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'').
But the happy ending was short-lived. An argument between Martin and an uncle named Pierre, now the family patriarch, brought old suspicions to the surface. The returned husband was accused of imposture, brought to trial, and convicted. His case was appealed to the regional parliament at Toulouse; there, despite Bertrande's own uncertainties, despite ''the prisoner's assured and perfect recall of everything about the life of Martin Guerre,'' a conclusive resolution seemed unreachable - until the real Martin appeared and was unmistakably identified by his family. The impostor was revealed to be one Arnaud du Tilh, a northerner well-known in his own area for various dishonest dealings; he was convicted again and hanged. Bertrande and Martin returned home to the difficult task of resuming their lives; as Davis puts it, ''She had to live down her easy acceptance of the impostor, he his irresponsible desertion of the family.''
Davis's careful researches into the economics, social organization, and community customs of this place and time have enabled her to provide this odd, compelling story with a vivid context. Some readers may be unsettled by her occasional awkward shifts between present and past tenses, or her regular interruptions of the narrative to layer in assorted historical information. Yet she extends the story's significance beautifully - especially in her treatment of the ''Arrest Memorable,'' a description of the case by Jean de Coras, one of the judges at the Toulouse parliament. Davis shows how the Protestant de Coras, questioning the propriety of the Roman Catholic-arranged marriage and the failure of the two families to know the truth, refashioned the story into a ''Protestant message.''
It's interesting to compare Davis's thoughtful consideration of this event with Janet Lewis's celebrated novella ''The Wife of Martin Guerre,'' originally published in 1941 and still in print, available from Swallow Press. Lewis based her version on an English retelling of the story in a volume entitled ''Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence.'' She has said recently that, after she read Jean de Coras, her opinion of the case changed. That presumably means that she now believes Bertrande may have been fooled, at least temporarily, by the imposter. In Lewis's version, the focus is on Bertrande almost exclusively: Her initial surrender to the impostor is explained by her confused emotions and her longing to be reunited with her lost Martin.
Yet quite apart from the question of its historical veracity, Lewis's retelling remains of permanent value for its characterizations, its surpassingly limpid style, and its ingenious narrative inventions. Lewis introduces her story with a snowstorm on the children's wedding night which evokes the rugged Pryenees setting, fixes an image of enclosure, and foreshadows the ensuing escape. Her spare, vivid picturing of the Guerre family emphasizes young Martin's subservience to his father, hinting at buried feelings that may eventually control his destiny. Her intensely visual, almost tactile presentation of the milieu creates a solidly realistic background against which the characters stand forth in brilliant high relief.
At the center, always, is Bertrande - the frightened bride; the abandoned wife who invites travelers into her home, seeking news of her husband; the worried matron, following the ''return,'' troubled by ''the persistent illusions , or suspicion, that this man was not Martin''; and, following her formal accusation of him, the outcast within the Guerre family.
Lewis ends her story with a stunning irony: Bertrande submits to the ''real'' Martin's charges that she has falsely accepted the wrong man. She sees the harsh , judgmental elder Guerre reborn before her - yet knows that, though Martin will indeed be her master, she is finally ''free . . . of both passions and both men.'' It's a dazzling moment - evidence of an essential psychological truthfulness unmatched even in Davis's factually accurate version of the story - and eloquent testimony to the way the story of Martin Guerre has seized on its hearers' imaginations down through the centuries that separate its events from us.