The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Chapter 7 Summary & Analysis

Arnaud’s trial was held at the king’s court at Rieux, since defrauding someone’s identity was a serious crime that could be punishable by death. The court called 150 witnesses, some of whom swore that the man was Arnaud, some of whom swore he was Martin, and some of whom said that the two men looked alike but they couldn’t say either way. No one could agree on exactly what Martin had looked like. Forty-five people claimed that the prisoner was Arnaud du Tilh, while about an equal number (including Martin’s sisters) claimed that he was surely Martin Guerre and they had known him since their birth.
Establishing proof of identity fraud was nearly impossible in an era before fingerprinting, photography, or birth certificates. The court had to rely on the evidence of people’s recollections—which, as Davis shows, can be exceptionally unreliable. There was no “objective” standard of evidence to fall back on, because there was no decisive proof of what Martin had actually looked like.
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Bertrande moved out of Pierre’s house to live with a family in Rieux, since the court determined that Pierre had been forcing her to testify. This must have been a difficult time for her, as her honor became a matter of public inquiry. Arnaud said that she was an honorable woman who was being forced to testify against him. Bertrande made a good performance on the stand, recounting intimate details about her wedding night with Martin that Arnaud was able to corroborate.
Davis points out that Bertrande had a very difficult line to walk. She wanted to save Arnaud’s life, which she probably tried to do by rehearsing stories and agreeing upon details that they could repeat in their testimonies. However, she also needed to protect her own reputation and life by asserting her innocence. If Arnaud was found guilty, she had to claim that she had been deceived—or she, too, would be guilty of adultery.
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Arnaud, meanwhile, made a brilliant legal defense without the benefit of an attorney, accusing Pierre of having made up the whole story to discredit him and take his property. When he confronted Bertrande on the stand, he said that he would submit to any death the court chose if she would swear that he was not her husband. Bertrande was silent, demonstrating that she was not prepared to swear against Arnaud. Arnaud argued that Pierre hated him because of the lawsuit and was fighting for survival. After all, the court would punish someone who made false accusations with the same harsh penalties that someone would receive for committing fraud.
Arnaud did his best to attack the credibility of Pierre’s evidence by painting him as an unreliable witness. He claimed that his uncle hated him and was using this accusation to punish him for the lawsuit—which, admittedly, was true. However, Davis points out that this also raised the stakes for Pierre. A false accusation of this kind was also considered a serious crime. If Pierre lost the case, he might also be subjected to severe punishments—which made him even more determined to prove that Arnaud was a liar.
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Arnaud didn’t look like his sisters or his son, the younger Sanxi. On the other hand, the witnesses gave contradictory testimony, and the handwriting test couldn’t be used because neither Arnaud nor Martin had ever signed their name prior to Martin’s disappearance. After months of deliberation, the judge declared Arnaud guilty of imposture and “abusing Bertrande de Rols.” They sentenced him to be beheaded and quartered (a punishment usually reserved for nobles). Arnaud appealed the case to the Parlement of Toulouse.
Although the court eventually declared Arnaud guilty, the case was far from clear-cut. The witnesses had not given conclusive evidence, and because of the illiteracy of the defendant there was no physical evidence like handwriting to make things clearer. The fact that Arnaud was able to appeal the decision at Rieux to a higher court suggests that the legal system recognized that there was a serious problem of evidence in the case. 
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