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The Return of Martin Guerre (original 1982; edition 1984)

by Natalie Zemon Davis

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8481610,600 (3.72)20
Member:leonardr
Title:The Return of Martin Guerre
Authors:Natalie Zemon Davis
Info:Harvard University Press (1984), Edition: Reprint, Paperback, 176 pages
Collections:Your library
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The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis (1982)

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  1. 00
    The Virgin Blue by Tracy Chevalier (KayCliff)
    KayCliff: Both books feature the problems of late sixteenth century Protestantism in France.
  2. 00
    Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence by Gene A. Brucker (jcbrunner)
    jcbrunner: While Giovanni and Lusanna never approach Martin Guerre's judicial and marital problems, both are short and sweet micro histories.
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English (14)  Dutch (1)  French (1)  All languages (16)
Showing 1-5 of 14 (next | show all)
I rate this as one of my favourite books. I love the ambiguity of the outcome. There is no black and white here, but the law can't see in shades of grey. It raises many questions about identity, and how to prove some one is who he says he is.. no less relevent now when we are being threatened with identity cards than it was in medieval France. I read this after seeing the film (which also rates as a favourite) so it always seems to me as a companion to the film, the text of the background research. ( )
  dylkit | Feb 3, 2014 |
Excellent, brief study of a famous impersonation. The author's main additions to the original story is to fill in the Basque background of the Guerres, the influence of the Reformation in the village, and the unlikeliness of the wife having really been deceived. ( )
  Coach_of_Alva | Jan 8, 2014 |
Short and relatively shallow but interesting enough. ( )
  Michael.Xolotl | Mar 5, 2013 |
Reading this micro-history narrative over 25 years from its original publication is more of an exercise in redundancy than unique historical insights. Our "post-post modern revising revisionist" perspectives leave this wonderful, yet brief work in a matrix of has-been biography or sensationalist epic. Still, Davis' work is a fantastic snapshot of a world that is so bathed in cliches that its topic, Renaissance France, is usually passed over as a bland zombie-esque masquerade of nameless faces and and dates. What Davis does is bring a name to a place that is surpassing normal yet exotically framed, choosing to meticulously divulge a family that had been caught in the misfortunes of their bad decisions. The real gift of the narrative is that, as 21st century dwellers, we can equate our fears, passions, desires, and decisions with those of Martin Guerre and his scorned wife Bertrande. The complexity of the human condition is displayed with such deftness it's hard to decipher where our stereotypes dissolve into a common identification with the protagonists. Obviously, this is a wonderfully researched "long article," including a variety of sources that are pulled from some of the best archives in France. Davis does err on brevity, and as such loses the reader is a vague discussion of her sources, namely Coras. Certainly, he is a player in the story of the Guerres, but his inclusion at the end of the narrative is distracting from the power of the story. A fantastic but at this point outdated work of revisionist working class history.

74 Commendable ( )
1 vote mattchisholm | Aug 21, 2012 |
Natalie Zemon Davis, along with the likes of Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie and Carlo Ginzburg, both of whom she explicitly acknowledges in "The Return of Martin Guerre," has carved out a relatively new niche in the academic history. Instead of writing about the movers and shakers, the kings or emperors, or large-scale religious change, she writes here specifically focused on a few families in mid-sixteenth century France. The reputations made by the people that exist within the covers were not the result of high birth or diplomatic achievement. The only reason the name "Martin Guerre" has any resonance to our ears is because his story is perhaps the most incredible since that of Odysseus. Except Guerre's has the virtue of being historical fact. Without any of the historiographic jargon that we may have come cynically to expect, Davis has wonderfully harnessed most of the elements that allow the causal reader to fully appreciate the story of Martin Guerre.

Not long after moving from the Basque village of Hendaye to Artigat with his father Sanxi and his uncle Pierre, Martin Guerre, aged 13, marries a certain Bertrande de Rols. After a period of restlessness and sexual impotence, they conceive a child (also named Sanxi); soon afterwards, he gets into a dispute with his father and runs away, never to return. From this point on, there are intermittent lengthy discussions of property transfer in France at the time, specifically detailing how Basque tradition stipulates that the property moves from Bertrande to Pierre (since Sanxi the elder had already died).

