The Return of Martin Guerre

by

Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Chapter 8 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Bertrande’s case was tried at the Parlement of Toulouse, the most powerful court in the region. One of the judges was Jean de Coras, a lawyer who would later write the definitive account of the case. The judges were increasingly split by religious ideology (some were Protestant and some were Catholic), and in the years to come those divisions would become even more dangerous and violent. At the time, however, they were able to focus their energies in concert on the strange case of a man who impersonated a woman’s husband for three years. Davis suggests that it might have been easier for Coras to write about this case than to write about the mounting religious and political tensions in the country directly.
Davis spends a significant amount of time describing the divisions in Artigat between Protestants and Catholics and the ways in which differing ideologies might have impacted whether people tended to believe either Pierre or Arnaud. She explains that the situation was similar at the Parlement of Toulouse: the judges were divided according to their backgrounds and belief systems. These contexts influenced the lens through which people judged and told the story of Martin Guerre.
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While the trial went on, Pierre and Bertrande were both imprisoned along with Arnaud. When the court called Bertrande to the stand, she claimed that she had been deceived and had never collaborated with the defendant. Arnaud, on the other hand, said that he believed his wife had been pressured to testify against him by Pierre. Davis points out that Bertrande was probably still on Arnaud’s side here, since, at any point, she could have betrayed him by telling a story he would not have been able to repeat. But she didn’t: they both stuck to a seemingly agreed-upon script.
As Davis points out again, Bertrande was in an impossible position. The penalties for adultery were severe and would involve the disinheritance of her children. At the same time, she wanted to protect Arnaud. So when she went on the stand, she wanted to prove that this man was truly her husband, Martin—but if it was proven that he wasn’t, she also needed to maintain that she had been deceived all along. Her ability to walk this line demonstrates her resourcefulness and ability to find power for herself in a historical moment that severely restricted her agency.
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Related Quotes
The court placed the most value on the testimony of close relatives who had known Martin since childhood. But even those witnesses were unable to agree on whether Arnaud really was Martin. People claimed that Martin had particular warts or bodily features, but no two witnesses described the same feature. Some said that the real Martin was slimmer, but on the other hand, it was normal for people to gain weight as they aged. What increasingly counted was not the quantity of witnesses, but their quality and credibility. Coras undertook a systematic investigation of the witnesses, but found himself “perplexed” by the lack of evidence and the conflicting accounts from different people.
The problem for the court at Toulouse, as at Rieux, was that there was no “objective” standard of evidence in the case—no photograph to prove what Martin had really looked like, for instance. The court decided to base their decision on the credibility of the witnesses, but this standard of judgment also had its problems, given the number of conflicting accounts. Davis shows here just how problematic it can be to assess the reliability of various forms of evidence.
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Coras increasingly leaned towards ruling in favor of the defendant. Bertrande had a reputation as an honorable woman, and she had lived with Arnaud for three years. Martin’s four sisters seemed to be “respectable and honorable women,” and that the defendant resembled them seemed more telling than his lack of resemblance to the younger Sanxi, since he was closer to them in age. On the other hand, Pierre seemed to have a vendetta against his nephew and had confessed to misrepresenting himself as Bertrande’s agent by opening a case in her name without her permission, and even to plotting his nephew’s death. The lawsuit showed that he had ample motivation to denounce his nephew. Moreover, the defendant himself seemed trustworthy, with his perfect recollection of events from decades earlier.
The court came close to ruling in Arnaud’s favor because even though the evidence wasn’t conclusive, his witnesses seemed credible—and, crucially, “honorable.” The court records frequently described Bertrande and Martin’s four sisters as “honorable women,” for instance. This demonstrates just how important concepts of honor and respectability were in this society, particularly when it came to judging the trustworthiness of women.
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Finally, the court adhered to the principle of reasonable doubt—that “it was better to leave unpunished a guilty person than to condemn an innocent one.” Acquitting Arnaud would give Bertrande a husband and Sanxi a father. But just as the court was prepared to rule in Arnaud’s favor, a man with a wooden leg arrived in Toulouse, claiming to be the real Martin Guerre.
Eventually, the court came to the conclusion that although it couldn’t be proven that Arnaud was Martin, it couldn’t be proven that he wasn’t either. However, this standard of evidence changed entirely with the arrival of the real Martin, with the indisputable, physical proof of the wooden leg.
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