"The Return of Martin Guerre" by Natalie Zemon Davis

Essay by NoLeafClover614A-, March 2004

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"The Return of Martin Guerre" is a novel about French lifestyle of the 1500's. During the 16th century in France, the majority of people were not literate, so recording the events of their everyday lives, thoughts and other things was rarely done. Zemon Davis' portrayal of village inhabitants in the story shows how much historical research she must have put into her work. Even without positive proof or knowledge of what life was like at the time, Zemon Davis has created an entire community of people living how she thought they would have by the information she had gathered from other sources. Since the story of Martin Guerre is so old, Natalie Zemon Davis probably had to use a substantial amount of guesswork to fill in gaps of the story which may have been lost over the years. The story itself is an interesting novel containing love, betrayal, religion, community, and French lifestyle and government of the 16th century.

The story starts in the year 1527 by describing young Martin Guerre and his family's move from a village in the French Basque country named Hendaye, to another village named Artigat, in the county of Foix. Martin grew up with his family, including his uncle Pierre, in Artigat. When the time was right, Martin was to be married to a girl named Bertrande de Rols.

What I found most striking about peasant life in sixteenth century France was that marriage was primarily an economic and business relationship. It seemed to be used simply to unite familial lands and provide continuity in the family.

In the beginning, Martin's marriage to Bertrande turned out to be infertile, and the town became restless. Folk customs were performed on Martin for the couple's infertility. These customs included using spells to rid him of...