For the academic historian, the faithful retelling of the story of Martin Guerre is a treacherous exercise. The events occurred over four hundred years ago in rural France, and few of the participants had the capacity to write. Only two contemporary sources exist that speak directly to the case, and from these sources all subsequent versions of the story derive. As a result, a traditional version of the story quickly developed that focused on the cunning of the impostor, Arnaud du Tilh, and his “marvelous deception.”

Natalie Zemon Davis, in her book The Return of Martin Guerre, approaches the story from a fresh perspective, hoping to link the impostor’s ruse with the creation of personal identity, and in doing so, shorten the gap between sixteenth century French peasants and the upper class.

In Davis’ telling, the protagonist is not so much Arnaud du Tilh, but is, in fact, Bertrande de Rols, the wife of Martin Guerre. In this version, Bertrande is a willing accomplice in the deception, to which she has acquiesced after shrewd calculation of the charade’s ability to benefit her socially and economically. When the impostor is later brought to trial, Bertrande is forced to testify against him. Still she does not abandon him, but instead plays “her double role perfectly,” conniving to maintain her own precarious position while simultaneously validating the du Tilh’s testimony.

When the actual Martin Guerre reappears, the sly Bertrande is compelled to shift strategies again, pretending to only then realize her mistake, and begging forgiveness from the real Martin. Du Tilh, for his part, eventually confesses his crimes, but in testament to his love for Bertrande never implicates his accomplice, and she escapes punishment while he is put to death. Bertrande, having manipulated the system as best she could, returns to her previous life as the wife of Martin Guerre, and fades into the obscurity from which she came.

Davis bases her narrative on the two standard sources: Arrest Memorable du Parlement de Tholose by Jean de Coras, one of the presiding judges, and Admiranda historia de Pseudo Martino Tholosae Damnato Idib. Septemb. Anno Domini MDLX, authored by Guillaume Le Sueur in the same year. In addition to these traditional texts, Davis supplements her evidence with “registers of Parlementary sentences” and “notorial contracts,” in an effort to establish a context for the trial and the people involved. Davis hopes to recreate the French peasants’ world so that she can gauge the “reactions they might have had.”

It is at this point that Davis’ historiographical leanings as a new social historian become apparent. She focuses her study on the lives of peasants, a group typically ignored by both traditional and Marxist historians, but embraced by new social historians, who also are very interested in women’s history, which is demonstrated by Davis in the depiction of Bertrande as protagonist. Also, Davis displays her willingness to use non-conventional sources, including indirect interpretation and analysis of texts (such as Coras’ Arrest Memorable).

Contesting Davis’ interpretation of the Guerre story is Robert Finlay, who can be classified as belonging to the traditional school of historiography by his fidelity to the empirical evidence, represented in this case by the contemporary texts. Finlay stands by the classic version of the tale, where the focus is on Du Tilh and the conclusion is that everyone in the village was taken in by a master deceiver, because that is what the texts say, and Finlay is unwilling to venture beyond the historical record, no matter how scant it may be.

Finlay, attacking what he calls Davis’ “unsubstantiated insight,” accuses her of anachronism, saying that she has imposed her personal notion of peasant women on Bertrande. He disparages Davis’ “unfounded hypotheses” based on “misconstruct(ed) evidence” and ridicules Bertrande as “more a product of invention than of historical reconstruction.” Finlay also challenges Davis’ rhetoric, saying that her account is not plausible and is the product of “convoluted reasoning and unsubstantiated assertions.”

In his dispute with Davis, Finlay bases his objections upon her deviations from what is available from the two conventional sources. Where Davis makes statements about Bertrande being suspected of complicity by the judges, Finlay says that “Davis presents no evidence for her contention” and that her theory “depends on her mere assertion that she has recognized a truth that apparently remained hidden” from both the villagers and the judges. Later he adds that Davis “offers nothing to counter Jean de Coras’s understanding of Bertrande’s innocence other than her own assertion…” In general, Finlay believes that “Davis presents a scenario…” that “cannot be substantiated by the sources.”

