Natalie Davis collaborated with the director Daniel Vigne on his film. Davis' story affords her audience a rare glimpse into the world of peasant life in sixteenth century France. Historically, there are only a few times when the everyday lives of the lower social classes receive comment in history or literature. Students of the humanities have only a few primary source books to examine. The Domesday Book is a collection of census records from eleventh century England. The Canterbury Tales are a fourteenth century collection of tales describing the lives of religious pilgrims in England, authored by Geoffrey Chaucer. The Decameron is also a fourteenth century collection of stories, this time from Italy, written by Giovanni Boccaccio.
Davis' story focuses on Bertrande de Rols and her place in sixteenth century society, especially as a wife. Bertrande was married to Martin Guerre who was a young peasant of Basque heritage. Both Bertrande and Martin were in their early teens during a time when marriage customs for peasants was changing in Europe. For several years, these two very young kids have trouble consummating their marriage. Davis speculates that Bertrande may have been happy with this circumstance since it gave her a chance to enjoy adolescence and be free of the drudgery of motherhood and all the duties that went with it. This becomes evident by the fact that she refuses to annul her marriage at her parent's insistence. A few years go by before Bertrande conceives and gives birth to a son - her first foray into adulthood. Davis explains how Bertrande, like other peasant women, became even more aware of the male dominated world in which she lived. This is evident by the particle "de" in her name, which was a custom in the area where she lived depicting the social and legal connection female peasants had to the men in their families. She was subordinate to her father, her husband, and finally her widowed mother and her uncle turned stepfather. Frances and Joseph Geis illuminate in detail the customs of family and marriage during this time in history. During the Middle Ages, most peasants did not have formal marriage vows conducted in church. Instead, they vowed to each other to live as common law husband and wife. Formality was not necessary since peasants did not own property; they worked the lands of the nobility as tenant farmers. Marital mores change in the sixteenth century due to the peasant's ability to own land, which in turn causes parents to insist on having more control over their children's marital choices.
In 1548, Martin runs away from his village of Artigat, France to join the army, leaving his twenty-two year old wife Bertrande and a young son. His abandonment severely reduces Bertrande's social standing in the village. She is no longer a full-fledged wife, nor is she a widow who had property rights. Without a body to prove Martin is dead, she cannot divorce him; thus, she is stuck with her plight. She has to move back in with her mother. In addition, she faces ridicule from peers at every turn. Davis believes that all of these circumstances add up to Bertrande becoming an unhappy person. After eight years of living in quiet desperation, it is no wonder that she would finally find fulfillment of her hopes and dreams of a better life when the imposter Arnaud du Tilh nicknamed "Pansette," shows up in the village in 1548, in the guise of Martin Guerre. Of course, Bertrande would be predisposed to want to believe that her husband had returned to her, which would allow her to regain a better social status in the village. It also meant that Bertrande would be able to have her own household with her husband who inherited land from his recently deceased father. Davis correctly speculates that even if Bertrande soon realizes Pansette is not her husband, she still finds in him a congenial companion and falls in love with him. They also have a daughter together. Davis finds it very plausible that Bertrande would become a willing collaborator, in order to protect her newfound freedom and social standing. The couple's marital bliss unravels the day Pansette argues with his uncle, Pierre Guerre, over his desire to sell off some of the land. This causes Pierre to become suspicious of the identity of his nephew, since it is an old Basque custom never to sell ancestral land, leading him to sue Pansette as an impostor in a court of law. The feud divides the village and finally places a rift between Pansette and Bertrande. Bertrande had originally testified that Pansette was the original Martin. However, before the start of a subsequent court hearing she caves into the enormous pressure from her widowed mother who married Pierre, to change her testimony. Fearing she could lose her good name and social standing in the family and village, she changes her testimony and accuses Pansette of being an imposter.
Davis comes under heavy criticism from Robert Finlay surrounding the suppositions that she makes about Bertrand's emotions, motivations, and her complicity in the deception perpetrated by Pansette. In Finlay's, article The Refashioning of Martin Guerre he accuses Davis of reading too much into the court record left by Coras. "This Bertrande de Rols seems to be far more a product of invention than of historical reconstruction." Davis, responding to Finlay's criticism of her research methods, more than adequately defends herself in her journal article On the Lame. In it she describes her meticulous research of the court records, social roles and cultural customs of sixteenth century France. "For Davis ... peasant women, are people with sexual as well as economic drives and with cultural traditions and resources which have escaped the eyes of most orthodox historians."
The social historian Natalie Davis was tireless in her efforts to comb the local archives, judicial records, and in conducting interviews of present day inhabitants of the village Artigat to record the folklore of the "famous case" from their village. Davis has brought to light this micro history of sixteenth century peasant life in France in an easy to understand and compelling film and narrative. What makes the story so interesting to modern day viewers and readers is how relevant the story and the people in it are to our own times. This story is about a history of everyday people rather than royalty and generals, history's usual subjects. The story is replete with mystery and plot twists. It also examines the psychological areas of passion and deceit, while questioning personality formation and the self. In tying all of these sub plots together, Davis presents to her modern day audience a chance to examine and to compare their own identities and questions of self.
I read this book and saw the movie for a graduate class in the Humanities. Recommended reading for anyone interested in history and, psychology.
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About the reviewer
Michael Neulander (MNeulander)
Recently graduated with a Masters in Humanities degree from Old Dominion University reading in philosophy and history. I graduated from the Univ. of Miami in 1980 with a B.A. in Political Science; specializing … more
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While many ugly Americans best remember Gerard Depardieu from late-'80s Hollywood fluff (and the less said aboutGreen Cardthe better), his art-house reputation as a legitimate, conscientious actor was more than mere hype. The solidReturn of Martin Guerre(Le Retour de Martin Guerre) stands as Depardieu's personal high-water mark: here, he was handed a well-written, nuanced role--one inviting a balanced display of intelligence, charismatic cool, and pure passion--and he makes the most of it. The narrative, set in medieval France during the Hundred Years' War, follows the alleged homecoming of a soldier after many years of absence. His wife (a structurally difficult role to portray with any skill, but played gamely here by the fetching Nathalie Baye) finds him such an improvement--both in the sack and otherwise--from the husband who left for the front that she ignores the villagers' suspicions that he is an impostor. The costumes and scenery are quite a bit better, and more historically responsible, than what we've all come to expect from period drama, and the logical flaws and obvious questions begged by the plot mechanics are smoothed out by director Daniel Vigne's steady hand with story art and cinematic pacing. The film was remade in English, and updated to the Reconstruction, in 1993 asSommersby, starring Richard Gere and Jodie Foster. See this original instead.--Miles Bethany