Last Updated 24 Mar 2017

Martin Guerre

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The book “Martin Guerre” written by Natalie Zemon Davis' is about a French peasant of the 16th century, who was at the core of an eminent case of masquerade.  Natalie Zemon Davis is a historian and an American feminist of early contemporary France. Her major interests are in cultural and social history particularly of those formerly disregarded by the historians. In her book she discusses about the peasant life because according to her the most striking think about peasant life in sixteenth century, France was that marriage was primarily an economic and business relationship. It seemed to be used simply to unite familial lands and provide continuity in the family.

Even though most, if not the entire, would presume the lives of peasants are unimportant in the superior system of things, the admired tale of Martin Guerre gives details of workers or peasants creating important, life-altering verdicts founded on egotism. The individual existance of the peasants does make a distinction. The author Natalie Zemon Davis narrates the story of peasants take care of themselves and seldom do they permit others to get in the way with their own aims, ambitions and objectives.

She tries to fill in the fissure of the narrative with her personal view and opinion; even though, her judgment at times opposes the contemporaries of the tale. Numerous sources utilized by Natalie Davis are reasonably sound; but, several other sources elevate queries of their own genuineness and deep feeling. The novelist also takes a cavernous look into the lives of the peasants to investigate what coerces them and what so fervently fuels their idiosyncratic desires.

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The book details the life of the peasants in not only one specific place, but also details the customs of numerous places such as Hendaye, Artigat, and the court at Rieux in a contrast/compare style. It builds a world of stairs where those on the lowest rung are always looking somewhere higher up, yet they are always able to keep a taut rein on their lives. The characters of this tale are brought to a startling realism and gives details of every possible thought and action that could have led them down the path that they chose, and even speculates on alternatives to the choice they made.

The author shows the life of the real Martin Guerre as full of regret and disgust at things gone wrong. His wife, Bertrande de Rols, is expressed as a manipulator that is always weighing her options and scheming to rise ahead. Subsequently, there is Arnaud du Tilh; without his appearance, no story would have likely taken place because it took a man of his shrewdness and his love of vice to create such a fantastical plot. Despite the fact that Arnaud was "the man for whom [Bertrande] felt...a great and joyous passion" (Davis 1983), she couldn't stay contentedly with him. She was a very strong catholic who could not accept "the shadow of sin and danger which accompanied [Arnaud]"(Davis 1983), even though he made her happier than Martin ever could or would have.

In an era where women were indeed oppressed in a male-dominated society, it is understandable that a woman like Bertrande would have feelings of anger towards her oppressors. It is certain that she feels anger and a kind of hatred towards Arnaud, saying that "[she] has not demanded his death, but now [she] must demand it" (Davis 1983). It is possible that Arnaud is 'copping the brunt' of all of her hardships that came about after Martin left her. A person might think that Bertrand’s triumph would at last bestow her liberty and trustworthiness. On the contrary, she is given the opposed "harsh, solitary justice".

No one in actual fact cares that she was true, and no one tries to stop her at the time she goes away. If ethical impartiality had been attained, she (Bertrande) would not have been in the place where she ended up.

Frances and Joseph Geis elucidate comprehensively the traditions of family and matrimony during the 16th century. In the middle Ages, the majority of the peasants did not have proper matrimonial vows performed in church. As an alternative, they promise (or vow) to each other to reside as ordinary and bylaw wife and husband. Ceremony was not compulsory because peasants did not possess land; they worked on the property of the aristocracy as occupant cultivators or farmers. Matrimonial customs transformed in the 16th  century due to the peasant's capability to possess property, due to which parents persevered on having further control over their progeny’s matrimonial options.

“Love may do much, but money more." This was a popular proverb among peasants in 16th century France. This quote characterizes peasant life in all aspects and the same has been described in the book. Though the world offered much to its citizens, the peasants always wanted more; they wanted more money, which would in turn, provide more power. Whatever is beneficial to them, they seek without regards as to the effects it would have on others. In this age of France, trade between villages and towns was bountiful. This emphasis put on business reveals the peasant motto "but money more"; many believed trading would bring them, greater riches and opportunity. Marriage was a major vessel used by peasants, by which they sought out power and wealth. One such example is the marriage of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre.

The Guerre's attempted to use their son, Martin, to make connections with a significant, prominent family in the society of Artigat. They hoped that this new bonding would help them make vital connections to a higher class of peasant. Although it was shunned by most in the Catholic Church and by attorneys consensual marriage was legal and only required the bride and groom to agree on it. It was usually eschewed because it did not give the families any voice in the matter. However, most marriages were arranged by the parents. The main purpose of the marriage was to produce children; love was not a factor. The more children (especially males) a family has, the greater fortune it will likely bring to the family.

A childless marriage was grounds for a divorce at this time; without children, a marriage, in essence, has no purpose. Many people simply did not find that their present situation was going well. Many departed themselves from reality by joining the army (this was common due to the current war between France and Spain). Others did not take such a drastic step; they simply picked up everything they owned and moved to a new village to start a new life in hopes of better fortune. Around this time, as ideas moved about rather swiftly due to peasant migration, Protestantism arose to challenge the authority of Catholicism.

Peasants broke into church buildings and smashed images of the saints and other artwork. Protestantism found its fuel in its central doctrines: such as scripture being open to individual interpretation. Peasants saw these doctrines as loopholes and alternatives to the harsh, Catholic teachings.

The courts, at this time, were attempting to instill the public with more conservative decisions that would favor marriage to divorce and put an emphasis on the familial unit, especially the children; this they did in hopes of ending decisions based solely on self-interest. There are scenarios where execution is used as a form of punishment for adultery. Davis accentuates the generalities of medieval life in France and also provides particularities, such as the property of Pansette staying within his family instead of going to the king, as was the custom.

A desire to attain one's own interests so eagerly is proven repeatedly by Davis as though she is obviously attempting to lead us in that direction by her outlook on this part of the past.


Davis, Natalie, The Return of Martin Guerre, Harvard University Press, 1983, ISBN, 0 14 00,7593 3

Original Literary Source

Lewis, Janet. Retour de Martin Guerre, Le



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