— Mae D'Amico, History in the Making

Finlay and Davis, opposing arguements on Martin Guerre

The short book The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis is a historiography-like book about a real court case that took place in France in the sixteenth century.  The scandal revolved around a peasant family who had an unprecedented dilemma: Martin Guerre returned to his home to find his wife happily living with her husband, a man also claiming to be Martin Guerre.  From there a court case ensued that would be remembered by historians and now thanks to Davis, the mainstream public.

Reviewing Davis’s work is Robert Finlay with his article, The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.  Finlay starts his article rather unobtrusively just commenting on the life and society of the peasants presence in modern history and mainstream media.  Then he comments on how Davis popularized the story of Martin Guerre with her book.  When Finlay starts to bring up Jean de Coras, however, the real criticism starts to show.  Coras too, published about the story of Martin Guerre but he was actually alive during the whole scandal and reported the actors as very different than how Davis portrayed them.  The Guerre impostor in Coras’s account of the tale was a charlatan property snatcher who got what was coming to him.  Finlay later makes the case that Davis exaggerated sources to make a dramatized story of the Martin Guerre that could hardly be called history but something more like historical fiction– an invention of Davis’s imagination.  To the heart of Finlays article is the assertion that the wife of Martin Guerre was not in on some plot, but duped by a scoundrel.

Natalie Zemon Davis

Davis reponded to Finaly’s article with one of her own titled, On the Lame.  For one thing, Davis defends the style of her book, writing that she wanted it to read like a detective novel.  Basically, that she wanted it to be readable by the average person.  Davis also subtly challenges any who have picked up a torch against her research to look into it– all the research is noted there, in the next.  Coras was also only one of four who reported on the judicial case of Martin Guerre in 1555.  Davis concludes that Finlay assumes in his own narrow mindedness that Martin Guerre’s wife would not be able to tell the difference between the impostor and her real husband.  She writes this cannot be so and then sites psychology sources to back up her argument.

As for me, the reader and the student, I found Davis’s account of Martin Guerre hardly convincing.  I agree with Finlay that she let her imagination run away with her and even with a credible list of sources there is no call for stretching the truth and then calling it history.  Coincidentally, that is actually exactly what I am trying to prove in my term paper for this class.  I disagree with Finlay when it comes to the Martin Guerre impostor, however.  People did age a lot more rapidly in the sixteenth century from harder lives and labor, but there is nothing that could so alter a man that his wife couldn’t be able to tell the difference.  To assume to seems rather patronizing towards the female sex, although I hope that is not how Finlay meant his assertion to come across.  The true conclussion of this debate, I fine, is that the real story cannot be disserened being so long ago.  The true story Martin Guerre will stay a half-mystery of history.