University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Martin Guerre: a student podcast on Natalie Davis’s famous microhistory

Seminar tutor Dr Katy Gibbons explains: Mandy and Beth’s podcast came out of the level 5 core module, Dealing with Debates. One strand of this module explores Natalie Davis’ book, The Return of Martin Guerre, and the questions and possibilities it raises for historical scholarship. We had some fantastic discussions online, including: how historians analyse and make use of primary evidence, the role of imagination in historical writing, and how the tale of a 16th century peasant who pretended to be someone else can help us reflect on what it is that historians do! Mandy and Beth’s podcast did a brilliant job of exploring some of these issues, weaving them into an informal, but highly informed, discussion.

The Return of Martin Guerre is a seminal history book by Natalie Zemon Davies which we chose to do a podcast on. We’d found the book extremely accessible and the supporting seminar discussions had really highlighted the various levels that the book worked on so there was plenty to explore. After a quick chat, we realised that we were both particularly interested in exploring The Return of Martin Guerre as a microhistory, from both the context of the historiography that influenced Natalie Zemon Davis, as well as the impact that her work, in particular The Return of Martin Guerre, had on later historians. There was also the opportunity to look at if the book has links to today’s popular microhistories by understanding the books’ historiographical elements of social, women’s and microhistorical interpretation. 

A painting of Gerard Depardieu as Martin Guerre by Erogers148

A painting of Gerard Depardieu as Martin Guerre by Erogers148

The first step of the process was to sketch out our ideas and scope with one another to ensure we had no overlap as the podcast was going to be marked individually. It was really important to both collaborate and make our own work stand out at the same time. It was decided that the best way to clearly separate our work was for one to focus on microhistories prior to The Return of Martin Guerre, and for the other to focus on the historiography published after it.

Natalie Davis speaking

Researching the topic was very much like planning for an essay. The structure we created was an introduction, with a clear explanation about our arguments and what the topics of discussion would be, with each key section set out to support our analysis and arguments followed by a conclusion to wrap it up. There was a Q&A section to the podcast so we chose a couple of areas of our content that we felt could be expanded a little more and designed questions to fit. To do so, we each read through each others’ scripts and sent each other questions that came up for ourselves as we read them. This felt like the most natural and organic way to create them.

In terms of producing the podcast we’d thought that doing one would be a straightforward process – much like doing a presentation (and in fact actually designed a presentation which I planned to speak to). However, we realised that the process of making a podcast is much more complex and a bit more of a challenge (the professionals definitely make it look easy!). There were so many elements to balance – making it interesting for someone not familiar with the subject matter, ensuring that the historiographical concepts and arguments were clear, managing the time and making it engaging and ensuring it worked for both presenters. 

After a few hesitant starts we soon realised that we needed one overall script that showed where each of us was speaking, with handover points clearly marked and the Q&A section split more naturally. After several script read throughs and revisions we recorded our first take (which was way too long!) so we had to work much more thoughtfully on making our points more concise to fit the time. We spent a lot of time trying to make it flow as easily as we could for the listener by using each other’s names and changing voice tones to again seem more natural. It was definitely a bit of a struggle trying to balance practising enough so that everything flowed and fit the time limit, with making sure that we didn’t over-practice and end up sounding robotic. (I think we managed it well in the end, even if we did speak twice as fast as usual!) Finally we did a recording we both felt pleased with. 

Producing a podcast was such a change from the typical essay style assignments we are given and we both felt that we engaged with the literature in a way we don’t usually and felt like we’d truly achieved something after completing it, more so than from writing an essay.  We’d absolutely do a podcast again as it was both a historiographical challenge as well as a personal writing and presentation test. 

Beth Morrison and Mandy Wrenn

You can here a short extract from Beth and Mandy’s podcast here

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