The bizarre story of Martin Guerre—a peasant who disappears from a small village in sixteenth-century France and whose place is taken by an imposter—has captivated historians for centuries.
In her 1983 book, Natalie Zemon Davis, a historian with a special interest in gender studies, examines the role of Martin Guerre’s wife Bertrande in their fraudulent marriage. Davis argues that Bertrande plays a key part in the deceit and readily goes along with it. Her book helped spur a shift in the way historians viewed past events generally, and the role of women in a period where documentary evidence was lacking. She daringly used her imagination to reinterpret the story, and some scholars criticized her for “filling in the gaps.” But Davis was unrepentant about mixing literary techniques with historical research.
The book became a bestseller and inspired other historians to chronicle the lives of people ignored by traditional history books.