Entering the Theater of History

You are perhaps more familiar with the movie: Gérard Depardieu, lumbering, blond, and sporting the most unfortunate bowl cut, is the (or, as it ultimately turns out, one of the) eponymous sixteenth century peasant, returning home after a long ten-year absence to his small French village amidst the cheers of his neighbors and the loving acceptance of his belle wife, played by Nathalie Baye. All goes well for a while, the couple living in wedded bliss, but as time passes suspicions increasingly mount and a shocking secret is finally revealed, tearing the two apart. It is a romantic story, and a tragic one, but most of all it is it is an unlikely one, fantastical enough to be taken as more of a legend or a myth than as a real, it-truly-did-happen historical event.

But that is exactly what le retour de Martin Guerre is: an extraordinary fact of history, a remarkable but true happenstance. The details are simple enough, if hard to believe: In 1548, a young peasant by the name of Martin Guerre stole a small quantity of grain from his father, and for his crime had to flee his hometown of Artigat, leaving behind his newborn son and his young wife Bertrande de Rols. He was gone for ten years, journeying to Spain and fighting his homeland in its armies. In the meantime, another peasant from a nearby village, Arnaud du Tilh, learned of his resemblance to Martin, and decided to impersonate the former and take his identity, property, and wife. Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was initially warmly welcomed by everyone in Artigat, even fathering a daughter with Bertrande, but a quarrel with his “uncle” over issues of the estate led to mounting suspicions over his true identity. One murder plot, one burned building, and one false testimony later, Martin Guerre alias Arnaud du Tilh was hauled up before the court at first Rieux, then Toulouse. Quick of tongue, a born trickster, Arnaud du Tilh almost succeeded in convincing them of his ruse when the real Martin Guerre, minus one leg from war, returned to reclaim his life. He was tearfully received by Bertrande and the rest of his family, and Arnaud du Tilh was hanged, admitting his wrongs and asking God for mercy on his way to the gibbet.

The case was, of course, a sensation, and in the years afterwards innumerable accounts were published recounting or at least referencing its events, among them Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, the bestselling record of the presiding jurist of the court at Toulouse; an essay by Montaigne; and a chapter in a book by Leibniz. Martin Guerre’s tale has been told and retold so many times over the years, traded around endlessly around the Basque region in which he had lived so many centuries ago, that it has long since passed from the annals of history into the realm of imagination and creativity. It was while working as a consultant and co-writer on the set of yet another adaptation of this famous tale, the aforementioned Depardieu vehicle, that historian Natalie Zemon Davis grew concerned about how far the story had strayed from the historical record, and thus set out to return it to its factual roots, reconstruct the events as they “actually happened” (Davis, viii). “I would give this arresting tale its first full-scale historical treatment, using every scrap of paper left me by the past” (Davis, ix). This is her stated intent, but the results of her forays into the past, another work entitled The Return of Martin Guerre, is as far from a concrete, definitive, cut-and-dry historical tract as any I have ever encountered—it is history, but it reads like a novel, like a movie. She begins by delving into the past, trying to uncover its “true face,” but she ends instead by showing that the pure facts of life are unattainable, always obscured as they are by layers of language, literary language, operating on both sides of the discourse: the one of those who tell the story, and the one of those whose stories are being told (Davis, 125). Left in Davis’s hands, history approaches literature, and deliberately so—the impression she ultimately leaves us with is not of history as true, unitary and objective, but rather of history as elusive and changeable, a story to be crafted that transforms every time it is told.[1]

