The historian Natalie Zemon Davis begins by explaining why she decided to write The Return of Martin Guerre, a book about a famous case of imposture in a sixteenth-century French village. Although the story is well-known in film, theater, and popular culture, Davis wanted to write an account of the case from a historian’s perspective, exploring what it can tell people about sixteenth-century rural society. She was also interested in the case because it centers on the private and emotional lives of peasants, rather than aristocratic characters, who were the typical subjects of sixteenth-century written accounts. In the popular fascination with the story of Martin Guerre, Davis sees a merging of “high” and “low” culture.
Martin Guerre was born into a Basque family who lived on the border between France and Spain. In 1527, Martin’s father Sanxi the elder moved his brother Pierre, his wife, and his son to a village called Artigat in southwest France, leaving behind the family property. The Daguerres settled into their new life by adapting to the local culture. They changed their name to the more familiar “Guerre” and learned to speak the local language, Occitan. Their assimilation was evidently successful, because in 1538 Martin married Betrande de Rols, the daughter of a well-off local family who brought a substantial dowry. Martin and Bertrande were very young when they were married, probably in their early teens.
For eight years after the wedding, the young Martin and Bertrande did not consummate the marriage—until they had a son, Sanxi the younger. Martin was restless and longed to escape the constraints of village life. When Martin was twenty-four, he was accused of stealing a small quantity of grain from his father. Since theft is unforgivable in Basque culture, Martin fled the village, leaving his family and inheritance behind. He went to Spain, where he fought against his native country, France, as a member of the Spanish army. In a siege in 1557, Martin was shot and had to have his leg amputated and replaced with a wooden leg. Meanwhile, the abandoned Bertrande had to rely on the generosity of her male relatives. She was left with the ambiguous status of neither wife nor widow, since under church law, a wife could not remarry without firm proof that her husband had died. For almost a decade, she waited for Martin’s return.
In 1556, a man called Arnaud du Tilh arrived in Artigat, claiming to be Martin. Arnaud had been born in a nearby village. He had an impressive memory, loved drinking and gambling, and was nicknamed “Pansette” (“the belly”) because of his large appetites. After hearing about Martin’s desertion, he had decided to impersonate the missing man and take his property. To prepare for the deception, he learned as much as possible about Martin’s life and family; Davis compares him to an actor wearing a mask at a carnival. At first, Bertrande and the family didn’t recognize him, but when he was able to recount memories from ten or fifteen years earlier (which he had probably learned from Martin’s neighbors), they accepted him. Davis suggests that this is more plausible than it seems. After all, the Guerres hadn’t seen Martin for almost a decade and had no painted portraits to remember him by.
However, although Bertrande might have been fooled at first, it’s clear that at a certain point she must have realized that this was not her husband. Davis argues that Bertrande and Arnaud fell in love, and that he perpetuated the deception of his life as Martin Guerre with her consent and collaboration. For the next three years, they lived together as a married couple and had a daughter, Bernarde. But trouble started when Arnaud quarreled with Martin’s uncle Pierre over management of the family property. Arnaud began buying, selling, and leasing land (including the ancestral properties in French Basque country), and he asked Pierre to see the accounts of the now-deceased elder Sanxi. When Pierre refused, Arnaud brought a civil suit against him. In retaliation, Pierre began claiming that this man was an impostor and was not really his nephew.
Pierre sued Arnaud in court for posing as Martin Guerre and “abusing” his wife by impersonating her husband. He filed the case in Bertrande’s name, but without her permission. In 1560, Arnaud was arrested and taken to trial at Rieux. Pierre threatened to throw Bertrande out of the house if she didn’t agree to take part in the trial—so she agreed to testify for the prosecution, although she hoped that she would lose the case. Bertrande loved Arnaud, but she also needed to protect herself: she wanted her son to inherit and to maintain her reputation as a respectable woman, which she couldn’t do if she was branded an adulteress.
Davis explains that the court had a difficult task before them. Establishing identity fraud was nearly impossible in an era before fingerprinting, photography, or birth certificates. 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, since no one had seen him for a decade. The case eventually went to a higher court at Toulouse. There, the evidence was similarly inconclusive, since even Martin’s close relatives couldn’t agree on whether Arnaud really was Martin or not. The court increasingly leaned towards ruling in favor of the defendant. Bertrande had a reputation as an honorable woman, and she claimed that Arnaud was her husband. Pierre seemed to have a vendetta against his son-in-law and seemed an untrustworthy witness. But just as the court was prepared to rule in Arnaud’s favor, a man with a wooden leg arrived at Toulouse, claiming to be the real Martin Guerre.
After Martin lost his leg in battle, he was given a position as a lay brother in a wealthy Spanish monastery favored by aristocrats. However, he decided to come back to Artigat. Davis suggests that Martin heard about the trial and returned home to reclaim his family, property, and identity. Now that the real Martin had returned, Arnaud was exposed as a fraud. Pierre and Martin’s sisters immediately identified Martin and begged his forgiveness. Bertrande embraced him and asked his pardon for her mistake, claiming she had been tricked and seduced by Arnaud. Martin, however, responded sternly, telling her that a wife ought to know her husband.
Arnaud was sentenced to perform a public penance in Artigat, followed by an execution by hanging. However, his daughter Bernarde was declared legitimate and allowed to inherit his property, since Bertrande had (supposedly) not been aware of the circumstances when her daughter was conceived. Arnaud was hung in front of the Guerres’ house, and he died testifying to Bertrande’s innocence, honor, and virtue.
After the trial, two layers, Jean de Coras and Guillaume Le Sueur, began writing their version of events. Le Sueur’s book about the case, Admiranda Historia (published in 1561) is a straightforward news pamphlet that simply summarizes the case and draws an appropriate moral at the end. Coras’s Arrest Memorable (1561) is more innovative, focusing on the story and characters rather than the legal facts. Coras also seemed to have some admiration for Arnaud, and he described the story as “a tragedy for this fine peasant.” Davis points out that is unusual, since French tragedies typically feature only aristocratic personages. That Coras was able to conceive of the case as a “tragedy” suggests that he could see a grand narrative even among people of low social status. Another influential commentator who wrote about the case was the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne, who argued that the judge was not empowered to condemn Arnaud and sentence him to death under such poor evidence. For both Coras and Montaigne, there was much room for doubt in the case of Martin Guerre.
Meanwhile, life in the village seemed to return to normal. Martin and Bertrande made peace and even had two more sons. The Guerre and de Rols families remained close friends and allies for generations. But the case would not be so easily forgotten. Surely Bertrande did not forget her time with Arnaud, and the villagers would retell the story for many generations to come.