University of Portsmouth's History Blog

Telling tales about the Past

The celebrated historian Natalie Zemon Davis died recently.  In this post, our own Dr Katy Gibbons looks at how second-year students studying the ‘Debating the Past’ module, translated her most famous work into other media: emojis, memes and poetry!

What role does story telling play in history writing? How far can historians use their own imagination when discovering and relaying the stories of people in the past?

This is one of the many questions that we engage our students with as they look in depth at historiography, and think about how historians ‘do’ history.  In our second year core module, ‘Debating the Past’, one of the texts that might be studied is Natalie Davis’ groundbreaking book, The Return of Martin Guerre. First published 40 years ago, it reveals how a 16th century peasant community, and individuals within it, respond to a unlikely yet true case of a missing person, identity theft and imposture.  Years after Martin Guerre disappeared from his village of Artigat in South-West France, a man turned up claiming to be him and resumes his life in his family and community. When doubts crept in, a series of court cases ensued, with a dramatic conclusion. Davis’ book remains inspirational and much cited, not only for the interest of the story, but for the questions she raises about the role of the historian in creating their accounts of the past, and the role of imagination in history writing.

Book cover of The Return of Martin Guerre

Thie Martin Guerre story is one which exists today in different media – a film (for which Davis was historical consultant) and play amongst others. When students study the book, in their seminars they are set a challenge: can they retell their own version of the story of Martin Guerre, using a different media?  And having retold it, how does this help reflect on their responses to and analysis of Natalie Davis’ account?

We are always impressed by the creativity and imagination of our students! To give a few examples from last year’s graduating cohort, we had Martin Guerre through emojis from Rachel:

through memes from Pauline (a few of my favourites below):

and even through a poem from Charlotte!

Handwritten poem

Once students had shared their own story telling, they discussed the decisions about the emphasis they played on particular events, and on the actions of the different protagonists. This opened up an exploration of how other scholars have responded to and been inspired by the way Natalie Davis chose to tell the story, and, importantly, why it’s important to know and think about these stories.

This connects to a bigger question: how does thinking about this intriguing case of 16th century peasants help us to think about our own world, as well as our 21st-century approaches to the past?

Photograph of Natalie Zemon Davis

Natalie Zemon Davis; photo: Marit Hommedal/SCANPIX

Natalie Davis died very recently, after a lifetime of producing thought provoking and inspiring history, of encouraging others to ask useful questions, and of advocating for stories of marginalised people to be told. As historians (both lecturers and students) at Portsmouth,who continue to explore her unique contributions, we have much to learn by returning to Natalie Davis’ own words:

‘No matter how bleak and constrained the situation, some forms of improvisation and coping takes place. No matter what happens, people go on telling stories about it and bequeath them to the future. No matter how static and despairing the present looks, the past reminds us that change can occur … The past is an unending source of interest and can even be a source for hope’. [1]

[1] Natalie Zemon Davis, “A Life of Learning”, Charles Homer Haskins Lecture for 1997, ACLS Occasional Paper, No. 39 (1997), 23.



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