The historian Natalie Zemon Davis explains why she decided to write The Return of Martin Guerre, which she calls “a historian’s adventure with a different way of telling about the past.” The famous story of imposture has been told and re-told in novels, folklore, plays, and even an opera, so Davis felt the need to account for why the world needed another version of the story of Martin Guerre.
Davis first came to the story when she helped write the screenplay for the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre, starring the famous French actor Gerard Depardieu. Although she enjoyed working on the film, she felt that it told the story in overly broad strokes. She was drawn to “dig deeper” into the case, finding out more about, for instance, the Basque background of the Guerres, the role of women, and the role of religion in a community that was split between Protestants and Catholics. Although the film was exciting and suspenseful, she felt there was still “room to reflect upon the significance of identity” and other important cultural and historical issues. She decided that she wanted to write a non-fiction account that would leave no details out, exploring what the story can tell people about sixteenth-century French rural society.
Providing further support for her proposition that this book represents a new and different way of writing about the past, Davis explains that she is, unusually, adapting her book from a film. Her book will aim to keep the narrative suspense of the movie while incorporating more historical nuances, exploring details that the film had to leave out. For example, Davis is particularly interested in exploring the perspectives of the women in the story—an angle that is often left out in other accounts.
Davis explains that nobody knows much about the private and emotional lives of rural peasants in sixteenth-century France, because over ninety percent of them were illiterate. Historians typically learn about people’s lives through letters, diaries, or literary sources—none of which are likely to exist for peasants. The stories that have survived are often stereotypical or played for laughs, relying on the low comedy trope of the “personnes populaires” (or common people). For example, historical collections of comic stories like the Les Cent Nouvelles Nouvelles and Propos Rustiques depict villagers in amusing or ridiculous sexual situations and have a limited psychological register.
One of Davis’s central aims in this book is to focus on the lives, emotions, and experiences of peasants. As she explains, these people are often left out of both traditional historical narratives, since those accounts rely on documentary records, and many of these people were illiterate. They are also often left out of legends and stories, since those narratives tend to feature aristocratic protagonists. In this sense, Davis’s book shows how a narrative can change when it is re-centered on different types of people.
Court records provide more clues as to the inner lives of peasants, but they are often incomplete and fragmentary. For example, Davis points out that a 1535 case of a woman who murdered her husband doesn’t give the wife a chance to tell her side of the story. One unusually well-documented case is that of Martin Guerre, chronicled in a book called Arrest Memorable (1561) by Jean de Coras. The book was enormously popular, with five reprints over six years in French and Latin.
Part of the problem with the stories people tell about the past, Davis argues, is that they only provide one side of the story. Often this is due to a lack of evidence. The case of Martin Guerre is so useful, then, because it is so well-documented, providing a valuable record of the lives of people whose lives were otherwise not written about realistically—if at all.
The case of Martin Guerre is so valuable, Davis argues, because it shows how peasants thought about issues of “sentiment,” “aspiration,” and personal identity. It is also unique in that the story inspired retellings in high literary culture, providing a link between the lives of peasants and their social “betters.” Davis explains that she began her research with the print accounts of the trial of Martin Guerre, but soon dug into contemporary legal cases and local archives in villages in southwest France. She writes that the resulting story is “in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.”
Davis has tried to write not only about the lives of peasants, but their emotions, dreams, and ambitions as well. This is a hard task for a historian, who can only work with the available evidence. Consequently, Davis has written a narrative that is based on as much archival evidence as possible, but with some extrapolations of her own to fill in some of the gaps.