As a historical narrative of an event many centuries in the past, The Return of Martin Guerre is naturally concerned with questions of narrative and authority. How are stories told? Who has the right to tell them? Davis reflects on these issues both as a modern historian and in her description of the sixteenth-century narratives that first told the remarkable story of Martin Guerre’s disappearance and the takeover of his life by another man who duped even Martin’s wife.
Davis’s preface explains that she decided to write a history of the legendary case of Martin Guerre because she felt that other accounts had omitted important factors—like the private and emotional lives of its peasant protagonists, the role of women, and various other historical nuances. She first worked on the case when she helped write the screenplay for the film Le Retour de Martin Guerre. But although she enjoyed working on the film, she felt that it told the story in overly broad strokes. Davis wanted to write about the case from the perspective of a historian, exploring what it could tell people about sixteenth-century peasant society. Davis explains that most accounts of peasant lives from the period depict people of “low condition” in stereotypical ways, and often mock their conditions and experiences for laughs. By contrast, she was interested in writing a book that would attempt to reconstruct how peasants thought about issues of emotion, hope for their futures, and personal identity. In many historical narratives, exploration of those subjects had been limited to people of high social status.
Arnaud du Tilh was so extraordinarily convincing as an impostor of Martin Guerre because he had a keen command of the power of narrative. He had an excellent memory and spent years preparing and rehearsing for his deception, so much so that Davis compares him to an actor wearing a mask at a carnival. The result was that he was able to convince people of his story, even when the evidence—like his lack of physical resemblance to his uncle Pierre and his son, the younger Sanxi—seemed to work against him. For example, when Arnaud first arrived in Artigat as “Martin,” people were skeptical. However, when he was able to recount memories from ten or fifteen years earlier, the family and neighborhood accepted him. Davis suggests that Arnaud made the transition into Martin’s life so smoothly not only because he had learned so much information about Martin, but also because he spread the news about “Martin’s” return in advance, creating a narrative before he even arrived. As Davis explains, “he came announced, predisposing people to perceive him as Martin Guerre.” Even after many of the other Guerres had turned on him and declared him an impostor and taken him to trial, and even after the actual Martin had returned, Arnaud still maintained that he was the “real” Martin Guerre. Consequently, the court prevented him from speaking at the trial. This suggests that Arnaud was struggling to maintain control over the narrative, and that at the same time the court was trying to exert their own control over his story.
Davis spends the final chapters of the book writing not directly about Martin and Arnaud’s imposture, but rather about the people and writers who discussed Martin Guerre’s story in the sixteenth century. The stories that these people told about Martin tended to differ based on who told it, which raises the question of whether anyone can ever know the historical truth of what happened. One book by Guillaume Le Sueur, Admiranda historia (1561), is a straightforward news pamphlet that simply summarizes the case. However, it also draws a moral at the end, suggesting that people tended to use the narrative of Martin Guerre to express their own ideas about the proper order of society. Another book, the Arrest Memorable (1561) by Jean de Coras, is more inventive, focusing on the story and characters rather than the legal facts. Coras described the case of Martin Guerre as “prodigious,” implying that it was unlike anything that had ever been seen in France before. Coras also seemed to have some admiration for Arnaud. He described the story as “a tragedy for this fine peasant” that “makes it hard to tell the difference between tragedy and comedy.” Davis points out that this is unusual, since French tragedies and tragicomedies typically feature only aristocratic personages. That Coras was able to conceive of the case as a “tragedy” suggests that he could see a grand narrative even among people of low social status.
What was innovative about these early accounts, then, was that they saw the story of Martin Guerre as an extraordinary story of deception and human passions—even though it featured peasant characters. The case of Martin Guerre thus put peasants into the stories that sixteenth-century French society told about itself in a way that hadn’t been seen before. At the same time, however, those narratives also tended to leave out certain perspectives, like the experience of Martin’s wife Bertrande. All of these earlier accounts of the story depict her as foolish and easily deceived, while Davis, writing from a more modern viewpoint, suggests that she almost certainly was not. In this sense, a narrative of a historical event is always subject to bias depending on who is writing the story.
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Narrative and Authority Quotes in The Return of Martin Guerre
But we still know rather little about the peasants’ hopes and feelings; the ways in which they experienced the relation between husband and wife, parent and child; the ways in which they experienced the constraints and possibilities of their lives. We often think of peasants as not having had much in the way of choices, but is this in fact true? Did individual villagers ever try to fashion their lives in unusual and unexpected ways?
Much of the time historians of population movement think of peasant migration as due only to economic considerations; the case of the Guerres shows this is not the whole story. Martin dreamed of life beyond the confines of fields of millet, of tileworks, properties, and marriages.
If [Bertrande] had wanted to betray [Arnaud] at this point, all she had to do was tell a story he could not repeat; instead she adhered to the text they had agreed upon months before.
The originality of Coras’s vision of this peasant story should be stressed. The French tragicomedy ended happily and used aristocratic figures for its leading personages. […] That Coras could conceive of “a play of tragedy between persons of low estate” depended on his being able to identify himself somewhat with the rustic who had remade himself.
In Coras’s “comitragic” version…one can approve the cuckolding of the once impotent and now faraway husband. Here Arnaud du Tilh becomes a kind of hero, a more real Martin Guerre than the hard-hearted man with the wooden leg. The tragedy is more in his unmasking than in his imposture.
The story of Martin Guerre is told and retold because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible. Even for the historian who has deciphered it, it retains a stubborn vitality. I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it once again?