The Return of Martin Guerre, Reviewed by Cole Bricker


In the 1540s in Languedoc, France, a rich peasant named Martin Guerre left his wife, child and property and was not heard from for eight years. Upon returning, Guerre lived in relative marital bliss with his wife Bertrande, until three years later when Bertrande declared that she had been tricked by an imposter and brought her purportedly fraudulent husband to court. The case garnered so much attention that it was referred to the high court in Toulouse. At the trial, the husband was so compelling in reciting the details of Martin’s life – his Basque heritage, his interpersonal relationships, and his intimate experiences with Bertrande – that the judges were on the verge of dismissing the case. However, before the verdict could be rendered, a man appeared who completely altered the outcome of the trial. That man was Martin Guerre. Consequently, Arnaud du Tilh (the imposter) was forced to confess to fraud, and was subsequently executed.

Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre successfully employs a micro-historical approach to thoroughly examine this remarkable tale of marital deceit. Davis’ microhistory is based primarily on two accounts of the trial that were widely disseminated after its conclusion – one by judge Jean de Coras who acted as the trial’s lead justice, and another by legal scholar Guillaume Le Sueur. Additionally, Zemon Davis employs court and financial records to reconstruct the aspirations and agency of Arnaud, Martin, and most importantly, Bertrande. Critically, however, Davis’ account is not intended to solely unearth the personhood of these figures; rather, the intent of her work is to demonstrate that the experiences of these three villagers “are not too many steps beyond the more common experience of their neighbors, [and] that an impostor’s fabrication has links with more ordinary ways of creating personal identity” (Zemon Davis, VII). Thus, The Return of Martin Guerre does not simply provide a descriptive account of an isolated deception; instead, Zemon Davis seeks to analyze the social conditions that could produce such a seemingly bizarre and duplicitous act.

In reviewing The Return of Martin Guerre, I intend to focus on three critical elements of the narrative and the methodology it employs. First, I contend Zemon Davis successfully uses her micro-historical lens to unearth the aspirations of Bertrande, who, in my opinion, is the most enigmatic figure in this saga. I believe that Zemon Davis rightfully concludes that Bertrande was not a victim of Arnaud’s deception; rather, she was wholly complicit in constructing a fraudulent marriage that allowed her the rare opportunity to act autonomously in a community that largely consigned women to a position of inferiority. Second, Zemon Davis’ work demonstrates the complex nature of France’s legal system in the sixteenth century – a system that allowed peasants meaningful judicial recourse and employed jurisprudential standards in deciding cases. Finally, while Zemon Davis’ work provides an incredibly compelling account of the trial, she fails to link the relationship of Bertrande and Arnaud to emerging Protestantism in the region (a core argument of her text).

Zemon Davis’ work reveals a critical aspect of this well-documented saga that had previously gone unreported: Martin Guerre’s wife was likely complicit in assisting Arnaud in his deception, even going so far as to aid him in his defense. Indeed, not only did Arnaud have an encyclopedic knowledge of Martin Guerre’s personal relationships, but the testimony he provided in his defense was entirely congruent with Bertrande’s account of their life together. As Zemon Davis argues, if Bertrande desired a conviction she could have easily contradicted Arnaud’s statements in open court, or merely prompted the judges to ask questions that could have trapped the imposter. Thus, Zemon Davis concludes that Bertrande must have assisted Arnaud in constructing his account of Martin’s life. In addition, Zemon Davis compellingly argues that Bertrande was not particularly interested in pursuing these charges against the fake imposter as the charges originated at the behest of Martin’s uncle, Pierre. For Zemon Davis, the impetus for these charges was Pierre’s vehement opposition to the “new” Martin’s request for him to disclose the financial records of their family business. This account is buttressed by evidence that Bertrande was coerced into bringing the case to trial with Pierre being briefly imprisoned for threatening her with violence should she refrain from doing so. Therefore, it is highly probable that Bertrande was complicit in facilitating Arnaud’s deception.

