The Return of Martin Guerre is partly an account of a famous trial, and the book is deeply concerned with problems of evidence. The case of Martin Guerre was so difficult to solve because it was not at all clear how the court should go about assessing the evidence for identity theft in 16th century France. How could it be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that Arnaud du Tilh was or was not Martin Guerre? The evidentiary problem was made even more difficult by the lack of measures of identification in sixteenth-century rural France; there were no photographs, fingerprints, or birth certificates. Ultimately, some commentators suggested that there was no legitimate way to arbitrate a case so lacking in evidence.
At first, Arnaud du Tilh turned the problem of evidence to his advantage. He was able to impersonate Martin Guerre because there was little physical evidence to disprove his claims. As Davis points out, the Guerres hadn’t seen Martin for almost a decade and had no painted portraits to remember him by. Although they noticed that Arnaud was shorter and heavier than Martin, they also knew it was normal for people to gain weight over time. Without the evidence of photography or portraiture, Davis thinks it is plausible that the Guerres could have been fooled. Also, Arnaud talked to people who knew the Guerres, gathered information about his family, and memorized events from Martin’s childhood, young adulthood, and marriage. If Arnaud could recount memories from ten or fifteen years earlier, this seemed like strong enough evidence that he was indeed Martin.
At the two trials brought by the Guerres against Arnaud to try to prove he was an impostor, the evidentiary challenges multiplied. Davis explains that it was nearly impossible to prove and document identity theft in an era when few people could sign their name and record-keeping was scanty at best. The court turned to the testimony of more than 150 witnesses, but this merely increased the confusion. Some swore that the man was Arnaud, some swore he was Martin, and some 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—suggesting, again, that Martin’s ten-year absence had left no physical evidence behind by which to judge the merit of these competing claims. Even Martin’s immediate family and relatives disagreed in their testimony. Clearly the evidence of memory was unreliable and not a firm enough ground on which to build a case against Arnaud.
As the case went on, the court increasingly turned to other forms of evidence. There was no consensus on whether or not Arnaud was the true Martin. So the judges turned instead to considering the relative credibility of the witnesses. For example, they believed that Martin’s wife Bertrande was an honorable woman, and she had maintained throughout the trial that Arnaud was her husband. This seemed strong evidence that Arnaud was telling the real Martin. The judges also began to distrust the credibility of Martin’s uncle, Pierre, who had brought the suit against Arnaud. Arnaud claimed that Pierre had made up the story because he had a vendetta against him due to a quarrel over some family lands—this was clearly true. Since no one could prove that Arnaud wasn’t Martin, the judges started to lean towards ruling against Pierre and chalking it up to a family feud.
In the end, the real Martin Guerre showed up at the trial walking with a wooden leg, providing final and irrefutable physical evidence of Arnaud’s fraud. (Multiple witnesses confirmed that the real Martin had lost his leg fighting for the Spanish military.) But if he hadn’t shown up, Davis suggests that Arnaud probably would have won the trial. There was no strong evidence to prove that he was or wasn’t Martin. Indeed, some felt that even after Martin did show up, there was still cause to doubt the ruling. When the famous essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote his account of the trial, he suggested that the judge was not empowered to condemn Arnaud and sentence him to death under such poor evidence. Even now, some aspects of the case remain shrouded in mystery. Davis ends the book by admitting that even she is not sure whether her own story is the truth, when there remains so much room for doubt.
The Nature of Evidence ThemeTracker
The Nature of Evidence Quotes in The Return of Martin Guerre
[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?
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.”
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.
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?