, Martin married again and had a child by his second wife.
The reintegration of Martin back into the Guerre family suggests that property remained very important as an index of identity. When Martin took back his role as heir and head of the family, he was accepted. Martin’s reintegration also demonstrates the persistence of gender roles and commonly accepted ideas about women’s virtue and honor, since Bertrande needed to live as Martin’s wife again in order to be accepted in the community as a “respectable” woman.
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Martin and Bertrande even had two more sons, who inherited the family property along with Martin’s son by his second wife. The lands were split between Martin and Bertrande’s children and Martin’s son by his second wife, suggesting that the family continued to follow Basque customs of inheritance. The descendants of the Rols and Guerre families owned property together and were godparents to each other’s children.
Despite all that had passed between the Rols and Guerre families, property kept them together, since they owned land jointly for several generations. This demonstrates again the importance of land and inheritance to understandings of identity and family bonds in sixteenth-century French peasant communities.
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Davis asks whether all this means that life went on as if the imposture had never happened. She suggests that the case would not be so easily forgotten. Surely Bertrande did not forget her time with Arnaud, and the villagers would retell the story for many generations to come. They almost certainly heard about Coras’s famous book, and the story became local legend. Even in the late twentieth century, when a new arrival to the village observed that “nothing ever happens in Artigat,” an old woman once again told the story of Martin Guerre.
Davis resists an easy ending to the story of Martin Guerre. Although the historical record would suggest that everything went back to normal, she guesses that this was probably not the case—that Bertrande didn’t forget Arnaud, and that people still talked about the legendary imposture. This shows her willingness to extrapolate and speculate about people’s emotional lives in ways that might take her outside the official record.
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The reason the story of Martin Guerre has been “told and retold” so many times since the sixteenth century, Davis thinks, is that it “reminds us that astonishing things are possible.” Davis wonders whether her own telling of the story is representative of the truth, or if it is simply another one of Arnaud’s masks.
Davis recognizes that the story of Martin Guerre is an appealing and sensational one, and she openly questions the reliability of the evidence she has used to construct this particular narrative. For Davis—as for other people who have written about Martin Guerre—there is still profound uncertainty at the heart of the case.
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