But why would Bertrande knowingly perpetuate a fraudulent marriage? It is in answering this question that The Return of Martin Guerre is most impactful. In the sixteenth century, marriage among the French peasantry was primarily an economic institution. Bertrande was offered to Martin for marriage in order to solidify their respective families’ economic prospects in Languedoc; however, their marriage was not a particularly happy one. Although they had one child together, Martin suffered from impotence, and many villagers reported that the couple quarreled regularly. Additionally, when Martin disappeared for eight years, local marriage laws prevented Bertrande from receiving a divorce. Therefore, upon meeting the “new” Martin (a figure who resembled Martin, but did not appear identical), Bertrande had the ability to do something she had been unable to do in her marriage: make an autonomous decision about whether to enter into a relationship. By accepting Arnaud, living with him, and having two children with him, Bertrande was able – albeit in a limited fashion – to break free of the particular constraints that had been imposed upon her by virtue of her class and gender. Thus, the seemingly bizarre act of harbouring a fraudulent husband does not seem so absurd when considered within the context of a patriarchal society that systematically denied women the ability to make decisions about their amorous relationships. Therefore, while Bertrande’s harbouring of Arnaud is undeniably abnormal, this case does elucidate much about the unique plight of female peasants in sixteenth century France.

Another crucial aspect of Zemon Davis’ text is her analysis of the French legal system. Specifically, by employing the texts of two legal professionals, Zemon Davis highlights that members of the peasantry could seek meaningful recourse in France’s legal system. Indeed, despite Pierre having important connections with local aristocrats and landholders, the jurists were unwilling to be influenced by these relationships, and genuinely strived to provide the imposter with a fair trial. This crucially assists in dispelling the notion that French peasants had no access to a fair and responsive system of justice – a point of particular importance when considering that peasants in many other European states were largely subject to arbitrary standards of justice meted out by feudal lords and local aristocrats.

In addition to the surprisingly equitable nature of the French legal system, Zemon Davis’ work also highlights the system’s myriad complexities. For instance, rather than being bound to a specific interpretation of the law when addressing the sentencing of Arnaud, Bertrande and Pierre, Coras based his decision on the principle that maintaining Bertrande’s family should be the main aim of the court. He upheld this principle by releasing Pierre for charges of intimidation and through classifying the two children Bertrande had with Arnaud as “legitimate” heirs to their family’s estate. In order to buttress these verdicts Coras employed jurisprudential frameworks that had been reached in previous decisions. Thus, judges in sixteenth century France not only addressed cases that dealt with the peasantry, but were also granted a large degree of discretion in rendering their verdicts. Ultimately, Zemon Davis demonstrates that the peasantry did have meaningful access to justice in France, while unearthing the complexities of the French legal system.

While Zemon Davis’ micro-historical approach richly outlines the social circumstances of the French peasantry in the sixteenth century, she utterly fails to connect the relationship of Bertrande and Arnaud to emerging Protestantism in rural France. Specifically, Zemon Davis contends that Bertrande and Arnaud must have been a part of this groundswell of emerging rural Protestantism because the Catholic Church would have “excommunicated them as notorious adulterers unless they separated immediately” (Zemon Davis, 47). Zemon Davis asserts that because Protestantism relied less on institutional intermediaries in order to foster a relationship with God, Arnaud and Bertrande would have been attracted to this emerging form of religiosity. Finally, she notes that Arnaud’s final confession (prior to his execution) possessed “no references to Catholic formulas or the saints” (Zemon Davis, 48).

In this context it appears that Zemon Davis is merely asserting that Bertrande and Arnaud were Protestant absent much substantiation. While it is true that they may have been excommunicated from the Catholic Church had they disclosed their adultery, such a fraudulent relationship would have very likely elicited the scorn of local Protestants as well. Moreover, the absence of explicit references to Catholicism in Arnaud’s confession certainly implies that he was not a fervent Catholic; however, the absence of such references does not necessarily mean he was a practicing Protestant. Thus, by concluding that Bertrande and Arnaud were Protestant without convincing evidence, Zemon Davis only detracts from the core aim of her work: unearthing the personhood and aspirations of the French peasantry.

Ultimately, The Return of Martin Guerre is a fascinating mircohistory that illustrates much about the experience of the French peasantry. Zemon Davis crafts a masterful narrative, uncovering Bertrande’s complicity in continuing a fraudulent marriage, while delivering important contextual knowledge of the French legal system. While Zemon Davis’ failure to demonstrate Arnaud and Bertrande’s supposed Protestantism shows the extrapolatory limitations of a micro-historical approach, her work is truly impressive. Zemon Davis’ writing compels the reader to empathize with the decisions Arnaud, Martin and Bertrande were forced to undertake. Thus, at the end of the work, you are left with a genuine understanding of these figures’ social constraints, their society’s legal system, and most importantly, their personal aspirations. It is for that reason that I strongly recommend The Return of Martin Guerre.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.