Although most, if not all, would assume the lives of peasants are insignificant in the greater scheme of things, the popular story of Martin Guerre unfolds via peasants making major, life-altering decisions based on self-interest. The individual lives of the peasants do make a difference. Natalie Zemon Davis tells the tale of peasants looking out for themselves in The Return of Martin Guerre, and rarely do they allow others to interfere with their own goals and ambitions. Davis attempts to fill in the gaps of the story with her own personal opinion; although, her opinion sometimes counters the contemporaries of the story. Many sources used by Davis are logically sound; however, many more sources raise questions of their own authenticity and sensibility. Davis also takes a deep look into the lives of the peasants to probe what drives them and what so eagerly fuels their individualistic desires. Davis details the life of the peasants in not only one specific place, but also details the customs of numerous places such as Hendaye, Artigat, and the court at Rieux in a contrast/compare style.
Davis builds a world of stairs where those on the lowest rung are always looking somewhere higher up, yet they are always able to keep a taut rein on their lives. The characters of this tale are brought to a startling realism by Davis-she details every possible thought and action that could have led them down the path that they chose, and she even speculates on alternatives to the choice they made. She shows the life of the real Martin Guerre as full of regret and disgust at things gone wrong. His wife, Bertrande de Rols, is expressed as a manipulator that is always weighing her options and scheming to rise ahead. Subsequently, there is Arnaud du Tilh; without his appearance, no story would have likely taken place because it took a man of his shrewdness and his love of vice to create such a fantastical plot. A desire to attain one's own interests so eagerly is proven repeatedly by Davis as though she is obviously attempting to lead us in that direction by her outlook on this part of the past.
Davis reveals herself to the reader via the way she fills in gaps and makes assumptions. One such example is the approach in which she speculates on events that happen in the story. Not once will she allow herself to see any kind of coincidence. It is not enough that Protestantism came to the towns surrounding Artigat, but she forces the reader to accept that Bertrande and Arnaud must have been touched by its message. She blatantly carries the idea that peasants are making decisions based on self-interest when she tells the reader the positive reasons for them converting to Protestantism. She believes they converted because it would have given them a better excuse to be married (consensual marriage) and would have allowed them to be free of confessing the sin of adultery to a priest. On the topic of religion, she also assumes that Protestants and their sympathizers would favor Arnaud du Tilh. She does not accept the fact that adultery is still a sin in Protestantism. This could even be Davis' way of taking an unfair shot at Protestantism, assuming she is Catholic or a Catholic sympathizer. Davis portrays her concept that peasants hated nobility and that nobility had no business interfering in the lives of peasants. She puts images of pride for the town of Artigat that had no nobility, and the nearest noble was treated just like a commoner by Artigat when he began buying land. Davis never stops to speculate on the positives of nobility. She decides that the idea of a non-noble village was an influence on the Guerre's moving from Hendaye to Artigat. Another of Davis' major beliefs that she holds to is the notion that du Tilh would still have been caught in his lie regardless of the rift forged between he and Pierre Guerre. This reveals her bias towards a firm belief in the clichÃÂ©, "you get your just desserts". One of her most illogical views is her countering of one of the beliefs of Jean de Coras; a contemporary of du Tilh's time, the main judge in this case, and the first man to write about this case. Coras understood that Martin Guerre returned and then learned of this case. For some mysterious reason (perhaps just to concur with her other belief that coincidences never happen), Davis claims he returned because he had heard about the case. She does not provide anything more than mere speculation to back up her idea. Perhaps she received this idea from one of her sources that she sited in the bibliography. One such source she must have mainly drawn from was Coras', Arrest Memorable. This is a very reasonable source; however, she also draws from Guillaume Le Sueur's Histoire. Davis confesses in the opening of Chapter Ten that little is known about him other than he had personal goals that he hoped would be achieved by his book (perhaps he fictionalized certain portions in hopes of adding new insight to the case). She also admits that there were sometimes disagreements between Coras and Le Sueur, which raises questions on how respectable Histoire really is. Although she filled in the missing pieces of this chunk of history with her personal assumptions, Davis seems to hit the nail on the head when depicting medieval life in France.
