I personally found Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre
quite informative and enjoyable. I seem to be in the minority within my class, however, as many people seem to feel the book is quite simply not
history. I disagree.
Personally, I feel that Davis did an amazing job of making an historical
work out of scant details. Moreover, by taking on the story of Martin
Guerre, she has done something that few historians I’ve read have
actually pulled off—she created a work that relies on the methods and
works of social history that nevertheless has a story.
The book is a
model of how much can be done with so little. And I find that rather
inspiring, as I always seem to think the meatiest, most fascinating bits
of history are the ones that you find in that single, throw-away mention
in a book about another topic completely.
Davis indicates that this story still has cultural capital, is still
being told and reiterated, almost five hundred years later. No story
stays part of the culture for that long unless it inherently hits on
some raw nerve of the culture, some theme that seems almost
inexhaustible to the people who keep telling the tale. When something
possesses this sort of cultural relevance, it is natural for an
historian to try to come in and attempt to see what light historical
knowledge can shed on it.
Guerre’s case is a natural for such
treatment, as well, as it’s a “true story.”
Such work is difficult, however, there’s really only one primary source,
and another cotemporary source that may or may not be written by someone
with any firsthand knowledge of the events that transpired. Looking
through the footnotes, Davis definitely leans on Coras, but she then
went the extra step of incorporating a lot of nineteenth and twentieth
century works that applied to the case—and in this way, she was able to
flesh out things that may have been unclear in Coras’ text. She
elucidates peasant economies and family structures of the time. She
brings in the Guerre family’s Basque heritage, and how it helps to
explain why Martin may have left—something that likely was inexplicable
to his French neighbors.
This incorporation of knowledge of peasant life
at this time and place enriches the story, and gives a reader a far
fuller understanding of the events of the tale.
Where Davis speculates as to people’s mindsets or attitudes, she tends
to very reliably use those famous phrases that historians to indicate
such a shift. “It may be” and “it is possible” and “perhaps” are all
over this book. The book contains an entire chapter on Coras and his
strengths and weaknesses as a source. There’s even a selected annotated
bibliography at the end.
To me, these all indicate an historian who is
struggling to remain in the realm of “real history,” using the tools of
the trade and being quite transparent about her sources.
It all comes back to that persistent “objectivity question.” I think
that Davis saw the potential for a good book, and one that contributed
to an ongoing discussion of over four hundred years. When confronted
with the dearth of sources, Davis faced a dilemma—she could be
objective, or attempt to tell the truth. She chose the latter, and I
personally think it was the right decision.
“Objectivity” would have
left the book unwritten, a single paragraph, as one of my classmates pointed out.
The use of reasonable inference and honesty about uncertainties and
ambiguities, however, brought about a book that I felt was a worthwhile
Besides, I still feel that the truth is seldom “objective.”