Martin Guerre, a French peasant of the 16th century, was at the center of a famous case of imposture. Several years after he had left his wife, child, and village, a man claiming to be Guerre reappeared. He lived with Guerre's wife and son for three years. The false Martin Guerre was eventually suspected of the impersonation. He was tried, discovered to be a man named Arnaud du Tilh, and executed. The real Martin Guerre had returned during the trial. The case continues to be studied and dramatized to this day.
The information in this section is taken from Davis 1983.
Life before leaving his wife
Martin Daguerre was born around 1524 in the Basque town of Hendaye. In 1527, his family moved to the village of Artigat in the Pyrenees of southwestern France. They changed their name to Guerre. When he was about fourteen years old, Martin married Bertrande de Rols, the daughter of a well-off family. The marriage was childless for eight years until a son was born.
Accused of stealing grain from his father, Martin abruptly disappeared in 1548. Roman Catholic Canon Law did not allow his abandoned wife to remarry. (The Protestant Huguenots who were then winning converts in France would have allowed such a remarriage.)
"New Martin" appears
In the summer of 1556, a man arrived in Artigat who claimed to be the long-gone Martin Guerre. By his similar looks and detailed knowledge of Guerre's life, he convinced most of the villagers. Martin Guerre's uncle and four sisters, as well as his wife Bertrande, believed the man was Guerre, as he claimed, although doubts remained.
The "new" Martin Guerre lived for three years with Bertrande and her son; they had two children together, with one daughter surviving. "Martin" claimed the inheritance of Guerre's father, who had died. He sued Guerre's paternal uncle Pierre Guerre for part of the inheritance.
Pierre Guerre, who had married Bertrande's widowed mother during Martin Guerre's long absence, became suspicious. He and his wife tried to convince Bertrande that the new Martin was an impostor. A soldier who passed through Artigat claimed the man was a fraud: he said the true Martin had lost a leg in the war. Pierre and his sons-in-law attacked the new Martin with a club, but Bertrande intervened.
In 1559, villagers accused the new Martin of arson and of impersonating the real Martin Guerre. With Bertrande remaining on his side, he was acquitted in 1560.
Trial in Rieux
In the meantime, Pierre Guerre had been asking around and believed he had uncovered the identity of the impostor: Arnaud du Tilh, nicknamed "Pansette", a man with a poor reputation from the nearby village of Tilh, in the region of Sajas. Pierre initiated a new case against the man by falsely claiming to act in Bertrande's name (only the wronged wife could bring the suit). He and his wife, Bertrande's mother, pressured Bertrande to support the charge. Eventually she agreed.
In 1560, the case was tried in Rieux. Bertrande testified that at first she had honestly believed the man to be her husband, but that she had since realized that he was a fraud. Both Bertrande and the accused independently related an identical story about their intimate life from before 1548.
The man claiming to be Martin then challenged her: if she would swear that he was not her husband, he would gladly agree to be executed – Bertrande remained silent. After hearing from more than 150 witnesses, with many testifying they recognized Martin Guerre (including his four sisters), many others testifying to Arnaud du Tilh's identity, and others refusing to take a side, the accused impostor was convicted and sentenced to death by beheading.
Appeal in Toulouse; Martin Guerre reappears
The condemned immediately appealed to the Parlement of Toulouse. Officials arrested Bertrande and Pierre on charges of possible false accusation and, in the case of Pierre, soliciting perjury. The new Martin eloquently argued his case, and the judges in Toulouse tended to believe his version of the story: that Bertrande was pressured to perjury by the greedy Pierre Guerre. The accused had to undergo detailed questioning about his past; his statements were double-checked, and no contradictions were found.
Then, dramatically, a man appeared in Toulouse during the trial, with a wooden leg, claiming to be the true Martin Guerre. When asked about the married couple's past, the man had forgotten some details and was not able to answer the questions as well as the alleged impostor; however, when the two men were both presented to the Guerre family, the case was closed: Pierre, Bertrande, and Martin's four sisters all agreed that the newly arrived man was the true Martin Guerre.
The impostor Arnaud du Tilh, who maintained his innocence, was convicted and sentenced to death for adultery and fraud; the public sentencing on 12 September 1560 was attended by the young Michel de Montaigne. Afterward, the condemned confessed: he had learned about Guerre's life after two men had confused him with Guerre; he had then decided to take Guerre's place, with two conspirators helping him with the details. He apologized to all involved, including Bertrande, for having deceived them. He was hanged in front of Martin Guerre's house in Artigat four days later.
