The story of Martin Guerre is one of history's strangest: a resonant, ambiguous tale of desertion, mistaken identity, and hard-won ''justice.'' It has been retold several times, and is now the subject of a compact, capable, sociohistorical study by Natalie Zemon Davis, who also served as adviser to Daniel Vigne, director of the critically successful current film, ''Le Retour de Martin Guerre'' (''The Return of Martin Guerre'').
Davis's version includes intriguing speculations about what motivated the actors in this drama, but sticks close to the story's known facts. ''What I offer you here,'' she writes at the outset, ''is in part my invention, but held tightly in check by the voices of the past.'' Those voices - contemporary documents, records of court proceedings, and accounts by eyewitnesses - tell of what befell two wealthy French peasant families whose histories coincided over a span of several years during the mid-16th century.
In 1527, the Daguerre family moved to Artigat, a village in the Languedoc region of southern France in the Pyrenees Mountains near the Spanish border. They began to prosper, as farmers and tilemakers, shortened their name to ''Guerre,'' and - forming an alliance with a comparably prominent local family - affianced their young son Martin to (the even younger) Bertrande de Rols. It is believed that both were then pre-adolescent children; Davis opines that Bertrande may have been 9 or 10 years old. The young groom, unsurprisingly, proved ''impotent''; the resulting embarrassment created new tensions between these two proud families.
Nevertheless, the pair matured into a contented married couple and produced a son. Then, one day in 1548, following a quarrel with his stern, authoritarian father, Martin ran away and did not return, leaving Bertrande a virtual disgraced exile among her husband's family. Eight years later, ''a man presented himself to her as the long-lost Martin Guerre.'' His wife and family welcomed him back enthusiastically - for surely, though Martin seemed greatly changed physically, there could be no doubting his identity (''he greeted people by name and, if they seemed not to recognize him, talked to them about the things they had done together 10 or 15 years before'').