Saturday, September 13, 2008

The Return of Martin Guerre and the Feminist Fantasies of Natalie Davis

(Since, in my last post, I talked about Natalie Zemon Davis and her book, the Return of Martin Guerre, I thought to share with you a review I wrote a few years ago, while I was still an undergraduate at Yeshiva University, on the book. We were assigned the book in class and, as an assignment, had to write a review of it. To the professor's surprise most of the papers were very hostile; a good example of how different the Yeshiva University student body is from a normal college campus. My review was one of the more hostile ones. Back then I was much more the fighting conservative than I am today. If I were to rewrite this I would probably tone it down a bit. It definitely is a great book, despite its flaws, and I have every intention of using it when I have students of my own.)

The integrity of the field of history rests upon the assumption that the writing of history is a fundamentally different sort of undertaking than the writing of historical fiction. While even the most rigorous historian inevitably colors the facts with his own speculations, (Ranke is a prime example of this) history is supposed to about the interpretation of past events through the lens of documentary evidence. The writing of historical fiction on the other hand[1] is centered upon the attempts of an author to speculate upon the hidden stories and motivations that lie outside the realm of documentary evidence. While the art of historical fiction may be of value to the historian, it is not history. To blur this line is a disservice to the field in that it renders the study of history as mere partisan propaganda. This is so particularly when such writings are done in support of an ideology. If one is going to be a historian then one has to convince the reader that there has been a genuine attempt to check one’s ideology at the door.

An example of this issue can be seen in the Return of Martin Guerre by the noted feminist historian, Natalie Zemon Davis. To be sure, it should be noted, that whatever the book’s flaws, it is a fascinating and well-crafted bit of writing. The stated facts of the case which Davis discusses are these: In mid 16th century France, Martin Guerre, a peasant of Basque descent, abandoned his wife, Bertrande, and child, Sanxi, over a fight he had with his father over some grain. Eight years later a man named Arnaud du Tilh came around, claiming to be Martin Guerre, and was initially accepted as such by Bertrande, the rest of the family, along with everyone else in the village. Doubts began to rise however and Martin Guerre’s uncle, Pierre Guerre, along with Bertrande, come to accuse Arnaud of being a fake. The case was resolved when the true Martin Guerre, after twelve years, came home, minus a leg that had been shot off by a cannonball in Flanders. Arnaud was hanged, Martin Guerre resumed his proper place and Bertrande was absolved of having committed adultery, as the impression of the court was that she had been tricked into believing that Arnaud was her husband and was not a party to his fraud. These are the facts as the Parlement of Toulouse seemed to have understood them and according to the generally accepted rules of historical explanation, baring any evidence to the contrary, this version of events should stand; any attempt paint a different picture should carry the burden of proof upon it.

It would seem that Bertrande was a simple housewife, whose main concern in life was trying to keep body and soul together, who, tragically, was abandoned by her husband and tricked into living with an impostor for four years. This interpretation of events evidentially does not suit Davis, not because she has contradictory evidence, but because such a picture does not take into account the feminist conscience that Bertrande “must” have had. As such Davis offers an alternative reading of the events, one that takes into account the fact that Bertrande possessed “a concern for her reputation as a woman, a stubborn independence, and a shrewd realism about how she could maneuver within the constraints placed upon her sex.”[2]

This rewriting of events begins even before the departure of Martin. Bertrande and Martin did not have a child for the first eight years, or so, of their marriage and it was assumed that the couple was under some curse, which prevented Martin from impregnating his wife. This “curse” was lifted, if we are to take the written accounts at their word, when, at the advice of a “wise woman.” Martin and Bertrande “had four masses said by the priest and were given sacred hosts and special cakes to eat.”[3] This resulted in the birth of their son, Sanxi. To a historian still schooled in "outdated," "patriarchal," modes of study, it is not certain why Martin and Bertrande, unable to produce a child, still stayed together. This could have been for any number of plausible reasons; maybe the families would not have allowed it, Bertrande may have actually been in love with Martin or she might have been scared to death of what he would do to her if she left. For Davis the explanation for this is obvious; Bertrande, while not wanting to be married yet to Martin, did not wish to end up back under her father’s control. She thus, by allowing it to be claimed that Martin was cursed, manipulated the situation so she could be both outside of her father’s control and exempt from the normal duties of marriage. “Then when Bertrande was ready for it, the old woman ‘appeared suddenly as if from heaven’ and helped to lift the spell.”[4] (I.e. this was a scam worked out between Bertrande and the old woman.) Does Davis offer us a source that has someone, from that time, making the claim that Bertrande manipulated the situation? No. Does Davis even bother to bring down a case, from that time period, in which a woman played such a game and thus allow us to draw some sort of comparison? No.

