Posted in journal articles, writing history

The Great Cat Massacre, On the Lame, and The Refashioning of Martin Guerre

Darnton, Robert. “The Great Cat Massacre.” History Today 34 (1984): 7-15.

Davis, Natalie Zemon. “On the Lame.” The American Historical Review 93 (1988): 572–603.

Finlay, Robert. “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre.” The American Historical Review 93 (1988): 553-71.

This is a joint review that examines how anthropology, ethnohistory, and particular narrative techniques have greatly influenced the writing of history.

This week, we examined several articles in relation to these disciplines and techniques: Robert Darton’s “The Great Cat Massacre,” Robert Finlay’s “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” and Natalie Zemon Davis’ “On the Lame.”  In this paper, I will clarify how Davis’ and Darnton’s works benefit from the methods of anthropology and ethnohistory, and the narrative techniques we reviewed.  Additionally, I will discuss how the disagreement over the history of Martin Guerre demonstrates the benefits and potential downsides of “thick description.”  Lastly, I will examine whether Davis has gone too far and how Davis’ and Darnton’s works help us consider her question, “where does reconstruction start and invention begin?”

During the second half of the nineteenth century, the disciplines of history and anthropology developed many parallels; however, historians focused more on charting the rise of nations while anthropologists traced the cultural and social evolution of mankind.[1] Beginning in the 1960s, anthropology became extremely influential in redirecting historians’ attention towards everyday life.  Two key areas need to be explored in order to understand the main tenets of the anthropological approach: first is the concept of “thick description” and the second is “controlled speculation.”

Clifford Geertz, a noted anthropologist, asserts that anthropology’s task is to explain cultures through “thick description,” which generates meaning for the reader as opposed to “thin description,” which provides only factual accounts without any interpretation. For Geertz, thin description does not provide a sufficient account of an aspect of a culture; it is, therefore, misleading.  According to Geertz, it is the responsibility of an ethnographer to not only offer facts, but to extract meaning from a culture in order to present an insider’s perspective (emic) rather than interpreting events solely from an outsider’s perspective (etic).  Geertz uses a wink as an example to illustrate the “many layers of meaning such a simple act may convey.”[2]

Without understanding the conceptual structures and imaginative universe within which our subjects lived, Geertz argues, it is impossible to reconstruct the possible meaning of a wink. The goal is to get beneath surface behavior to reach an emic (insiders’) understanding, “cast in terms of the interpretations to which the persons… subject their experience.”[3]

Darton applies this same approach in “The Great Cat Massacre” to help the reader “get the joke” of the massacre.[4]

Darton suggests in his article that “by getting the joke of the great cat massacre, it may be possible to ‘get’ a basic ingredient of artisanal culture under the Old Regime.”[5]  As Green and Troup point out, Darton offers detailed contextual analyses for the symbolic significance of cats in French culture, as well as the attributes of carnival which are understood to influence unconventional behavior and rules.  By highlighting the multiple meanings of cats in the culture, “Darton proposes that the cat massacre represented the revolt of apprentices against poor treatment by their masters. The workers found the massacre funny because it gave them a way to turn the tables on the bourgeois in the only way possible—on a symbolic level.”[6]

Many times, historians and others who study culture are stuck working with scraps of evidence that often are compiled by a dominant party.[7]  Researchers have learned to read these materials “against the grain,” or for silences and suppression, as a means to recover voices from the past.   In addition, when evidence is inadequate, researchers may add comparative materials to “infer crucial information that may be missing or obscured in the historical record of a particular situation’.”[8] This method is known as “controlled speculation.”[9]

In 1983, Natalie Zemon Davis successfully used this method to flesh out the lives of characters in The Return of Marin Guerre.

[W]hen I could not find my individual man or woman … then I did my best through other sources from the period and place to discover the world they would have seen and the reactions they might have had. What I offer you here is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.[10]

Like Darton, Davis selectively embellished the available evidence in order to provide the reader the means to gain contextual cultural knowledge, and with it, an emic perspective.  Just as Darton highlighted the multiple meanings of cats in the culture, Davis embedded the story of Martin Guerre in “the values and habits of sixteenth-century village life and law.”[11]  She explains that “literary and narrative structure are part of the ‘data’ upon which [she wants] to do ‘vulgar reasoning’ to get at a sixteenth-century argument.”[12]

Part of narrative structure is emplotment.  All historians emplot their narratives in particular ways, which may help them to provide further explanation.  As Green and Troup explain, “the sources do not tell historians when to begin their narrative, or when to end it.”[13]   According to Green’s and Troup’s table of emplotment combinations, both Darton’s and Davis’s texts seem to align with satirical emplotment because both employ contextualist arguments and exhibit a liberal ideological implication.

