Arnaud du Tilh Quotes in The Return of Martin Guerre
But we still know rather little about the peasants’ hopes and feelings; the ways in which they experienced the relation between husband and wife, parent and child; the ways in which they experienced the constraints and possibilities of their lives. We often think of peasants as not having had much in the way of choices, but is this in fact true? Did individual villagers ever try to fashion their lives in unusual and unexpected ways?
[H]ow, in a time without photographs, with few portraits, without tape recorders, without fingerprinting, without identity cards, without birth certificates, with parish records still irregular if kept at all—how did one establish a person’s identity beyond doubt?
Was it so unusual for a man in sixteenth-century villages and burgs to change his name and fashion a new identity? Some of this went on all the time. The Daguerres left Hendaye, became the Guerres, and changed their ways. Every peasant who migrated any distance might be expected to do the same…At carnival time and at other feastdays, a young peasant might dress as an animal or a person of another estate or sex and speak through that disguise.
I think we can account for the initial acceptance by family and neighbors without having recourse to the necromancy of which Arnaud was later accused and which he always denied. First of all, he was wanted in Artigat—wanted with ambivalence perhaps, for returning persons always dash some hopes and disturb power relations, but wanted more than not. The heir and householder Martin Guerre was back in his place.
What hope might the Protestant message have offered to the new Martin and Bertrande during the years they were living together as “true married people”? That they could tell their story to God alone and need not communicate it to any human intermediary. That the life they had willfully fabricated was part of God’s providence.
To put it another way, if the real Martin Guerre had never come back, could Arnaud du Tilh have gotten away with it? Some of my pragmatic fellow historians have suggested that, if the impostor had not asked for the accounts and had followed more closely the uncle’s expectations in regard to the family property, he could have played Martin Guerre for years and no one would have mind. On the other hand, recently when I talked about Bertrande and Artaud with people in Artigat who were still familiar with the old story, they smiled, shrugged their shoulders, and said, “That’s all very well—but that pretty rascal, he lied.”
Forty-five people or more said that the prisoner was Arnaud du Tilh alias Pansette, or at least not Martin Guerre, since they had eaten and drunk with one or the other of them since childhood…About thirty to forty people said that the defendant was surely Martin Guerre; they had known him since the cradle.
If [Bertrande] had wanted to betray [Arnaud] at this point, all she had to do was tell a story he could not repeat; instead she adhered to the text they had agreed upon months before.
Even on the ladder up to the gibbet he was talking, preaching to the man who would take his place not to be harsh with Bertrande. She was a woman of honor, virtue, and constancy, he could attest to it. As soon as she suspected him, she had driven him away.
Lawyers, royal officers, and would-be courtiers knew all about self-fashioning—to use Stephen Greenblatt’s term—about the molding of speech, manners, gesture, and conversation that helped them to advance, as did any newcomer to high position in the sixteenth century. Where does self-fashioning stop and lying begin?
The originality of Coras’s vision of this peasant story should be stressed. The French tragicomedy ended happily and used aristocratic figures for its leading personages. […] That Coras could conceive of “a play of tragedy between persons of low estate” depended on his being able to identify himself somewhat with the rustic who had remade himself.
In Coras’s “comitragic” version…one can approve the cuckolding of the once impotent and now faraway husband. Here Arnaud du Tilh becomes a kind of hero, a more real Martin Guerre than the hard-hearted man with the wooden leg. The tragedy is more in his unmasking than in his imposture.
Montaigne insists how difficult it is to know the truth about things and how uncertain an instrument is human reason. “Truth and falsehood have both alike countenances…Wee beholde them with one same eye.”
The story of Martin Guerre is told and retold because it reminds us that astonishing things are possible. Even for the historian who has deciphered it, it retains a stubborn vitality. I think I have uncovered the true face of the past—or has Pansette done it once again?