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 in the absence of the real Martin Guerre. The uncle flew into a rage. Suspicions, previously hidden beneath the surface, now burst into the open. Witnesses recognized Martin number two as a man called Pansette (“little paunch”), the nickname du Tilh had acquired in his home village because of his wellupholstered shape. The Guerre family, but not the wife, tried to beat the highly suspect neo-Martin to death. He was put on trial for imposture, first at Rieux, a nearby small town, and then the appeal case went to the prestigious Parliament at Toulouse. There, the competent and conscientious Judge Jean de Coras finally persuaded himself, erroneously, that Pansette was the genuine Martin Guerre.
Then came a coup de théâtre straight out of one of Feydeau’s farces: the real Martin turned up, hobbling on the wooden leg he’d acquired after his soldiering wound. He confounded the imposter, who was therefore sentenced to be hanged by due process of law in Bertrande’s own village, where his longcamouflaged crime had been witnessed by everyone. Before his death, Pansette touchingly acknowledged his wrongdoing; he even instigated legal action against his own relations so that his family’s property could go to the children he had had by his “wife.” The marriage of the genuine Martin and Bertrande put itself back together somehow, or so it would seem; a century later their descendants were still cultivating amicably the lands of the family parish. As for the good Judge Coras, later to be hanged as a Protestant, he wrote an account of the whole affair—the first piece of French sensational journalism.
The affair is an interesting one for several reasons. First, as Natalie Davis shows in her intelligent and subtle analysis, the story gives an inside view of an otherwise little-known world, the private lives of peasants. Many people confuse the country folk of the past with the unfeeling, uncouth gorillas depicted by some otherwise excellent historians. Zola’s peasantry, for example, or even worse, Karl Marx’s, a peasantry idiotically compared by the great man to a sack of potatoes. Martin and du Tilh also correspond, in the second place, to period stereotypes. Martin Guerre matches the conventional image of the hulking, clumsy Basque, while du Tilh is the embodiment of the fast-talking, sharp-witted Gascon, capable of dissimulation, a born actor, energetic, eager to “climb” in a society which does not always acknowledge his worth at its true value.
Third, and most important, peasant culture, in this story as in many others, shows its ancient power to represent in real life what in high culture was no more than a sublime fiction suitable for Greek tragedies or Latin and French comedies. In Plautus’s Amphitryon (and in Molièere’s, in the next millennium), the hero, a Theban general away at the wars, is replaced by Jupiter during his absence. The god takes on all the features of the man, and plays the role of false husband even in the bed of Amphitryon’s wife, Alcmene. The affair ends with Jupiter returning to his celestial headquarters and reconciliation of the mortal couple. This is roughly the story of Martin Guerre, except that the latter story is true, takes place more than a thousand years after Plautus’s comedy was written, and has no Jupiterian happy ending for the usurper of another man’s identity.
In this sense the Martin Guerre affair is a “primitive” episode in the terminology of ethnologists and prehistorians. René Girard, the author of Violence and the Sacred, for example, holds that myths derive from true facts; he often alludes to the violent vengeance and bloody vendettas of the dawn of time, which could not be defused until the sacred, collective murder of a scapegoat took place. From this point of view, the Guerre episode is typical of the events Girard evokes: one man becomes the twin and monstrous double of another. Ambivalent and undifferentiated, Pansette is at the same time good for his new family and bad in his own actions. He adopts the physical mask of Martin, usurps his position and identity, to gain the affection of his wife and the product of his land. As a consequence, the previously blunted desires of the real Martin (alerted of his misfortune by some good soul who traveled into the depths of Spain to find him) are reawakened as if by jealousy and by a procedure of imitation (mimesis).
The one-legged Martin, a cultural hero of the return to the social order, returns to his hearth. He replaces the brutal, tribal vendetta, which his uncle favored, with judicial revenge. The vengeance ends, properly, with the death of the criminal Arnaud, who accepts his punishment with a certain piety, and even welcomes it. We are not yet at the stage of the scapegoat arbitrarily chosen by the community from among the innocent, since here it is the guilty party who fulfills the collective expiation in return for the sacrilege committed in his own homeland. So this text, for all its vivid realism, is still a “primitive” episode. Pansette is hanged, and society avenged, mended, reconstituted. Everyone can retrieve his true identity, his goods, his wife, his legitimate offspring. Communal unanimity springs forth anew thanks to the unmasking and punishment of du Tilh.
One can only admire Natalie Davis for the major work of historical reconstruction she has performed without any kind of ideological bias. It’s true that Martin Guerre has previously fascinated Americans—or more accurately, American women. Before Natalie Davis, another woman from the US told the story of the Gascon “Jupiter” and the Basque “Amphitryon” in the persons of Martin and Arnaud, but she told the tale with incomparable talent and little learning.* Natalie Davis has also collaborated orated on an excellent film of the story (produced in France) as well as writing this book. Comparing her learned work with the screen images of Daniel Vigne and Jean-Claude Carrière, my own preferences are no doubt biased. I once asked a woman if she knew of War and Peace, and she replied ingenuously, “Yes, I’ve read the book, but I prefer the movie.” About Martin Guerre, I would say, without any hesitation, the movie was great, but Natalie Davis’s book is even better.
—translated by David Bellos
December 22, 1983