Essay title: The Return of Martin Guerre
The Return of Martin Guerre written by Natalie Davis gives the audience a rare glimpse into the world of peasant life in sixteenth century France. It also allows a modern day audience a chance to examine and to compare their own identities and questions of self. What makes the story so interesting to modern day viewers and readers is how relevant the story and the people in it are to our own times.
This story is about a history of everyday people rather than royalty and generals, history's usual subjects. The main focus of the story is on Bertrande de Rols and her place in sixteenth century society, especially as a wife. At the age of nine, Bertrande was married to Martin Guerre who was a young peasant of Basque heritage. For several years, the two have trouble consummating their marriage. In 1548, Martin runs away from his village of Artigat, France to join the Spanish army, leaving his twenty-two year old wife Bertrande and a young son. After eight years of living in quiet desperation, an imposter Arnaud du Tilh nicknamed "Pansette," shows up in the village in 1548, in the guise of Martin Guerre.
It is no wonder that Bertrande would finally find fulfillment of her hopes and dreams of a better life with the new Martin. The couple's marital bliss unravels the day Arnaud argues with his uncle, Pierre Guerre, over his desire to sell off some of his ancestral land. Under Basque tradition and custom, a man is never to sell his ancestral land this causes Pierre to be suspicious of the identity of his nephew and he decides to sue Arnaud as an imposter.
From a modern day point of view, one would deem it not viable to confuse the identity of Martin Guerre and Arnaud du Tilh for any great length of time. Simple contrasts such height, body shape, personalities, and even their first languages all differed and should have all been triggers. The only thing that Arnaud and Martin really had in common was that neither was happy or had become very bored with their lives they were born into to remain where they were.
The question in hand is, how could Arnaud successfully trade his identity for the identity of Martin Guerre? There are several reasonable explanations the first is it was harder to identify people with photos, identification, or similar means. Therefore only flawed memory could serve the purpose of knowing what Martin looked like among peasants too poor to have considered portraiture. Second, the Basque tradition which Martin Guerre grew up placed a powerful emphasis on the importance of family and seeing him return would have been, even after a less than honorable exit nearly a decade before, a nearly joyous occasion. Finally, Davis points out what is the truly amazing about Arnaud is that he had, "a memory an actor would envy (35)." Though this mechanism alone, Davis believes, Arnaud is able to tap into a myriad number of stories which he is able to consciously able to craft into a believable mask of Martin Guerre–one that would, seemingly, fool Martin Guerre's friends, family, and his wife for several years. Even more amazingly, when much of his family was certain that Arnaud was not actually Martin, he would nearly deceive several magistrates.
The fraud only did not go unpunished because the real Martin Guerre reappeared on the scene in the nick of time, and with not much in the way of explanation, with less of memory for the events of his life than Arnaud had. It was this fact that compelled Davis's two primary sources on the case of Martin Guerre to try to understand just what it was that they had witnessed. As Davis points out, this was a case where absolutely nothing was as it seemed.
This is what drew both Jean Coras, the judge who nearly freed Arnaud to return to Martin Guerre's wife, to write his magisterial Arrest Memorable and Guillaume Le Sueur Admiranda historia de Pseudo Martino. Both works show a powerful respect for the fact that Arnaud was able to pull off such an incredible act of fraud for so long, but neither could explain with how a peasant was capable of doing this.The two men left written accounts of the Martin Guerre incident: one, Guillaume Le Sueur, is a little known figure and therefore does not receive much attention from Davis. Instead, the focus is on the other author, Jean de Coras, one of the trial judges in the Guerre case and a famous French legal scholar. Davis attempts to psychologically penetrate the mind of Coras, giving the reader a lot of background information on Coras and his accomplishments.
What emerges is a portrait of a really remarkable and likeable fellow, a man who sympathized with the fake Martin Guerre because of the mental ability this "Martin" showed during his interrogations. The book often reads like an engaging story rather than a dry as dust history. You get to know these people, especially.