Le Sueur’s book about the case, Admiranda historia (published in 1561) is a straightforward news pamphlet that simply summarizes the case and draws an appropriate moral at the end. The book sold well, suggesting that there was significant appetite for news about the case. By contrast, Davis describes Coras’s Arrest Memorable, published in the same year, as an “innovative” book. Although the book resembles a traditional legal commentary, Coras in fact devotes relatively little attention to legal matters, choosing instead to focus on the story and characters. The book was in French rather than Latin, the language of the courts. He described the case of Martin Guerre as “prodigious,” implying it was unlike anything that France had ever seen before. Davis points out that Coras was probably the first legal figure in France to write a book about the law for popular publication.
Davis draws a contrast between a more traditional legal narrative, the Admiranda historia, and Coras’s Arrest Memorable. Coras’s book represents a new way of writing about the law—perhaps much as Davis’s book frames itself as a new way of writing about the past. For one, Coras’s book was far more accessible: it was written in a language people could read, and it was intended for popular publication rather than an audience of fellow lawyers and legal scholars. It focused not on dry legal facts but on the more colorful details of the case. In this sense, the Arrest Memorable is a book that encompasses multiple genres: part legal narrative, part social critique, part fiction.
This “new use of a traditional form” allowed Coras to play with the relationship between “text” and “annotation.” Unlike a conventional legal commentary, which presents cases with marginal explanations by the author, Coras’s annotations often had little to do with the law and focused instead on social and philosophical issues.
Coras’s book shows the way that a traditional narrative form—the legal commentary—can be subverted and used in a new way. Where the reader might expect notes on the details of the law, Coras instead presents annotations on the law’s broader social implications.
Davis suggests that Coras used the case to comment on ideas and issues that mattered to him, such as evidence, the nature of proof, and social problems like child marriage and spousal abandonment. Both Coras and Le Sueur may have found that the story contained a Protestant message. They dedicated their books to Protestant patrons, and they suggested that this case might not have happened under a Protestant church, since a Protestant church would have allowed Bertrande to dissolve her marriage after her abandonment.
A case like Martin Guerre’s mattered not just because it was sensational and unusual, but because it became a way of commenting on larger social concerns. For example, Coras could use the complexities of church law to suggest that Protestantism might offer a better alternative to the strict rules of Catholicism.
Coras’s Arrest Memorable mounts arguments for and against the accused. For example, he calls Arnaud the “defendant” in the text and “this prodigious offender” in the annotation. He also makes some changes, exaggerating Arnaud’s powers of memory and accusing him of greater crimes (including dealings with the devil). He writes that Bertrande was easily deceived by “the weakness of her sex,” but is unsympathetic to Martin for abandoning his wife, and he leaves out the details of Arnaud’s confession.
By omitting the details of Arnaud’s confession, Coras leaves the reader with doubts that the court really did convict the right man. Although on the one hand he seems to condemn Arnaud, he is also more sympathetic to him in some places—lending the book a narrative complexity that one doesn’t often find in legal commentaries.
In the 1565 edition, Coras adds a description of Arnaud’s confession at Artigat. His annotation describes the story as “a tragedy for this fine peasant” that “makes it hard to tell the difference between tragedy and comedy.” Davis points out that Coras is being very innovative here, since French tragedies and tragicomedies—like, for example, the popular translations of the Histoires tragiques of Bandello— typically feature only aristocratic personages. It also suggests that he may have been sympathetic to Arnaud as a tragic hero. In this reading, the tragedy is in Arnaud’s punishment, not in the crime.
Davis suggests that Coras’s book is so memorable in part because it leaves the reader with a fundamental ambiguity: is Arnaud a villain or a hero? The outcome of the case, which ended with Arnaud’s conviction and execution, would suggest the former. But by describing the case as a “tragedy,” Coras leaves room for a different interpretation.