The disagreement over the history of Martin Guerre, as seen in the Finlay and Davis articles, demonstrates the benefits and potential downsides of “thick description.”  The traditional version of the story of Martin Guerre derives from accounts of the sixteenth century, specifically Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras who was the rapporteur at the trial.[14]  In 1983, Davis published a detailed exploration of the case in her book The Return of Martin Guerre, but reached very different conclusions than Coras did.  Davis argued that Bertrande, the wife, was complicit in the fraud because she needed a husband and she was treated well by Arnaud du Tilh, the imposter.  Finlay criticized Davis’ conclusions in his article “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” accusing her of interpreting the historical account through a modern lens.  Davis responded to Finlay’s arguments in her article “On the Lame,” which appeared in the same issue of The American Historical Review in June 1988.

As discussed earlier, Davis employed methods of “thick description” and “controlled speculation” to tease out meaning from the original evidence to provide the reader with an emic perspective.  Finlay points out that “Davis adds substantially to establishing the historical context within which the story should be understood.”[15]  This is exactly the type of context Geertz wanted “thick description” to offer.  But Finlay also asserts that “Davis fails to show that her view of women in peasant society is relevant to the case she is examining.”[16]  In Finlay’s opinion, “thick description” benefitted Davis’ narrative by providing meaningful historical context, but it did not help her defend her overall argument, which was counter to Coras’ original assessment.  Davis’ main complaint against Finlay’s criticisms is that he seems to want only factual evidence (“thin description”).  She writes, “Robert Finlay sees things in clean, simple lines; he wants absolute truth, established with no ambiguity by literal and explicit words; he makes moral judgments in terms of sharp rights and wrongs.”[17] Davis may be correct in her assessments of the evidence, but it is not clear what she could have done differently to sufficiently convince someone like Finlay.

I don’t think that Davis went too far.  Even if her arguments did not convince Finlay, she presented readers with a new way to consider the evidence.  Take, for example, Ian Coller’s Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831, which offers a “historical triage” of European history with what he calls “an intentional act of seeing.”[18]  In this book, Coller does not focus on well-documented populations, such as Algerians and Moroccans; instead, his research concentrates on several hundred Arabs and their families who accompanied Napoleon’s soldiers to France in the early 1800s.   By excavating neglected archives and reimagining a “lost” community through the “fragments, gaps, and silences” between historical documents, Coller unveils a community that was nearly erased from the historical record.[19]  Coller offers a new narrative of France that reveals how integral Arab France was to the birth of modern Europe.  I mention this book because, as Green and Troup point out, many historians face the task of excavating meaning when documentation is lacking.  And while I agree that Davis’ and Darton’s works help to offer new perspectives to the issues they argue, Coller goes a step further by giving voice to an entire population of people whose documentation was nearly completely erased.  Historians such as Davis, Darton, and Coller must use their imaginations as well as the evidence at hand to generate narratives for historians to consider.  This is not to say that historians should fabricate facts, but all interpretation requires some imagination. Davis asks, “Where does reconstruction start and invention begin?”  I believe that the answer points to such a fine line that in many cases, the distinction may be difficult to distinguish.

[1] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, “Athropology and Ethnohistorians,” in The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory (New York: NYU Press, 1999), 172.

[2] Ibid., 177.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert Darnton, “The Great Cat Massacre,” History Today 34, no. (1984): 9.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Green and Troup, “Athropology and Ethnohistorians,” in The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, 178.

[7] Ibid., 179.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Natalie Zemon Davis, “On the Lame,” The American Historical Review 93, no. (1988): 573.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Green and Troup, “The Question of Narrative,” in The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, 208.

[14] Robert Finlay, “The Refashioning of Martin Guerre,” The American Historical Review 93, no. (1988): 554.

[15] Ibid., 557.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Natalie Zemon Davis, “On the Lame,” 574.

[18] Ian Coller, Arab France: Islam and the Making of Modern Europe, 1798-1831 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011), 2.

[19] Ibid., 5.

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