The Impostor

Peter Burke

The story is simple but compelling. Indeed, it may well be called ‘prodigious’, a term which is prominent on the title-page of the account of the case published in 1561. Martin Guerre was a peasant, of Basque origin but settled in the village of Artigat in the French South-West, between Toulouse and Foix. He married a local girl, Bertrande de Rols, when they were in their early teens; ten years later, he disappeared. Eight years after that, a man came to Artigat and announced himself as the long-lost Martin. He was accepted by Bertrande, and, at first, by the Guerres and by the village, but after a time the rumour spread that the real Martin, who had lost a leg in the wars, was elsewhere, and that this one was an impostor whose real name was Arnaud du Tilh. The village split on the issue: when it eventually came to a trial, over thirty witnesses came forward to testify that the man was indeed Martin Guerre, while more than forty said that he was not. The court found against him, but he appealed. At the second trial, at Toulouse, the prisoner seemed to have convinced the court, but just as sentence was about to be pronounced, a man with a wooden leg stumped into court, claiming to be the real Martin Guerre, back from his 12-year odyssey. When his wife and family set eyes on this second claimant, they immediately recognised him as the genuine article. The impostor was executed.

The trial, which took place in 1560, became a cause célèbre. Montaigne, who had attended the proceedings, referred to it in his essay ‘Of the Lame’. Two printed accounts made it known to a wider audience. More recently, the Guerre story has furnished the subject of a play, two novels and an operetta. There is little difficulty in accounting for its appeal: the story has the quality of myth about it. More exactly, it combines the drama of mistaken identity, a comedy – or tragedy – of errors, with the powerful motif of the returning hero who finds that his house and family are not as he left them. The homecoming of Odysseus, the return of the prodigal son, the soldier’s or sailor’s return of the ballads, are variations upon that resonant theme. For good measure, we are given a truly dramatic dénouement, an inversion of the ballad motif of ‘the maid saved from the gallows’ by the arrival of a messenger. It is small wonder that Daniel Vigne was sufficiently attracted by the story to turn it into a film: this has been shown in France and the USA, though it still awaits distribution in Britain. Coincidence dogs Martin’s limping footsteps to the last. Before his film was made, Daniel Vigne discovered that the Princeton historian Natalie Davis was also interested in the drama of the Guerres, and he enlisted her services as an adviser. ‘Watching Gérard Depardieu feel his way into the role of the false Martin Guerre’ made Professor Davis want to tell the story – in her own way, which is that of a social historian.

Natalie Davis is one of the most gifted and one of the best-known social historians practising today – and there is a whole army of them at work. Her distinctive achievement is to combine breadth with depth. Her wide-ranging curiosity and especially her interest in social anthropology prompt her to ask original and searching questions about the life of the French people during their bitter religious wars of the later 16th century. What allows her to give convincing answers is her long familiarity with and detailed knowledge of the archives of one particular city, Lyons, a base from which she makes forays into other parts of France. In article after article (eight of them collected in her Society and Culture in Early Modern France) she has examined social history from a variety of angles. She has studied journeymen printers, their societies, their strikes and their religious attitudes; the role played by city women in the Reformation; the relation between ideas of the sacred and of conjugal sexuality; and the significance of what she has called ‘the rites of violence’ – the ritualised lynchings and desecrations of corpses and of religious objects perpetrated by both Catholic and Protestant crowds. The Return of Martin Guerre is at once an attempt to reach a wider public and to approach social history by a somewhat different route.

What makes it so different? In one sense this book represents a return – a return from description and analysis to the more traditional historical genre of narrative. In a provocative article published in Past and Present in 1979, another Princeton historian, Lawrence Stone, argued that we have recently witnessed – for better or worse, probably worse – a ‘revival of narrative’ in history. In the debate which followed, it became abundantly clear that historical ‘narrative’ is not easy to define, and that its revival is difficult to disentangle from another recent trend, which might be called ‘history in microcosm’.