Not content to be dismissive of Davis’ work, Finlay broadens his dispute to include the methodologies of new social historians in general, saying that “Davis…calls on notions of psychological reconstruction…” Finlay speculates that if “…historical records can be bypassed so thoroughly in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion” the line between history and fiction will become blurred. He asks: “In historical writing, where does reconstruction stop and invention begin?”

It seems clear that Finlay’s challenge to Davis is based upon historiographical differences. Finlay objects to what he calls an “excess of invention” in Davis’ work, accusing her of allowing this excess to “obscure the lives of the people who engaged her sympathy and imagination”. He goes on to say “The historian should not make the people of the past say or do things that run counter to the most scrupulous respect for the sources.” As a traditional historian, Finlay places a premium on the historical record, and Davis’ willingness as a new social historian to explore beyond that record disturbs him.

Natalie Zemon Davis replies to Finlay in her essay “On the Lame,” in which she notes the “difficulty in the historian’s quest for truth…” The idea that there is no one single narrative in history, but that there are many stories to be told, representing the varieties of experiences in the past, is foundational to the historiographical school of new social history and is another indicator of Davis’ affiliation. In fact, Davis claims that the version of the Guerre story submitted by Finlay is itself unique, different from her own and from Coras’, and reflects the “complex possibilities” offered by the evidence.

In rebutting Finaly’s critique, Davis uses examples from one of Finlay’s earlier works, Politics in Renaissance Venice. Davis cites passages from Politics to demonstrate that Finlay himself engages in the same techniques for which she is castigated, such as psychological exploration and literary interpretation. In doing so, she accuses him of hypocrisy, saying “Finlay will extend literary concern to the diary of Marino Sanuto but not to a text as strange as the Histoire prodigieuse.” Davis also condemns Finlay as a simplistic absolutist, unwilling or unable to see shades of gray or “complexities and ambivalences.” In this attack we again see the conflict between the traditional school and the new social historians. Davis goes on to explain her research methods, literary style, and goal of a “re-creation of complexity in historical experience.” Again the new social historian in Davis emerges as she champions “the recapture of the interplay between the socially determined and the chosen…”

The evidence Davis cites to support her conclusions in The Return of Martin Guerre is largely circumstantial, inferred from her reading of the historical record, and rather than call her indicators “evidence,” she often refers to them as “signs”. These “signs” lead Davis to believe that the collusion of DuTilh and Bertrande “had to have been openly planned.” She later adds, “I do not see how one can account for this convergence of testimony between Bertrande and Arnaud (Du Tilh) without a prior agreement between the two.” Again it seems clear that Davis constructs her hypotheses on inference rather than documentary evidence, something a new social historian would find much easier to do than would a traditional historian, who relies almost entirely on the documentary record.

It is instructive in analyzing this debate to make mention of the important role played by peer review. Both Finlay and Davis note the contributions of others in the footnotes of their essays, which demonstrates that they submitted their work to their colleagues prior to publication, and probably benefited from their critiques. Also, by participating in the AHR Forum, they act as each other’s post-publication peer reviewers as well. It is in this way that the academic community acts as its own quality control, ensuring the scholarship of its members, and it is through debates such as this that we see the conflicting schools of historiography displayed, and their different methodologies made apparent.

It is also by seeing the various schools and methodologies on open display through peer review that we get the opportunity to weigh the approach of each and to determine for ourselves which argument we find most satisfying. In this case, though, I must admit to being in a bit of a quandary. While I find Davis’ suppositions more plausible, I am uncomfortable with their departure from the historical record, and lack of evidentiary support. I want to believe Davis’ reinterpretation, but must admit that I may be as guilty of anachronism as Finlay says that Davis is. Without solid empirical evidence, I am left with Davis’ educated guesswork, which, as Finlay admits, is “imaginatively conceived, eloquently argued and intrinsically appealing.” I’m just not sure that’s enough.




Natalie Zemon Davis, “The Return of Martin Guerre”, (Harvard University Press:1983)

Natalie Zemon Davis, “On the Lame”, American Historical Review, 93/3 (Jun., 1988)

Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre”, American Historical Review, 93/3 (Jun., 1988)


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