The Return of Martin Guerre

by Brand: Harvard University Press

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  • The Inventive Peasant Arnaud du Tilh had almost persuaded the learned judges at the Parlement of Toulouse, when on a
    summer's day in 1560 a man swaggered into the court on a wooden leg, denounced Arnaud, and reestablished his claim to
    the identity, property, and wife of Martin Guerre. The astonishing case captured the imagination of the Continent. Told
    and retold over the centuries, the story of Martin Guerre became a legend, still remembered in the Pyrenean village
    where the impostor was executed more than 400 years ago.

    Now a noted historian, who served as consultant for a new French film on Martin Guerre, has searched archives and
    lawbooks to add new dimensions to a tale already abundant in mysteries: we are led to ponder how a common man could
    become an impostor in the sixteenth century, why Bertrande de Rols, an honorable peasant woman, would accept such a man
    as her husband, and why lawyers, poets, and men of letters like Montaigne became so fascinated with the episode.

    Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the lives of ordinary people, in a sparkling way that reveals the hidden attachments
    and sensibilities of nonliterate sixteenth-century villagers. Here we see men and women trying to fashion their
    identities within a world of traditional ideas about property and family and of changing ideas about religion. We learn
    what happens when common people get involved in the workings of the criminal courts in the ancien régime, and how judges
    struggle to decide who a man was in the days before fingerprints and photographs. We sense the secret affinity between
    the eloquent men of law and the honey-tongued village impostor, a rare identification across class lines.

    Deftly written to please both the general public and specialists, The Return of Martin Guerre will interest those who
    want to know more about ordinary families and especially women of the past, and about the creation of literary legends.
    It is also a remarkable psychological narrative about where self-fashioning stops and lying begins.


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