"Love may do much, but money more." This was a popular proverb among peasants in 16th century France. This quote characterizes peasant life in all aspects. Though the world offered much to its citizens, the peasants always wanted more; they wanted more money, which would in turn, provide more power. Whatever is beneficial to them, they seek without regards as to the effects it would have on others. In this age of France, trade between villages and towns was bountiful. This emphasis put on business reveals the peasant motto "but money more"; many believed trading would bring them greater riches and opportunity. Marriage was a major vessel used by peasants (and really all estates in medieval France) by which they sought out power and wealth. One such example is the marriage of Bertrande de Rols and Martin Guerre. The Guerre's attempted to use their son, Martin, to make connections with a significant, prominent family in the society of Artigat. They hoped that this new bonding would help them make vital connections to a higher class of peasant. Although it was shunned by most in the Catholic Church and by attorneys (they viewed it as a nuisance), consensual marriage was legal and only required the bride and groom to agree on it. It was usually eschewed because it did not give the families (those who actually hoped to gain something from the marriage) any voice in the matter. However, most marriages were arranged by the parents. The main purpose of the marriage was to produce children; love was not a factor. The more children (especially males) a family has, the greater fortune it will likely bring to the family. A childless marriage was grounds for a divorce at this time; without children, a marriage, in essence, has no purpose. Many people simply did not find that their present situation was going well. Many departed themselves from reality by joining the army (this was common due to the current war between France and Spain). Others did not take such a drastic step; they simply picked up everything they owned and moved to a new village to start a new life in hopes of better fortune. Around this time, as ideas moved about rather swiftly due to peasant migration, Protestantism arose to challenge the authority of Catholicism. Peasants broke into church buildings and smashed images of the saints and other artwork. Protestantism found its fuel in its central doctrines: such as scripture being open to individual interpretation. Peasants saw these doctrines as loopholes and alternatives to the harsh, Catholic teachings. The courts, at this time, were attempting to instill the public with more conservative decisions that would favor marriage to divorce and put an emphasis on the familial unit, especially the children; this they did in hopes of ending decisions based solely on self-interest. There are scenarios where execution is used as a form of punishment for adultery. Davis accentuates the generalities of medieval life in France and also provides particularities, such as the property of Pansette staying within his family instead of going to the king, as was the custom. Though the generalities are of high acclaim, Davis deserves more accreditation for her description of the social structures of the various settings in the story.
Davis meticulously sets up the social setting in all the major locations mentioned in The Return of Martin Guerre. Davis first plunges into Hendaye, examining its foundations in order to expose why Sanxi Guerre would ever have wanted to leave. One comment from an observer notes that the people of this region were happy, dancing people; the observer seems to emphasize "both men and women". Davis seems to break them into separate groups as if there was some discord between the two groups at times. The reader is informed that the women of the Labourd region are very straightforward, always making their desires known. If the women had their wishes, as Davis implies, then the men must have let them have their way for the village to be as "gay" and cooperative as it seems. This much laid-back male was still at the head of the household and his inheritance was extremely significant; family lands stayed in the family by law. Most of this is in stark contrast with the society of Artigat. Inheritance was often sold off and land did not usually stay within the family. The men of Artigat controlled much of the land and did most of the work and bartering, although women stepped in when necessity called them. Women of this society were known by their father's name (i.e. Bertrande de Rols) all through their lives. A woman who was older and unwed was not well received by the community in most cases because she was not seen as the ideal village mother. The life of a woman in Artigat encouraged her to calculate her every move to insure success in life. Bertrande waited for her husband to return so she would appear very virtuous; had she not been so diligent, things would have been rather hard on her when Arnaud arrived. Bertrande also had to decide that divorce would not help the situation when impotence reigned the marriage. The women had to know how to manipulate their husbands since they were excluded from village meetings unless a decree was being announced. The family life of this community was looser than that of Hendaye. Clan lines did not divide the community, political opinion did. The richer the family was, the greater its political voice. Oddly enough, Davis leaves out any religious information on the description of Hendaye; this leaves the reader to assume that the land was untouched by Protestant concepts. On the contrary, Davis believes Protestantism grasped the town of Artigat with its principles, dethroning Catholicism. Magnifying the sociality further, the most individualistic quality of the tale appears; the peculiar cast of characters.