During his long absence from Artigat, the real Martin Guerre had moved to Spain, where he served in the militia for a cardinal, and next in the army of Pedro de Mendoza. As part of the Spanish army, he was sent to Flanders and participated in the Spanish attack on St. Quentin on 10 August 1557. There, he was wounded, and his leg had to be amputated.
Guerre lived for years in a monastery before returning to his wife and family. The reason for his return at the time of the trial is unknown. Initially, he rejected his wife's apologies, maintaining that she should have known better than to take another man.
Contemporary accounts and interpretations
Two contemporary accounts of the case were written: Histoire Admirable by Guillaume Le Sueur and the better-known Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, one of the trial judges in Toulouse.
In 1983, Princeton University history professor Natalie Zemon Davis published a detailed exploration of the case in her book The Return of Martin Guerre. She argued that Bertrande had silently or explicitly agreed to the fraud because she needed a husband in that society, and she was treated well by Arnaud. Davis noted as evidence for this theory the improbability of a woman's mistaking a stranger for her husband, Bertrande's support for Arnaud until (and even partially during) the trial, and their shared story of intimacy, likely prepared in advance.
The historian Robert Finlay has criticized Davis's conclusions, arguing that Bertrande was duped (as most of her contemporaries believed, including the trial judges) after her husband's long absence. He thought that Davis attempted to fit a modern societal model (of an independent woman making her own choices) onto the historical account. He points to the improbability of Bertrande's charging her own accomplice with fraud, as she would run the risk of having to defend herself against charges of adultery or false accusation.
Davis responded to Finlay's arguments in her article "On the Lame" in the same issue of The American Historical Review in June 1988.
Literature and popular culture
The unusual story has continued to fascinate and inspire many writers.
- Alexandre Dumas, père, included a fictional account of the events in his novel The Two Dianas, as well as in his multi-volume Celebrated Crimes (1841).
- Janet Lewis's historical novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941), is a fictional exploration of Bertrande and her motives for her actions.
- The Wife of Martin Guerre (1956) is an opera by the American composer William Bergsma with a libretto by Janet Lewis.
- The 1982 film Le Retour de Martin Guerre (The Return of Martin Guerre), directed by Daniel Vigne and starring Gérard Depardieu and Nathalie Baye, was based on the historic accounts. The screenplay added a fictional ending, including an account of Bertrande's motives. Historian Davis (see above) served as consultant for the film.
- Sommersby (1993) was an American Hollywood adaptation of the story, starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere. It set the events in the United States during and after the American Civil War.
- The musical The House of Martin Guerre (1993) was based on the case and first produced in Toronto.
- The musical Martin Guerre (1996), by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, premiered in London at the Prince Edward Theatre. It set the story at the time of the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, during the French government's persecution of the Huguenots. Its ending deviated from the historical account.
- Wiedersehen mit einem Fremden (The Return of a Stranger), a 2010 German TV film, directed by Niki Stein, sets the account in a village in the Black Forest after World War II. The end differs from the historic events.
- Another musical titled Martin Guerre, written by Laura Harrington and Roger Ames, was premiered at the Hartford Stage, 1993, directed by Mark Lamos and starring Judy Kuhn. It won the Connecticut "Best Play" award that year and had a sold-out, extended run into 1994.
- Robert Finlay, "The Refashioning of Martin Guerre", The American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 3. (June 1988), pp. 553–571
- Natalie Zemon Davis, "On the Lame", The American Historical Review, Vol. 93, No. 3. (June 1988), pp. 572–603
- Davis, Natalie Zemon (1983). The return of Martin Guerre (Paperback ed. ed.). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. ISBN 0-674-76691-1.
- Davis, Natalie Zemon (June 1988). "On The Lame". The American Historical Review 93 (3): 572–603. doi:10.2307/1868103.
- Finlay, Robert (June 1988). "The Refashioning of Martin Guerre". The American Historical Review 93 (3): 553–571. doi:10.2307/1868102.
- Burt, Richard (2008). Medieval and early modern film and media (1st ed. ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 0-230-60125-1.