Saturday, July 11, 2015

Who's Who? Identity and Peasant Life in Early Modern Europe

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983.

In this book, Natalie Zemon Davis retells the often-told story of Martin Guerre. But as the extensive bibliography and notes suggest, this is the thoroughly-researched, historian's version of the tale (pages 127-57). It is offered, in part, as a reflection on "the significance of identity in the sixteenth century" (viii).

Zemon Davis relates the story as follows: Martin Guerre was a peasant who lived in "the Pyrenean village of Artigat" (vii). In 1538, he was married to Bertrande de Rols, who was also from Artigat. At the time of their wedding, Martin was about fourteen years old, and Bertrande was either nine or ten (16, n.). Apparently, the marriage remained unconsummated for several years. During that time, Martin was subjected to public ridicule due to his impotence. However, several years later Bertrande gave birth to a son named Sanxi (21). In 1548, ten years after the wedding and when Martin was around 24 years old, he was accused of stealing grain from his father. Humiliated for years, and now embarrassed and afraid, Martin abandoned his family and the place he had always known.

Eight years later, "in the summer of 1556," a man presented himself "as the long-lost Martin Guerre. Previously he had been known as Arnaud du Tilh, alias Pansette" (34). Interestingly, the villagers, including Bertrande, welcomed du Tilh as though he were Martin Guerre. Soon, he settled into a peasant's life filled with farm work and family obligation. By all accounts, he and Bertrande enjoyed a blissful relationship. She became pregnant twice more. One of the children, a daughter, survived infancy.

Trouble came four years after the return of "Martin," when he proposed the sale of some of the land that was part of his inheritance, a violation of the Basque norms that his family had always observed. Martin's Guerre's uncle and Bertrande's stepfather, Pierre, had sometimes been uncertain about the identity of the imposter. Once questions about land and money entered the picture, Pierre became the man's determined nemesis. With Bertrande now on his side, Pierre brought the accusation that generated both civil and criminal charges against the impostor.

At his trial, in 1560, the dozens of witnesses were divided on whether the accused was Martin Guerre. However, the impostor was found guilty. On appeal, that decision was nearly reversed. Arnaud du Tilh as Martin Guerre defended himself in what must have been one of the greatest court performances in legal history. Playing up the obvious conflict of interest of Pierre and his family, the impostor was able to provide answers and recite details regarding matters that, seemingly, only the real Martin Guerre would know. For every question, he had a plausible and sometimes even cogent response.

But as fate would have it, just as the appellate court was about to reverse the original decision, the real Martin Guerre appeared. Having "had his leg shot off at the battle of Saint-Quentin" fighting for Spain, Martin Guerre now had a wooden leg (82). Of course, the impostor's charade came crashing down. Having been spared an incorrect judgment, the court then found Arnaud du Tilh guilty of "imposture and false supposition of name and person and of adultery" (86). Within days, he was hanged in front of the Guerre home in Artigat, and his body was burned.

Zemon Davis takes up the question of how the reunited couple might have managed in the years that followed the execution of the impostor. She notes that both of them were culpable: Martin had abandoned his wife and child, and Bertrande had played the wife of a man she must have known was not her husband. The author concludes with this reflection: "The story of Martin Guerre is told and retold because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible. Even for the historian who has deciphered it, it retains a stubborn vitality. I think I have uncovered the true face of the past--or has Pansette done it once again?" (125).

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