Natalie Davis, a historian, draws her intended audience in by stating her own interest in how one man, Arnaud du Tilh, was able to confound a village in Renaissance France into believing that he was the actual Martin Guerre.
Davis' approach to history is interesting. She has managed to suggest that the ordinary people and their lives are just as instructive and illumination as the lives of the famous about how daily life transpired long ago. The features of the case seem strange, but the participants were in many ways just like 'you and me' in terms of their places in society. It appears on the surface that Davis' work may come under criticism by some historians. The reason that her work may come under the scrutiny of other Historians is because she is willing to go beyond the facts and try to imagine how people felt, and the thought processes going through their minds. By doing so, she is willing to provide an answer to a question that some historians would say is unanswerable, namelyhow could Bertrande be so deceived, and what would be her motivations in keeping up such a ruse? Davis suggests that her motivations were economic, personal, and social, and were the production of various historical forces, like the rise of Protestantism and the new value accorded to individual choice in society. Of course a dissenter might respond to the reasons given by Davis as being purely more a modern read on the case's facts since reading is so persuasive to a modern reader, or is it because it comes from the mind of a modern woman, and the tale is told to appeal to modern-day readers.
Davis' tale evolves like a story and not simply a dry historical account or analysis of primary sources. It also shows how in an age before photography, what we assumed people 'looked like' in both our memory and in reality was far more unstable than it is today. The unveiling of the false Martin came not after people grew suspicious of his very different appearance, but because of a dispute his uncle with the false Martin about a piece of land Martin wished to sell. The uncle believed that no true relation of his would want to sell a piece of ancestral land, and took the man to court. Bertrande only caved into familial pressure, not because she was suddenly convinced that she had believed a lie all this time about her new husband, but because her mother wanted her to change her testimony in the court.
Davis has used the historical records to start the story begins in 1527 with how the family move from the French Basque country to the village of Artigat. For Davis it is here that the Daguerre family settled and started a tile works business.
Davis also remarks that the family had to attempt to fit in and that in order to be accepted she researched how the French regions of this era had different dialects and had to fit in by to be accepted in the new town the family had to make some changes such as speaking a different dialect, dropping the 'Da'; from their name thus pronouncing and spelling it 'Guerre,'; and also in style of dress.
Davis research shows that the Guerre women, would have had a much different life in the village of Artigat and that it would have been a drastic change. No longer could they push ahead of the men to make their offerings at parish mass or go about the church to collect for the vestry.
As Davis' continued examination of this brazier case of stolen identity evolves so does the people she has researched. As the reader continues in her work they cannot but help but to feel sorry for the wife of Martin Guerre since by the local belief she was little more than a "whore" since her husband had up and left her until the fake Martin Guerre came along. Davis' claim that the town was fine with the imposter seems believable until he is taken to court and many who already question the authenticity of Arnaud du Tilh as Martin Guerre claim that they had always known.
While Davis has researched and written a completely believe work of non-fiction she had to meet up against one of her largest contenders that she had merely fashioned a story out her research and that she had actually been spared on by her involvement in the movie.
Robert Finlay, yet another historian, critiqued Davis' work in a very harsh light. He claims that Davis has read too much modernity into the book written by the trail judge and that she has infused her work with feminism. While perhaps some of Finlay's critiques are correct it is not likely that they are all are. Finlay despises the fact that Davis places some of the blame of deceit upon Bertrande. Finlay is convinced it is here that Davis has made her mistake in stating that Bertrande did know that Tilh was not the real Martin.
In his essay, "The Refashioning of Martin Guerre," Finlay has argued that Davis went beyond the evidence that is aviable and has transform Bertrande. Finlay believes that Davis has transformed Bertrande from being a duped woman to a willing accomplice. He claims that Davis is guilty of excusive invention and does not respect the sovereignty of the sources. Even though the evidence is written years after the trail and memory can change and another fact that Finlay has failed to see himself is that the Judges memory is based after the trail and is based in a time and society that is strongly based upon patriarchy.
If I had to be left with just Finlay's read on Davis' Martin Guerre and the work itself I would be left confused and may side with Finlay's criticism that Davis had overstepped the bounds of acceptable historical scholarship.
However, after reading Davis' rebuttal essay and her clearly defined point-by-point outline, "On the Lame." Davis makes a clear defense of her historical reconstruction by pointing out how she had to overcome the limitations of early sources through knowledge of sixteenth-century French peasant life and psychology.
In her rebuttal Davis clarifies Finlay's failures in his analysis, namely, that he believes there is a black and white in the situation. He claims to have discerned the truth from Coras' Arrest Memorable, her principle source, but she asserts that Coras did not come to absolute decisions, and there were many uncertainties in his perception of Bertrande. She also points out that Finlay did not even look at one of her sources and therefore cannot make judgments on the validity of her statements.
- Davis, Natalie Zemon, The Return of Matin Guerre, Cambridge Masachusetts Harvard University Press, 1983, 2002 tweentith printing, Page back cover
- Ibid 1
- Finlay, Robert. "The Refashioning of Martin Guerre." The American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June 1988): 553-571. p 553-4
- Davis, The Return of Martin Guerre, p 14
- Ibid 14
- Finlay, The Refashioning of Martin Guerre, 554
- Ibid 556
- Davis Natalie Zemon. 1988. "On the Lame". The American Historical Review 93, no. 3 (June): 572-603.