In sixteenth-century French rural society, a woman’s worth in the eyes of society was closely aligned with her “honor”—defined as morality, sexual chastity, and respectability. This concept was so important to both society’s perception of women and women’s own self-conception in this historical period that Davis devotes an entire chapter to “The Honor of Bertrande de Rols.” Since women had few avenues for exerting power in this period, the preservation of their honor was the primary way they could command respect and social status in their communities. In the case of Martin Guerre, the honor of his wife Bertrande became a matter of legal questioning and public debate.
An important measure of a woman’s honor in a peasant community like Artigat was her ability to be perceived as a virtuous wife and mother. Bertrande was married to Martin at an extremely young age (probably in her early teens) at the behest of her parents, demonstrating women’s lack of control over their lives. When she and Martin did not conceive a child for eight years, the couple was shamed in the village. To protect her reputation, Bertrande claimed that a spell had been cast on her. This demonstrates again the village’s valuation of children and family as the central responsibility of a woman’s life. After Martin’s disappearance, Bertrande was left with the ambiguous status of being neither wife nor widow—since under canon law, a wife could not remarry without firm proof that her husband had died. Although Martin abandoned her for nearly a decade, Bertrande’s honor demanded that she not marry again, since in the eyes of the church she would be committing adultery. Without her husband, Bertrande also had little legal and social status. As Davis explains, women were subject to the authority of men and could inherit property only at the behest of their husbands and fathers. This meant that women could not, except in rare cases, run a shop, farm, or business. Consequently, Bertrande had to rely on the generosity of her male relatives for financial support.
Famously, Bertrande lived for nearly three years with another man, Arnaud du Tilh, who claimed to be her missing husband. Other commentators on the story often suggest that Bertrande was deceived, which removes her agency, eliminating the possibility that she made a deliberate choice. Davis, however, disagrees and argues that Bertrande at some point must have realized Arnaud was an imposter. However, she consented to allow the deception to continue—quite possibly, Davis argues, because she and Arnaud had fallen in love. At this point, Davis argues that Bertrande took her life into her own hands as she tried to maximize her power, security, and happiness while also maintaining her reputation as a respectable married woman. Her efforts to navigate that balance—to hold on to both her power and her honor—explain her behavior throughout the rest of the story.
For example, when Arnaud’s imposture was discovered, Bertrande had to turn against him to preserve her reputation as an honorable woman. Martin’s uncle Pierre opened a legal case against Arnaud in Bertrande’s name, but without her consent, and Pierre threatened to throw Bertrande out of the house if she didn’t agree to take part in the trial. She therefore agreed to testify for the prosecution, although she hoped that she would lose the case. Pierre’s ability to force Bertrande to bring a case against Arnaud suggests women’s limited ability to maneuver within social strictures. Since Pierre was supporting Bertrande financially and she lived in his house with his permission, he had immense power over her life and decisions. At the trial, Bertrande ultimately testified against Arnaud and asked for Martin’s forgiveness. She did this because refusing to do so would leave her open to accusations of adultery, and a conviction of adultery carried a sentence of death. If she claimed, instead, that she had merely been deceived, she could both preserve her own reputation as a respectable woman and also ensure her legacy: that her son would continue to be considered legitimate and receive his inheritance.
Ultimately, then, Bertrande maintained her reputation for virtue even though, as Davis argues, she probably knew that Arnaud was an imposter and allowed his deception to continue because he provided for her, loved her, and made her life more secure (so long as his deception remained hidden). At Arnaud’s execution after his deception was revealed by the return of the real Martin Guerre, Arnaud proclaimed that Bertrande was an honorable woman and that he had deceived her. Although this was probably not true, the fiction that she had been tricked into believing another man was her husband allowed Bertrande to protect her honor (Arnaud’s act of selflessness here also would suggest that he truly did care for Bertrande). Although Bertrande has often been depicted as foolish and easily deceived, Davis sees her as a woman who “tried to fashion her life as best she could” within a society that harshly punished those who deviated from its norms of respectable behavior. If Bertrande wanted to maintain her life, livelihood, and position in village life, she had to ensure that people thought of her as an “honorable” woman. Protecting her honor was, quite literally, the only way to survive.
Women, Honor, and Power ThemeTracker
Women, Honor, and Power Quotes in The Return of Martin Guerre
[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.
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.
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.
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.