From the very moment she embarks on her pursuit of the past, Davis reveals her acute awareness of the tension that exists between literary representation and the writing of history. In the introduction to his book Metahistory, the “linguistic turn” historian (according to my professor, a historian who has basically defected over to the side of literature) Hayden White writes that “the difference between ‘history’ and ‘fiction’ resides in the fact that the historian ‘finds’ his stories, whereas the fiction writer ‘invents’ his” (6). For Davis, however, her first encounter with the story of Martin Guerre is evidently a mix of the two: “When she first read the judge’s account,” Davis writes, her immediate thought is that rarely “does a historian find so perfect a narrative structure in the events of the past or one with such dramatic popular appeal” (vii). On the one hand, she maintains that she found the story of Martin Guerre sifting through the chronicles; on the other hand, her observation of the perfection of the story’s “narrative structure” for historical and popular means demonstrates a heightened consciousness of the ways in which these stories are told that is quite in keeping with White’s theories about the “fictions of factual representation.”[2] And the deeper Davis goes into the case, the more the friction between literature and history, fiction and fact, bears on her work: She is troubled by the departure of the film from the “historical record,” but at the same time she is inspired to come up with “new ways” of thinking about and understanding the past in general and about Martin Guerre in specific (Davis, viii). She feels she is in a “historical laboratory” of her own, “generating not proofs, but historical possibilities,” an image that at once connotes the scientific nature of her work (history as a “social science”) and the imaginative, inventive nature of it.

To resolve this “problem of invention” posed to her as a historian, Davis initially finds recourse in the archives (Davis, viii). She returns to her “original métier,” and “even from location in the Pyrenees I was running off to the archives in Foix, Toulouse, and Auch” to gather all sorts of sources, everything from Coras’s and Montaigne’s texts on the case to registers of Parliamentary sentences to notarial contracts of all the surrounding villages (Davis, ix). She gathers every piece of evidence, and in doing so she attempts not only to finally catch ahold of Bertrande and Arnaud, but also to “discover the world they would have seen” (Davis, 5). If she has to fall back on invention in her writing, it is only “in part,” “held tightly in check by the voices of the past” (Davis, 5). Perhaps some construction of the literary sort is unavoidable in writing history, but the final result will still be objectively true in the sense that it is borne out by the facts of the past.

But what to do when even those “voices” are literary constructions, other texts already encrusted with rhetorical devices and linguistic turns? Archival documents, it must be remembered, are not pure, unvarnished facts, but rather recordings or accountings of the facts. Channeling Nietzsche, they are not the object, not the truth, but a specific representation of the object, the truth, in the form of words. Language, then, is the barrier that stands between the historian and his subject, the “instrument of medication between the consciousness and the world that consciousness inhabits” that moreover is inherently contaminated with a whole host of ideological, political, ethical, and so on and so forth meanings—according to White, the idea that a “value-neutral description of the facts, prior to their interpretation or analysis” is possible is nothing more than an “illusion” (White, 126-134). Language is never neutral, and because language is never neutral all archival documents—the most personal of letters, the driest of legal, the most sensational of news articles—are not neutral either, and so a historian searching for the realities of the past starts from a position of having already, unknowingly, lost touch with that past. All archives are simply another sort of fiction, another type of literary or linguistic mode.

The problem of the archives as a truth-teller is exacerbated when studying sixteenth century peasants who could not write at all, and so have “left us few documents of self-revelation” (Davis, 2). To gain access to the lives of these individuals, the historian is forced to take a round-about route via secondary accounts written by others far removed from the actual peasantry. Literature is one option, but it exists, it is so often conventional, following “the classical rules that make villagers a subject of comedy” (Davis, 2). The literary corpus abounds with stories of “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” peasants and their “happy, pleasant, and agreeable” adventures, but to take that for reality is to run together fiction and fact. As Davis herself admits, a learned poet might describe Arnaud’s country with extravagant literary terms like “rich in grains, rich in wines” and “abounds in men, as brave fighters as could be,” but it would be hard to say if Arnaud would have said it similarly (Davis, 35). The other option Davis puts forth is records of court proceedings, but these too are not exempt from literary sleight-of-hand. For example, an excerpt of a document recording the testimony of a young Lyonnais villager seeking a pardon for the murder of his wife (who did not live long enough to tell her side of the story, which just serves to highlight the erasure of voices in the archives and the problem of recovering them) is sprinkled with “phrases urged upon him by his attorney” that are designed to paint a vivid “portrait of an unhappy marriage”: The wife, “without rhyme or reason, took it into her head to kill him, and in fact beat him and threw stones at him…The suppliant accepted this peaceably” (Davis, 3). Criminal cases like Martin Guerre are especially rich in drama and narrative, and also “limited as a means for faithfully recounting history,” the judges always having “the power to shape the official version of the truth” (Bienen, 496) White says that “the facts do not speak for themselves, but that the historian speaks for them” (125). We see here, however, that the relationship is a step further removed—the historian doesn’t speak for the facts, but for texts that purport to speak for the facts.

