The Return of Martin Guerre


Natalie Zemon Davis

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Martin’s Wooden Leg Symbol Analysis

Martin’s Wooden Leg Symbol Icon

After Martin Guerre fled his home village, he served in the Spanish military and lost his leg while fighting against his native country, France. The wooden leg that replaced Martin’s lost leg ironically came to mark him as the “real” Martin. In an era before many of the modern markers of identity—birth certificates, passports, photographs—it was very difficult to prove which man was the real Martin and which was the impostor Arnaud du Tilh, who had assumed Martin’s identity in his absence. When Martin returned to Artigat to claim that he was the true Martin Guerre, the wooden leg provided clear and incontrovertible evidence that he was who he said who he was, since multiple eyewitness accounts confirmed that Martin now walked with a wooden leg. In this sense, the wooden leg symbolizes Martin’s real identity—it demonstrated the truth of who Martin was when that identity was under threat. Since Martin’s friends, family, and neighbors hadn’t seen him for more than a decade, the witnesses in the trial of Arnaud du Tilh couldn’t agree on whether Martin was tall or short, thin or fat, or whether he had certain identifying marks on his body. The wooden leg, however, provided firm proof of the real Martin’s identity. In this sense, Davis suggests that identity is constituted by external markers. In the case of Martin Guerre, identity was not inherent or intrinsic to a person—which is how people usually think about identity. Rather, it had to be proven by outward signs like Martin’s wooden leg.

Martin’s Wooden Leg Quotes in The Return of Martin Guerre

The The Return of Martin Guerre quotes below all refer to the symbol of Martin’s Wooden Leg. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Identity and Property Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harvard University Press edition of The Return of Martin Guerre published in 1983.
Chapter 12 Quotes

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.”

Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:
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Martin’s Wooden Leg Symbol Timeline in The Return of Martin Guerre

The timeline below shows where the symbol Martin’s Wooden Leg appears in The Return of Martin Guerre. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 2
Identity and Property Theme Icon
...Saint-Quentin, Martin was shot and had to have his leg amputated and replaced with a wooden leg . (full context)
Chapter 6
Narrative and Authority Theme Icon
The Nature of Evidence Theme Icon
...and told people that the real Martin was still alive and now walked with a wooden leg , having had his leg amputated two years earlier. Also, Arnaud was imprisoned and accused... (full context)
Chapter 8
The Nature of Evidence Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
Chapter 9
The Nature of Evidence Theme Icon
...the imposter. Finally, the court heard testimony that the real Martin now walked with a wooden leg after he was injured in battle. (full context)
Chapter 12
The Nature of Evidence Theme Icon
...such cases, and Davis points out that it was not entirely clear that even Martin’s wooden leg was as clear a sign as the court took it to be. (full context)