Martin Guerre and its Criticisms

The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Zemon Davis, publicizes the story of Martin Guerre, a 16th century peasant who’s identity and life was stolen by Arnaud du Tilh after Guerre left for war and essentially disappeared.  In her book, Davis looks mainly into the book “Arrest Memorable” by Jean de Coras, a judge who presided over the ensuing court case.  To create a motivational background within the book, Davis looked into anthropological information on 16th century France as well as general history’s of the regions involved.

Robert Finlay, in his criticism of Davis, makes the observation that in the book, Davis breaks from the accepted story of Martin Guerre in many ways.  The traditional narrative is derived from Coras’s “Arrest Memorable.”  Coras makes it known that while he deplored the actions of Tilh and yet admired his skill in deception.  Finlay also points out that Coras’s story focuses on Arnaud’s deception and the many retellings of the story.  In Davis’s story, however, the focus is mainly on Bertrande de Rols, Guerre’s wife, and her deception.  According to Finlay, the problem lies in the fact that Davis’s version is simply a reevaluation of information recorded in Coras’s original  evaluation.  In Finlay’s opinion, Coras’s book is the best source for the story of Martin Guerre.

Davis later wrote a response to Finlay’s deep criticism.  In this response, Davis claims that Finlay gave little to no credit to her information regarding Basque customs and the historical information which would have led to the story.  Davis basically defends the importance of the way in which she presented  the story.  The basis of her response is to explain her research methods and their importance to the overall narrative.  Just the same, she argues that Finlay’s opinion of her story being so different from the accepted narrative is almost pointless.  She points to the fact that the book itself contains a disclaimer that the story is half historical fact half her own creation.

In general, it is interesting to see how on story can have so many interpretations and to see the criticisms of those interpretations.  It gives great insight into the role of history and the role of historians in presenting historic events.

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