After three years of marriage with Bertrande, Arnaud was thriving: he developed the Guerre holdings and became a “rural merchant,” trading in goods and commodities around the neighboring villages. However, his economic ambitions soon led him to quarrel with Pierre over management of the family property. Arnaud began buying, selling, and leasing land (including the propres, the family’s ancestral properties in French Basque country), and he asked Pierre to see the accounts of the elder Sanxi, who had been the administrator of his nephew’s property. When Pierre refused, in late 1558 or early 1559, Arnaud brought a civil suit against him before the king’s judge at Rieux.
The conflict between Arnaud and Pierre demonstrates just how important property was to ideas of identity in sixteenth-century France. For several years, Martin was accepted as a landholder, heir, and pillar of the community. However, when he began to deviate from the norms of property management—by selling ancestral land, for instance—Pierre turned on him. This suggests that control of property was fundamental to how people understood their place in the world and even their identity.
Such actions were not unheard of among peasant families: Davis cites other cases that went before the court of Rieux involving legal squabbles over property and inheritance. But for Pierre, such an action was an unthinkable rebellion against his patriarchal authority. He became convinced that the new “Martin” was an impostor. In retaliation for the lawsuit, he began telling family and neighbors that Arnaud could not be Martin, since he had forgotten many Basque phrases, looked very different, and no longer enjoyed swordplay.
Once Arnaud began disposing of the family property in unconventional ways, doubts suddenly came into Pierre’s mind. Before, he had accepted the new Martin—now, he wasn’t sure. Certain pieces of evidence that he had once disregarded (like the new Martin’s lack of interest in swordplay) now took on new significance. This demonstrates that when it comes to evidence, people often see only what they want to see.
However, Bertrande continued to maintain that Arnaud was indeed the true Martin. Arnaud claimed that Pierre had made up the story. The quarrel split the villagers, some of whom believed Pierre and some of whom believed Arnaud. The village shoemaker observed that Arnaud’s feet were smaller than Martin’s. Martin’s sisters swore that Arnaud was their brother (Davis suggests that they probably preferred him to Pierre as head of the family). This difference of opinion seemed to cut across certain swaths of society: local Protestants tended to believe Arnaud and Catholics tended to believe Pierre.
Davis points out that whether people believed Arnaud or Pierre tended to depend on their preexisting biases, alliances, and preconceptions. Martin’s sisters preferred Arnaud as head of the family, so they took his side. More traditional Catholic villagers were more likely to prefer Pierre, the older patriarch. What counts as evidence, Davis shows, is often as much a matter of what people want to believe as anything else.
In 1559, there were two more blows to Arnaud. A solider from Rochefort came through the village and told people that the real Martin was still alive and now walked with a wooden leg, having had his leg amputated two years earlier. Also, Arnaud was imprisoned and accused of arson by Jean d’Escornebeuf, a local lord. The case was dropped, but it further damaged Arnaud’s credulity and reputation.
The imprisonment by Jean d’Escornebeuf damaged Arnaud’s credibility, demonstrating that the persuasiveness of someone’s evidence often depends on the perceived trustworthiness of the witness. Meanwhile, the news about Martin’s wooden leg suggested that there might be decisive physical evidence that would settle the question of the “real” Martin’s identity once and for all.
Pierre made inquiries and found out that “Martin” was actually Arnaud. He opened a formal legal inquiry in Bertrande’s name without her permission. After Arnaud was released from prison in 1560, he was arrested and taken to prison again. Pierre threatened to throw Bertrande out of the house if she didn’t agree to take part in the trial. She agreed to testify for the prosecution, although she hoped that she would lose the case. However, Bertrande also needed to protect herself, since she wanted her son to inherit and to maintain her reputation as a respectable woman.
Pierre was able to force Bertrande to testify against Arnaud because she lived in his house and was reliant on his protection and financial support. This demonstrates the severe restrictions placed on women’s choices and agency in this period. At the same time, however, Bertrande’s ability to walk a delicate line—protecting Arnaud, and protecting her own reputation—is evidence of her resourcefulness under those restrictions.
Davis wonders whether Arnaud’s imposture would have been exposed if he hadn’t challenged Pierre in this way—that is, by leasing the family’s ancestral properties and asking to see the family accounts. On the one hand, this behavior certainly would have been out of character for Martin, but on the other hand, Davis thinks that Arnaud’s “big lie” would have come out eventually, one way or another—since such a lie has significant consequences for interpersonal relationships.
Davis comes to the conclusion that Arnaud’s unusual behavior in selling the family land was not the only threat to the continuation deception, given that a lie like this is nearly impossible to maintain. Arnaud did an exceptionally good job rehearsing for the role of Martin Guerre, but eventually, the evidence would have turned against him.