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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.
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TOP 50 REVIEWERon 17 September 2013
I came across this book by chance; I had seen (though never watched) about the movie of this story starring Gerard Depardieu and was keen to see what the real story was behind this intriguing medieval narrative. The author was involved in the movie and was anxious to present the true story which included the bits altered or left out of the movie, and so wrote this book.

The story really begins in 1527, when Sanxi Daguerre, with his wife, younger brother and son Martin left their home in the French Basque country and settled in the county of Foix, a three-week walk away, and further inland towards the Pyrnees; they settled in the village of Artigat. There they evidently found settled work and built a relatively sound business and became people of some note in the area. There, young Martin grew up, not perhaps happily, and eleven years after their arrival, in 1538 Martin was married by arrangement to Bertrande de Rols, daughter of the well-off Rols family. The marriage was neither particularly successful nor happy, at least to start with, and in 1548 when Martin was twenty-four years old, he left. Where did he go? What happened to him? And when he apparently returned in 1556, was there more to the story than anyone knew?

This is a great story; mystery, intrigue, deceit, ambition - it's all here, and if it wasn't true it seems so unbelievable that you couldn't get away with making it up. Of course, the return of Martin in 1556 is just the beginning of the real mystery which makes up much of the book, and it is this story, recreated and rebuilt from records from the time that makes what is a true story so incredible and interesting. This is a fantastic read; utterly fascinating.
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Much of what we know about sixteenth century France concerns the nobility since it is they who were literate enough to have left records in the forms of journals, letters, and diaries. Here Zemon Davis uncovers one of the few cases which gives us an insight into artisan life in a French village: the mysterious, beguiling case of Martin Guerre.

Drawing on both court records and contemporary written accounts, Zemon Davis traces her version of the story, all the while being aware that her reconstruction might still be full of possibilities rather than proofs. And it is this historical self-consciousness which raises this book beyond the romantic biases of ‘popular’ historians.

The case of Martin Guerre is still an amazing one: Guerre leaves behind his wife, family and inheritance and, eight years later, a man returns claiming to be the missing husband and is accepted back by wife and sisters... but is he really who he claims to be?

The story is unpacked expertly by Zemon Davis, taking in issues of religion, village relationships, the social role of women, love and identity amongst the non-elite. And even when we think we know what happened, there are still questions posed by this story which tantalise.
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on 7 November 2015
I can't really comment on the accuracy of the methodology of the historical research here as I am not an historian myself - I'm a literature student - and as such, in my opinion, this is a wonderfully, compelling read. Not only does this book present the facts (as far as they are known) about the case of Martin Guerre, but it presents it with enlightening discussion concerning the possible motivations of the principal actors in the drama.

The story is as follows: Bertrande de Rols marries Martin Guerre - they are both very young at the time. Indeed, there is speculation that Bertrande may have not been more than 9 or 10 years old at the time of her marriage! It was not a success, and at some point a decade or so later, Martin Guerre leaves her. A period of absence follows before a man claiming to be Martin Guerre and her long lost husband arrives. It's quite clear from the story that Bertrande prefers this husband to the original one; although she is ultimately forced into participating in the court case which will expose him as an imposter, before the original (real) Martin Guerre returns. It's a famous story - it was written of in many a cause celebres in both French and English (my favourite author Charlotte Turner Smith "translated" it in one of her early works) and it is, allegedly, still talked about today in the small French town in which it happened, despite the events taking place during the sixteenth century.

Whether the story is entirely accurate or just interpretive, it's hard to say. However, what I would say is that this version makes for a wonderfully insightful and intriguing read, and what Zemon Davis has done with this is what more historians should do - i.e. make history books that people actually want to read.
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on 30 December 2007
With style, wit and authority, Davis takes a fascinating court case from the late middle ages and using original sources and her own opinion, paints a vivid picture of life in early Reformation era Languedoc. Its hard not to empathise with the characters she introduces us to, and in the end we don't know whether to cheer at the return of the eponymous Martin Guerre, or to jeer. Read it and see, and make up your own mind.

The book rips along at a fair pace, and that leads me to the only quibble I have, and the only reason it gets 4 stars instead of 5 - the book is too short. Much much more could have been made of the material, and the core thesis could easily have bourne a study twice, or perhaps even three times, the actual length without ever becoming stale or boring; as it is, it feels a bit rushed.

All things considered though, this is a learned work on a fascinating subject, and a brilliantly written addition to the field of social history.
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on 26 January 2016
There were several ink markings, notes and underlinings.
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