Publication Date

January 1, 1990

Perspectives Section


Post Type

American Historical Review


Teaching Methods

Pansette has done it again. The sly trickster who impersonated Martin Guerre in the sixteenth century and subsequently fascinated generations of storytellers, readers, and scholars, has captivated two sections of freshman history. I assigned the “AHR Forum: The Return of Martin Guerre” as supplementary reading in the “History of Europe to 1715” survey at the College of William and Mary. Students loved it, and it also proved to be a useful tool for teaching analytical thinking.

In introductory survey courses, instructors have two main missions. They must teach students about the past and, at the same time, help them develop analytical skills. During more than twenty years of teaching, I have used a variety of methods and books to present opposing interpretations of historical evidence.

I have used books of readings, such as the Heath series, Problems in European Civilization, and more recently, J. Kelley Sowards’ Portraits in European History. These college texts present differing opinions on historical problems. I have discussed such readings in the classroom and required students to write papers in which they describe a problem and the opinions surrounding it. They then must select one of the opinions to support with a rational argument based on the evidence. I have had success with this approach to teaching critical thinking and writing but I am always looking for something new.

I found a heated and scholarly debate between two contemporary and respected historians, Robert Finlay and Natalie Zemon Davis, in the “AHR Forum” of the June 1988 American Historical Review, pages 553–603. The debate concerns Davis’ book, The Return of Martin Guerre. Finlay accuses Davis of “refashioning” the story of Martin Guerre by using interpretation to stray from the facts; Davis responds with justification for her interpretation. Unlike some of the other readings I have used to present differing opinions on historical problems, the Finlay-Davis exchange involves a point-by-point criticism and rebuttal, and the overall theme concerns the extent to which historians can legitimately embellish fact with interpretation.

The Martin Guerre story is an intriguing one. An impostor, Arnaud du Tilh, also called Pansette, passed as Martin Guerre for three years. Both Guerre’s wife, Bertrande de Rols, and his family accepted Pansette as Martin Guerre until the pseudo-Guerre claimed his inheritance. Pansette then was accused of deception, brought to court, and had nearly exonerated himself when the real Martin Guerre returned. The court found Pansette guilty and he was executed. The traditional version of the story, based on sixteenth-century accounts, most notably that of Jean de Coras, a judge of the Toulouse parlement, portrayed Pansette as a charlatan and Bertrande as a dupe and a victim. The story itself is compelling, and just as compelling are the essays in the “AHR Forum” by Finlay and Davis.

In his essay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” Finlay argues that Davis has gone beyond the evidence to transform Bertrande from a dupe to a willing accomplice. He claims Davis is guilty of an excess of invention and does not respect the sovereignty of the sources. After reading Finlay’s criticism, I was convinced that Davis had overstepped the bounds of acceptable historical scholarship. I agreed with Finlay until I read Davis’ point-by-point rebuttal in her essay, “On the Lame.” Davis defends her historical reconstruction by showing how she overcame the limitations of early sources through knowledge of sixteenth-century French peasant life and psychology.

If I could be caught up first by Finlay’s arguments, and then do an about-face when I read Davis’ reply, I judged that reading and discussing the “AHR Forum” might be a useful exercise for students. The story itself is hard to beat. And, although other historicals disagreement may be as great as that between Finlay and Davis, seldom are they so current or so persuasively presented. Additionally, the “Forum” has the advantage of Davis responding point-by-point to Finlay. Such direct debate—including personal jibes—probably would heighten student involvement in the issues. In the fall semester I assigned the reading for a class discussion to compliment textbook material on early modern Europe. The film, The Return of Martin Guerre, was shown at the local public library a week before the reading assignment was due. I recommended viewing, but did not require it because students were already burdened by a heavy work load for the course.

I had set up the discussion to accomplish several things. I wanted students to understand the use of evidence and the complexities of interpreting the past, and I wanted them to grasp some of the dimensions of peasant life in sixteenth-century France. The vehicle for all of this was the Finlay-Davis debate.

First, students needed to understand the story. Then, I wanted to be sure they understood the traditional interpretation of the case and both Finlay’s criticism of Davis and her rebuttal. Once they understood the story and the issues raised in the “AHR Form”, I could find out whether they found Finlay’s or Davis’ assessment more convincing. Most students favored Davis’ interpretation. Students—and one vocal woman in particular—did not think Bertrande was a dupe. They agreed with Davis that Bertrande must have known “the touch of the man.” She must have realized from body size, foot size, and overall appearance that Pansette was not her husband.

Student discussion touched on issues relating to sixteenth-century life when they considered why Bertrande would pretend to recognize the imposter. She had been abandoned and could not remarry. It was a male dominated society and marriage conveyed both social status and property rights. Students suggested that if Pansette had not tried to claim Martin Guerre’s inheritance, Bertrande’s uncle probably would not have questioned his identity. According to the students, Pansette’s deception was allowable only as long as he enhanced the family fortunes.

