In The Return of Martin Guerre, historian Natalie Zemon Davis analyzes a sixteenth-century case of mistaken identity in which Martin Guerre abandons his family and property, and another man impersonates him to take over his life. In sixteenth-century France, rural peasants had few markers of identity. There were no photographs, birth certificates, or background checks. Instead, people’s identity was synonymous with what they owned: the land they inherited, the goods they sold at the village market, and the children to whom they gave their last name. When Martin forfeited his property, he lost his identity. When Arnaud du Tilh assumed his possessions, he did more than impersonate Martin: under this logic of identity formation, he quite literally “became” Martin. The Return of Martin Guerre thus questions the assumptions about identity and property upon which sixteenth-century village life was founded.
When Martin’s parents, the Daguerres from Basque country, first arrived in the French village of Artigat, the immigrant family created a new identity in the village primarily by asserting property ownership, by marriage alliances, and by the exchange of goods. They became known in the village as tilemakers and landowners, which gave them a foothold among the better families of Artigat. Before, they had been foreigners, but once established in their trades, they were pillars of the community. This demonstrates the malleability of sixteenth-century peasant identity. Everything about the Daguerres could be changed to ensure that they fit in well in Artigat, even their family name, which they changed to “Guerre.” The final measure of the family’s success at assimilating into Artigat society was the marriage of their son Martin to Bertrande de Rols, a daughter of one of the wealthiest and most established families in the village. This suggests that in the sixteenth century, even what we would now think of as deeply personal components of identity—marriage and family—were closely allied with the exchange and ownership of property.
After about ten years of marriage, Martin ran away from Artigan and his wife after being accused of theft. When, after eight years, Arnaud du Tilh appeared and claimed to be Martin Guerre, Davis argues that the town, Martin’s family, and even his wife were all fooled in part because his “return” enabled the passing down of property to the rightful heir of the Guerres. For a sixteenth-century peasant family, this was the proper order of things. As Davis writes, Arnaud may have been so easily accepted by Martin’s friends and neighbors because “he was wanted in Artigat…the heir and householder Martin Guerre was back in his place.” Without their eldest son, the Guerres were left with uncertainty—but with him (or someone resembling him) back, the family could be assured that their property would be passed on to one of their own. While he was living as Martin Guerre, Arnaud took on all of Martin’s responsibilities as a father, husband, heir, and landowner. He farmed the land, developed the Guerre holdings, and provided for Martin’s unmarried sisters. Since Arnaud took on Martin’s property and duties, he essentially was living as Martin.
But property also eventually proved to be Arnaud’s undoing, unraveling his assumed identity as Martin Guerre. Arnaud began buying, selling, and leasing land, including the family’s ancestral properties in French Basque country, leading Martin’s uncle Pierre to bring a lawsuit against him. Pierre, who considered “Martin’s” behavior out of character, had finally become willing to question whether this man really was his nephew. This demonstrates just how important property was to ideas of identity in sixteenth-century rural French society: when Arnaud was the returned heir and householder, the Guerres were happy to accept him, but when he started disposing of the Guerre property in ways they didn’t approve of, they turned on him.
In a rural society that lacked many modern markers of identity (like photographs and fingerprints), property was one of the primary ways that people knew who they were. Martin Guerre abandoned his property, and Arnaud du Tilh appropriated what he had left behind. Davis remarks that Martin Guerre might have asked who he was 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.” If identity was constituted by property in this society, then the loss of property was tantamount to the loss of identity.
Identity and Property ThemeTracker
Identity and Property Quotes in The Return of Martin Guerre
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.
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.
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.”
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?
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?