Martin Guerre

Maybe the people most offended by Martin Guerre are the ones who don’t WANT you to play with their histories. The guys who don’t want you in dialog or argument with them, questioning whether the people they describe would REALLY feel that way or do those things. Natalie Zemon Davis doesn’t seem to mind if I say, “no, I think the dramatic arrival of the ‘real’ Martin Guerre is just TOO MUCH of a coincidence, regardless of whether the court believed it a miracle.” To me, not believing in miracles, the reappearance demands explanation. If it really was the original Martin Guerre (and Davis says he lived another thirty years and then died in Artigat as Martin Guerre, which would have been unlikely for a paid imposter – the fact that the first imposter DID is what makes the story so remarkable, after all), then how did he know to come home at precisely this moment? In whose interest was his sudden presence? His brother was in prison and about to be charged with false accusation.

The people who’d hate this type of speculation most, would be historians who expect to be BELIEVED when they write narratives of the past. Guys who have an understanding of history centered on concepts like objectivity, rules of evidence, and the like. Authors who expect their readers to not only appreciate their scholarship, but accept its results. Their basic objection to Davis is her playfulness with the idea of historical knowledge. But their specific criticisms tend to circle around format; and these are legitimate concerns.

The Return of Martin Guerre was a movie before it was a history. Although Davis was challenged by “new questions about the motivations of people in the sixteenth century,” and wondered what had become of “the ‘perhapses,’ the ‘may-have-beens’” typical of scholarly history; her close association with the production also led her to try “an expository style for the first part of the book that could provide the equivalent of cinematic movement,” to “allow the book to be read, if one wished, like a detective story (or like Coras’s Arrest Memorable) at a single sitting” (Martin Guerre viii, “On the Lame” 575). To a great extent, this choice of narrative experiment hid most of the scholarship and analysis underlying the story. Since the text didn’t display and visibly weigh this evidence, people lost sight of the work behind the story. This led some critics to assume Davis had irresponsibly interpreted sources to push a presentist agenda. It also obscured some interesting questions about identity in the period (for example, if identity lies partly in playing social roles and fulfilling one’s responsibility to the group, could Pierre Guerre have accepted the imposter as “real,” because he clearly was more successful than the original Martin at these roles? Who would prefer a “real” Martin who abandoned his family and betrayed his social responsibilities? Did Pierre’s suspicion begin when pseudo-Martin began conducting his business in ways that were against Basque “identity,” even though completely consistent with Artigat norms?). And it highlights questions about historians, audiences, their expectations, and about what history SHOULD be.

Martin Guerre is easy to read. Both in the sense that the book is short, filled with action and conflict, and won’t send the average reader to the dictionary too frequently; and in the sense that the narrative voice is authoritative and decisive. While Davis rightly argues that the rich settings and thorough backgrounds and back-stories help us enter the world these characters inhabited, this thick description also creates an air of narrative omniscience. Davis compounds this impression by stating conclusions (“Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back, and be different”) rather than making qualified guesses. The wide-awake reader will realize that Davis cannot know Bertrande’s dreams and wishes, especially in the absence of documents. Davis might argue (and does in response to criticism) that Bertrande’s actions expose her thoughts. But she didn’t have a chance to discuss this, the way she structured Martin Guerre; and the reader can be pulled along by the fast-moving story, and pass by the issue without even realizing it’s there.

Is this what we historians are most upset about? In Davis’s response to Finlay, she discusses her thought processes, expands on the evidence (in copious French and Latin footnotes, to the dismay of the linguistically challenged), and substantially proves that she knows what she’s talking about. So if we give her the benefit of the doubt, is the real problem that
Martin Guerre violates some hallowed expectations about the ways we express historical ideas to the public?

Robert Finlay’s attack,
“The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” contains some revealing language. He begins by saying “It is the consensus [not HIS judgment, mind you, the consensus] that The Return of Martin Guerre is a genuine rarity, a work of sophisticated scholarship with general appeal”, (555) and proceeds to argue that “if historical records can be bypassed so thoroughly in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion, it is difficult to see what distinguishes the writing of history from that of fiction.” Along the way, he implies that Davis may have lifted her story from Janet Lewis’s historical romance, since “Davis’s version of the story mainly differs from Lewis’s in her presentation of an explicit collaboration between the wife and the imposter” (569, 570).