One of the major problems which social historians have to face is that of dealing with relatively slow changes in the lives of large numbers of people without eliminating local and individual idiosyncrasies and variations. To avoid this, a number of social historians have been following the lead of social anthropologists and picking out faces in the crowd, studying small communities or even ordinary individuals, and practising what Professor Clifford Geertz – also of Princeton – has called the ‘thick description’ of everyday events, using them to reveal the values and structures of the society. This procedure, too, has its dangers and it is to be hoped that it will not be reduced to a formula. But there is no denying that the results so far have sometimes been spectacular, as in the case of Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms; or Jonathan Spence’s The Death of Woman Wang, which described the adventures of a woman who ran away from her husband, returned to him, and was strangled by him as she slept one night in 1672 in a village in Shantung Province; or, best-known of all, Ladurie’s Montaillou. The Return of Martin Guerre is set deep in Le Roy Ladurie country, among the peasants of Languedoc. Natalie Davis, who wrote one of the most perceptive reviews of Montaillou and knows Languedoc well, has now produced a work in the same genre.

All these authors have made extensive use of legal proceedings. Ladurie and Ginzburg were able to draw on Inquisition records, while Spence and Davis have used contemporary accounts of trials, the original documents having been lost. This reliance on trials means that we see ordinary people only in extraordinary situations. However, it may be argued that these extraordinary situations reveal a good deal about the everyday, about the rules or expectations which underlay social life at a particular place and time. This argument has probably been developed most fully in the work of Victor Turner, who has made a speciality of the analysis of what he calls ‘social dramas’, units of spontaneous social interaction which seem to fall naturally into four parts or acts – the breach of a social norm, the consequent crisis, some form of redressive action and, finally, the reintegration of individual or group into the community.

This idea of social drama (with which Natalie Davis is familiar, though she does not appeal to it in this book) may be helpful in the case of Martin Guerre. Like Woman Wang, Martin broke the rules of the community by running away, and a crisis followed. At this point the plot thickens, or becomes more complex, because what looked like redressive action, Martin’s return, turned out to be another breach of the norms, itself redressed by the trial and by the return of the real Martin, who was reintegrated into the community while the pretender was cast out.

The drama of the situation was not lost on contemporaries. One of the Toulouse judges, Jean de Coras, wrote in his account of this histoire prodigieuse that Arnaud du Tilh ‘got the idea to play the tragedy you have been hearing ... It was truly a tragedy for this fine peasant, all the more because the outcome was wretched, indeed fatal for him.’ The judge was sufficiently involved with the protagonists to break through the 16th-century convention that tragedy concerned the upper classes alone, the actions of peasants being a subject fit only for comedy. One might add, paraphrasing the late Erving Goffman, another social anthropologist concerned with the drama of social life, that Arnaud showed remarkable gifts for the presentation, or misrepresentation, of self, culminating in the courtroom scene where he remembered certain details of Martin’s early life better than Martin did, a point which impressed Montaigne and no doubt other members of the public. Following his usual line on the fallibility of human judgment, Montaigne accused the court, in his essay, of temerity (hardiesse) in daring to condemn the false Martin at all. As for the real Martin, the account of his last-minute appearance at the court in Toulouse suggests that he – or fate – had a truly theatrical sense of timing.

The problem is, of course, that the sources may be contaminated or, more exactly, filtered through schemata derived from fiction – whether tragedies, ballads or folk-tales. Natalie Davis has curiously little to say about this possibility, though she is well aware that her sources are not objective records. She has a fascinating chapter on Jean de Coras, the judge who wrote one of the two fullest contemporary accounts of the trial, and another on the way in which he consciously or unconsciously altered details in order to present the case as a moral tale. She underlines the fact, unusual in the 16th century, of ‘an event from peasant life being reshaped into a story by men of letters’. She even went to Artigat to talk to the villagers about the case. It is too bad that she seems not to have recorded their oral traditions, for it is likely that the villagers will now re-remember these events and pass them on in the form given them by Jean-Claude Carrière and Daniel Vigne, or even – who knows? – the form given them by Natalie Davis.

