Martin Guerre

It’s been a long time since I added anything to this blog. I’ve been busy. Recently I’ve had the urge, inspired by Facebook  discussions and news of the day, to post something long on politics, but I haven’t had near enough time to write it. So maybe you’ll see that when/if I get to a week where I have breathing space.

This essay was written last week in two submitted stages in which I dealt with questions around historical method and the story of Martin Guerre. I included some of the background information below, but basically the class looked successively at a film, book, and two argument essays on this same topic. The movie did fairly well, but Natalie Davis’s book, in which she explored the story behind it and what she believed was a truer interpretation of the characters and the time, was highly-praised and very popular–Natalie Davis had been a historical consultant on the film and was unsatisfied with the final product. However, historian Robert Finlay wrote a widely-circulated essay in which he sought to prove Davis’s interpretation was unsubstantiated fabrication. Davis countered him point-by-point, and these two essays are regarded by some teachers as exemplifying differences in interpretation between historians. We were supposed to analyze and provide our take. The essay, in part because of the two-part writing process and in part because I had a rough time finishing it, is extremely choppy, but I hope it is comprehensible and of some interest.


Of The Return of Martin Guerre and Historical Method

The French-language 1982 film Le Retour de Martin Guerre recounts the improbable story, derived from true historical narratives, of a peasant who took the identity of another with surprising deftness, and the subsequent trial that established his deceit. When I viewed it, not having read the book or being at all familiar with the story, I recognized a slightly modern slant; the sympathetic portrayal of Arnaud (the imposter) and Bertrande (the wife of the “original”) as romantic heroes rather than deceivers and adulterers in particular caught my attention. Technically, it was a fine and mostly-convincing supposal, fairly well-acted, passably-scripted, and immersive. It was good enough that the exceptions to the real-historical tenor, such as the final dialogue between Bertrande and Jean de Coras, stood out and raised questions.

When it comes to evaluating historical films, there are multiple standards to use—for instance, whether to be a “good historical film” it ought to score highly for its artistic, entertainment, or historical values. Martin Guerre is definitely of the last kind, being neither as philosophically and aesthetically profound as Andrei Rublev, nor as given over to popular formula as Hollywood films such as Braveheart, to cite two other films set within several centuries of each other. Yet it does, for a commercial film, present a well-informed representation of the past where the cultural-historical aspects are in importance at least equal to plot and character.

The corresponding book satisfied many of my questions inspired by the film, and Natalie Zemon Davis’s interpretation of the wider scheme of events supplied new vividness to the story. On a purely factual level, the book explicated the real record, in de Coras and Le Sueur, and the former’s life, personality, and significance. She fleshed out the characters and delineated alternate explanations for their motivations and actions. Overall, I preferred the book to the movie, merely because I learned more and felt more comfortable in my knowledge.

I found Robert Finlay’s critique “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre” insightful. I had already wondered about many of the things he harped on, and although it did not fundamentally change my opinion that Davis could be correct in her reading, he outlined positive reason to doubt her narrative and noted how one supposition built on another. It is interesting and relevant that one of her motivations for writing the book was to present her interpretation of Bertrande as actively working the situation rather than passive and romantic as in the film[1]—Finlay is useful for highlighting such ways in which Davis’s arguments are based not on internal evidence but on what she brings to the sources. He establishes that there is reason for doubt and not immediately swallowing the version of the story that Davis provides. This is important to keep in mind.

That said, Davis has much to say for herself in her response, “On the Lame,” and as an argument her essay was far more convincing than her book. She was eloquent in pointing out where Finlay misread her and restating her argument in a more logically sound way. Nevertheless, she several times, especially as the defense went on, revealed weaknesses (such as her unconvincing and at times fallacious argument for why religion as a factor must be so readily supposed and interpreted),[2] and she addressed very few of his concrete quoted examples of her reading into the sources. She is convinced of the validity of her technique as applied to the story of Martin Guerre.

One of the most fundamental features of the debate is that Finlay and Davis have different standards and techniques for the study of history. Finlay is adamantly opposed to reading into the sources, whereas Davis finds it not only justifiable but necessary to draw from cultural knowledge to understand and relate history. To Finlay, such assertions as Davis makes must be provable (or, at least, concretely supportable); to Davis, they need be only rational to contribute to the historical conversation. This is most easily seen in their dispute over whether Bertrande truly knew and aided pseudo-Martin. Finlay is correct that there is no indication that collaboration was ever seriously considered in the records, and I find Davis’s response argument, a restatement of the justices’ questions of accountability for her role, to miss Finlay’s primary point. Similarly, and less palatably to the rigorously skeptical historian, Davis makes some leaps to tie Protestantism to the heart of the situation. But her arguments are logical and informed; in such things as Bertrande’s collusion, she believes that, given the internal clues, the context which she has studied, and her own experience, things almost had to have transpired as she interprets them.[3] Does this excuse all her conjectures? That depends on what is considered acceptable history.

