The Return of Martin Guerre

by

Natalie Zemon Davis

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The Return of Martin Guerre: Chapter 9 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Martin lost his leg at the battle of Saint-Quentin, he was given a position as a lay brother in a wealthy Spanish monastery favored by aristocrats. Why, Davis asks, did he come back to Artigat? It is possible that he simply got tired of the religious life, and that after the war he hoped he could be pardoned for his treason in fighting for Spain. However, Davis considers it more likely that Martin heard about the trial and returned home just in time to reclaim his family, property, and identity.
It may have been a coincidence that Martin returned home at this crucial moment in his trial, but Davis considers that unlikely. Rather, he probably heard that an imposter had taken over his land and family, which spurred him to return to the home he had abandoned a decade earlier. This demonstrates the importance of property to early modern ideas of identity. Martin had to come home because, if he didn’t, another man would take his place and his identity.
Themes
Identity and Property Theme Icon
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Martin and Arnaud were each questioned separately. At first, things seemed to go well for Arnaud: he remembered events from the past better than Martin. But then the court asked Arnaud how he had used witchcraft to learn so much about Artigat and the Guerre family, to which he reacted with anger and fear. The du Tilh brothers were called as witnesses, but they fled. Pierre was asked to identify Martin from a group of men all dressed alike, and he immediately identified Martin correctly. Martin’s sisters were shown Arnaud and Martin side by side. They wept, identified Martin as their brother, and begged his forgiveness for being deceived by the imposter. Finally, the court heard testimony that the real Martin now walked with a wooden leg after he was injured in battle.
Whereas before there had been much uncertainty about the physical appearance and traits of the “real” Martin, the return of Martin Guerre put many of these doubts to rest. Pierre and Martin’s sisters, for instance, were able to immediately identify him from a line-up, although they hadn’t seen him in more than a decade. Meanwhile, the court’s accusation that Arnaud had committed witchcraft suggests that people often attribute to supernatural causes things that they don’t understand—like how one man could somehow convince so many people that he was someone else. 
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The Nature of Evidence Theme Icon
Bertrande was then called as a witness. She had been imprisoned for several months, but she had had access to the Gospel and had prepared herself for a variety of outcomes. Consequently, her performance was flawless. She embraced Martin and asked his pardon for her mistake, claiming she had been deceived and seduced by Arnaud. Martin, however, responded sternly, telling her that a wife ought to know her husband.
Martin’s lack of sympathy upon his reconciliation with Bertrande shows the emphasis placed on a wife’s loyalty in this period. Although everyone else had also been deceived by the impostor, she singled out for insufficient loyalty to her husband. However, her ability to claim that she had been deceived—thus protecting herself from sharing Arnaud’s fate—demonstrates her talent at maneuvering within social strictures.
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Women, Honor, and Power Theme Icon
The real Martin had now been identified. However, there was little legal precedent for a case like this: some courts treated imposture as a joke, some as a minor crime. Prison was not an option because prisons in this period were only used for debtors and people awaiting trial. The choice was to be made between fining Arnaud, subjecting him to various forms of physical punishment, and execution. Previous convictions of this kind had been punished with banishment and imprisonment as galley slaves. However, when Arnaud was convicted of imposture he was sentenced to perform a public penance in Artigat, followed by an execution by hanging. Davis argues that the court took the case so seriously because it involved stealing someone’s property and inheritance.
As Davis shows, Arnaud might have been punished in a variety of different ways for his imposture. The court might have treated it like a joke, for instance, but instead, they sentenced him to death, suggesting that imposture with the aim of stealing someone’s property was considered a grave crime—perhaps because sixteenth-century French society took the relationship between property and identity so seriously. Indeed, identity theft today is also subject to severe legal penalties, suggesting that this relationship is as sacred today as it was in the sixteenth century.
Themes
Identity and Property Theme Icon
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Arnaud was in some ways treated with lenience, perhaps demonstrating the court’s respect for his extraordinary performance. His daughter Bernarde was declared legitimate and allowed to inherit his property, since Bertrande had not been aware of the circumstances when she was conceived. The court also declared that Bertrande had been easily deceived, but was an honorable woman. They were lenient, too, with the Guerres: Pierre was not punished for his schemes against Arnaud and Bertrande, and Martin was also not punished for treason against his country, since the court considered that he had suffered enough from the loss of his leg and patrimony. Davis suggests that all these sentences were designed to support marriage and the children issuing from it.
The court made a significant concession to Arnaud in declaring his daughter legitimate, since that meant she could inherit property, keep his name, and make a life for herself as a member of the community. Without that legitimacy and entitlement to inherit property, Bernarde would have had a hard time making her way in the world. Davis suggests that the court’s decision in this matter demonstrates their commitment to “family values” and their determination to support the social institutions of marriage, children, and the legal inheritance of property across generations.
Themes
Identity and Property Theme Icon
Arnaud, Martin, and Bertrande were summoned before the court for the last time. The famous essayist Michel de Montaigne was in attendance. Arnaud maintained to the end of the trial that he was the “real” Martin and that the other man was an impostor. Consequently, the court prevented him from speaking publicly in Toulouse. At Artigat, Arnaud finally reassumed his old identity, admitting that he had lied and stolen the property and family of another man.  He disposed of his property, even initiating a civil suit against some du Tilh family members to ensure that Bernarde would receive her inheritance. He began by asking for pardon before the church and in sight of the whole village. He was hung in front of the Guerres’ house, and died testifying to Bertrande’s innocence, honor, and virtue.
Arnaud clung to the fiction that he was the “real” Martin until his execution, demonstrating his attachment to the false narrative that he had constructed. When he did finally confess, however, he was careful to protect two people: his daughter Bernarde and his “invented” wife, Bertrande. By claiming that he had deceived Bertrande—although Davis believes this was almost certainly not true—he was able to protect her honor and virtue in the eyes of the community. This suggests his continuing love and emotional attachment to her.
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