Book Review: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis

In 1548 Martin Guerre left his wife, left his son, and left the village of Artigat in southwest France. 12 years later, “Martin” returned.

Many people may be familiar with Martin Guerre’s story from various creative works, including a film with Gerard Depardieu from 1982. For those who aren’t, it’s a fascinating story of how one man impersonated another man in 16th Century France and looked like he was about to get away with it until the real Martin Guerre returned.

Natalie Zemon Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre takes a detailed look at the historical record surrounding the imposter and his unmasking, as well as social and cultural information about the era, allowing her to speculate on the parts of the story lost to history. 

She particularly looks at the wife, Bertrand de Rols, to consider whether she was aware that the man she welcomed back into her life was an imposter and, if she was, what motivations she may have had for enabling him.

Identify theft in 16th Century France

Martin Guerre and his family were Basque migrants to what is now the Ariège department in the Occitanie region. He married Bertrande de Rols when they were both very young and, for reasons unknown, he left for Spain ten years after their marriage.

“Neither wife nor widow,” Bertrande was left in an awkward situation and when Arnaud du Tilh appeared in 1556 claiming to be the long-lost Martin, she accepted him as her husband. What followed was apparently a happy marriage until (the real) Martin’s uncle became suspicious and brought legal action against Arnaud, claiming he was an imposter.

After multiple legal cases, including an appeal of an initial guilty sentence, Arnaud was about to be acquitted when the real Martin Guerre returned from Spain to reclaim his identity. Arnaud du Tilh was sentenced to death.

A historical perspective

The book aims to present an accurate (if partially speculated) historical account, and makes for dry reading. However, the interesting content makes up for the dry presentation and it follows a clear narrative with the speculation based on historical and cultural information about France at that time.

It’s clearly well researched and goes into considerable detail about life in 16th Century France – however it is not without controversy. Historian Robert Finlay challenged the book, claiming Zemon Davis strays too far from the historical record, particularly in regard to the role of Bertrande de Rols; to which Zemon Davis justified her speculation though taking social and cultural elements into consideration.

I find this consideration of culture important, as it provides an overall richer read and understanding of the time these events occurred. For example, Zemon Davis discusses Basque culture and inheritance customs that are important for understanding the tensions leading up to the court cases against Arnaud du Tilh, and the role Protestantism may have played in the court cases and Bertrande’s motivations. The cultural landscape regarding the status of women is also essential for one of the book’s biggest questions.

The book also contains background information about the legal figures who wrote on the case (some libraries catalogue this book under law rather than history), which I will confess I only skimmed, as my interest lay with Martin and Bertrande rather than the trial judge. 

Did Bertrande de Rols know?

As the dueling historians make clear, the biggest question left to us by history is whether Martin Guerre’s wife, Bertrande de Rols, knew Arnaud du Tilh was an imposter.

Finlay argues the historical record says she “was a dupe, who, ‘given the weakness of her sex, [was] easily deceived by the cunningness and craftiness of men’.” On the other hand, Zemon Davis argues from a social and cultural angle that Bertrande de Rols was likely well aware she was better off in 16th Century France to have a husband and she, therefore, helped him live (and defend) the lie until it was too late.

I am inclined to agree with Zemon Davis. What do you think?

You too can buy this book here (affiliate link)

Book Review: The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis - 

Bethany Keats -
  • The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis
  • ASIN : B01GX4QD1G
  • Publisher : Harvard University Press (October 15, 1984)
  • Publication date : October 15, 1984
  • Language : English

Have you read this book? Do you have anything to add to Bethany’s review?

About the Contributor

Bethany Keats

I'm a former journalist who currently works in media relations. Originally from Geelong, Victoria, Australia, I now live in Townsville, Queensland and I usually visit France once or twice a year.

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