Davis’s reputation as a historian was not solely built from The Return of Martin Guerre, written by and large for popular consumption and to stimulate further thought on the story in question. However, it bears the marks of her philosophy of history and interpretation, which is in line with the Annales school of historical thought, which has been called a “history of mentalités.”[4] Rather than depending merely on the sources themselves for information, she draws in her experience and her knowledge of culture and psychology to explain the story. Her book also gives extensive time to understanding characters with less visibility and (superficially, anyway) less agency, such as Bertrande, and this cultural-psychological knowledge bank is used to reconstruct from the sources and provide a voice to these persons. I would imagine that this is part of the reason Davis’s book was regarded as innovative.

Finlay was of another, more traditional methodology that took issue with such apparent interpolation and egregious violation of source sovereignty. Many of Davis’s points in the book are not substantiated by the actual historical record, and this, to Finlay, damaged the value of her work as history. Supposals about the thought processes of the characters and anachronistic subversions and hidden motives fell outside of a classically scientific and rational examination of historical matter. Creativity was taken too far. Davis, for her part, would declare that Finlay “wants… absolute truth” out of a necessarily sketchy historical record.[5]

Davis’s and Finlay’s philosophical differences guide their interpretations; it would be difficult to say that either is the more objective, for as Peter Novick writes, the “idea of historical objectivity… [is] not just essentially contested, but essentially confused.”[6] The question was not, as became apparent during the back-and-forth between these two historians, whether Davis had used conjecture, but whether this informed speculation could be deemed a valid approach to history.

There is something to be said for both methods. Davis certainly makes for the more entertaining and filled-out narrative, but it can be argued, as Finlay does, that her interpretation is so intricate and imaginative as to stretch plausibility. Personally, I see no problem with drawing on relevant information—whether that be religious, social, cultural, etc.—to inform an interpretation of historical matters. I am also convinced, however, of the ultimate inability of a historian to perfectly reconstruct an individual’s psychology, above all to make such a reconstruction based primarily on perceived cultural trends. For instance, was Bertrande remarkably strong-willed and cunning? I find Davis’s evidence on this point to be weak, as she merely indicates for this a period in which the young woman’s will apparently deviated from that of her family.[7]

Such suggestions as this are not impossible, and Davis does admit that other readings of the sources may be legitimate, but so much of Davis’s narrative is built upon these suppositions that I am forced to wonder, as a budding historian, where The Return of Martin Guerre ceases to be useful as more than an interesting hypothesis. As we mentioned in class discussion, the plot of her narrative was so tightly sewn together and rationalized as to be almost literary. When she says in the conclusion that she lets “all of [her] characters have their say,”[8] it seems inevitable that in her hands, they are indeed “her characters,” and they take on an existence distinct from (though not necessarily antithetical to) their historical counterparts. She claims to be able to speak for those who left no accounts and to explicate the deeper motivations of those who did. This approach may be rewarding but is also inevitably and perhaps dangerously presumptuous. Davis regards herself a kind of detective,[9] à la Sherlock Holmes we might say; but given the inherent complexity of life, Holmes is not always right in his “deductions”; a secretive wife asking for money and engaging in odd liaisons does not always mean a blackmailing first husband.[10] Yet there may still be something valuable in Davis’s suppositions, even the improbable ones.

Finlay is justified in asking, “Where does reconstruction stop and invention begin?”[11] The question may be rhetorical and ultimately unanswerable, but it does not destroy the academic value of reconstruction that it must exist on a hazy continuum with invention. Novick quotes Frank Kermode as saying, “It is not that we [historians] are connoisseurs of chaos, but that we are surrounded by it, and equipped for coexistence with it only by our fictive powers.”[12] Davis enjoys what she regards as the legitimate exercise of these powers when she builds a narrative from her major sources and external knowledge. My comparatively unstudied opinion is that books such as Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre are valuable for their exploratory nature, accessibility, and provocativeness, which were I believe Davis’s major goals from the first, and not to definitively explain what happened in 1556, as might be Finlay’s intent should he take up the subject. If written with humility and taken with gentle dubiety, such creative-scholarly works as The Return of Martin Guerre may rightfully be said to stimulate thought and add to our historical understanding rather than misdirect it.

Works Cited

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “On the Lame.” The American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June 1988): 572-603.

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

Finlay, Robert. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” The American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June 1988): 533-571.

Howell, Martha and Walter Prevenier. From Reliable Sources. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001.

Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” in the American Historical Profession. Cambridge University Press, 1988.

[1] Natalie Zemon Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1983), viii.

[2] Natalie Zemon Davis, “On the Lame,”  American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June 1988): 590-592.

[3] Davis, “On the Lame,” e.g. 576.

[4] Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier, From Reliable Sources (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2001), 110.

[5] Davis, “On the Lame,” 574.

[6] Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” in the American Historical Profession   (Cambridge University Press, 1988), 6.

[7] Davis, “On the Lame,” 586.

[8] Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, 598.

[9] Davis, “On the Lame,” 575.

[10] This analogy is taken from Arthur Conan Doyle’s short story, The Yellow Face.

[11] Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” The American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June 1988): 569.

[12] Novick, 16.


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