Book Recommendations: Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre

In a little mountain town in 16th-century France, a strange drama took place.

Martin Guerre, a peasant who lived with his wife Bertrande and his young son, disappeared after stealing grain from his father. Eight years later, he returned—looking slightly different, but close enough to his old self that most of the villagers, including Bertrande and Martin’s family, accepted him as Martin.

Some doubts persisted, but with Bertrande’s help this new Martin was able to defend himself in court from the charge that he was an impostor.

Then, during a new trial in Toulouse the next year (a trial featuring stronger evidence that the new Martin was actually a fraud named Arnaud du Tilh) a remarkable thing happened. The original Martin, now wearing a prosthetic leg from a battlefield injury, arrived in town to reclaim his identity.

This true story of doppelgängers and courtroom intrigue is told vividly by Natalie Zemon Davis in The Return of Martin Guerre. The book is a masterpiece of “microhistory”—a kind of historical study that zooms in on a specific, narrowly-defined subject to better understand what daily life was like for people whose stories were traditionally not told by historians: peasants, workers, villagers, and other everyday people.

Davis’s book demonstrates the diverse methods that scholars use to try to reconstruct and interpret the past, making it an excellent introduction to history as an academic discipline. Davis draws on primary sources in archives, but also synthesizes the evidence and conclusions of other historians.

When Davis doesn’t know exactly what happened at a certain point in her subjects’ lives, she draws on evidence about people who lived in similar circumstances to make informed hypotheses. Her work is much like that of a detective, but her strong storyteller’s sense makes the narrative seem as immediate as a modern piece of investigative journalism.

If you’re interested in taking history classes in college, or you like learning about legal cases that seem beyond belief, then I highly recommend The Return of Martin Guerre. Not counting notes, it’s a slender volume of 125 pages—perfect for busy students getting ready to go back to school.

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