Davis’ insinuations do not stop there. After Martin’s disappearance, Davis wonders if Bertrande was comforted in her solitude by that “wise woman who had counseled her during her bewitchment.”[5] This of course, makes perfect sense as it is well known that women, in 16th century France, were secretly organized under the banner of the female conscience and merely went “along with the system, passing it on through the deep tie and hidden complicity of mother and daughter.”[6] It would seem that the existence of such a secret system seems so obvious to Davis that she does not bother to offer us a single source as to the veracity of such a claim.
Davis’ most egregious claim is that, far from being duped by Arnaud, Bertrande was well aware, from the very beginning, that Arnaud was a fake and simply went along with the charade because she wanted a husband. Davis takes it as a given that “the obstinate and honorable Bertrande [was not] a woman so easily fooled, not even by a charmer like Pansette. By the time she had received him in her bed, she must have realized the difference.”[7] Now we know that Arnaud was slick enough to fool Martin’s own sisters, who knew Martin for longer than Bertrande did. The reason why it is unlikely that Arnaud fooled Bertrande, according to Davis, is that “as any wife of Artigat would have agreed, there is no mistaking ‘the touch of the man on the woman.’”[8] The most obvious problem with such claim is that it is not backed, as far as I can tell, by any sort of empirical data; I would love to see the study that a test group of blindfolded women could recognize a man based on how they were touched. Lacking that I can see no reason what so ever why this bit of folk wisdom would be relevant. (Imagine a conservative saying something like this and getting their book published by the Harvard University Press and being made the director of the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Study at Princeton University.) What is even more amusing is that Davis’ source for this, which she only indicates in her end notes, is a 17th-century historical work[9] by Etienne Pasquier (1529-1615), titled Les Recherches de la France. I must say that there seems to me to be something just a bit disingenuous when someone, who has a consistent track record of treating folk wisdom about women, written by men, with absolute scorn, turns around and builds a thesis around such folk wisdom merely when it suits their purpose.

Davis crosses a certain line here where her writing ceases to be a matter of putting objective facts, tied together with the writer’s speculations, on the table and instead becomes a forum for the writer to give her speculations, tied together with some historical facts. The challenge for Davis is to explain why her telling of the Martin Guerre case is intrinsically more deserving of the title History than a top of the line work of historical fiction such as the Killer Angels, by Michael Shaara. Killer Angels chronicles the events, in the form of a novel, of the battle of Gettysburg. This is a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, in 1974, and is considered a classic of American literature. No one, as far as I can tell, has ever offered a sustained attack on Shaara’s presentation of the battle of Gettysburg. Nevertheless, no one would ever consider Killer Angels to be a history of the battle. The reason for this is that Michael Shaara, in the end, had the people involved in the battle say and do things that cannot be justified strictly in terms of documentary evidence. In truth, though, one could say that Shaara was simply trying to resurrect the style of historiography used in antiquity by Thucydides and Josephus.

In many respects Killer Angels is superior to Martin Guerre; it is demonstrably evident that Killer Angels is on far firmer grounds, factually, than Martin Guerre. By the standard of historical events, Gettysburg was a very well documented battle. We can track, down to the hour, what the major figures in this battle, such as Lee, Longstreet, Pickett, Hancock, Meade and Chamberlain, were doing. All of these people left numerous volumes in memoirs and correspondence discussing their actions and their motives, which Shaara put to good use; we can be fairly certain that whatever was really said at the battle of Gettysburg was not that far off from what Shaara had his characters say. This is in contrast to the events described in Martin Guerre. Neither Martin Guerre nor Beatrice nor Arnund actually left any written records. All that we have is a slim book written by the judge in that case, Jean de Coras, and also Gullaume Le Sueur’s Historia. We have little in the way of solid ground to portray their mindsets. As such anyone who would wish to tell their story is forced to rely on his or her own imagination.

To be fair to Davis, one could argue that unlike Killer Angels, Martin Guerre gives its sources and, unlike Shaara, Davis points out where historical evidence ends and her suppositions begin. My response would be that even if Shaara would have bothered to put out an annotated edition of his work, documenting his sources, pointing out to the reader where he had allowed his imagination to fill in the blanks and offering a defense of these intuitions, Killer Angels would still be considered historical fiction, albeit one that contained a useful “study guide” to the real events.

In the end, Martin Guerre, while it may not fit in as history, cannot merely be pushed aside as historical fiction. Davis may take too many liberties for it to be considered history yet Martin Guerre is not structured like a novel, it is too self-conscious; most of the work contains Davis’ surmises upon the events. Rather than either of these two categories, Martin Guerre should be viewed as a running commentary to a work of either history or historical fiction that unfortunately does not, as of yet, exist. In this sense, Davis has performed an admirable service for the student of history in that she has allowed the reader to get a glimpse into the thought processes of a genuinely talented historian and has offered an invaluable look at the thought processes, struggles and issues that go into writing genuine history.

[1] The type at least that honestly engages the issues instead of merely using real events as a background for the author’s fantasies.
[2] Davis pg. 28
[3] Davis pg. 21
[4] Davis pg. 28-29
[5] ibid pg. 34
[6] ibid pg. 31
[7] ibid pg. 44
[8] ibid
[9] Pasquier actually put out numerous editions of this work throughout his lifetime. The first edition was put out in 1560, this was followed by editions in 1596, 1607 and 1611, in which the author added large amounts of information to. The one Davis makes use of was published in 1621. (See

1 comment:

Dragonfish said...

When someone dies due to a hanging, the past tense is "hanged," not "hung."

Also, the way a man handles a woman in bed is definitely different from one man to another. The best sexual experiences are those with a man who knows how to maneuver a woman's body with expertise. This does not mean that Bertrande definitely knew right away - it was a long time since she was touched by her previous husband. . . and she may have assumed he became a better lover with age and worldly experience. However, I do want to make it very clear that you cannot be so snide about the remark that for heterosexual women, there is no mistaking a man's touch - one that she has felt multiple times, that is. Plus, Arnaud's feet were considerably smaller than Martin's - the town shoemaker even claimed that to be true. Bertrande washed Pansette's feet, and I'm sure she could have remembered that physical difference too.

One thing is definitely true: Truth is somewhere in Time. Although we will never know it, we can continue to ponder on it.