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The return of Martin Guerre

Natalie Zemon Davis

I recently reread The Return of Martin Guerre by Natalie Zemon Davis for my class on Early Modern Europe. I assign it every time I teach this class because, being set in mid-16th century Languedoc, it helps us discuss what has changed and what hasn't in this period of transition from medieval to modern Europe. I assign it also because it is a really good story. Students don't have a hard time getting interested in the people and events, and I look forward to reading it again every couple of years.

The story is about a young husband who, after several years of marriage, leaves his young wife and baby and is not heard from for years. Then a man shows up in town claiming to be Martin Guerre, home again. The wife accepts him, as do some other family members and villagers, though other key relatives and certain villagers are skeptical. For a few years life goes on as normal—the couple have another child—and then the doubters, chiefly Martin Guerre's uncle, become more insistent. The man is brought to trial and found guilty of being an impostor, but appeals. The higher court is about to acquit him, when another man stumbles into the courtroom on a wooden leg, announcing that he is the real Martin Guerre.

This is one of those rare books that appears after a film instead of before. Natalie Davis collaborated on the 1982 French film starring a young Gerard Depardieu, but wanted to do more with the story. The resulting book is very accessible to the general reader, but at the same time represents the high level of scholarship one expects from a historian of Davis' stature. At 156 pages, it is recommended for anyone interested in a dramatic story and a fun read.

By Elizabeth Bowser
Submitted: December 9, 2011