The Return of Martin Guerre
by Natalie Zemon Davis
Harvard University Press, 162 pp., $15.00
The biographies of peasants and especially the autobiographies of country people are a longstanding problem. We owe to the habits of Protestant introspection the fascinating life history of the Swiss mountain dweller, Thomas Platter, written in the sixteenth century; for the seventeenth century, as far as I know, nothing of the kind exists, at least in French. During the eighteenth century, Jansenism (as an almost Calvinist exercise of self-examination) provided us with the memoirs of the expeasant Restif de la Bretonne. The picaresque tradition produced the recollections of Jamerey-Duval, an obscure vagabond who tramped for many years through the regions of Champagne, Burgundy, and Lorraine. The culture disseminated by the Napoleonic was finally made possible the childish notebooks of the young forester Coignet, who became a captain in the Imperial armies and a memorialist in retirement. As can be seen from this tally of a few names, the harvest is poor. Thus the temptation is strong to supplement these few autobiographies by writing biographies of rustic or peasant characters. That is what Natalie Davis (who teaches at Princeton) has done with great success, in her reconstruction of the Basque or Gascon peasant Martin Guerre, of his “double” Arnaud du Tilh, and of the people around them.
The story of Martin Guerre is extraordinary. In the middle of the sixteenth century, the Guerre family emigrated from the Basque region of the Pyrenees to Gascony, in the south of present-day France. One of the Guerre children, Martin, grew up there on the land and married a girl from the same locality, Bertrande de Rols. The marriage was not happy; the husband was half impotent, or perhaps bewitched. He deserted the family home, enlisted as a soldier, fought on the enemy side in battles on the frontiers of the kingdom of France. He was injured and lost a leg. In accordance with old Basque traditions, he then took service as a valet with a Spanish lord in the northwestern corner of the Iberian peninsula.
One fine day “he” returned to his village…or, more accurately, his ghost in all too solid form took his place. Another man, a genuine Gascon named Arnaud du Tilh, had decided to pass himself off as Martin Guerre, by making use of a vague physical resemblance and all the uncertainties it engendered. The second Martin managed to get himself accepted by the family of his “wife” and by Bertrande herself, who was only too happy to collude with a more vigorous and lovable companion than the one she believed lost forever in war and exile. Children were born from this new union, ostensibly a continuation of an older bond. Everything seemed to go like a dream. The second Martin had a head for business and alongside farming went into trading—the classical route to social advancement for a young farmer of that time.
But Martin number two, alias Arnaud, wanted to settle accounts with his “wife’s” uncle, the older relation who had managed the family’s property …