American historian, Natalie Zemon Davis tells the story of Martin Guerre and life in Artigat, a small French village in the sixteenth century in The Return of Martin Guerre. Writing this story was not easy for Davis due to the lack of written records from this time period. Davis pieces together several accounts to help reconstruct the life of Martin Guerre. Davis’ usage of archives, letters, court records, and present-day accounts provides a convincing history of Martin Guerres life.
Writing about the past can be difficult for a number of reasons; records can get lost, destroyed, stolen, and much more. Davis had limited sources to recount Martin Guerres life and life in Artigat in the sixteenth century due to very few written records. In Artigat, peasants were the lowest class in society. Along with this, most peasants were unable to read and write. Being part of the lowest class and being unable to read or write resulted in little to no firsthand accounts written from the peasants point of view. While the peasants lacked these skills, there were still other people in the community who were able to read and write, mainly people in the higher class. Other people within the community wrote accounts, but they could have been skewed due to the alternate point of view. Without firsthand accounts from peasants in Artigat or Martin Guerre himself, Davis had to use other resources. Davis used archives, letters, court records, and present-day accounts to gain knowledge about the peasants and how they lived. Davis studied archives in Foix, Toulouse, and Auch, “men of letters,” criminal courts, and books recounting Martin Guerre and life in Artigat. Davis was challenged with the limited sources available to recount the story of Martin Guerre, but made due with what she could find.
Without reliable sources, Davis had to guess on several facts. This uncertainty led to false facts and information that was simply left out. Davis left out several facts, altered facts, and had some true facts included in The Return of Martin Guerre. Davis leaves out an important part of the Guerres family history; the fact that they are originally from the French Basque country. There is little said about the Guerres’ life in the French Basque country. The opening sentence of The Return of Martin Guerre states, “In 1527 the peasant Sanxi Daguerre, his wife, his young son Martin, and his brother Pierre left the family property in the French Basque country and moved to a village in the county of Foix”. Although Martin Guerre moved when he was young, his birth place is still a major part of his life and should be discussed in the story. Davis also left out information on Protestantism. Protestantism was the main religion in Artigat and was ignored in The Return of Martin Guerre. Davis used “a genre of history writing” called microhistory “which focuses on small units of research, such as an event, community, individual, or a settlement” to bridge the gaps in her writing. By using the microhistory approach, Davis was able to show a lot about how the peasants lived in Artigat in the sixteenth century. Throughout the story Davis revealed what living in a village was like, gender roles, social order, and the importance of religion.
Personally, I found Davis’ writing to be persuasive and believable. Although, not all of her writing is true, the way in which she writes makes it seem as though all of her writing is completely factual. Davis’ use of detail helped persuade me into believing her. She included detailed historical background throughout the story. In Chapter 1 of The Return of Martin Guerre, Davis writes, “On these lands and on these hills just above them lived some sixty or seventy families, growing the millet wheat, oats, and grape vines pasteurizing cows, goats, and especially sheep. A few artisans worked in Artigat- a blacksmith, a miller” . Davis described several important aspects of the town of Artigat. Details are important in stories; they help the reader feel immersed and connected to the story almost as if they are there. Davis used these details to help the reader further understand life during this time period. The crops they grew and the jobs they had really help you understand what life was like. Emotions and feelings were also included into the story, helping the reader understand what is going through each character’s heads. In Chapter 3 of The Return of Martin Guerre Davis explains how Bertrande is feeling, “a concern for her reputation as a women, a stubbord independence, and a shrewd realism about how she could manuveur within the constainsts palced upon one of her sex”. Davis conveyed Bertrand’s feelings of concern in that moment to the reader. With this, the reader is then able to understand where the character is coming from and how their emotions affect their actions.
Natalie Zemon Davis was able to provide a convincing reconstruction of Martin Guerres life by using archives, letters, court records, and present-day accounts. Despite the lack of information Davis was able to piece just enough together to form her story. Any story being reconstructed from the sixteenth century is going to have several unknowns, but it is up to the author to fill in those holes to the best of their ability, and that is what Davis did.