In another world, Arnaud du Tilh (aka "Pansette," or "The Belly," for his well-defined paunch), eager to remove himself from the monotony of the seigniory of Sajas, joins Henri II's army. In one of the weaker and more speculative parts of the book, Davis here guesses that Arnaud and Martin might have both met somewhere while in the service of Henri II (in whose service the real Martin might have lost a leg), traded intimate life stories and history to such an extent that Arnaud could then arrive in Artigat, proclaim himself the long-lost Martin Guerre, and insert himself into lives of Pierre Guerre and Bertrande, who quickly learns of du Tilh's imposture, but outwardly fervently maintains that he is really Martin Guerre. Pierre, however, decides to form an inquest into Pansette's identity, suspecting something is out of place.

The inquest turns into a trial where witnesses - Martin's friends, family, doctors, neighbors - cannot agree on his identity. In fact, Pansette is such a good impersonator that about one-third of them say he is Martin, another third say he isn't, and the remaining refuse to comment, being too baffled or fearing retribution from a member of the village. He is found guilty, but appeals to an illustrious court in Toulouse, where the author of one of the first accounts of the story, Jean de Coras, sits as a judge. After careful consideration, he overturns the ruling of the lower court, and announces Pansette innocent. At that moment, a man with a wooden leg enters the courtroom claiming to be Martin Guerre. One by one, everyone begins to recognize "the newcomer" (as Pansette calls him), and within a matter of hours Martin, who has been gone for a several years, regains his reputation, family, and friends inside the courtroom. Coras sees the error of his previous judgment and sentences Pansette to, first, an "amende honorable" (a traditional French assignation of culpability) and then death by hanging (a punishment deeply tied to avarice in the medieval imagination).

Davis ends again on a speculative note, suggesting that perhaps Coras found sympathy with Pansette because of their common sympathy for Reformation ideas (Coras was and remained fairly liberal for the time). Given the time period, there were countless accusations slung back and forth of faithlessness and apostasy. However, the book is much too short and this part in particular too underdeveloped to seriously support this idea.

Interesting, too, is what Davis never explicitly takes much time to discuss, but nevertheless lurks beneath the surface: ideas of identity, gender, property acquisition, incipient capitalism, and belonging in sixteenth-century France. So, while a causal reader can enjoy it for its unique historical cache, those whose interest is more academic have a lot to unpack, too. For those interested in enjoying the latter approach, I recommend a reading in tandem with Valentine Groebner's "Who Are You?: Identification, Deception, and Surveillance in Early Modern Europe," which takes the time to fill out some of the undercurrents in Davis' thought which she only alluded to. ( )
4 vote kant1066 | Oct 14, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Natalie Zemon Davisprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Ginzburg, CarloAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Lombardini, SandroTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0674766911, Paperback)

The Inventive Peasant Arnaud du Tilh had almost persuaded the learned judges at the Parlement of Toulouse, when on a summer's day in 1560 a man swaggered into the court on a wooden leg, denounced Arnaud, and reestablished his claim to the identity, property, and wife of Martin Guerre. The astonishing case captured the imagination of the Continent. Told and retold over the centuries, the story of Martin Guerre became a legend, still remembered in the Pyrenean village where the impostor was executed more than 400 years ago.

Now a noted historian, who served as consultant for a new French film on Martin Guerre, has searched archives and lawbooks to add new dimensions to a tale already abundant in mysteries: we are led to ponder how a common man could become an impostor in the sixteenth century, why Bertrande de Rols, an honorable peasant woman, would accept such a man as her husband, and why lawyers, poets, and men of letters like Montaigne became so fascinated with the episode.

Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the lives of ordinary people, in a sparkling way that reveals the hidden attachments and sensibilities of nonliterate sixteenth-century villagers. Here we see men and women trying to fashion their identities within a world of traditional ideas about property and family and of changing ideas about religion. We learn what happens when common people get involved in the workings of the criminal courts in the ancien régime, and how judges struggle to decide who a man was in the days before fingerprints and photographs. We sense the secret affinity between the eloquent men of law and the honey-tongued village impostor, a rare identification across class lines.

Deftly written to please both the general public and specialists, The Return of Martin Guerre will interest those who want to know more about ordinary families and especially women of the past, and about the creation of literary legends. It is also a remarkable psychological narrative about where self-fashioning stops and lying begins.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:37:23 -0400)

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Includes bibliography and index

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