The Return of Martin Guerre

By Natalie Zemon Davis,

Book cover of The Return of Martin Guerre

Book description

The clever 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…

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Why read it?

3 authors picked The Return of Martin Guerre as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

I love this book because it’s a story about ordinary people. But it’s a true story.

It reads like a fairytale: a peasant, Arnaud du Tilh, is accused of impersonating another man who had abandoned his wife several years before. Arnaud seems to have outwitted the judges until the errant husband returns condemning the impostor to death.

I like this story because it helps to identify with men and women in the past, who in many respects, are just like us. It’s also a piece of great history reconstructed from original trial records. Davis is a great writer.

Davis’s history of the crafty peasant Arnaud du Tilh is another reminder that when it comes to history, truth is stranger than fiction. It’s also the book that confirmed my desire to do microhistory. Davis digs into trial documents to narrate the tale of Arnaud, who after being mistaken at an inn for the disappeared Martin Guerre, learns everything he can about the missing man before taking over his life. The real mystery here is not how Arnaud manages to fool the villagers in the small French town of Artigat, but why even those who couldn’t possibly have been fooled…

This account of a marital deception in sixteenth-century France has always fascinated me: how could a wife not know that the man claiming to be her husband was a stranger? Martin Guerre was an unhappily married peasant who went off to war to escape family and small-town life.  When he returned a few years later, he was a changed man...literally. Natalie Zemon Davis reconstructs the story of Arnaud du Tilh, an imposter who took Guerre’s place until neighbors grew suspicious and fatal consequences ensued.

From Timothy's list on con artists and imposters.

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