Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982) Cultural / Historical Notes



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Le retour de Martin Guerre (1982)
Cultural / Historical Notes:

During the Renaissance (16th century), marriages were arranged in order to consolidate land. Wealth was not measured in terms of money, but rather in terms of the number of cattle owned, acres of land to harvest, furnishings possessed. Martin’s family receives several important “items” from Bertrand’s dowry (the payment made by the woman’s family to the family of her future husband.): 30 acres of wheat, 40 acres of millet (another cereal grain), two head of cattle, a woods, 3 red dresses (dresses that were made of colored cloth were expensive), a bed and 2 feather pillows and a storage chest that locked with a key. Metal was a very expensive material and a locking chest would have been highly prized, both for the metal and for the privacy which it afforded.

Young couples did not have their own homes but lived with the husband’s family and the young wife was under the “control” of the mother-in-law. Rarely did anyone move away and set up their own household. Land was shared since it was the source of a family’s wealth, reputation and pride.

The Catholic Church played a very important role in everyday life. Even though the people were Christian, there was still the prevailing thought that magic or witchcraft was to blame for many of their everyday ills or misfortunes. Hence, they would call upon the priest to “cast out the demons”. Popular festivals were often more pagan than pious in their activities. At Candlemas, the festival depicted in the film, men dressed up in costume (usually as women or animals) and played tricks on unsuspecting people or teased anyone who was not held in high esteem in the village. (This custom continues today in the Cajun area of Louisiana, where only the men are allowed to dress in costume. On Mardi Gras men ride from farm to farm asking for the ingredients for a gumbo to be prepared by the women later that day in the town hall). In the film. Martin dresses as a bear and is symbolically “castrated” by the men of the village as a mocking reminder of the problems he is having in his marriage as evidenced by the fact that he and Bertand have not had any children.

The village was really just an extended family with everyone living in very close confines and knowing all the details of each other’s lives. Education was none existent. At the time only those studying for the priesthood, or wealthy nobles, were educated and most people did not even know how to sign their names. Signatures were an “x” or a symbol. Books were rare and travel was unheard of. People lived and died in the same village, often without ever leaving the vicinity. War was waged by mercenaries (paid soldiers) and very seldom did any one go away to war unless forced to do so by the local lord.

In the case of serious disputes, usually over the ownership of land, the case would be heard by a “traveling judge” who would arrive in the village, take testimony from everyone involved and then render his judgment. The person who lost the case was usually required to repay the winner in some manner. Only on rare occasions, did a case have to be heard in a larger city in front of a panel of judges---such is the case here where the whole village is ordered to report to the city of Toulouse. Everyone would go and would set up camp in the courtyard of the judicial palace. Everyone wanted to go home as soon as possible to take care of their land and animals and most were very uneasy living in a city where there were so many people whom they did not know. Being brought before a court like this was very serious and the consequences could mean death.

Main characters

Martin Guerre and Bertrande de Rols and their children (son is Sanxi)

Pierre Guerre—Martin’s oncle who “inherits” the Guerre land upon the death of Martin’s father and Martin’s own disappearance. Pierre later marries Bertrande’s mother (thus combining the lands of both families) . Bertrande is living in this household since Pierre have now taken the place of her father-in-law and her father.

Jeannette—a life-long domestic with the family. She had know Martin since birth.

Guillement—one of Martin’s sisters.

Le cure—the village priest who has considerable influence on everyone. He married Martin and Bertrande and later “cured” Martin of his impotence.

Jean de Coras—the judge from Toulouse who is called in to settle the dispute between Martin and his oncle Pierre.
This film is based on a true story as told in the court records of Jean de Coras.

Questions (answer in English) due Friday



  1. Why did Martin finally leave the village?



  1. When he returns, how has he changed?



  1. What proof could you give that the man who returned really is Martin Guerre?



  1. What arguments might be made that he is not Martin Guerre?


  1. Why did the Judge come to the village?



  1. Who does he interview first? Why?


For Monday—do the essay on the attached sheet---in French (replaces a Journal). Same “rules” apply, think about advances structures and vocabulary.


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