Davis is not unaware of this linguistic and archival dilemma, which she proves by treating her sources like poets, subjecting their texts to an analysis of a basically literary kind. The primary source Davis uses in writing The Return of Martin Guerre is the aforementioned Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, whom she presents to us as “The Storyteller.” As depicted by Davis, Coras was a brilliant jurist who could pour forth “spellbinding oratory before two thousand people” and whose legal publications were beloved by his students for their literary merits as much as their informational ones: “’Corasissima’ one of them wrote in the margin next to an especially apt phrase on the subject of inheritance by minors” (Davis, 97). These talents were applied to Coras’s account of Martin Guerre’s trial, and the result, in Davis’s eyes, is a new style of law and crime writing that has never been seen before, an “innovative book of contradictory images and mixed genres” (Davis, 104). She then proceeds to examine how this “mixture in tone and mixture in form” determines the story that Coras is telling (Davis, 108). On the one hand, Coras exaggerated and omitted aspects of this story to create a “moral tale” in which the “diabolic art” of the impostor is “built up by comparison with biblical, classical” figures, thus exonerating Bertrande of any guilt and emphasizing Coras’s “exemplary” execution of this satanic figure (Davis, 109). On the other hand, however, the lack of a proper hero, a requirement of a moral tale, in this version of the events—the real Martin Guerre, Davis stresses, is portrayed as irresponsible, “unforgiving and unrepentant”—allows Coras’s account to be recast as a “tragedy,” a word he himself uses in a later edition (Davis 110, 111). And still another way to read Coras’s text is as a “tragicomedy,” a story with a diverting beginning, a doubtful middle, and a sad ending in which Arnaud is cast as a kind of hero crucially helped by Bertrande who, “not at all deceived, decides to fashion a marriage with him” (Davis, 112). Davis went into the archives a historian, but came out an English professor, well versed with the literary process, trying to find meaning not only in the sentences themselves but in the spaces between them, in their forms and structures, in the way this texts shifts between genres and “is told in two ways at the same time” (Davis, 108). The text that she ends up with as a result is not objective, not bare, unvarnished fact, but rather a complex and at times contradictory medley of voices and meaning.

Davis herself advocates for the “comitragic” version of the story of Martin Guerre, presenting to us in The Return of Martin Guerre a reading of Arnaud as a hero, Bertrande as his willing and loving accomplice, and Martin Guerre as the cad who comes back and ruins everything at the last minute. This interpretation she arrives at not by grounding her arguments in the exact words of Coras’s text, but by playing around and speculating into the ambiguities and contradictions that arise from the surface of his text once she subjects it to the kind of literary analysis mentioned above. Davis treats Arnaud, Bertrande, and the other historical figures in her book like they are characters in a Dostoyevsky play, wondering and hypothesizing on their emotions and psychology. For example, much of her assertion of Bertrande’s complicity in Arnaud’s deception (really the heart of her book) rests on what she imagines are Bertrande’s feelings as a young and beautiful woman abandoned by her real husband: but surely, Davis says, “Bertrande dreamed of a husband and lover who would come back and be different” (Davis, 34). She invents scenarios in her head as “thought experiments,” and places Arnaud and others in them, putting words into their heads—if Arnaud du Tilh and Martin Guerre had ever met beforehand, she says, it surely must have been “unsettling and fascinating,” but once the shock wore off regarding their resemblance they likely would “exchange confidences” (Davis, 39). The real Martin expresses ambivalence about his wife, suggests to Arnaud that he “take her,” and Arnaud would think, “Why not?” (Davis, 39).