Finlay accuses Davis of believing that “unsubstantiated insight can itself be taken as evidence” (559). “Nothing is cited from Coras’s text,” he says, “to support these contentions” (569). The text is supreme, and “speculation, whether founded on intuition or on concepts drawn from anthropology and literary criticism, is supposed to give way before the sovereignty of sources” (571). If documents are the only legitimate sources, presumably Finlay advocates giving up on the majority of those who lived in the past, and like the Guerres left no written records. Davis, for her part, counters that her reading was much more extensive than Finlay’s, and much more sophisticated. Where Finlay accuses her of manufacturing Coras’ suspicions of Bertrande, Davis quotes Coras own statement of those suspicions. She points out the specific endnote, which, oddly, does not exist in my edition of the book; and says this is just “one of several places where my notes were ‘beside the point’ for Finlay because he was inattentive to what was on Coras’s page” (592).

Surely this is the issue. Aside from the many (funny) personal shots the two historians take at each other, the disagreement comes down to Finlay’s suspicion that Davis is playing games with the past, and Davis’ portrayal of Finlay’s “inattentiveness to the whole argument of my book and his deafness to my authorial voice” (598). Davis’s interpretation rests on both texts and inferences made by examining the actions of her characters. She explains this persuasively in “On the Lame.” The problem seems to be that by writing
Martin Guerre in the style she did, Davis undermined her ability to present an argument and conclusions acceptable by historians like Finlay. The narrative was, as Finlay complained, a straightforward series of assertions about what happened and how people felt. The endnotes were mostly technical abbreviations, and did very little to show the historian’s process or the evidence she considered in crafting her story.

So, who are we writing history for? As Finlay snidely observed,
Martin Guerre was popular. A lot of people read it, and gained some insight about how people lived nearly 500 years ago. Or, about how some people may have lived. Is it important, whether they were clued into the subjective, contingent elements of the knowledge they gained about the past? Despite her demonstrated interest in them, did Davis’ style in Martin Guerre help or hinder the reader’s understanding these complexities?

I like the experiment of
Martin Guerre, and the question both Finlay and Davis pose: “In historical writing, where does reconstruction stop and invention begin?” (569, 572) The reader experiences a fast-moving, straightforward narrative differently from an erudite, heavily-qualified scholarly text; and DIFFERENT readers experience it. I think the question of the public’s experience of history is an interesting one. Certainly, with the variety of legitimate historiographical schools and their competing sets of techniques for examining the past, it makes no sense to limit the tools historians can use to express their findings to the point where all histories look like academic monographs. That would be like giving everybody an 18-wheeler, when some people clearly want and need only a pickup. But, what responsibility do we have as writers, to give our readers access to the gears, nuts and bolts (and baling-wire) behind the finished vehicle?

Would a cinematic
Martin Guerre story, backed up by an in-depth documentary of the primary sources, the historian’s techniques and conclusions, have resulted in a less contentious book? Would the public have picked up a thicker book? Would they have checked the endnotes more frequently, if they found a description of sources and a discussion of the historian’s process there, rather than a series of coded references to archival documents they’d never see? Do those incomprehensible notes really communicate anything beyond the author’s demand to be believed? It seems as if an opportunity to invite the public into the historians’ world has been missed.

ps. If I was writing a fictional story based on these elements, I’d amplify on two things. First, the “miraculous” reappearance of the original Martin Guerre at the crucial moment. Second: “Trying to take him off guard, President de Mansencal asked him how he had invoked the evil spirit that taught him so much about the people of Artigat. Coras said that he paled and for once hesitated, to the judge a sure sign of guilt.” This is the one moment in the record where pseudo-Martin seems to lose his cool.

pps. Interesting coincidence that modern technology for capturing images was pioneered by
Louis Daguerre.