With a story that the sources themselves present so dramatically, one might have thought that Jean-Claude Carrière, who wrote the screenplay for the film, would have had little to do. In fact, his text is a skilfully unobtrusive adaptation of the story told by Coras and others, his main innovation being the introduction of a narrator, an old woman in the service of the Guerre family, to provide a description of the background to the events and to comment on the motives of the chief participants. These participants are vividly characterised. There is Martin himself, cold and withdrawn; Arnaud, who is extroverted, warm and calculating; and, most fascinating of all, Bertrande, a woman of honour who is loyal to both the men in her life – both of them thrust upon her – but who clearly prefers the pretender. It is not difficult to see the hand of Natalie Davis in the scenes from traditional peasant life which punctuate the story, notably the wedding ceremony, complete with the signing of the contract before the notary and the blessing of the marriage bed – with the couple in it – by the priest.

In some ways the historian must have envied the film-makers their liberty. She can only write that the local youths ‘must have’ laid on a charivari when the couple failed to produce a child in the expected time, or that Martin and Bertrande ‘must have’ consulted a local wise woman to discover what was wrong, whether they had been bewitched. Unhampered by the need for evidence, the makers of the film can show both charivari and wise woman on the screen. Yet the historian was dissatisfied with the result: ‘The film,’ she writes, ‘was departing from the historical record, and I found this troubling. The Basque background of the Guerres was sacrificed; rural Protestantism was ignored; and especially the double game of the wife and the judge’s inner contradictions were softened.’ In reaction she tried to tell the story of the Guerres as it had actually happened.

On the face of it, this might seem to be a return to traditional historical narrative on the part of Natalie Davis – as striking in its way as the return of Martin Guerre. In practice, however, her narrative is a ‘thick’ one in Geertz’s sense, thickened by its repeated references to social and cultural context. She holds a delicate balance between two aims, that of telling the story for its human interest and that of telling it as a way of presenting a 16th-century peasant society. ‘We still know rather little,’ she writes, ‘about the peasants’ hopes and feelings; the ways in which they experienced the relation between husband and wife, parent and child; the ways in which they experienced the constraints and possibilities in their lives.’ She is particularly perceptive in her re-creation of Bertrande. Like Janet Lewis, whose novel about Bertrande was reissued last month,[*] she sees her character as compounded of ‘a concern for her reputation as a woman, a stubborn independence, and a shrewd realism about how she could manoeuvre within the constraints placed upon one of her sex’. As the leading woman historian and women’s historian in the United States today, the doyenne of that fraction of the profession, Natalie Davis is naturally concerned to tell us about the role of peasant women in the South-West: ‘they performed the characteristically female tasks of hoeing, trimming the vines and cutting the grapes. Jointly with their husbands, they rented and worked the land, sheared sheep.’

In some parts of the book I felt that the narrative had not been thickened quite enough. Perhaps the author was afraid that more attention to context would clog the narrative and slow it down. The trouble is that, without more context, many details of the story remain hard to understand, at least for a reader who is not soaked in the period. For example, I should have liked to see a fuller discussion of the sense of honour, honnêteté, prevalent in Languedoc at this time: honour, or the conflict between what she wanted and what she thought honourable, seems as good a clue as anything else to the actions of Bertrande. I should have liked to see a discussion of the propensity to litigate, which was, like the sense of honour, prevalent among peasants as well as the gentry at this time. Such a discussion would have served to introduce the first trial. I should have liked to see a discussion of the commercialisation of agriculture, a major theme in Le Roy Ladurie’s famous Peasants of Languedoc, to introduce the quarrel between the market-oriented false Martin and his more traditional uncle. I should have liked Natalie Davis to have teased out the socio-linguistic significance of the letters between Jean de Coras and his wife, letters to which she refers so briefly and so tantalisingly.

However, on one issue of central importance the author does bring together her insights into both the particular and the general, the personal drama and the social drama. She suggests that Arnaud and Bertrande fell in love and also that they were able to conceive of marriage ‘as something that was in their hands to make’. She comes down firmly on the side of those who, like Jean-Louis Flandrin, believe that love had a place in traditional peasant society, and she emphasises, in this book as in a number of her essays, that ordinary people were not passive, the slaves of authority, routine or economic determinism, but that, on the contrary, they were capable of making choices, of rebelling against constraints, like Martin, or manoeuvring within them, like Bertrande. At this point storyteller and social historian merge into each other. Once again, Natalie Davis has given evidence of her remarkable talent for bringing the past to life.

[*] The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis. Penguin, 93pp., £1.25, 29 March, 0 14 004193 1.