Had Davis made a fictional story, she could not have created more realistic, quirky characters as those that are in The Return of Martin Guerre. We are introduced (in this order) to Martin Guerre the stoic, Bertrande de Rols the stubborn, and Arnaud du Tilh the suspect. Martin Guerre grew up in a family of girls and moved to Artigat unexpectedly in his early youth. Davis describes Martin as a man who never really found much pleasure in his life. He was arranged to marry Bertrande de Rols and after many years of impotence, they finally had a child. Then, Martin Guerre unexpectedly left. The only probable reason is that he had stolen some grain from his father (a sin nearly unpardonable in the Basque custom); this was likely contrived of by Guerre as an excuse for his abrupt departure. When he abruptly returned to Artigat and ended the trial, he put all the blame on his wife, Bertrande, whom he had deserted. Coras describes his face as apathetic and silent when the judges claimed he was at least partially responsible for the mess. Guerre was a man who never found any pleasure in life and ran away from problems seeking only his personal satisfaction in a brand of stoicism where pleasure in this world is temporary if even existent. Martin's aloof, stoic nature is well contrasted by his wife's stubborn calculations. At a tender age, barely at puberty, Bertrande was married off by her well-to-do family. By marrying so young, she skipped the usual adolescent years and experiences and was forced to grow up all too quickly. This can be attributed to her stubborn nature-at heart, Bertrande de Rols was always a stubborn, rebellious teenager waiting to grow up. In some aspects, she did very well. She was able to keep a firm control on her life, and she is the ideal wife of the society of Artigat. She did what she could to hold a respectable, virtuous reputation as a front to the community. After Guerre left, she became more obstinate (she also would not divorce him during the couple's impotent stage) and would not divorce her husband that had deserted her. Her most deciding moment was in accepting Arnaud du Tilh as her husband. No wife could be fooled by a faux husband; he could not possibly show all the little signs that the true one had, and certainly not in bed (Arnaud was very fertile). She accepted him with open arms because it would show her as a virtuous woman who had rightly waited for her husband (it would also gain back her social status; older women with no husbands were frowned upon by Artigat). She was also eager at times; once she finally brought the suit on Arnaud du Tilh, she did it fervently, and when Martin Guerre returned, she hastily expressed regret for taking in an imposter. Martin was depressed by the world, Bertrande was uninterested by anything beyond herself, but du Tilh took advantage of everything life handed him. He was gifted with intelligence in his youth (so clever that he was suspected of magic), and indulged in all sorts of vices. Arnaud, like Martin, looked to the army for something new and exciting. Arnaud used it as a gateway into the vacant position of husband of Bertrande de Rols. Instead of rushing into the position, Arnaud, or Pansette as he was also called, gradually learned of the man Martin Guerre and made a 180 degree turnabout in his personality. Pansette was man with a love of vices; the replacement Martin Guerre was a respected businessman, husband, and father. Nevertheless, he did err; Pansette was fallible after all. He overstepped the boundary he created when he asked for his inheritance that was being held by Pierre Guerre. In his appeal at Toulouse and at the trial at Rieux, Pansette never sought legal advice and yet he still astounded Coras. He did learn to accept defeat however. Once the trial was over Pansette repented and apologized to all who were involved. The end: and no one lived happily ever after.
"[...] a case so extraordinary", says Davis, "that one of the men that judged it wrote a book about it." The case of Martin Guerre certainly was an extraordinary one. One so well written by Davis, that it sends a manifestation of the self-serving peasant life of medieval France and a new revelation on the social structuring of the peasant villages to the reader. The cast is brought to life in a vivid, vibrant, and a startlingly down-to-earth manner to which the reader can easily relate. Unfortunately, Davis uses very questionable resources to create such a whimsical plot and an assortment of characters with amazing depth. Previously touched on in paragraph two, Coras was shown to be a very reliable source, and Le Sueur was shown to be rather questionable indeed. Another dubious source is Jean Baptiste's Les Imposteurs that claims to have changed the language of Coras because of its "rudeness". Then there is Charles Hubert's Le Faux Martinguerre that is so "romanticized as to be unrecognizable". If Davis knew these two sources were so far off from the truth, then why in the world did she use them? She offers no explanation. Another poor source used by Davis is Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre. Davis tells the reader that it is a "novel" based on a "nineteenth-century English report of the case" instead of on the original work done by Coras. From the bibliographical notes, it can be deduced that a few of the sources were very logical and worthy to be used. One such is F. Gayot de Pitaval's Causes celebres; this author took an open mind to the case and speculated further than any his predecessors on the evidence of Bertande being an accomplice. Jacques-Auguste de Thou wrote Historiarum; he was the Parlementaire of Paris, which gives credibility to his writing. Davis uses questionable foundations for her book, but she certainly has something important to tell; peasants of this time made decisions for themselves out of self-interest, without regarding the emotions of others. These decisions have rattled the courts of centuries past and the minds of today's historians. The tale of Martin Guerre is one of manipulation, vice, and pride; the only gifts recognized by peasants as having any use.