The purpose of this paper is to introduce, discuss, and analyze the book “The Return of Martin Guerre” by Natalie Zamon Davis. Specifically, it will discuss the life of the peasant during the Middle Ages. This book is a fascinating account of a true case that happened during the 16th century in France. The book is also an excellent example of how the peasants lived in the Middle Ages, from what they ate, to how they traveled and what their family lives were like. This book shows that life in the Middle Ages was difficult and demanding, but it seems a little bit peaceful and serene, too.
The main occupations were farming and raising sheep or goats, and there were tradesman in the villages who worked for a living, such as a shoemaker, a blacksmith, and such. Martin Guerre and his family were tile makers, but they also farmed and raised sheep to become relatively prosperous in their small village (Davis 14). The peasants were uneducated, (the Guerre’s town did not even have a schoolmaster), and most could not read, and could only write a small amount (Davis 15).
They also married their children off very young, and often made matches for them. Martin Guerre married when he was only fourteen, and his wife was even younger (Davis 16). Life revolved around the village, the church, and the family, and it was a very busy but seemingly contented lifestyle. Their main concerns were the family and simple survival. Everything they did was to feed and clothe the family, from raising grains and grapes to raising sheep so they could spin the wool into cloth and clothe the family members.
When they became more successful, it was to make money and rise up in stature in the village community, but peasants who did not have trades worked the land for their own survival. They were also extremely close-knit families, often living nearby each other, so family was important for them, as well. They worked together as a family, and widows lived with one of the grown sons, creating an extended family unit. Family relationships were important in this society, and they were the source of land and dowries for the children, which were very important at the time.
In the Basque country, families often lived together, as the author notes, “When a household is set up with two generations of married folk, it is not the Basque combination of the old heir and the young heir, but a widowed parent, usually the mother, with one of her married children” (Davis 11). Even when Martin’s uncle married, he moved nearby to another house, and lived close to his relatives. Martin returned with his bride to his father’s house after they married, and lived with his family under one roof (Davis 18).
Since their main concern was survival and perpetuation of the family, this indicates how important family life was to the peasants. Women had a lesser position than men did in the society. Davis writes, “At the parish mass, she would have to get used to the fact that her women did not push ahead of the men to make their offerings, did not go about the church to collect for the vestry, and din not serve as sacristans” (Davis 15). Women were also blamed for a man’s impotence, as Davis notes. She writes, “In the sixteenth century, it was usually blamed on the power of a woman outside the marriage” (Davis 21).
The fact that Martin abandoned his wife and newborn son after eight years of marriage shows what low status women had in society. She had no recourse, she lived in a foreign household, and she could not even remarry. Girls were not educated; instead, they learned “women’s work” like spinning and cooking, and they were always at the mercy of their husbands. Davis writes, “First a world where organizational structure and public identity were associated exclusively with males” (Davis 29). The women worked in the fields, helped raise the livestock, served as midwives, cooked and baked.
They were essential to everyday life in the peasant world, but they held no rights or privileges. The only women that really rose up in society were the widows, who could earn the respect of others and wield “informal power” (Davis 31). Armand Du Tilh was able to get away with his deception for several reasons. First, he resembled Guerre enough that people mistook him for the missing man (Davis 39). Next, he learned all he could about the missing man so that he could fool Martin’s family into believing he was actually Guerre.
Davis writes, “He informed himself as cunningly as he could about Martin Guerre, his situation, his family, and the things he used to say and do” (Davis 39). He also grew a beard to hide any differences in his face, and took great pains to learn the villagers’ names and how he interacted with them when he had lived in the village before. In short, he learned every detail about Martin Guerre’s life, and convinced people he was Martin because of all the details he seemed to “recall” about his prior life.
Davis believes that he was accepted because people wanted him to come back for all those years, and that he came “announced” as Martin Guerre, and so people wanted to believe it was true (Davis 43). Most of all, Bertrande’s acceptance of the new Martin helped soothe the minds of others. It is easy to see why Bertrande would accept the imposter. Davis writes, “What Bertrande had with the new Martin was her dream come true, a man she could live in peace and friendship (to cite sixteenth-century values) and in passion” (Davis 44).
They also seemed to have become very attached to each other in their new life together. In conclusion, this book is a fascinating story of deception and betrayal, but it is a fascinating glimpse into the everyday life of the sixteenth-century peasant, as well. The book shows how families lived, survived, and even thrived, how women were treated in society, how important the Church was to so many aspects of life, and how difficult life was for many peasants. It is a good book to read to learn the more intimate details of life in the Middle Ages.