Part of the discussion focused on the use of evidence. We discussed documentary evidence such as legal records and Davis’ use of contextual arguments, psychological arguments, and sources not consulted by Finlay. Most students favored Davis’ contextual approach. When the balance of student opinion clearly favored Davis’ historical reconstruction, I introduced Finlay’s question, “In historical writing, where does reconstruction stop and invention begin?” (p. 569). In one class, a student adamantly supported Finlay’s contention that Davis had refashioned the Martin Guerre story. He argued, as Finlay does, that of the 180 witnesses in the trial, not one suggested Bertrande was an accomplice. The records further revealed that Bertrande was a plaintiff in the charges of imposture against Pansette. How, then, could she be an accomplice? Other students countered that Davis’ essay and her book had been an exploration of truth and doubt. The purpose of Davis’ book had been to raise questions about the traditional interpretation.

At the end of the discussion, we had reached no clear conclusions, but we had, like Davis and Finlay, raised important questions. To sum up, I explained that I had assigned Martin Guerre because it was a darn good story and because I wanted students to see the dynamics of scholarly disputation. I also stressed that I wanted them to see the complexity of interpreting the past. Their textbook made the past look clear, factual, and simplistic, when in fact, it is just the opposite. The fun and the business of history comes in trying to make sense of the complexities.

Student response to the “AHR Forum” in both sections of the class was enthusiastic. I thought reading the “Forum” had worked well for the classroom discussion, but I still wondered what the students had actually gotten out of it. To find out, on the final examination, I asked a fifteen point essay question on the Guerre problem. Students had to discuss either (1) Finlay’s criticism of Davis or Davis’ response to Finlay or (2) what they had learned about history from the “AHR Forum.” Before grading, I was struck by the length of answers to the questions. The Guerre question carried the least points of the essays, and yet students wrote their responses at greater length than on some of the weightier essays. Here are some typical excerpts:

“The most important thing learned was that of writing a persuasive, argumentative essay. Both Davis and Finlay are brilliant…. They carefully hide their weaknesses while systematically exploiting the weaknesses of their opponent.”

“On almost every historical event and person, opposing views such as these can be found. As Davis admits in the ‘Forum,’ we need both views.”

“Finlay was correct in saying that Davis used conjecture. However, Davis’ conjecture was not taken out of the blue. Davis shows the reader her style of the ‘New Research’ wherein she used not only historical evidence of the time, but social and anthropological evidence in determining French customs of the time, psychological evidence in reconstructing the thought and logic process of Bertrande and Arnaud, as well as evidence from a variety of other social sciences.”

“Two people may see the same event, but record it totally different from each other. The reasons for this are that some people may see something from a different angle or perspective. Finlay feels that Bertrande was a ‘dupe’ who was tricked by Arnaud…. Davis bases her ideas on the assumption that Bertrande played along with Arnaud. Davis feels that Bertrande had to have been able to make the distinction between the real Martin Guerre and the impostor….”

“Davis clarifies the failures in Finlay’s analysis, namely, that he believes there is a black and white in the situation. He claims to have discerned the truth from Coras’ Arrest Memorable, her principle source, but she asserts that Coras did not come to absolute decisions, and there were many uncertainties in his perception of Bertrande. She also points out that Finlay did not even look at one of her sources and therefore cannot make judgments on the validity of her statements.”

“Dedicated to a factual and logical evaluation of historical material, Robert Finlay exposes what he perceives as weaknesses and misrepresentations in Davis’ The Return of Martin Guerre. His attack on Davis’ use of self-fashioning, psychology, and anthropology exemplify his belief that Davis has gone beyond facts to a fictional interpretation of Martin Guerre.”

“…from the obviously different points of view between the sixteenth century and the twentieth century and between two twentieth-century views, it is easy to see how an event can be changed by the historian’s point of view.”

“Davis was a promoter of ‘self-fashioning’ and she credited Arnaud with having experienced such a transformation. Finlay says this was ridiculous and that Davis was simply using it because it was a new word.”

I was pleased with the above responses. In rethinking the assignment, I would like to require students to see the film in addition to reading the “Forum”; then, the essay on the final exam could count for more points. The problem will be in eliminating something else from the busy schedule of a course that covers Europe from the Greeks through 1715. I even have considered expanding the exercise by requiring students to read the December 1988 “AHR Forum” focusing on Robert A. Rosenstone’s essay: “History in Images/History in Word: Reflections on the Possibility of Really Putting History onto Film.” The use of a film like The Return of Martin Guerre in class raises lots of important questions beyond the Finlay-Davis debate. Whether or not I use the film, reading the “AHR Forum” on Martin Guerre has served my students well. I was satisfied that they had crossed the boundary of benign acceptance and entered the fertile realm of analytical inquiry. They had learned that historical facts contribute to an historical context, and the context may enhance the facts. Yet there are limitations to both the facts and the context in explaining human events. Pansette, even after his execution more than 400 years ago, with the able assistance of Davis and Finlay had taught my students to doubt, to question, and to weigh arguments. They learned that wisdom may be more in seeking than in certainty.

Phyllis A. Hall is a visiting assistant professor, University of Richmond where she is currently teaching European and Renaissance history. This is Professor Hall's second article under the Teaching Innovations column. Her first article, "Using Your Research in the Survey Course," appeared in Perspectives, December 1988.