Davis tries to justify her speculation by asserting that a historian has recourse to “the uncertainties, the ‘perhapses,’ the ‘may-have-beens’” when the “evidence is inadequate or perplexing,” but her retelling of Martin Guerre goes far beyond that and approaches fiction (Davis, viii). The historian Robert Finlay, for example, criticizes Davis for bypassing completely the historical records “in the service of an inventive blend of intuition and assertion,” particularly in her characterization of Bertrande, whom she transforms in a stroke of the pen from the dupe of the traditional tale to an active and engaged accomplice in hers (Finlay, 569). This type of inversion of traditional women’s history is very common in micro-history studies like The Return of Martin Guerre, and, according to historian Marsha R. Robinson, has its roots in the idea that “history is constructed, historical narratives are rarely objective” (Robinson, 1). Although Davis vehemently denies Finlay’s claims that she ignored the historical record, certain elements of her book indicate her implicit recognition of the hold of fiction in history. First, she frames the entire book in terms of theatrical language—Bertrande and Arnaud are consummate “rural actors,” their ruse is compared to the donning of “the mask of the carnival player,” the trial is a performance which Arnaud has to go into “rehearsals” for and which is attended by spectating crowds (Davis 5, 41, 57). This obviously serves to call attention to the literary aspects of her writing, making transparent the ways in which she uses language and narrative structure to intensify the drama (Look! Arnaud takes “center stage”) and embellish her history (Davis, 69) And second, Davis leaves her book deliberately open-ended, ending: “I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it one again?” (Davis, 125). Although Davis had set out to write the true history of Martin Guerre, in the end she can only she can claim that it is a face, not the true face, of Pansette, Arnaud’s nickname/stage name. She has not deciphered the story; it lives on, changing with every re-telling, whether it is another historian who takes a crack at it, or a grandmother in present-day Artigat who tells the it to a young mother complaining over her baby carriage that nothing ever happens in this sleepy town. “Perhaps not now, but in the sixteenth century…” (Davis, 125).

In many people’s minds, there is a firm difference between historical writing and fiction writing—one is true, and the other is not; one deals in facts, the other inventions; one is a science, interested in discovering and quantifying, the other an act of creativity, interested in creating and imagining. But as Davis shows in her search for the true, the right, way of telling the history of a legend like Martin Guerre, the boundary between fiction and history is much, much more fluid than most imagine. Language, literary schemes and modes, infiltrates every step of a historian’s work, from the starting point of the archives to the end point of actually setting words down onto the page. It is impossible to get the truth of the past, because such a thing doesn’t exist, and if it did, it is lost to us anyway. Truth is not objective, or unitary, or singular, but rather ever-shifting and ever-changing, a story to be crafted and told and re-told, every version, every interpretation, different, repeating ad infinitum. Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre is but one of these stories—there will be, and already are, many more.

[1] The idea for this essay grew out of two sources. First, a prompt my Literary Theory professor gave me for our second assignment that goes: “Historians take themselves to be reconstructing the truth about past events, but they are actually writing a kind of fiction. They bring to their understanding of earlier periods narrative schemes of a basically literary kind—storytelling forms that help them organize bare historical facts into a satisfying shape, none of which can be said to be more right than any other. The choice of what kind of story you are going to tell cannot be made on empirical grounds.” Second, a book (Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre) that I read for my Theory of History class, and on which I led a discussion section.

[2] Title of one of Hayden White’s essays: “The Fictions of Factual Representation,” compiled in Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism (Johns Hopkins UP, 1978).

Works Cited

Bienen, Leigh Buchanan. “Review: The Law as Storyteller.” Harvard Law Review, Vol. 98, No. 2, 1984, pg. 494-502.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. The Return of Martin Guerre. Harvard UP, 1983.

Finlay, Robert Finlay. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” The American Hsitorical Review, Vol. 9, No. 3, 1988, pg. 553-571.

Robinson, Marsha. Inverting History with Microhistory: Women Who Belong: Claiming a Female’s Right-Filled Space. Cambridge Scholar’s Publishing, 2013.

White, Hayden. “The Fictions of Factual Representation.” Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Johns Hopkins UP, 1978.

White, Hayden. Metahistory: The Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-century Europe. Johns Hopkins UP, 1973.