In 1556, a man called Arnaud du Tilh arrived in Artigat, claiming to be Martin. Arnaud was born in the village of Sajas, about a day’s ride to the north of Artigat. Arnaud was from an ordinary rural family in the country of the “Comminges,” an agriculturally rich area. However, the villages were also subject to the authority of a local lord who levied taxes and interfered in village life. Arnaud’s family stood amongst the “middle rank” of peasants and Arnaud would probably have stood to inherit a small amount of land. In Davis’s telling, the one extraordinary thing about the du Tilh family was their son Arnaud.
Davis repeatedly describes Arnaud’s family as “ordinary,” since they had only a small quantity of land. That is, they weren’t poor by peasant standards, but they weren’t among the wealthiest families either. However, Arnaud turns out to be more than just “ordinary,” suggesting yet again that there is more to people than where they come from.
Arnaud was very clever, with a talent for speaking and an excellent memory. But he was also restless, fond of drinking, gambling, and visits to prostitutes, perhaps in the taverns of Toulouse. He was nicknamed “Pansette” (“the belly”) because of his large appetites. He loved carnivals, where people would dress up in costumes and masks and pretend to be someone else. Like Martin, he longed to escape the constraints of village society, which he did by joining the French army and serving on the battlefields of Picardy.
Arnaud and Martin had something in common: both men wanted to escape village life and dreamed of something outside the world of farming, land, and trade. In this sense, Davis shows again that the identities of peasants in this period were not simply determined by their land, property, and social condition. People sometimes wanted more, and took steps to lead “extraordinary” lives.
Bertrande later suggested that Martin and Arnaud might have met in the army, which was how Arnaud knew about Martin’s abandoned property and family. However, it seems more likely to Davis that Arnaud’s story, as told to the court, is the truth: that in 1553, on his way back from the army camp in Picardy, Arnaud met two of Martin’s neighbors, who mistook him for the missing man. Arnaud then cunningly informed himself about as much of Martin’s life as he was able, planning to impersonate him and take his property. Davis compares him to actor wearing a mask, like a player at the carnivals popular in sixteenth-century French villages.
Arnaud’s love of masks and costumes symbolizes his desire and ability to change his identity. Rather than seeing his life as something that had been determined for him, Arnaud “self-fashions” his own identity by choosing to become Martin Guerre. This was not an accident, Davis shows, but a deliberate choice. Arnaud carefully rehearsed for the role of Martin by meeting his neighbors and learning about his background and family.
Davis poses the question of how unusual it would have been for a sixteenth-century person to change his or her identity. She points out that there are many cases in rural peasant society in which people assumed new identities. The Daguerres became the Guerres when they arrived in Artigat. At carnivals, people frequently dressed up as someone else. Healthy beggars pretended to be disabled or blind. But Arnaud’s deception was more elaborate, since he practiced and memorized for several years in order to “become” Martin Guerre.
Davis highlights the ways that many people in this period changed their identity when adapting to a new culture, like the Guerres. She also emphasizes the radical potential of transforming one’s identity by taking on someone else’s name and property. Davis suggests that Arnaud was not just in search of an inheritance—he was also looking for a new life.