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?
Into this village, then, came the Daguerres, settling to the east of the Lèze, acquiring land (perhaps buying someone else’s propres), and establishing a tileworks […]. To be accepted by the village they had to take on some Languedoc ways. Daguerre became Guerre; if Pierre had used the Basque form of his name, Betrisantz or even Petri, he now changed it.
Much of the time historians of population movement think of peasant migration as due only to economic considerations; the case of the Guerres shows this is not the whole story. Martin dreamed of life beyond the confines of fields of millet, of tileworks, properties, and marriages.
[W]hen urged by her relatives to separate from Martin, she firmly refused. Here we come to certain character traits of Bertrande de Rols, which she was already displaying in her sixteenth year: a concern for her reputation as a woman, a stubborn independence, and a shrewd realism about how she could maneuver within the constraints placed upon one of her sex. Her refusal to have her marriage dissolved, which might well have been followed by another marriage at her parents’ behest, freed her temporarily from certain wifely duties. It gave her a chance to have a girlhood with Martin’s younger sisters, with whom she got on well. And she could get credit for her virtue.
Bertrande’s status was much reduced by all these events. Neither wife nor widow, she was under the same roof with her mother again. Neither wife nor widow, she had to face the other village women at the mill, the well, the tileworks, and at the harvest. And there was no easy remedy for her in law…a wife was not free to remarry in the absence of her husband, no matter how many years had elapsed, unless she had certain proof of his death.
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.”
She had tried to fashion her life as best she could, using all the leeway and imagination she had as a woman. But she was also proud of her honor and her virtue and was, as she would say later in court, God-fearing. She wanted to live as a mother and family woman at the center of village society. She wanted her son to inherit.
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.
Who am I, Martin Guerre might have asked himself, if another man has lived out the life I left behind and is in the process of being declared the heir of my father Sanxi, the husband of my wife, and the father of my son?
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?