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The Reinvention of Martin Guerre
on 1 January 2012
There are far too few books that describe the actions and beliefs of ordinary people in medieval and early modern times because they only left any record in a few unusual instances. The story of the flight of Martin Guerre, of an impostor turning up in his place and then of the return of the real Martin is itself interesting and told very well in Natalie Zemon Davis' well-written book, which moves at a very good pace. The main participants are well described and Davis gives credible explanations for their actions based on studies of medieval peasant life in southern France, such as Le Roy Ladurie's "Montaillou" and partly on her own invention, supposedly within the limits of what was probable. However, even though the limits on past records make some invention necessary, it may go too far here. Davis' primary source, the account of the lawyer Jean de Coras, interprets the motives of Martin's wife, Bertrande, and the impostor differently from Davis. In particular, Coras interprets Bertrande as a victim of the impostor, whereas in Davis she is his co-conspirator. In her imaginative reinterpretation, Davis creates a good story, but the extent of her reinvention may make it less than good history, so four stars rather than five. On the whole, this book is however well worth a read.