For eight years after the wedding, the young Martin and Bertrande didn’t conceive a child. Bertrande would later claim that this was because a jealous sorceress cast a spell on them, rendering Martin impotent. Because they didn’t conceive, they were shamed and gossiped about in the village. Davis suggests that this was probably not the first of Martin’s misfortunes. When he was a child, villagers may have made fun of his accent and his foreign name. When it became publicly known that he was impotent, young men of the village dressed up as women and assembled in front of the Guerre house, ringing bells and beating on wine vats. Finally, a wise woman appeared and told them how to lift the spell. After performing four masses and eating special cakes, the “spell” was supposedly lifted and Martin and Bertrande conceived a son, Sanxi.
Both Martin and Bertrande were publicly shamed for “failing” to conceive a child, for different reasons. For Martin, this represented a failure to generate a male heir to whom he could pass down the Guerre property. Without a son, the family’s inheritance—and thus its identity—would be compromised. For Bertrande, her inability to conceive a child was cause for shame because this was a society in which women were primarily imagined as wives and mothers. Without a child, Bertrande was failing to inhabit her proper social role.
However, Martin’s troubles weren’t over. He liked little about Artigat except swordplay, which he loved. He fought frequently with his father and disliked village life, but there were few options for escape: his father would not have allowed him to go to university or to make his fortune in Spain. Davis argues that Martin’s case shows that peasants didn’t only migrate for economic reasons; sometimes, people wanted to leave their communities because they dreamed of a life outside the confines of the village or the farm.
In writing about Martin’s conflicts with his father and desire to escape the constraints of the village life, Davis points out that peasants, too, would have had greater dreams and aspirations than they were often shown to. People may have wanted a different sort of life than the one society prescribed for them—a part of history that is often left out of mainstream historical narratives.
In 1548, when Martin was twenty-four, he was accused of stealing a small quantity of grain from his father. Davis suggests that this probably reflected a power struggle between father and son. Since theft is unforgivable in Basque culture, Martin fled the village, leaving his family and inheritance behind.
The link between identity and property was so strong in sixteenth-century Basque culture that Martin felt he had no choice but to abandon everything he knew after he stole a small quantity of grain from his father.
Martin settled in Burgos, Spain, where he learned Castilian and became a servant to a cardinal called Francisco de Mendoza. In the 1550s, Burgos was a large and flourishing city, and Francisco was a powerful figure in the church. Martin would have seen many sights unimaginable in Artigat—splendid palaces, elaborate rituals in the cathedral, and crowded city streets. After Francisco’s death, Martin entered military service under his brother Pedro, having always had a talent for swordplay. As a member of the Spanish army, he fought in Flanders against his native country, France. In 1557, at the siege of Saint-Quentin, Martin was shot and had to have his leg amputated and replaced with a wooden leg.
Martin made a new life for himself in Spain, and Davis wonders whether he would have had any regrets about the life he had left behind. Removed from his ancestral home and property, Martin was able to become, essentially a new person, in a whole new career and sphere of life. That’s a transformation that would have been unimaginable for many peasants in this period. At the same time, the case of Martin Guerre shows that some peasants did have the power and opportunity to change their identity, if they wanted to.